Fate of controversial school voucher program in Douglas County to be decided Monday

By Marianne Goodland, ColoradoPolitics.com Updated: December 4, 2017 at 6:38 am • Published: December 3, 2017 0

The Douglas County School District published a resolution Saturday that begins the process to rescind the Choice Scholarship program and end the legal fight over its controversial voucher program.

The district's Board of Education will vote on the resolution at a special meeting Monday at 5:30 p.m.

Four new board members - Chris Ciancio-Schor, Anthony Graziano, Krista Holtzmann and Kevin Leung - were elected to the seven-member board three weeks ago. All four campaigned on a pledge to repeal the voucher program.

Monday's resolution states that with the board's approval, the district will rescind the program and a related school choice grant program, as well as "repeal all policies specifically related" to those two programs. The resolution directs the board president and/or the interim superintendent to "end the litigation challenging the Choice Scholarship program."

That last section refers to the legal battle that has plagued the program since its inception.

Choice Scholarship was put into place in March 2011, the work of a conservative majority elected in 2009 and backed with tens of thousands in donations by wealthy Republicans who favor taxpayer-funded vouchers.

Under the program, a Douglas County student who has lived in the county for one year and attended a public school can receive a voucher, valued at about $5,000, to attend a private school, including schools not located in Douglas County. Unlike almost all other voucher programs around the nation, DougCo's has no income qualifier.

The voucher program never took effect; a legal fight ensued almost immediately, launched by the parents group Taxpayers for Public Education. The group won an injunction from a Denver District Court that blocked the program's implementation. The appellate court ruled in favor of the district, but Taxpayers for Public Education appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court, which in 2015 ruled the program unconstitutional under the state's Blaine Amendment, which forbids the use of taxpayer dollars for religious education.

The district headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but that court never ruled on the appeal. The court instead took up a similar case from Missouri, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer. In that lawsuit, a Lutheran church sued the state of Missouri for denying it a grant for playground materials. The denial came from the state's Department of Natural Resources, which cited the state's prohibition on taxpayer funding for religious purposes.

After ruling in favor of the church, the high court sent the DougCo case back to the Colorado Supreme Court to reconsider its previous ruling. The school district was expected to file a brief in the appeal by December 18.

The district has covered its legal expenses for the voucher program with $1.8 million in donations, with all but $30,000 of that coming from the Daniels Fund and the Walton Family Foundation, according to open records information obtained from the district.

Monday's meeting will be attended by six of the board's seven members. Leung received permission last Tuesday to skip the meeting because he does not intend to participate in the deliberations nor vote on the voucher program repeal, as he is a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the district.

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