Colorado Voucher Ruling Causes Confusion, Uncertainty
Douglas County school district officials are still sorting through the implications of a judge’s order on Friday that put a halt to their voucher pilot.
There’s confusion in Douglas County, Colorado now that a judge has ordered an injunction halting the Choice Scholarship Program. Parents and civil liberties groups who filed a lawsuit to stop the pilot sought only a preliminary injunction, which would have suspended the pilot while the legal challenges were resolved, writes Nancy Mitchell at Education News Colorado. But Denver District Judge Michael Martinez not only granted the preliminary injunction, but also went even further, declaring the evidence presented in a three-day hearing warranted the injunction stopping the Choice Scholarship Program be made permanent.
The legal argument is over unless the district decides to appeal — at least that’s how the 68-page ruling is being interpreted.
District spokesman Randy Barber said district officials “were a bit surprised that he went to a permanent injunction” though “we knew it was going to end up in the appeals court eventually.”
Douglass County school board members are reviewing their legal options, including whether to work through the state court of appeals or to go straight to the state’s highest court and ask to be heard. They could announce a decision at their first meeting of the new school year, tonight at Mesa Ridge Middle School. If not, Barber said district leaders hope to make their decision by week’s end.
Figuring out what to do about the 500 voucher students, including the 304 already accepted into private schools, as well as the $300,000 that have gone out in voucher payments, may take longer.
Karen Auge at community resource blog milehighmamas.com said that the judge’s ruling brought ‘confusion, stress and distress for parents, students and administrators”.
In his ruling, Martinez said he was returning the district to the status quo, which he defined as “the absence of the scholarship program.”
But he also noted the plaintiffs “have expressly not asked the court to direct the disenrollment of scholarship recipients already attending private partner schools or the return of funds already expended.”
The district’s contract with its private school partners says any voucher payments to the schools are pro-rated, meaning they keep the money only for the period of time a voucher student actually attended. The schools have to repay any remaining balance within 45 days of a student’s decision to leave.
Alex Luchenister, senior litigation counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, one of the plaintiffs and a frequent party to voucher legal battles across the country, said:
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a decision that found a program violates as many constitutional provisions as this program does.”
Attorneys for the district and the state repeatedly urged the judge to consider a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling which upheld a Cleveland voucher program that includes religious and non-religious schools.
Martinez, however, said disregarding the more specific religion provisions of the Colorado Constitution would be akin to saying the state’s founders “must have debated, drafted and ratified these provisions without purpose.”
In Indiana, where a similar case was being heard, a judge ruled that the “new statutory provisions guaranteeing publicly funded choice of even parochial schools are ‘religion-neutral’ and ‘for the benefit of students, not churches.’” writes Adam Emerson at redefinededonline.org.
A poll of 500 likely Douglas County voters conducted in April, weeks after the March 15 vote approving the voucher pilot, showed a divided community.
Asked whether they favored or opposed the “private school scholarship program,” 49 percent said they strongly favored or favored the program while 47 percent said they strongly opposed or opposed the program.
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