Colorado Voucher Program Ruled Unconstitutional


The Colorado Supreme Court has ruled that a voucher program in the third-largest school district in the state is unconstitutional because the program offers public funding to religious schools.

The new ruling reversed a previous decision by a state appeals court that allowed the Douglas County School District from implementing the Choice Scholarship Pilot Program, which offered families the opportunity to use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schooling, writes Emma Brown for The Washington Post.  In addition, school districts across the state will no longer be able to create similar voucher programs.

“This stark constitutional provision makes one thing clear,” Colorado’s chief justice, Nancy E. Rice, wrote in the court’s opinion. “A school district may not aid religious schools.”

The program provided 500 scholarships of around $4,570 each.  Families could have used the funds for any of 23 approved “private school partners” in the district, including 16 religious options.

The decision came as a shock to school choice advocates, and those looking for reform in public education in the state, as a reversal of a move that allowed families to make use of tax dollars and choose the type of schooling that would best fit their children.

However, the largest teachers union looked at the ruling as a victory.

“We’re incredibly gratified that the state’s Supreme Court recognized that public dollars should stay in public schools,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association.

School officials from the district said there is a plan to appeal the ruling directly to the United States Supreme Court in the hopes of ending laws, not only in Colorado but in every state, that prohibit using public money for religious schooling.

Meanwhile, a number of states across the country are looking to implement programs that would allow families to use public funding for private school tuition.  The American Federation for Children reports 46 such programs in 23 states and Washington, DC.  The programs including tax credit scholarships, which allow private individuals or companies to earn tax credits in return for donating to scholarship funds, as well as education savings accounts that allow families to use tax dollars to pay for a number of educational services such as tutors, private schooling or home school materials.

Such vouchers were challenged as soon as they were approved in Colorado, which put a stop to the program and allowed the lawsuit to proceed through the court system.  Civil liberties groups said the recent ruling placed a line between public money and private faith, writes Jack Healy for The New York Times.

“Parents are free to send their children to private religious schools if they wish, but the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed today that taxpayers should not be forced to pay for it,” read a statement by Mark Silverstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, which represented some of the challengers.