Court of Appeals Gives Green Light to Colorado Voucher Pilot

The Colorado Court of Appeals has handed a victory to supporters of school choice when it ruled that the school voucher program in place in the state is constitutional. The 2-1 ruling overturns the findings of the Denver District Court Judge Michael Martinez who found the program unconstitutional in 2011.

Voucher opponents have already vowed to lodge an appeal with the state Supreme Court. Until these appeals are exhausted, the voucher program remains halted, according to school board member Craig Richardson.

That appeal is “definitely” coming, said Alex Luchenitser, an attorney with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which opposed the voucher program.

“We think the (appeals) court simply got it wrong,” Luchenitser said. “The majority misconstrued both the state constitution and the federal constitution.”

The lawsuit was filed to protest the pilot voucher program which was approved in 2011. Up to 500 students attending failing schools would have been allowed to use $4,757 in state funding to use towards private school tuition in a school of their choice. The argument presented by opponents was that spending taxpayer funding on religiously affiliated schools violated the constitutional provision that prevented pubic funding from being spent to support a religious institution. In Douglas County, where the pilot was set to take place, 16 out of the 23 schools who agreed to accept the voucher were parochial or religiously affiliated.

Richardson and attorneys who fought on behalf of the voucher program said they are pleased, but not surprised by, the ruling.
“It reflects what we’ve known from the beginning: our program is fully constitutional,” Richardson said.

Michael Bindas, attorney for the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice, which worked on behalf of Douglas County schools, said the ruling is one more in a string that have upheld voucher programs.

The Institute for Justice released a statement celebrating the victory, saying that this is good news not only to families in Douglas County but in all of Colorado. The finding that the law doesn’t violate any constitutional provisions signals that giving students the opportunity to choose the educational options that suit them best is exactly in line with the state’s commitment to provide excellent schooling for all its citizens.

In its opinion, the Court of Appeals explained that the scholarship program “is intended to benefit students and their parents, and any benefit to the participating schools is incidental”  Moreover, the Court stressed that the program “is neutral toward religion, and funds make their way to private schools with religious affiliation by means of personal choices of students’ parents.”