Douglas County ends controversial private-school voucher program

The program was a prime fault line in an election this fall that saw voucher opponents take full control of the board.

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

By Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat

CASTLE ROCK — The Douglas County school board voted Monday to end a controversial private-school voucher program and directed the school district to end a long-running legal battle that reached the nation’s highest court.

The board voted 6-0 at a standing-room-only meeting to rescind the program, which was put on a hold in 2011 by a Denver District Court judge before families could use it.

The program was a prime fault line in an election this fall that saw voucher opponents take full control of the board.

“Public funds should not be diverted to private schools, which are not accountable to the public,” said board member Krista Holtzmann.

The Colorado Supreme Court, which earlier this summer was directed by the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit the case, will have the ultimate say in whether the legal challenge will end.

However, the court usually does not consider moot cases, said Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU of Colorado, a plaintiff in the case.

The board’s action is a blow to conservative education reform advocates and voucher supporters in Colorado and across the country. Proponents of vouchers had hoped a victory at the U.S. Supreme Court would set a national precedent.

The legal question at the center of the voucher debate is whether a local school district can send tax dollars to private-religious institutions. A majority of the schools that enrolled in the Douglas County voucher system, known as the Choice Scholarship Program, were religious.

The Colorado Supreme Court in 2015 ruled that the district could not because the state’s constitution forbid it. The U.S. Supreme Court gave voucher supporters renewed hope earlier this year when in a similar case it issued a narrow ruling for a preschool run by a church.

A network of voucher supporters have argued that such constitutional prohibitions, known as Blaine Amendments, are rooted in Catholic bigotry and are outdated.

Americans for Prosperity, a political nonprofit that advocates for free-market policies including private school vouchers, announced Friday it was spending “five-figures” to warn Douglas County parents about the board’s decision to end the program.

“The new school board must put the needs of school children before any political belief,” Jesse Mallory, the group’s Colorado state director, said in a statement. “Ending this program before it even has a chance to succeed and provide real change in our communities would be extremely shortsighted. If the board believes they should deny children more educational opportunities, AFP-Colorado will hold them accountable.”

Opponents of vouchers, who showed up in force Monday night, presented a lengthy lists of claims against private schools and vouchers. Some argued that private schools discriminate against students. Others suggested vouchers were part of a scheme to privatize education.

“What happens to the educational quality of children in the community school where there is less money to work with because of the voucher outflow?” said one speaker, Barbara Gomes Barlow, who has grandchildren in Douglas County schools. “It is diminished. It’s a fiction to believe that vouchers open up choice for all students. They do not.”

Monday’s meeting comes nearly one month after four anti-voucher candidates — Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor and Kevin Leung — resoundingly won seats on the board. Their opponents campaigned to keep the legal fight alive.

“This is what you were elected to do — serve the taxpayers in a public school district,” said Stephanie Van Zante, another county resident who spoke during public comment. “Ending this policy shows that this board has returned its focus to local educational practices and not national politics.”

Leung, who is a plaintiff in the legal case against the voucher program, recused himself from voting on ending the program.

For Cindy Barnard, the original plaintiff in the legal fight, Monday’s decision was six years in the making.

“I’ve been working on this for a long time and I’m very, very happy to hear the district rescind the program,” Barnard said. “Knowing that public school funds will stay in our public schools — it’s a good day.”