DENVER – The Colorado Supreme Court announced Monday that it would review an appellate court ruling that determined the Douglas County School District’s Choice Scholarship Program is constitutional. The program that expands school choice has drawn national attention.
The innovative program to grant vouchers to 500 Douglas County School District (DCSD) students was implemented in March 2011, but was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Americans for Separation of Church and State and other special interests groups.
The program would grant scholarships to students who have attended DCSD schools for at least one year to attend a qualified private-partner school of their choice.
“Today, the Colorado Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal in the case of LaRue v Douglas County School District,” said DCSD Board of Education Director Craig Richardson.
“The district welcomes the opportunity for the state’s highest court to review a case that presents such important issues for our state and our country. DCSD is committed to expanding choice for parents and one of the ways is our innovative Choice Scholarship Program,” Richardson said.
In February 2013, a three-judge panel of the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the district, finding that the program was constitutional and did not violate state law. The ACLU and opponents petitioned the state Supreme Court in hopes of overturning the Appellate Court ruling.
ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein lauded the state high court’s decision as an opportunity to strike down DCSD’s scholarship program, which he called a “misguided funding scheme.”
Silverstein argued that the school choice voucher program violates the separation of church and state by redirecting taxpayer funds from public to private schools which could be associated with Catholic, Christian, Jewish and other religions institutions.
“Parents are free to send their children to religious schools,” said Silverstein, but at their own expense – not public funds.
However, the Appeals Court agreed with previous U.S. Supreme Court decisions such as Zelman v. Simons-Harris, that determined a K-12 scholarship program similar to that offered by DCSD is a matter of “true private choice.”
In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the school choice program benefitted a broad class of citizens who chose schools for their children. If the school was affiliated with a religious entity, it was the parents’ independent choice and not determined by the school district.
An “incidental advancement of a religious mission is reasonably attributable to the individual recipient, not to the government,” the court concluded.
The Colorado Supreme Court’s decision to review the Court of Appeals decision in favor of DCSD “does not mean that the court disagrees with the Court of Appeals ruling,” Richardson said.
“It simply means that the court recognizes the importance of the case for our state and our country,” Richardson said.
The Colorado Supreme Court will now receive briefs on the merits, hear oral arguments by the parties, and eventually issue a decision.
Based on the compelling legal reasoning and analytical strength of the Court of Appeals’ ruling, the Douglas County School District and Board of Education issued a statement that they are highly confident in the outcome.
The Choice Scholarship Program is an initiative, inaugurated by the DCSD Board of Education in March 2011, as part of its ‘Choice Blueprint’ strategic plan, which provides funding for a limited number of students to attend certain private ‘partner’ schools that meet the district’s criteria for academic quality and educational rigor.
“Our district, using privately raised funds and no taxpayer dollars, mounted a defense of the DCSD Choice Scholarship Program in the courts,” said Richardson. “We were joined in that cause by the State of Colorado, as well as groups of parents who wanted their children to participate in the pilot program in order to improve their academic achievement.”