Education

Douglas County School Board approves revised voucher policy

The change removes religious schools from the program

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The Douglas County Board of Education has passed a revised version of the school district's voucher program that removes religiously affiliated schools as an option.

The 4-3 vote on March 15 to approve the revision to the Choice Scholarship Program comes nine months after the Colorado Supreme Court ruled the original version of the program was illegal. No public funds can be used to aid or support any “sectarian" institution, the court ruled.

The school district appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. A decision has not been made on whether the court will hear the case, but the appeal will continue, a district spokeswman said.

School board member Doug Benevento said the district now has a clear direction form the courts about what is allowable under state law and should proceed with the new program.

“They made the decision that you cannot have a voucher program that includes religious schools — therefore, we won't," he said.

Cindy Barnard — president of the group that filed the original lawsuit against the district to stop the voucher program — said the revised policy is illegal and unconstitutional since public money would be leaving the district for private schools in violation of the Public School Finance Act.

"Every dollar taken in the private school voucher program is a dollar taken away from our public schools,"said Barnard, head of Taxpayers for Public Education, a nonprofit, Colorado-based group that advocates for "a strong public education system."

Before it was halted, the original voucher program, designed to accommodate 500 students, allowed students' parents to use state-provided, per-pupil money toward tuition at private schools, including religiously affiliated institutions.

On March 10, Benevento told Chalkbeat — an education-news website — the district would amend the program again and open it back up to religious schools if the U.S. Supreme Court were to rule in the district's favor.

The voucher dispute dates to 2011, when the program was given the green light by the school board and then Taxpayers for Public Education filed a lawsuit against the district to stop it. A Denver judge halted the program that same year, but in 2013, a state appeals court reversed that decision. Another reversal came with the ruling from the state's top court in 2015.

Board members David Ray, Anne-Marie Lemieux and Wendy Vogel — who were elected in November and have opposed many of the district's reform polices adopted in recent years — voted against the revision. The four board members who voted for it each have supported the reforms.

“This voucher isn't based on financial need or special needs — this voucher will go to anybody,” Lemieux said. “So basically you are saying you want to give public school money to a family that quite possibly could be making $1 million a year so they can get a discount basically on their private school education.”

Ray said he was concerned how vouchers would affect district charter schools. He said families may decide to leave charters to take advantage of the voucher at a private school.

“To me, it does not expand choice because I have yet to hear what it is our kids aren't getting, because our district is incredible with choice right now,” Ray said.

Vogel said she was concerned relaunching the voucher program could lead to more legal challenges.

“We are going to be opening ourselves up again to yet another lawsuit if we put this forward,” Vogel said.

School district legal counsel Rob Ross said he believed the previous court ruling had outlined what is acceptable under state law and that the revised policy would stand up to legal challenge.

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