The Douglas County School district and board and others who support its school choice voucher plan have filed opening briefs in the Colorado Court of Appeals. April 16 marked the deadline to file the documents.
District officials speculate that any court debate would occur no sooner than May or June. Whenever the case moves forward, the school board expects to prevail, and is determined to keep fighting if it doesn’t.
“We’re very confident the law is on our side and we will win,” board president John Carson said.
The controversial school choice voucher program initiated in March 2011 granted scholarships to students to use as tuition at private schools. In August, a Denver District Court judge ruled the use of taxpayer money to fund private and religious educations violated the state constitution and school finance act. By then, 265 students had used district-appropriated funds to enroll in other schools.
District checks were written to the parents of students awarded the vouchers, who then turned the checks over to the schools. From the district’s perspective, the parents’ involvement in the process is among the keys to its case. They provide a separation between the district and the private, religious institution receiving the funding.
“Courts have upheld these types of cases in which a public institution has given money to a parent, who then makes a decision where the money goes,” Carson said. “It has to be the parent making the decision. If the school district decides to send it to a religious institution, it changes the game.”
The board’s brief also contend the program doesn’t violate the state constitution because it is religiously neutral, and participation is voluntary.
“If a (Choice Scholarship Program) family elects a religious partner school, it is because they want their child educated there, not because Douglas County or the CSP requires it,” the brief reads. “Douglas County evaluates which private schools may participate in the CSP based upon neutral, educational criteria that have nothing to do with religion.”
A group that represents Christian schools worldwide also filed an amicus brief in support of the school district, stating the court’s order violates the First Amendment. An amicus, or friend of the court brief, does not have legal standing, but can be used by a judge to evaluate a case.
“Our concern is for the parents to choose for themselves what’s the best education for their kids,” said Philip Scott, spokesperson for The Association of Christian Schools International. “That it’s religiously based shouldn’t be a limitation.”
The ACSI, based in Colorado Springs, represents 24,000 Christian schools in 100 countries. Three of them are in Douglas County, including Valor Christian High School in Highlands Ranch, Shepherd of the Hills Christian School in Centennial and Southeast Christian School in Parker.
Those who filed the lawsuit against the district, among them the American Civil Liberties Union, the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado and several Douglas County residents, also will submit briefs. One of those residents said the school district is trying to put the blame on the wrong foot.
“I think school officials have taken a vow to support the constitution and this violated the constitution,” said Jamie LaRue, director of Douglas County Library Libraries and a school district parent. “Within the state of Colorado, there are some very specific laws about what public monies for education can be used for. It’s very clear, you can’t use public money for private education and you can’t use public money for religious education.”
That’s good public policy because the state is charged with overseeing a fair and equal education system, LaRue said. Private or religious schools aren’t necessarily held to the same standards.
Although district officials say they will continually evaluate each partner school in the voucher program to ensure it meets the district’s educational standards, LaRue called that “a fine promise.”
He noted the potential for conflict on specific topics and subjects.
“If there are, for instance, curriculum guidelines that have to do with evolution and geology, then we are requiring those schools to teach things they don’t really want to,” LaRue said. “It seems like on both sides – the public policy side and on the side of wanting to avoid a state intrusion into religion – it makes sense to keep the funding completely separate.”
District officials say they’ll fight the case as long as it takes to secure a favorable ruling, and are prepared for a battle that could last for years.
“I can’t think of a cause more worth of fighting for than the right of parents in a free society to send their children to the school of their choice,” Carson said.