Colorado Supreme Court rejects Douglas County voucher program

State’s top court rules that Choice Scholarship Program is unconstitutional; district wants to take case to U.S. Supreme Courtcolorado-supreme-court-buildingThe Colorado Supreme Court Building in Denver.

The Colorado Supreme Court on Monday shot down the Douglas County School District’s groundbreaking, controversial school voucher program, finding it unconstitutional in a split ruling.

The long-awaited decision caps a more than three-year legal battle over the fate of the wealthy suburban district’s Choice Scholarship Program.

The voucher program, which would use taxpayer money to send children to private schools, was put on hold in 2011 just as the first 304 students were about to enroll. Most planned to attend religious schools.

The court found the program conflicts with “broad, unequivocal language forbidding the State from using public money to fund religious schools.”

Wrote the court “… this stark constitutional provision makes one thing clear: A school district may not aid religious schools.”

During a news conference Monday morning, Douglas County school officials indicated they likely would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case for consideration. They also said they will immediately seek a legal way to proceed with vouchers.

“While we are disappointed in the court’s decision today, we are not surprised,” said Douglas County Board of Education president Kevin Larsen. ” We have always believed that the ultimate legality of our Choice Scholarship Program would be decided by the federal courts under the United States Constitution. This could very well be simply a case of delayed gratification.”

Using private donations, the district has spent $1.2 million on the legal challenge.

Opponents of the program prevailed in Denver District Court in their initial legal challenge. In February 2013, the Colorado Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the program in a 2-1 vote, with the majority ruling finding it was neutral toward religion.

RULING: Read the Colorado Supreme Court’s full decision

A plurality of Supreme Court justices, however, found the program violates the state constitution, reversing the judgment of the appeals court.

The court ruled 4-3 for voucher foes on the constitutionality question, which turned out to be the case’s key argument.

On a different issue, the justices ruled 6-1 that voucher opponents could not challenge the program under a public school finance law.

The significance of Monday’s decision stretches beyond Douglas County.

A decision upholding the program would have opened the door to similar initiatives in other school districts; any districts that had designs on a voucher program will either need to shelve those plans or come up with a new blueprint that stands a better legal chance.

The voucher program “essentially functions as a recruitment program, teaming with various religious schools,” the ruling says.

While money is not funneled directly to religious schools — rather, financial aid is provided to students — the prohibition against aiding religious schools is not limited to direct funding, the court held.

Parents and media attend the press conference at the Douglas County School District after hearing about the Colorado Supreme Court ruling finding

Parents and media attend the press conference at the Douglas County School District after hearing about the Colorado Supreme Court ruling finding the voucher program unconstitutional (John Leyba, The Denver Post)

The court also cited the program’s “lack of vital safeguards,” saying it does not forbid private schools from raising tuition or reducing financial aid in the amount of the scholarship awarded.

If that were to occur, the program would essentially channel taxpayer money directly to religious schools, it said.

This story will be updated.

Eric Gorski: 303-954-1971, egorski@denverpost.com or twitter.com/egorski

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