The controversial Douglas County voucher program in Colorado has hit another setback as Judge Michael Martinez refused to lift his injunction blocking the plan. The program, which was passed by the school board last spring after weeks of contentious debate, would have allowed parents to access a percentage of public school funds to pay tuition at private schools. Last month, just as school was starting and parents had received their first installment, the program was challenged in court and immediately halted.
District court Judge Michael Martinez ruled the Douglas County voucher program unconstitutional after several taxpayer and parents groups, as well as the ACLU, filed suit claiming the plan violated Colorado’s state constitution. In this case, the claim is not a federal one about the interpreted idea of a “separation of church and state.” Instead, it is local and cites state law. Colorado’s state constitution literally has a provision that specifically prohibits the use of state money to fund religious schools.
The Douglas County voucher program has generated so much controversy precisely because of where it is located. Voucher plans are generally recommended and implemented in struggling and disadvantaged school districts where, proponents argue, poor students deserve a chance to escape failing schools and pursue an education in a more productive, and often safer, environment. However, Douglas County is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, and the quality of its schools is not disputed. In fact, it is one of the top performing districts in the state. Additionally, Colorado has statewide open-enrollment laws that allow any student to enroll in any public school in the state. Thus, Colorado students are not necessarily stuck in failing schools.
Clearly, the Douglas County voucher program is simply about the freedom of choice, and the desire for some people to use taxpayer funds for private schools. In a fairly libertarian state like Colorado, and especially in a conservative area like Douglas County, many people argue for a right to spend their tax dollars where they want. For the most part, the students have chosen religious schools. However, some parents filed for the money because they claim their child’s special needs require a private school. That issue might have merit, except special needs students are already covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Thus, any public school must meet the needs of all studentsÂ—or it must pay for education elsewhere.
At this point, the Douglas County voucher program is stalled. The school district had issued the first installments to parents who enrolled their students in private schools. The schools then faced the uncomfortable task of requesting the money be returned. As of this date, some private schools have agreed to keep the students enrolled and seek alternative payment options while the case is argued in court. As it stands, that may take some time while both sides of the debate dig in.