The Douglas County School Board threw a knockout punch at school vouchers locally but fell short of staggering the movement nationwide, voucher supporters said Tuesday.
Voucher backer and Colorado State Board of Education member Pam Mazanec knew the nationally known Douglas County program was living on borrowed time when a slate of four anti-voucher candidates won election last month to the school board, creating a seven-member board fully hostile to vouchers.
The new board moved quickly Monday night to pull its support of the program, voting unanimously to end a long-running legal battle that reached the nation’s highest court.
“I’m just disappointed,” Mazanec said. “They could have ended the program locally, and that would have been fine. But they could have chosen to get an answer once and for all about the legality of the program. Resolving that issue would have benefited children not only in Colorado but across the country.”
Mazanec said voucher programs remain viable across the country because they offer families a viable alternative to public school education that sometimes fails students. There are 26 voucher programs currently operating in 15 states, and they often allow taxpayer dollars to pay for private school education.
“School choice may be dead in Douglas County now, but I think private school choice programs are very popular across the country and I don’t think that will stop,” said Mazanec, who is also director of Great Choice Douglas County, formed by parents and residents to help promote and support the Douglas voucher program..
But the school board Monday night was emphatic. The district must now “take all action necessary to end the litigation in a cost-efficient and timely manner,” according to a resolution passed Monday night.
“We really have no desire to go any further with this,” said David Ray, board president. “It’s really a moot point for us now.”
Douglas County became the only school district in the country to start its own voucher program in 2011, but it was halted by a Denver district court judge before families could use it. The program would have provided publicly funded scholarships to 500 students who want to go to private schools including those offered by churches.
But opponents argued that spending public money for a private school education was a violation of the separation of church and state. Vouchers, they said, were a step toward privatizing public education.
The Colorado Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that the Douglas County voucher program was unconstitutional. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the state’s highest court must reconsider its ruling.
The district is scheduled to file a brief in defense of the program by Dec. 18. But Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU of Colorado, said the district is likely to file a “suggestion of mootness” which effectively ends the case.
“The district is more than likely to respect the wishes of the voters and put a final and conclusive end of a divisive chapter in the school board’s history,” Silverstein said. The ACLU is a plaintiff in the case against the voucher program, which names the school district as a defendant.
Douglas County vouchers are still on solid legal ground, said Michael Bindas, who argued for the voucher program as an attorney with the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based religious freedom group. He cites a 2013 ruling by the Colorado Court of Appeals that went in favor of the vouchers.
“The program may have gone down politically, but in the court of law, school choice has won,” Bindas said.
Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group founded by billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch, called the board’s vote “short-sighted.”
“Since its introduction, this program has been met with such stiff resistance by the teachers unions and special interests,” said Americans for Prosperity State Director Jesse Mallory. “The board owes those students an explanation as to why they are limiting their educational opportunities in favor of the status quo.”
Americans for Prosperity said in a statement before the November election that it was going to mount a campaign promoting school choice costing in the six figures. Before Monday’s vote, it said it would be spending “five figures” to warn Douglas County parents about the vote ending the voucher program.
The American Federation of Teachers, meanwhile, spent $300,000 in efforts backing the anti-voucher candidates. Monday’s vote was “a resounding victory for every child, parent and teacher in America who believes in the promise of public education,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten.