Colorado’s Douglas County Choice Scholarship Program Is Constitutional
Arlington, Va.—In a tremendous victory for families in Douglas County, Colo., the Colorado Court of Appeals this morning upheld the Douglas County School District’s Choice Scholarship Program. Reversing an August 2011 trial court decision that had struck down the program, the Court held that the program “does not violate any of the constitutional provisions on which” it was challenged.
“This is an enormous victory not just for Douglas County families, but for all Colorado families who simply want the right to choose the schools that are best for their kids,” said Michael Bindas, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice (IJ), which represented three Douglas County families in defending the Choice Scholarship Program.
The Choice Scholarship Program is a local school choice program adopted by the Douglas County Board of Education on March 15, 2011, to “provide greater educational choice for students and parents to meet individualized student needs.” The program operates in a simple and straightforward manner, providing 500 scholarships that parents can use to send their children to any private school that participates in the program and that has accepted the child.
On June 21, 2011, however, the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and several Colorado organizations and taxpayers sued the school board, school district, Colorado Department of Education, and Colorado Board of Education in Denver District Court to stop the program. Despite clear case law rejecting their claims, they alleged that because some parents would choose religious schools for their children’s education, the program violates the state constitution’s prohibition on aid to religious schools. They also alleged various violations of state constitutional and statutory provisions concerning public education.
On behalf of three Douglas County families that had received scholarships under the program—the Doyles, Andersons, and Oakleys—IJ intervened in the case and defended the program alongside the county and state. But on August 12, 2011, after a three-day hearing, the Denver District Court enjoined the program, concluding that it violates the religion clauses in the Colorado Constitution, as well as Colorado’s Public School Finance Act and a provision concerning the Public School Fund.
IJ, as well as the county and state, appealed the District Court’s decision. This morning, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision and upheld the scholarship program. In its opinion, the Court of Appeals explained that the scholarship program “is intended to benefit students and their parents, and any benefit to the participating schools is incidental” Moreover, the Court stressed that the program “is neutral toward religion, and funds make their way to private schools with religious affiliation by means of personal choices of students’ parents.”
“Neutrality and private choice are the hallmarks of a constitutional school choice program,” according to Bindas, “and the Court of Appeals recognized that the Choice Scholarship Program satisfies both of those requirements. The court’s decision paves the way for other Colorado school districts to follow the path that Douglas County has blazed and empower parents to choose the schools that are best for their children.”
Upon hearing the news of the victory, Derrick Doyle, whose children Donovan and Alexandra received scholarships under the program, said, “It is great news to hear that the program will move forward. We are grateful that the court vindicated our right to choose our children’s school.”
“From Arizona and Colorado, down to Louisiana, up to Indiana, New Hampshire and beyond, school choice programs are providing greater and greater parental control of education, just as it should be,” said Chip Mellor, president and general counsel for the Institute for Justice. “No one knows better than parents which type of education will best-serve their children. School choice programs give parents the means to secure a quality education for their children.”