Colo. Supreme Court Agrees to Hear School Choice Case

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · March 17, 2014

Arlington, Va.In an unfortunate decision that will further delay the ability of Douglas County, Colo., parents to choose the schools that are best for their children, the Colorado Supreme Court Monday morning announced that it will review a Colorado Court of Appeals decision upholding the Douglas County School District’s Choice Scholarship Program. The Court of Appeals previously found that the program “does not violate any of the constitutional provisions on which” it was challenged.

“Although it is unfortunate that the Choice Scholarship Program’s implementation will be further delayed by the Supreme Court’s decision to review the case, the program’s constitutionality will now finally be resolved by the state’s highest court,” said Michael Bindas, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice (IJ), which represents Douglas County families in defending the Choice Scholarship Program. “We are confident that the Supreme Court will affirm the thorough, well-reasoned opinion of the Court of Appeals and uphold the Choice Scholarship Program once and for all.”

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, a coalition of groups including the ACLU filed a lawsuit 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.

Working 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 halted the program. IJ, as well as the county and state, appealed the District Court’s decision, and on February 28, 2013, the Court of Appeals reversed the District Court 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 appeals 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,” Bindas explained. “The Court of Appeals recognized that the Choice Scholarship Program satisfies both of those requirements, and we are confident that the Supreme Court will, as well.”

“Across the country, school choice programs are giving parents the opportunity to decide which school is best to teach their children, just as it should be,” said Chip Mellor, IJ’s president and general counsel. “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.”