CASTLE ROCK — Parents of Douglas County public school students would use taxpayer money to send their children to private schools — but not religious ones — under a revised school voucher program approved Tuesday night by a bitterly divided school board.

Limited in scope, the south suburban district’s School Choice Grant Program would be a pilot open to up to 500 students starting this fall.

The Colorado Supreme Court in June rejected the district’s original voucher program, adopted in 2011, as unconstitutional because it included religious schools. Members of the school board’s conservative majority took two paths in response: petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court, and quietly working to revise the program consistent with the state high court ruling.

After a heated debate, the board voted 4-3 to approve a policy revision essentially reviving the voucher program in a new form.

Board member Doug Benevento, who crafted the revision, portrayed it as a modest proposal to gauge interest and determine whether to proceed on a larger scale.

“One side is trying to expand choice for parents and students,” Benevento said, “and the other side is trying to shut it down.”

Three board members who ousted conservative incumbents in November questioned the timing and short notice, and argued that a voucher program robs public schools of dollars and exposes the district to another lawsuit.

“Private school is not a right,” said board member Anne-Marie LeMieux. “It’s a privilege.”

LeMieux called it a “massive overreach,” citing requirements that participating private schools demonstrate they run a “quality educational program,” prove themselves financial stable and provide copies of employment policies.

The school district established its original Choice Scholarship Program five years ago after a conservative takeover of the school board, arguing that competition can lift all schools even in a district consistently ranked as one of the state’s top achievers.

While most voucher programs are restricted to low-income students or those with special needs, Douglas County invited all families to apply, with a limit of 500 slots. Bringing vouchers to a wealthy district with no shortage of strong district-run and charter schools attracted national notice.

In 2011, the first 304 students were about to enroll when a lawsuit brought it to a halt. In a 4-3 judgment last June, the state’s highest court held that the program violated a state constitutional provision barring spending public money on religious schools. District officials petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court and are awaiting word on whether the court will take the case.

As of last fall, the legal bill had been run up to about $1.2 million, officials said. The costs have been covered in full by private donations, the bulk of it coming from the Denver-based Daniels Fund, the district said.

Among the details of the proposal approved:

  • The voucher program will be run through a district office that would issue checks in students’ names and send them to participating schools. This is a departure from the 2011 voucher program, which called for establishing a charter school that would have served administrative functions.
  • Vouchers would be worth whichever is less — the full freight of tuition or 85 percent of state per pupil revenue. The superintendent would have discretion to provide more.
  • Students in the program would still take state assessments.

The resolution does not spell out how the district would determine whether interested schools meet the “religious” definition. Benevento has said the district would develop a process for analyzing the policies, board structures and curriculum of schools that wish to participate and bar those deemed religious as defined in state law.

During public testimony Tuesday, Cindy Barnard of Taxpayers for Public Education, a plaintiff in the lawsuit against Dougco’s original voucher program, said the new plan is not sound.

“Every dollar put into the voucher program is a dollar taken out of the public school system,” she said.

Said county resident Bob Kaser: “This voucher program is an entitlement scheme for high-income families.”

It is unclear how many Douglas County families would want to enroll their children in secular private schools. Of the 23 private schools accepted into the original program, 16 were religious and 14 were outside Douglas County. More than nine in 10 students taking part chose religious schools.

Denver Post staff writer John Aguilar contributed information to this report.