Update – A second lawsuit was filed today in Denver District Court challenging the legality of Douglas County’s pilot voucher program. The second suit was brought by Taxpayers for Public Education, a Douglas County group that has led opposition to the voucher plan in recent months. The court action also names the Douglas County School District, its board of education, the Colorado Department of Education and the state board of education. Cindra Barnard, president of the taxpayers’ group, has scheduled a 4 p.m. press conference to discuss it. EdNews will update all of today’s developments this evening.

Original lawsuit story begins here:

A voucher opponent complains board members ignored the voices of dissenters.
A voucher opponent complained on March 15 that Dougco board members ignored dissenters.

Some Douglas County parents and three civil liberties groups have filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of Douglas County’s pilot voucher program, set to launch this fall.

The suit, filed this morning in Denver District Court by groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, seeks a preliminary injunction to immediately halt the plan.

Douglas County school district officials have scheduled a 3:30 p.m. press conference today at Castle View High School in Castle Rock. Prior to that, the district issued a written statement acknowledging the lawsuit and calling the voucher pilot “just one of many choice programs available to Douglas County students.”

“We continue to believe every student should be empowered to find their best educational fit, whether it is at one of our neighborhood schools, charter schools, or at one of our private-partner schools,” the statement reads. “We intentionally built this plan to include rigorous accountability measures that ensure a quality education for all students.”

From the lawsuit:
  • “As of the filing of this Complaint, all but five of the 19 private schools that have been approved to participate in the Program are religious or sectarian schools.”
  • “Of the five non-religious schools, one is for gifted students only and another is for special needs students. The remaining three schools run through eighth grade only.”
  • Example: Evangelical Christian Academy “requires each parent and secondary student to sign a declaration of faith, including a written born-again believer’s testimony.”
  • Example: Valor Christian High School’s application to the district “states the Bible is the foundation for all our programs. We will not compromise our Christian values.”

Gregory M. Lipper, litigation counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the legal issues are clear.

“What we’re arguing is that the Colorado constitution and the Colorado statutes are very clear that taxpayer money can’t be used to fund religious schools or religious education,” he said.

“We’re arguing the law is very clear as it is and, because we’re going to prevail at the end, we’re entitled to preliminary relief now. If we don’t get the relief now, the very harm we’re trying to prevent – the transfer of taxpayer money to religious schools – will happen.”

The list of plaintiffs includes James LaRue, father of a Douglas County student and director of Douglas County public libraries, and Kevin Leung, also a Douglas County parent and a former candidate for the Douglas County school board. The Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, which includes 850 clergy and lay members from 19 faiths, also is a plaintiff, as are Rabbi Joel Schwartzman of the B’nai Chaim Congregation in Morrison and Rev. Malcolm Himschoot of the Parker United Church of Christ.

They’re suing the Colorado Board of Education, which authorizes the state treasurer to distribute state dollars to local school districts; the Colorado Department of Education, responsible for budgeting state money for distribution to local school districts; the Douglas County school board, which approved the pilot voucher plan; and the Douglas County School District, which is implementing the pilot.

Some plaintiffs spoke against the voucher plan in tense public hearings before the board’s 7-0 approval March 15. The pilot will allow up to 500 Douglas County students to use 75 percent of state per-pupil funding – or $4,575 – to enroll in participating private schools this fall. Learn more program details.

Read the news release from the ACLU and Americans United and see the complaint filed this morning.

Key allegations in today’s civil complaint include:

“The Program … takes public funds provided by the State of Colorado—which are required by law to be spent on public schools—and uses them to pay for tuition at private schools. The vast majority of these private schools are religious, are controlled by churches or other religious institutions, and discriminate in both employment and admissions on the basis of religion. Many of them require students to receive religious instruction and attend religious worship services.

“In diverting millions of dollars in public funds intended solely for public education to instead finance overtly religious and private education, the Douglas County School District also cedes control over this education to the private-school aid recipients, resulting in a taxpayer-funded education that deviates substantially from the legal standards and requirements governing the public education provided by the District itself. The private schools participating in the Program are not controlled or directed by any local board of education or elected directors …

“The Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado Board of Education are aware of and have agreed to the use of public funds to finance the Program as alleged herein, and have actively assisted the District in developing the Program. Each has agreed that students attending private schools under the Program, including students attending private religious schools, will “count” as public school students for the purpose of receiving taxpayer funds …

In short, the Program provides taxpayer funds to private and religious schools that will use this money to provide an education—including religious education and services—with little or no governmental oversight. In devising and funding this Program, Defendants violate … the Colorado Constitution. They also violate the Public School Finance Act of 1994.”

Colorado Department of Education spokeswoman Janelle Asmus released a statement this afternoon, saying both the department and the board “recognize the value of locally elected school boards and districts’ ability to develop programs to best meet their children’s educational needs. Those programs and school choice option decisions are a matter of local control.”

But Asmus said neither the board nor the department has received a formal proposal or request from the Douglas County district:

“When Douglas County Schools officials came to CDE this past year asking for advice, the department provided technical assistance. The department made clear that it was not its role or responsibility to approve or disapprove any school option idea thus underscoring the fact that these decisions were up to the local board of education,” the statement reads.

“To date, neither CDE nor the state board of education has received any official proposal or waiver request from Douglas County Schools; therefore no approval or action has been taken.”

Check back later today for more on this story.