Judge strikes down controversial Colorado voucher program for now

Liz Goodwin
August 15, 2011

A Denver judge has temporarily halted a controversial school voucher program that was already under way in affluent Douglas County, citing concerns that the program violates Colorado's state constitution.

District Court Judge Michael Martinez ruled in favor of the American Civil Liberties Union and some parents, who argued that the program illegally used taxpayer money to support religious causes, writes Nancy Mitchell at Ed News Colorado. "This court is not prepared to mandate that Colorado taxpayers fund private religious education," he wrote in his decision. Five hundred area students were enrolled in the new voucher program and $300,000 in the payments had already gone out to the private and mostly religious schools that participated, Mitchell writes.

Only 13 of the students receiving vouchers under the program are enrolled in the federal free or reduced lunch program, an indicator of family poverty. School systems have traditionally approved voucher programs as a way for poor students to escape blighted public schools; since Douglas County has a high per capita income, its program was an outlier from this trend. Under the program, the school district passes 75 percent of the $6,100 per-pupil allotment it receives from the state directly on to parents. The parents can then use that money to send their child to whichever school they wish. (The district pockets the other 25 percent.) Most area private school tuition is at least twice that amount.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Cleveland voucher program in 2002, arguing that because the program included religious and non-religious schools it was "religion neutral." But Martinez's ruling found that Colorado's "Blaine amendment" goes farther than the U.S. Consitution's establishment clause to ensure that no public money goes toward sectarian causes, and that the voucher program was in violation of it.

Republican-led state legislatures around the country have recently introduced a slew of bills to create voucher programs. State lawmakers have launched at least 30 such bills this year, compared to just nine in 2010, the Associated Press reported. While education is one of the few issues that can still attract occasional bipartisan consensus, vouchers have remained divisive. Republicans champion them as a way to increase parent choice while Democrats argue they are ineffective and siphon money away from struggling public schools. Democrats in the Senate killed a Republican move to extend funding for a popular low-income voucher program in Washington, D.C. two years ago.