A Frank Description of What Really Happened with Douglas County, Colorado’s School Voucher Program

Hundreds of children in Douglas County, Colorado, lost something precious: the opportunity to attend a school where they could learn to their fullest potential.

Their school district’s voucher program—one that once represented the best hope for truly local, community control of education—has been terminated. This is the first voucher program terminated by the government entity that created the program. The hopes and dreams of children who wanted nothing more than a chance to succeed were dashed by powerful national political groups that supported school board candidates who prioritized the system over children who need a different school to be able to thrive.


What Happened in Douglas County, Colorado

On March 15, 2011, Colorado’s Douglas County School Board voted to establish the Choice Scholarship Program, otherwise known as a voucher utilized through a district charter school. The vote was unanimous. Children residing within the school district would have an opportunity to use a voucher, or scholarship, to attend a private school of the parent’s choice, using 75 percent of funding that had been approved for the child’s education in Douglas County’s public schools.

As one district leader stated,

“My goal is that every single child who lives in Douglas County receives an educational experience that provides the maximum opportunity for success, or sometimes we say, ‘Unleash the genius of every child.’ We know that you don’t do that using a one-size-fits-all system, so opening the door to other options, or other opportunities, that we don’t have in the district by providing this 75 percent PPR to a parent allows a child to reach his or her potential.”

Although 271 parents applied for vouchers to be used at more than 30 private schools approved for the program, the Choice Scholarship program was enjoined by the District Court of Denver County on August 12, 2011 in a lawsuit filed against the program by the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, several Colorado organizations and some taxpayers. Ongoing litigation has made it impossible for children to utilize the program.

On December 4, 2017, Colorado’s Douglas County School Board voted to terminate its voucher program. The vote was again unanimous (6-0, with one member who had been a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the voucher program abstaining).

In six years, this school board went from creating a voucher to help children who needed a learning environment outside of their public schools to a board openly hostile to providing opportunities to children to attend any school other than their schools. The board’s views may be best summarized by this statement of then-candidate Anthony Graziano: “I oppose private school vouchers in any form.”

The 2011 school board prioritized vouchers to help children access different learning opportunities. The 2017 school board used vouchers as a political tool to be elected, then declared that there are enough choices in their district. It’s true that the district has many public school options. It is also true that the decision of whether any of those school choices are a good fit for a child belongs to the child’s family, not the district.


The Road from Educational Innovation to Political Battleground

In a University of Colorado/Colorado Springs study of parents who chose to apply for a voucher in 2011, it became clear that this affluent, suburban district known for excellence also had its share of problems.

The study noted that while both applicant and non-applicant parents were similar in almost every way, there was one significant area of difference. Non-applicant parents were generally satisfied with their schools, but applicant parents “reported serious or very serious problems in their school (fighting, drugs/alcohol, etc.) and also were more likely to give their school a C- or below on a traditional A to F grading scale.”

The school board fast-tracked numerous education reforms in the district, but not all were met with enthusiasm by teachers and staff. This, coupled with their reluctance to raise taxes through bonding to pay for upgrades in the district, created what appeared to be unrelenting strife in the district.

During this time, the lawsuit against the district’s voucher program was also contentious, attracting the attention of education activists across the country.

First, the district court enjoined the program and ruled it unconstitutional, then the appellate court overruled the lower court and proclaimed vouchers constitutional. At the state Supreme Court level, in a confusing 3-3-1 vote, vouchers were again ruled unconstitutional. Upon appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the High Court, on June 27, 2017, vacated the decision of Colorado’s Supreme Court, with direction to reconsider the case in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 26, 2017 decision in Trinity Lutheran v Comer, 582 US__ (2017). Trinity Lutheran established that religious entities may not be excluded from generally available public benefit programs.

Legal observers believe that applying the Trinity Lutheran ruling to the Colorado voucher program will open the door for the Colorado Supreme Court to declare vouchers constitutional. However, the Douglas County school board, after terminating the voucher program, also instructed staff to take action to terminate litigation. It is too soon to speculate whether the Colorado Supreme Court will dismiss the case or continue it. Check back to the EdChoice blog for updates.


What’s Next for Colorado

There will likely be a flurry of legal motions. Opponents are likely to try to kill any chance for other school districts in Colorado to adopt their own voucher programs, while educational choice supporters are likely to attempt to attain a favorable ruling in the Colorado Supreme Court or at least preserve the favorable appellate court ruling.


What Will Happen to the Children?

It was alarming to hear new school board members speak about their district’s voucher program in ways that made it clear they knew little about it.

For example, board member Anne-Marie Lemieux suggested that private schools participating in the voucher program could be any private entity, including somebody operating out of their basement, with no accountability or oversight.

This is far from the truth. In fact, the information about the district’s partnership with and oversight of participating private schools could be found on their own website hiding in plain sight, apparently.

(“. . . the district will closely monitor each student’s progress—through DCSD administered assessments and close communication with private partner schools.” “Each school had to submit to a rigorous analysis of its academic programs and financial records.”)

In the novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, author and Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee beautifully, if painfully, expressed how it is possible for each of us to flip from the oppressed to the oppressor. When oppressed individuals who had previously been in control lamented their new reality, they concluded, with hope, “They won’t harm the children.”

As the Douglas County school board begins to govern, it is time for them to drop the brutish victor mentality displayed at the December 4 board meeting and instead embrace their role as servants of the public who realize every child counts, even the children of those who will continue to seek private school choice as an available option.


UPDATE – January 26, 2018

The slate has been wiped clean for school district vouchers in Colorado. After almost seven years of bruising political and legal battles, all the court rulings regarding the constitutionality of Douglas County’s former voucher program have been vacated (as if they never happened). This means that any Colorado school district that chooses to adopt their own voucher program could do so with a relatively clean slate, from a legal perspective.

The U.S. Supreme Court vacated the Colorado Supreme Court’s 3-3-1 ruling against vouchers in June of 2017, then the Colorado Supreme Court vacated the Colorado Court of Appeals ruling in favor of vouchers and the Colorado District Court’s ruling against vouchers when it granted a motion of Douglas County’s newly-elected anti-voucher school board (who had rescinded the voucher program last month) and dismissed the case entirely on January 25, 2018.

In 2011, the superintendent and school board of Douglas County, Colorado, had a dream to ensure that every child living within their district would never be stuck in a school that was a bad fit for that child, or that blocked the child’s ability to be happy and succeed to the child’s full potential, regardless the reason. They were unwilling to let any child “fall through the cracks” – that unhappy euphemism describing what happens to kids when adults in the education system see students as cash cows funding their retirement packages, or when adults are not responsible enough – or are too weak, too busy, afraid, or indifferent –  to take action to save those children from a life with too few educational and personal skills to live happy, successful lives as adults. Some will say this is harsh criticism, that not every child can be saved from “falling through the cracks” – but the 2011 Douglas County school board and superintendent were at least willing to try, willing to fight hard for the right of each child within their area of responsibility to have a real chance to succeed. They may not have been perfect people or a perfect board, but they tried.

Perhaps there is another school board, another school district in Colorado that will be willing to try. If that happens, may all the parents and grandparents in Colorado rise up to help them.