Updated Aug. 25, 2012
Vouchers in Colorado: Supporters show persistence in repeated efforts
Efforts to launch vouchers in Colorado have failed four times in the past 20 years – rejected twice by voters and halted twice by judges.
The most recent initiative, the Choice Scholarship Program in affluent Douglas County, the state’s third largest school district, demonstrates the resilience of voucher supporters who have adjusted their efforts in response to each loss.
A Denver judge issued a permanent injunction stopping the latest program on Aug. 12, 2011, days before many of the 500 participating Douglas County students were to begin attending their private schools with the help of public funding.
District and state officials are appealing the ruling and the case is likely to end up before the Colorado Supreme Court, as did a 2003 voucher program approved by state lawmakers. The state’s highest court rejected the earlier plan, siding with a Denver judge’s ruling that lawmakers didn’t have the authority to impose vouchers on districts.
In both 2003 and 2011, legal challenges mounted by civil-liberties groups and families have stymied the voucher initiatives.
In 1992 and 1998, Colorado voters rejected by wide margins both a tax credit for private school tuition and a more traditional voucher plan.
Courts reject vouchers for different reasons
Some key differences between the 2003 state law and the 2011 district plan:
- The 2003 law would have required 11 districts with the most low-performing schools, as defined by the state accountability system, to offer vouchers to children from low-income families.
- A Denver judge found the law violated the “local control” clause of the state constitution, which vests control of instruction to locally elected school boards, and the Colorado Supreme Court agreed. Though religious private schools applied to participate, the courts did not address any aspect of religion.
- The 2011 effort, created by a single district school board, did not consider income of families or performance of schools. It opened up 500 seats to Dougco students – a lottery was held when applications surpassed that number – to any participating private school. Most were religious.
- A Denver judge found the program violated five provisions of the state constitution, including a prohibition against funding religious institutions, as well as the state School Finance Act.
What the judge in 2011 did not find was a violation of the “local control” provision of the constitution.
Role of religion in voucher legal rulings
Voucher supporters helped write the 2003 law after a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upheld a Cleveland voucher plan for low-income families that included religious schools.
- Read our ongoing coverage of Douglas County’s voucher plan, including links to court documents.
The nation’s highest court said the plan was religion neutral, because both religious and non-religious schools were included and because it was up to parents to decide how to spend their voucher dollars.
The case, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, was widely heralded by voucher supporters because it essentially said the Establishment Clause of the federal constitution – widely viewed as creating a wall of separation between church and state – did not preclude vouchers for religious schools.
Religious schools make up a large portion of private schools and, without them, voucher programs are unlikely to be successful.
But the Colorado Constitution – and those of other states – is more specific in its prohibition of public funding for religious institutions. At least, that’s how Denver District Judge Michael Martinez interpreted the issue in his Aug. 12, 2011 decision.
“This court is not prepared to mandate that Colorado taxpayers fund private religious education,” the judge wrote, noting the voucher plan “violates both financial and religious provisions” of the Colorado Constitution.
Venue for ‘90s voucher efforts was state ballot
Prior to 2003, voucher supporters focused on statewide ballot measures in their efforts to help families use public funding to attend private schools.
In 1992, they backed Amendment 7, which would have created the nation’s first statewide voucher system allowing all parents to choose among public and private schools. Parents educating their children at home also would have been eligible.
Under the plan, each child would have been assigned a voucher worth half the annual cost of education in his or her school district. Parents could have taken the vouchers – averaging $2,100 to $2,500 per child – to any school and the state would have reimbursed the school for each voucher received.
State budget officials estimated vouchers would have cost at least $84 million in state money its first year based on the 44,000 students attending private or home schools that year.
Colorado voters defeated the measure 2-to-1.
In 1998, voters also soundly defeated Amendment 17, which would have allowed parents to claim tax credits of up to $2,500 toward their students’ tuition in the private school of their choice.
At a glance: History of Colorado voucher initiatives
1992 – Voters reject Amendment 7 by a 2-to-1 margin
- How it would have worked – The state would have assigned each student a voucher worth at least half the per-pupil funding in the student’s home district, or an average of $2,100. Parents across Colorado could have taken the voucher to any in-state public, private or home school and the state would reimburse the school.
- How voucher supporters responded – State budget officials estimated the plan would cost $84 million in vouchers for students already in private or home schools. Since then, voucher initiatives have been more narrowly focused, typically starting as smaller pilot programs.
1998 – Voters soundly defeat Amendment 17
- How it would have worked – Parents could have claimed tax credits of up to $2,500 toward their students’ tuition in the private school of their choice.
- How voucher supporters responded – It was the only tuition tax credit effort to date in Colorado. Critics saw the plan as solely for families already wealthy enough to afford private schools without help.
2003 – State lawmakers create pilot plan, judge stops it
- How it would have worked – Eleven school districts with at least eight schools ranked low or unsatisfactory by the state would have had to offer vouchers to private schools for low-income, low-achieving students. School districts say they would have lost about $4,500 per student.
- How voucher supporters responded – A Denver judge said the plan violated the local control over instruction vested by the state constitution in locally elected school boards. The Colorado Supreme Court agreed. So supporters came back in 2011 with a voucher plan created by a school board.
2011 – Douglas County approves voucher pilot, judge halts it
- How it would have worked – Up to 500 Douglas County students would have used 75 percent of the district’s per-pupil funding – or $4,575 – to attend a participating private school approved by the district.
- How voucher supporters responded – A Denver judge in August 2011 found the plan violated five provisions of the Colorado Constitution, including the prohibition against public funding of religious institutions, as well as the state’s School Finance Act. Douglas County leaders have appealed but a decision is not expected until late 2012 at the earliest. Stay tuned.