DENVER - After three years of legal wrangling over the Douglas County School District's Choice Scholarship Program, the fight finally goes before the Colorado Supreme Court.
"Public school funds are intended to pay for public education," Michael McCarthy, attorney for Taxpayers for Public Education, said.
Taxpayers for Public Education and the American Civil Liberties Union led the way for a group of plaintiffs who sued Douglas County over the Choice Scholarship Program launched in 2011.
Douglas County created this program which gives parents part of the per-pupil funding received from the state, about $4,600, to enroll their kids in private schools. It is a school-voucher program modeled after others around the country. Most of the private schools approved to receive this money are Christian schools.
"Parents are free to choose religious education for their children, but under the plain language of the Colorado constitution, public taxpayer money cannot fund that choice," Matt Douglas, plaintiff's attorney, said.
The money was delivered to parents through the creation of a charter school that did not really exist. It was a mechanism created by the school district to keep track of the students receiving the money through the Choice Scholarship Program.
McCarthy says this is a violation of the public school finance act.
"This charter school has no classrooms. It has no principal. It has no text books," McCarthy said. "It is a mirage. It is little more than a false front from an old Western movie."
Initially, the ACLU and Taxpayers for Public Education won in Denver District Court. But, that decision was overturned in February 2013 when the Colorado Court of Appeals determined that the plaintiffs failed to show the unconstitutionality of the program.
"Who decides where this state money goes? Is the state making the decision in the form of the school board?" James Lyons, attorney for the Douglas County School District, said. "Or, is it parents who are making the choice?"
Lyons says because parents make the choice, it breaks the link between the state and religious institutions who may be receiving public money.
"They are not taking money that isn't there's anyways," Lyons said.
Michael Bindas is an attorney for the Institute for Justice, which supports the school district. Bindas says current law supports the school district's voucher program.
"That government cannot exclude religion from educational aid programs that are otherwise neutral and generally available," Bindas said.
He pointed out the public money already goes to religious educational institutions in the form college grants and the College Opportunity Fund which gives students money to attend schools in Colorado.
After the hearing, the Supreme Court will likely take weeks and months before issuing a final ruling. If the Court of Appeals decision is upheld, that means Douglas County can restart its Choice Scholarship Program and other districts may also begin similar school voucher programs.
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