At a special meeting Dec. 4, more than a dozen parents, teachers and former educators took the stand and pleaded for the Douglas County Board of Education to end the controversial school voucher program that has garnered national attention in recent years.
"I hope that after tonight the district won't spend any more time or money on private school vouchers," parent Kathy Boyer said. "Please put an end to the Choice Scholarship Program once and for all."
The school board listened. Six members - one member abstained - voted unanimously to rescind the Choice Scholarship Program, a decision that marks an end to a six-year battle between reform-minded board members and many community members.
"It has always been my belief that public school funding is for public education," school board President David Ray said. "I respect every parent's right to choose a public or private education for their child. However, as a public school system, our taxpayers should expect us to spend solely on educating our 68,000-plus students who have chosen Douglas County schools."
The stalled voucher program was a pivotal talking point in weeks leading up to the Nov. 7 school board election, when voters elected four anti-reform candidates, Krista Holtzmann, Kevin Leung, Anthony Graziano and Christina Ciancio-Schor, who outwardly opposed the voucher program throughout their campaigns. They filled the seats of four reform-minded members, signaling a change in a longstanding majority board that espoused policies that, to many people, caused an exodus of teachers in recent years.
"It's my personal belief - and I ran my campaign to being a Douglas County board director with this being an important part of my platform - that public dollars should not be used to fund our private schools," Graziano said at the Dec. 4 meeting. "I also know that the community has not supported vouchers based on the most recent district survey. So it's with this, really simply, that I support rescinding the Choice Scholarship Program going forward."
The board, composed of seven reform-minded members at the time, first voted to approve the program in 2011. Designed to accommodate 500 students, it allowed students' parents to use state-provided, per-pupil money toward tuition at private schools, including religiously affiliated institutions.
Taxpayers for Public Education - a Colorado-based, nonprofit organization that advocates for a strong public education system, according to its website - subsequently filed a lawsuit against the district to stop the voucher program. Board member Kevin Leung did not vote on the resolution at the Dec. 4 meeting because he is listed as a plaintiff in the case.
A Denver judge halted the program that same year, but in 2013, a state appeals court reversed that decision. The state's top court in June 2015 issued a ruling saying using public funds for religious schooling was illegal.
The district filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court in September 2015. In June of this year, the school voucher program got another look from the Colorado Supreme Court following a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on a similar case in Missouri. In the case Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, a Missouri church sued after being denied state funding for a preschool playground because the Missouri state Constitution forbids financially supporting a religious institution. On June 26, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that Missouri's original decision violated the U.S. Constitution's protection of the free exercise of religion by excluding churches from state programs with a secular intent.
As a result of the ruling in Missouri, the court sent back to the Colorado Supreme Court the case known as Taxpayers for Public Education v. Douglas County School District, which has since been tied up in court.
At the Dec. 4 special meeting, the board approved a resolution to rescind the Choice Scholarship Program, repeal all district policies specifically related to the Choice Scholarship Program and the School Choice Grant Program and direct the board president and/or interim superintendent to end the litigation challenging the program in a "cost-efficient and timely manner." The district has spent $1.77 million dollars litigating the case, board member Anne-Marie Lemieux said at the meeting.
Wendy Vogel, vice president of the school board, said she wanted to make it clear that the school voucher discussion wasn't about taking away anyone's choice.
"It's a discussion simply about who is going to pay for private school choice," she said. "And my concern with vouchers - as we heard from some of the public commenters tonight - has always been accountability to the taxpayer for their investment in education."
Following public comment, the crowded boardroom erupted in applause.
"I would like to commend all of you for not only listening to the community," parent Laura Welch said, "but for moving so swiftly to end these divisive programs."