DENVER — The Colorado Court of Appeals has overturned a lower court ruling blocking one of Colorado's first school voucher programs, saying Douglas County's Choice Scholarship Program does not violate the state Constitution.
The Douglas County program offered up to 500 students $4,575 in state funds for tuition at private schools, including religious schools.
Taxpayers for Public Education and other groups filed suit, saying the program violated the constitutional separation of church and state.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union, both parties to the lawsuit, said the ruling handed down Thursday will be appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court.
"This misguided decision fails to enforce the Colorado Constitution's strict prohibitions against public funding of religious education. It's clear that this voucher plan will funnel taxpayer money primarily into the coffers of religious schools," said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United.
National voucher advocates said the outcome of Colorado's lawsuit could have wide-ranging implications for other states considering vouchers, including Montana.
Michael Bindas, attorney for the Institute for Justice which focuses on civil liberties, said some states already offer vouchers or other school choice programs, including Wisconsin, Ohio, Arizona and New Hampshire. Vouchers in Florida were struck down based on state constitutional issues, and it will be up to each state to decide the issue, he said.
Board of Education President John Carson said each student learns differently and the Douglas County School District is trying to provide parents with the opportunity to choose the best possible educational environment for their child. Students and parents need more education options because of a rapidly changing global economy, he said.
In its ruling, the Colorado Appeals Court said the people who filed the lawsuit failed to prove they suffered any injury from the program and that the actions violated state statutes. The court said the program did not conflict with state education laws.
"The requirement that the General Assembly create a thorough and uniform system of free public education does not preclude a local school district from providing educational opportunities in addition to and different from the thorough and uniform system," the appeals court ruled.
Dissenting from the 2-1 decision, Colorado Court of Appeals Judge Steve Bernard wrote, "In my view, (the Colorado Constitution) prohibits public school districts from channeling public money to private religious schools. I think that the Choice Scholarship Program is a pipeline that violates this direct and clear constitutional command."
Denver District Judge Michael Martinez had earlier sided with a group of parents and the ACLU of Colorado. They argued the voucher program in Douglas County violated the separation of church and state because it gives scholarship checks that parents can use at religious schools.
The judge noted that some religious schools authorized for Douglas vouchers require students to attend religious services. Martinez said the voucher program violated both financial and religious provisions in the Colorado constitution.
More than 200 students got voucher money from the county before it was put on hold.
Pam Benigno, who served on the State Board of Education's implementation advisory committee for Colorado's school voucher program, called it a victory for education.
"This decision vindicates the courage of the Douglas County school board and their constitutional authority to act on behalf of all students and families in their community," said Benigno.
In 2011, the Douglas County Board of Education unanimously approved the groundbreaking pilot choice program. As enacted, the program was set up to provide 500 students public scholarship funds to attend one of more than 20 private partner schools.