Colorado ‘Choice’ Challenge

Douglas County Voucher Subsidies For Religious Schools Violate Constitution, Says AU

Jamie LaRue has been interested in education issues for a long time. When his children were young, he and his wife home-schooled them on and off, and he helped found one of Colorado’s first charter schools.

But LaRue also believes passionately in the public school system and the idea that all children deserve access to a high-quality education. So when he heard that the school board in his home of Douglas County, Colo., had adopted a controversial school voucher plan, LaRue quickly joined the opposition.

“We certainly aren’t opposed to ‘choice,’” LaRue said. “But we think it’s in our common interest to work to strengthen our public education system, not dismantle it.”

LaRue believes what’s happening in Douglas County is dangerous.

“I think what drives this is ideology,” he continued. “Instead of being a citizen, you are a consumer. Instead of being a part of a plan to provide a public school system for everyone, you take the money and do what you want with it.”

LaRue, who directs the public library system in Douglas County, says that view is misguided. Government, he says, pools taxpayers’ money to provide things like roads, bridges and civic improvement projects that benefit everyone. It should do the same with education.

“People have to stand up and say, ‘I have to protect my investment in my community’s intellectual infrastructure,’” LaRue remarked.

On June 21, LaRue joined other county residents as a plaintiff in an Americans United-backed lawsuit to block vouchers in Douglas County. The lawsuit, which Americans United is sponsoring jointly with the Colorado ACLU and the American Civil Liberties Union, targets a “Choice Scholarship Program” unanimously approved by the Douglas County Board of Education in June.

Set to begin operating this fall, the voucher program will siphon millions in taxpayer funds away from the county’s public schools and divert them to an array of private, mostly religious, institutions. Five hundred students will take part in the program at its inception with vouchers pegged at up to $4,575 per student.

Douglas County seems an odd place for a private school voucher experiment. The affluent and fast-growing area of about 300,000 residents lies about halfway between Denver and Colorado Springs and is known for its highly regarded public school system. The system serves about 60,000 students, and parents report a high degree of satisfaction.

Aside from his support for public schools, LaRue said he was motivated to join the suit because he believes strongly in the separation of church and state. He described the voucher plan as a bad deal for all concerned: It forces taxpayers to support religion against their will, and it will lead to government control of private education.

“Under the separation of church and state, this is not good for either party,” LaRue told Church & State. “It’s poor public policy to say we’re going to give public money to a school that teaches that the earth is only 6,000 years old. That’s not in the public interest. On the other hand, if the school takes that money, the state can start dictating private religious practices. That’s not good either.” (LaRue is also concerned about Religious Right attacks on public libraries. In 2007, he authored The New Inquisition: Understanding and Managing Intellectual Freedom Challenges.)

The LaRue v. Colorado Board of Education lawsuit argues that the voucher plan violates the Colorado Constitution’s religious liberty provisions, which bar the appropriation of public funds to religious schools. The litigation, filed on behalf of a group of parents, clergy and other taxpayers, also says the program violates Colorado constitutional provisions and statutes that require educational funds to pay for public education and remain under government control.

Legal documents in the case note that the concept of true parental choice is an illusion. In fact, most of the students in the program will end up in religious schools. At the time the lawsuit was filed, 14 of the 19 “Private School Partners” taking part in the program were religious. Only three of the five non-religious schools in the program are open to all students, and they do not offer education beyond the eighth grade.

In an effort to help the plan survive a court challenge, Douglas County officials have constructed an elaborate ruse. The students taking part in the program, they say, are really enrolling in a charter school. From there, they will be farmed out to participating private schools.

The only problem is, the “Choice Scholarship School” doesn’t actually exist. It has no building, no teachers and no textbooks. In court filings, Americans United calls it “a phantom charter school.”

Local officials admit the plan is unusual.

“We acknowledge that this is not an ordinary charter school,” Randy Barber, a district spokesman, told the Denver Post. “But, obviously, from our perspective, this gives us an avenue to implement [the voucher plan].”

County education officials also insist that no student will be forced to take part in worship at a private school. Again, Americans United asserts that this is a ruse. Such a provision would be unenforceable, AU says, because most of the schools integrate religion throughout the curriculum.

In court papers, Americans United cited the following examples:

•?The Rock Academy says it uses the “Principle Approach,” which it describes as a Bible-based method of education that “places the Truths (or principles) of God’s Word at the heart of education.” At the Rock, “[e]ach subject is predicated upon God’s Biblical principles.”

•?Front Range Christian School states that “our standard of truth is in Scripture, which we believe to be the inspired and infallible Word of God. If teaching materials or information are in conflict with that standard, the Bible will always take precedence.”

•?Valor Christian High School’s application states that the “Bible is the foundation for all our programs. We will not compromise our Christian values as found in the Bible and reflected in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.”

•?Southeast Christian School calls itself “unashamedly creationist” and states that it seeks “to provide a place where the values of the Bible are given authority.”

•?Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran School materials state that its students will “hear about Jesus Christ, their Savior, in personal ways throughout the school day and throughout the curriculum – EVERY DAY.”

AU notes that several of the schools limit admission to students who agree with the schools’ religious perspectives. The Evangelical Christian Academy requires each parent and secondary student to sign a declaration of faith including “a written born-again believer’s testimony.” Front Range Christian School requires that “at least one parent or guardian of a prospective student [must] profess a personal relationship with Christ.”

Several schools openly engage in other forms of discrimination. Denver Christian Schools has a policy on AIDS that permits a team appointed by the school superintendent to deny admission to or expel HIV-positive students. Front Range Christian School and Evangelical Christian Academy both say gay teachers can be fired at will.

Southeast Christian School goes one step further, requiring prospective teachers to sign a “Personal Sexual Purity Statement,” which asserts that marriage is an act between one man and one woman, and condemns homosexuality.

Taxpayer support for schools such as these, AU argues, runs afoul of the Colorado Constitution.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn blasted the voucher scheme in a media statement.

“Vouchers are nothing more than a backdoor way of forcing taxpayers to support religious schools,” Lynn said. “Douglas County’s reckless plan threatens church-state separation and public education and should be struck down.”

In addition to the AU lawsuit, a local group called Taxpayers for Public Education is also suing over the program. Since both lawsuits raise similar issues, they have been consolidated.

The lawsuit is pending before the District Court for the City and County of Denver. In addition to the school district, the Colorado Board of Education and the Colorado Department of Education, which assisted the district in developing the program, are named as defendants.

Americans United’s involvement in the case is being spearheaded by Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and Litigation Counsel Gregory Lipper.

“The voucher program will take millions of taxpayer dollars – intended to educate public school students – and spend it on private schools, including schools that teach creationism and exclude students with different religious beliefs,” Lipper said. “The Colorado Constitution doesn’t let the government raid the public schools to fund religion, and we believe that the Colorado courts will agree.”