CASTLE ROCK, Colo. – A new anti-voucher majority on a suburban Denver school district board voted Monday night to eliminate a program enacted by an earlier conservative-dominated board to help public school students attend secular and religious schools with taxpayer-funded vouchers.
The Douglas County school board voted on a resolution to end the voucher program and years of litigation that reached the U.S. Supreme Court and reflected the national debate over publicly-funded school choice.
One of the seven board members abstained from voting because he is a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the voucher program. All others voted to end it.
The vote came after a few dozen people spoke in favor of ending the program Castle Rock, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Denver. About 80 people in the room applauded the outcome after the vote.
Stephanie Van Zante, a parent of two graduates of schools in the county, criticized conservative political interests she said were behind the voucher program.
"This is what you were elected to do — serve the taxpayers in a public school district," Van Zante told the board. "Ending this policy shows that this board has returned its focus to local educational practices and not national politics."
Advocates and opponents of taxpayer-funded vouchers closely followed the case, which involved a 2011 attempt by its then conservative board in the wealthy district to let students attend schools of their choice using taxpayer-funded vouchers.
The program has since been tied up in litigation initiated against it by a parents' group called Taxpayers for Public Education. The Nov. 7 election of an anti-voucher slate of candidates, supported by a $300,000 campaign contribution from the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's second-largest teachers' union, turned the tables on the program's prospects.
Douglas County has been a national example in the school voucher movement because it is the only school district in the nation where vouchers were implemented by a local school board, as opposed to a state legislature, said Leslie Hiner of the EdChoice Legal Defense and Education Center, which advocates for greater school choice.
"To see the Douglas County school board eliminate this chance for students in the district will strike a sour chord for parents across the country," Hiner said before the vote.
Colorado's Constitution gives local school boards enough authority to implement similar programs, and Hiner said she was especially disappointed the new Douglas County board majority also planned to halt litigation that could have established clear rules on how other programs could treat religious schools.
"This question the U.S. Supreme Court has asked the Colorado Supreme Court to answer should be answered because it applies to more than Douglas County," Hiner said, adding there are 64 other school choice programs in the country.
The voucher program was created by a 4-3 conservative board majority that advocated school choice. Vouchers under the program weren't limited to low-income residents, as they have been in some states where the programs have been approved. Douglas County, a rapidly growing Denver suburb at the base of the Rocky Mountain foothills, is one of the nation's wealthiest with a median household income of $107,650, according to the 2015 American Community Survey.
The Nov. 2 election changed Douglas County's school board makeup to a 7-0 majority opposing vouchers. Vouchers weren't the only issue at play in the election: Stagnant teacher pay and high turnover compared to neighboring districts, plus millions of dollars in needed school repairs, helped drive the change.
Colorado's Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that the Douglas County program was unconstitutional, citing a provision in the state Constitution that prohibits public money from going to religious institutions. But in June, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the Colorado court to reconsider.
That order came a day after the high court ruled that a similar provision in the Missouri Constitution violated the First Amendment rights of churches when public money is meant for non-religious purposes.
The justices found that churches could not be excluded from a Missouri state grant program for playground surfaces that was open to other charitable organizations, and used their legal reasoning from that case to order Colorado's top court to reconsider its decision on the Douglas County voucher program.
More than 30 states have constitutional provisions similar to Colorado and Missouri's, though some of those states already permit churches to participate in grant programs for nonreligious purposes.
Colorado groups that backed the losing slate of Douglas County pro-voucher candidates had urged the new board to maintain the program so it can be tried out to determine its impact.
"Ending this program before it even has a chance to succeed and provide real change in our communities would be extremely shortsighted," said Jesse Mallory, head of Americans for Prosperity-Colorado.
Kallie Leyba, president of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers union, insisted that "public funds should be used to fund public schools."
District administrators already are struggling to pay for school repairs and other needs, Leyba said.
"Taking more money out of the classroom to send to private schools is not what is best for students."
Associated Press writer Nicholas Riccardi contributed to this report.