October 23, 2014

Colorado Court of Appeals: No Violation of Laws or Constitution When District Offers Scholarships to Students of Private Schools

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Taxpayers for Public Education v. Douglas County School District on Thursday, February 28, 2013.

Choice Scholarship Program—Standing—Public School Finance Act of 1994—Colorado Constitution.

In 2011, the Douglas County Board of Education (County Board) adopted the Choice Scholarship Program (CSP). Pursuant to the CSP, parents of eligible elementary school, middle school, and high school students residing in the Douglas County School District (District) may choose to have their children attend certain private schools, including some with religious affiliation. The District would pay parents of participating students “scholarships” covering some of the cost of tuition at those schools, and the parents would then remit the scholarship money to the schools.

Plaintiffs are nonprofit organizations, Douglas County taxpayers, District students, and parents of District students. They filed suit to enjoin implementation of the CSP, claiming that it violates the Public School Finance Act of 1994, CRS §§ 22-54-101 to -135 (Act), and various provisions of the Colorado Constitution.

Plaintiffs claimed that the CSP violated the Act because the District will impermissibly use state money distributed by the Colorado Department of Education to pay for private school tuition at private schools. The Court of Appeals did not reach the merit on this claim, however, because it found that plaintiffs did not have standing to bring a private cause of action seeking enforcement of the Act.

Plaintiffs further contended that the court erred in rejecting their claim alleging a violation of article IX, § 2, of the Colorado Constitution, which requires the General Assembly to “provide for the establishment and maintenance of a thorough and uniform system of free public schools throughout the state.” Article IX, § 2 plainly is not violated where a local school district decides to provide educational opportunities in addition to the free system the Constitution requires. It also is not violated merely because some students’ parents may choose to have their children forego the available opportunity to attend a school within the system the Constitution requires. Therefore, plaintiffs failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the CSP violates the Colorado Constitution.

Plaintiffs also contended that the court erred in rejecting their claim alleging a violation of article IX, § 3, of the Colorado Constitution because the public school fund is used for private schools. There was no record support for this argument. Therefore, the Court assumed that the CSP was funded out of the 95% of total per-pupil revenue that does not come from the public school fund.

Plaintiffs further argued that the CSP violated article IX, § 15, of the Colorado Constitution, and that the district court erred in ruling to the contrary. However, article IX, § 15, does not apply to the CSP because the directors of the boards of education of local school districts have control of instruction in the public schools of their respective districts.

Plaintiffs also argued that the CSP violated article II, § 4; article V, § 34; and article IX, §§ 7 and 8, of the Colorado Constitution. The CSP is neutral toward religion generally and toward religion-affiliated schools specifically. The CSP is intended to benefit students and their parents, and any benefit to the participating schools is incidental. Further, the CSP does not compel anyone to do anything, much less attend religious services. To the extent students would attend a particular private school or religious services at that school, they would do so as a result of parents’ voluntary choices. Therefore, the CSP does not violate the Colorado Constitution.

Finally, plaintiffs argued that the CSP violated article V, § 34, of the Colorado Constitution by providing funds to private schools and religious organizations. The General Assembly appropriates state money for elementary and secondary education to the Colorado Department of Education, which in turn distributes it to local school districts in the form of total per pupil revenue. At that point, ownership of the funds passes to the local school districts. The District’s expenditure of funds under the CSP, therefore, does not constitute an appropriation by the General Assembly. As a result, the CSP does not violate article V, § 34.

Summary and full case available here.

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