Do public school districts have the right to give students taxpayer-funded scholarships which they can then use at religious schools? Or is that just government endorsement of religion?
Those questions have been debated in Colorado ever since the Douglas County School District began its Choice Scholarship Pilot Program (CSP) four years ago. The way it worked, if you wanted the scholarship money, you had to apply for the grant and get admission into a “Private School Partner,” schools that selectively-admitted kids based on their religious beliefs.
In order to work around that whole “religion” thing, award recipients who wanted to go to Some Generic Christian School were also enrolled in the Choice Scholarship Charter School… which doesn’t exist in any meaningful way except on paper.
Why bother saying these kids were at a ghost school?
Because it allowed District officials to say these kids were ostensibly enrolled in a public school, giving them more money from the State ($6,100 each). A chunk of that money ($4,600) was passed along to parents to cover their costs at a private school. And, wouldn’t you know it, just about every high school student taking advantage of this plan went to a religious school.
All sorts of shadiness.
Several taxpayers and other groups sued the District, the School Board, the State Board of Education, and the Colorado Dept. of Education calling all of this illegal. A judge ruled in their favor, but an Appeals Court reversed the ruling saying 1) The Plaintiffs didn’t have proper standing and 2) the program did not violate the State Constitution.
Which brings us to what happened yesterday. The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that 1) Yes, the Plaintiffs did not have proper standing (on a 6-1 vote), but 2) The program does indeed violate the State Constitution (on a 4-3 vote). And, really, the latter one is all that matters:
… aiding religious schools is exactly what the CSP does. The CSP essentially functions as a recruitment program, teaming with various religious schools (i.e., the Private School Partners) and encouraging students to attend those schools via the inducement of scholarships… Given that private religious schools rely on students’ attendance (and their corresponding tuition payments) for their ongoing survival, the CSP’s facilitation of such attendance necessarily constitutes aid to “support or sustain” those schools. Section 7 [of the State Constitution] precludes school districts from providing such aid.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the ACLU, and the ACLU of Colorado all welcomed the decision:
“It is unconstitutional to bankroll religious schools with public funds,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “But that is precisely what would have happened in Douglas County had the Colorado Supreme Court ruled otherwise.”
“Parents are free to send their children to private religious schools if they wish, but the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed today that taxpayers should not be forced to pay for it,” said ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein.
Counsel for Petitioners, Matt Douglas, said that: “The court made clear that this type of program violates the plain language of the Colorado Constitution, and rejected the argument that temporarily passing the money through the hands of parents could avoid this specific prohibition.”
The same District, by the way, already owes the federal government $4.2 million for overstating the number of full-time students in their schools.
That’s on top of the $1.2 million the District has spent on this particular case, money they obtained through private donations.
It’s appalling that the community elected such irresponsible people to oversee the District’s operations when a decent attorney could have alerted them to these problems well in advance. But the District said it will try to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
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