DENVER A coalition of education and religious groups yesterday challenged the legality of the first school voucher program enacted since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling upheld one such program as constitutional.
The suit alleged the Colorado program will illegally remove local control from school boards and compel taxpayers to support religious schools.
It also argued the program will siphon significant funds from public schools and will undermine a constitutional requirement that the state provide a free and uniform public school system.
The suit was filed in Denver District Court against Gov. Bill Owens by the Colorado PTA and other supporters.
“We see this as a diversion of funding, focus and attention from educating all the children,” said Deborah Fallin of the Colorado Education Association, whose staff lawyers are leading the legal effort.
The governor stood behind the law. “We are confident that it will withstand this expected legal challenge,” Owens’ spokesman Dan Hopkins said.
The Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice, which has successfully defended four voucher programs nationwide, pledged to help defend the law.
The law, signed in April, will offer publicly financed vouchers to low-income children in kindergarten through 12th grade to help offset private-school tuition. Eleven school districts with eight or more schools that received low or unsatisfactory academic performance ratings must participate; other districts can choose to participate. It will take effect early next year.
Among the other plaintiffs are former Sens. Pat Pascoe, D-Denver, and Dottie Wham, R-Denver, and the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado. Groups providing legal aid include the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the American Federation of Teachers.
Rep. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, the prime sponsor the bill, said the lawsuit was an effort by the association to protect teachers’ jobs at the expense of children in failing schools.
“My motivation for carrying this bill had to do with offering an opportunity for low-income families to get a decent education for their children,” she said. “To have the union deny the opportunity for parents to see the dreams that they have for their children come true, I think that is disgraceful.”
Fallin said teachers will have jobs with or without the law.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris narrowly rejected a challenge to a voucher program in Cleveland, saying the program is acceptable because it offers parents a wide choice of private schools. The challenge to Cleveland’s program was based on a claimed violation of the First Amendment prohibition against the government favoring one religion over others.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said the program was neutral on religious grounds because parents make independent choices about where to spend the money they receive from the public school system.
That decision might not apply to the Colorado program because the coalition lawsuit does not claim a First Amendment violation, said Joe Conn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Instead it alleges violations of several provisions of the state Constitution.
The plaintiffs allege that private schools eligible to participate in the program are religious, and many are located in churches or other places of worship, the lawsuit said.
If all the student slots are filled when the program is fully implemented in the 2007-08 school year, it would strip the 11 school districts that are required to participate of $90 million per school year.
Required to participate are the Adams 12 and 14; Westminster; Aurora; Colorado Springs; Denver; Greeley; Harrison; Jefferson County; Pueblo 60; and St. Vrain school districts.