WASHINGTON (ABP) — A Colorado judge has halted the nation's newest school-voucher program before it even gets started.
Denver District Judge Joseph Meyer ruled Dec. 3 that a new program designed to provide tax-funded scholarships to low-income Colorado students to attend private schools — including religious schools — violates the state constitution.
Meyer halted implementation of the program, scheduled to begin with the 2004-05 school year, pending further review of the case. Attorneys for the state promised to appeal the decision to the Colorado Supreme Court.
The program ordered the 11 Colorado school districts containing eight or more schools deemed low-performing under state guidelines to participate in the program. Meyer said that violated a section of the state constitution mandating local control of school districts.
While the goals of the voucher program are “laudable,” Meyer wrote in a 15-page opinion, “even great ideas must be implemented within the framework of the Colorado Constitution.”
“By stripping all discretion from the local district over the instruction to be provided in the voucher program,” Meyer wrote, the state legislature violated the constitution.
A coalition of Colorado public-school parents and religious and civil-rights groups sued the state earlier this year, saying the program is unconstitutional on several grounds. While the plaintiffs alleged the program also violated, among other things, the Colorado Constitution's protections for religious freedom, Meyer said the program's violations of local-control principles were enough to render it illegal.
While the United States Supreme Court ruled last year that an Ohio voucher program that includes religious schools does not violate the First Amendment's ban on government support for religion, voucher advocates still face several obstacles on the state level.
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments Dec. 2 in Locke vs. Davey, a case that may require states to fund religious schools in voucher programs if they also fund secular schools.
Colorado Gov. Bill Owens (R), who supports the program, promised to appeal. “Securing school choice for the children of Colorado was a long legislative struggle and there was always the likelihood the struggle would extend to the courts as well,” he said. “Children from low-income families should not be facing a dead end if they are in a school that is below par. They deserve a choice and that is why we will appeal the court's decision.”