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Injunction against school vouchers issued by Colo. district court

DENVER (BP)–In the first related decision since the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of school vouchers, a Colorado judge issued an injunction barring implementation of the state’s voucher law on the grounds that it violates the Colorado constitution’s “local control clause.”

“I see no way to interpret the voucher program statute in a way that does not run afoul of the principle of local control,” Denver District Judge Joseph Meyer wrote in his 15-page decision handed down Dec. 3. “The goals of the voucher program are laudable. However, even great ideas must be implemented within the framework of the Colorado Constitution.”

Colorado is one of six states whose constitutions give control of instruction to local school boards. Under the voucher law, 11 Colorado school districts that received low or unsatisfactory academic performance ratings were required to offer vouchers for private schools to low-income families while other districts were allowed to choose whether to participate.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 vote in June 2002 that an education-choice program that permits vouchers to be used at religious schools is constitutional. The issue at the time was a Cleveland, Ohio, school district that the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals said violated the separation of church and state with its voucher program.

But the religion card has not yet been played in the Colorado case. The coalition that sued the state of Colorado wanted a swift injunction, so it opted to argue only two constitutional issues: local control and the ban on “special legislation” aimed at benefiting a small group, according to the Rocky Mountain News Dec. 4.

The original lawsuit included four religious freedom issues, but the Rocky Mountain News noted that those are still pending and will only be addressed if the plaintiffs lose on appeal.

Colorado Gov. Bill Owens said he will appeal the case to the Supreme Court.

“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,” Owens 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.”

Critics of the voucher program said the law would harm many public schools by pulling funding away while requiring the state to pay for private school education. State budget officials estimated that a fully operational voucher program would cost the 11 school districts $90 million per year, according to the Associated Press.

Others objected to the idea of public money going to a private institution over which the local school board has no control.

But supporters said the vouchers were no different than existing programs such as public school choice, charter schools and special education programs which also have required local districts to conform to state policy.

Even if proponents of school vouchers in Colorado win an appeal, the Denver Post pointed out that the voucher plan would not automatically be reinstated. Instead, the lawsuit could continue with arguments that the Colorado constitution prohibits public financial support of religious institutions.

But in the Supreme Court decision, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote in the majority opinion that the Cleveland voucher program is one of “true private choice” and thus constitutional.

Citing three opinions during the past two decades, Rehnquist said the court had made it clear “that where a government aid program is neutral with respect to religion, and provides assistance directly to a broad class of citizens who, in turn, direct government aid to religious schools wholly as a result of their own genuine and independent private choice, the program is not readily subject to challenge under the establishment clause. The incidental advancement of a religious mission, or the perceived endorsement of a religious message, is reasonably attributable to the individual recipient, not to the government, whose role ends with the disbursement of benefits.”

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