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Pro-voucher group joins Dougco fight

DENVER – A national pro-voucher law firm joined the legal battle over Douglas County’s voucher pilot on Tuesday, filing to intervene in two recent lawsuits on behalf of four families who want to use state funding to help send their children to private schools this fall.

“The opponents of choice, who have a political axe to grind, have attempted to make this about religion,” said Michael Bindas, attorney for the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice. “We are confident this program will withstand any scrutiny.”

See video highlights from Tuesday’s press conference.

The Institute, which describes itself as the “nation’s only libertarian public interest law firm,” is a non-profit that has been involved in voucher battles across the country, including defending Colorado’s statewide voucher plan, which was struck down by the state Supreme Court in 2004.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, also based near D.C., and the American Civil Liberties Union – the Institute’s frequent opponents in such court fights – are among the civil rights groups and half a dozen Douglas County parents behind two separate lawsuits filed June 21 in Denver District Court to stop the Dougco pilot.

Both lawsuits name the Douglas County school district, its school board, the Colorado Department of Education and the State Board of Education as defendants; the Institute’s motions to intervene in the two lawsuits, which are expected to be granted, now brings parents into the defendants’ side.

The four families represented by the Institute for Justice:

  • Florence and Derrick Doyle of Parker applied for voucher assistance to send their 14-year-old twins, Alexandra and Donovan, to Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora. An older son, Dominick, attends Regis.
  • Diana and Mark Oakley of Highlands Ranch want to send son Nathaniel, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, to Humanex Academy in Englewood. The Oakley’s two other children have done well in Dougco district schools but they say Nate, 13, has been ruthlessly bullied.
  • Jeanette Strohm-Anderson and Mark Anderson of Larkspur want to send Max, 8, to Woodlands Academy in Castle Rock, where they believe the academically gifted boy would excel in a rigorous curriculum that includes Singapore Math. An older son, Alex, 16, attends Douglas County High School.
  • Geraldine and Timothy Lynott of Parker applied for voucher help to send son Timothy Jr. to Regis Jesuit High School for its small class sizes, college-prep curriculum and religious character; a daughter attends a Dougco public school and Geraldine teaches in the Cherry Creek School District.

Vouchers would help families ‘in the middle’

Derrick Doyle said he and his wife already had decided their twins would follow their older brother to Regis Jesuit High School when they heard about Dougco’s voucher plan.

“But it was going to be a struggle,” he said. “Trying to send three children to private school is almost undoable for an average family.”

Doyle said the couple’s research into private schools showed two extremes – on one end, wealthy families able to write tuition checks for multiple children without blinking and, on the other, generous donors providing scholarships to families with great financial need.

“The middle ground, where we reside, probably where most Douglas County residents reside, you find yourself sort of left out,” he said. “You may not be able to write the check but at the same time, you don’t qualify for tuition assistance. So this voucher system represents … the chance for us to send our children to the school we choose.”

Dougco’s pilot will provide vouchers of up to $4,575 per student annually, or 75 percent of state per-pupil funding in 2011-12. That’s less than half of Regis’ annual tuition, Doyle said.

Similarly, Diana Oakley said the voucher would cover only part of the $17,000 annual tuition at Humanex Academy, a small private school focused on students with special needs.

Oakley’s son Nathaniel, who has a developmental disorder with some traits of autism, has struggled academically and socially in Dougco’s Eagle Ridge Elementary. Court records state he repeated a grade and was bullied, including being assaulted with a pair of nunchucks by another student.

But Diana Oakley said her son blossomed in classroom discussions when he visited Humanex.

“It weighs a lot on me,” she said of the chance a Denver district judge could halt the voucher plan. “I’m really looking forward to having him there.”

Lawyers on both sides ‘confident’ they’re right

Bindas, the Institute’s attorney, said he’s advising parents not to worry about the lawsuits.

“Our advice is to plan on going ahead with your choice of school come the fall because we’re committed to defending the program and have no doubt it will be upheld,” he said.

He described the “critical components” of a constitutional voucher program as one, that it be neutral with regard to religion – allowing participation by religious and non-religious schools. And two, that it’s only as a result of a parent’s “private, independent choice” that money goes to a school, religious or non-religious.

“Every single day since opening our doors twenty years ago, the Institute for Justice has defended school choice programs against legal attacks like this,” Bindas said. “We’re confident that, at the end of the day, choice will prevail and this program will be upheld.”

Gregory M. Lipper, attorney for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, disagreed.

“That’s not what the Colorado constitution says,” he said, noting Binder is relying on a U.S. Supreme Court case, Zelman decided in 2002, while both lawsuits allege violations of the state constitution and state laws. “States are allowed to provide greater protection than the federal constitution does.”

He also said the idea that Dougco parents have “private, independent choice” among private schools is “not accurate” because 14 of the 19 schools approved for the voucher pilot are religious while the other five include a gifted school, a school for students with special needs and two schools that are K-8 only.

“The only choice is to go to a religious school,” Lipper said. “And even if a parent wants to choose a religious school, the religious schools are allowed to discriminate on the basis of religious beliefs, on the basis of disabilities … the notion that there is true parent choice here is really fantasy.

“We are confident we will prevail.”

Video highlights from Tuesday’s press conference

A Douglas County father talks about how the voucher plan will help his family while Institute for Justice attorney Michael Bindas discusses the legal merits of Dougco’s plan and explains how this case differs from Colorado’s 2003 voucher pilot, struck down by the state Supreme Court in 2004.