Flurry of filings in Dougco voucher lawsuits

Plaintiffs in two lawsuits challenging the Douglas County voucher pilot are asking for an immediate halt to the plan, arguing it must be stopped before any public dollars flow to private schools.

Cindra Barnard, left, and Anne Kleinkopf are leaders of Taxpayers for Public Education.
Cindra Barnard, left, and Anne Kleinkopf are leaders of Taxpayers for Public Education.

“Once the money is illegally diverted away from public schools, the bell can’t be unrung,” said Gregory M. Lipper, attorney for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, one of the plaintiffs.

Americans United, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado and a handful of Douglas County parents, filed the motion for a preliminary injunction on Tuesday.

Taxpayers for Public Education, a group of Douglas County parents and residents who are the plaintiffs in the second lawsuit opposing the voucher pilot, filed a similar motion Wednesday.

In addition to the preliminary injunction, both sets of plaintiffs have asked Denver District Judge Michael Anthony Martinez to consolidate the two lawsuits into one, noting the “cases share common questions of law and fact,” according to court documents.

Martinez has yet to rule on the motion to consolidate or the request for a preliminary injunction. He’s also considering a motion for change of venue, filed by two defendants – the Douglas County School District and its school board – who want the legal action moved out of Denver and into Douglas County.

“A judge in Douglas County should hear it because this is where it’s all going on,” said school district spokesman Randy Barber.

Court dockets show the Americans United lawsuit is set for a status review with Martinez on July 13; both lawsuits have status reviews with the judge on July 19 and 26.

District, board want legal action moved to Douglas County

Douglas County school leaders filed their motions for change of venue in both lawsuits on July 1.

Eric Hall, a private attorney who advised district leaders on the creation of the voucher pilot last year, filed the motions, arguing “all the actions giving rise to this lawsuit have taken place” in Douglas County.

Image of Eric Hall
Eric Hall
Both lawsuits name the district and school board, along with two other defendants – the Colorado Department of Education and the State Board of Education.

Hall denies that the state entities have taken action related to the program and wrote that two meetings, on Jan. 5 and March 7, between state and district officials were “informal.”

“The only ‘decisional acts’ by public officers have been taken in Douglas County by the Douglas County Board and the Douglas County administration,” he wrote.

But Lipper, with Americans United, said his plaintiffs will oppose the district’s effort to move the lawsuits to Douglas County.

The legal action belongs in Denver, he said, because state entities are “implicitly or otherwise approving the Douglas County program and will be funding the Douglas County program.”

“It’s state money being used and so the county voucher program could not be happening if the state weren’t providing the money to fund it,” Lipper said. “And so the state is an important part of this case and that’s why Denver is absolutely an appropriate forum for the case.”

Hall, who also helped create a 2003 statewide voucher pilot, later struck down by the Colorado Supreme Court, received more than $8,000 for his work on the Dougco pilot.

Wednesday, Barber said Hall’s legal expenses – and those of two others at the Denver firm of Rothgerber, Johnson & Lyons who have entered appearances in the lawsuits – would be paid from a legal fund created when Dougco board members voted 7-0 to support the voucher pilot.

Barber said the fund has a balance of $600 but that district leaders are “very optimistic” that figure will  increase.

Plaintiffs request immediate halt to voucher pilot

In the pilot, 500 Douglas County students will receive four checks totaling $4,575 to be used for tuition at a participating “partner” private school starting this fall.

That figure represents 75 percent of the per-pupil funding that Douglas County is to receive in 2011-12. The other 25 percent would go to a charter school created by the district to manage the program.

But per-pupil funding comes from a combination of state and local taxes and other revenues. In their motion for a preliminary injunction, Taxpayers for Public Education note that local sources account for 33 percent of the per-pupil funding that Dougco receives and state sources account for 67 percent.

“If the voucher program is not stopped, the Douglas County School District will funnel over $3,000,000 in public funds it receives from the Colorado Department of Education to private schools in direct violation … of the Colorado Constitution, and the Public School Finance Act,” the motion states.

“Plaintiffs seek a preliminary injunction prohibiting defendants from taking any further action to implement the voucher program.”

Similarly, plaintiffs in the second lawsuit seek an injunction declaring the pilot is likely to be found unconstitutional.

Fourteen of the 19 private school partners are religious and “will use these taxpayer funds for religious education and indoctrination,” the motion contends.

District and state officials have “expressly authorized them to use taxpayer funds to discriminate in both enrollment and hiring on the basis of religious beliefs, sexual orientation and medical conditions,” it continues.

“Defendants also have approved the use of taxpayer funds to require participating students to attend religious worship services and swear an oath to the particular faith favored by the schools … ”

None of the defendants – Dougco, its school board, the state board or the CDE – has yet filed responses to the motions.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”