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This District Is the Latest Front in the Fight Over School Choice

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A local school board election for a 68,000-student district outside of Denver has become the latest battleground in the national fight over school choice expansion, with out-of-state groups pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race. 

Two things are at stake: the pro-school choice majority on the Douglas County school board and the fate of a lawsuit over school vouchers that could make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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The high-stakes outcome of the Nov. 7 election is underscored by the players getting involved in the race and the money they're dropping: The American Federation for Teachers, a national teachers union that staunchly opposes school vouchers, has spent more than $300,000 on the race, while Americans for Prosperity, a group backed by the pro-voucher billionaire Koch brothers, has spent more than $100,000, according to local media reports. 

A High-Profile School Voucher Court Case

What started out as a pilot program to give 500 students in Douglas County publicly funded vouchers to use toward tuition at private schools has morphed into a potential challenge to state constitutions across the country.

The voucher program was created in 2011 by a school board populated with pro-school choice members after the 2009 election. But the program was found to be unconstitutional by the state's supreme court a few years later because it funneled public money into private, religious schools.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that school vouchers do not violate the U.S. Constitution, many state constitutions have stricter language around state aid going to religious or private institutions. Those restrictions are often called Blaine Amendments or no-aid provisions—and they have blocked the expansion of school vouchers in many states.


Ed Week Explains: What Are School Vouchers and How do They Work?


After exhausting its options in the state courts, the Douglas County school board asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its case, and voucher advocates across the country had hoped this might settle the issue over Blaine Amendments once and for all.

Instead, the Supreme Court ruled narrowly on a separate case out of Missouri, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Mo. v. Comer, over whether it was constitutional for a state to deny a grant to a church to make safety improvements to its playground simply because it was a religious institution (the justices ruled it wasn't). The High Court then sent the Douglas County voucher case back down to the Colorado Supreme Court to reconsider in light of the Trinity Lutheran decision.

What happens next to the lawsuit depends on the outcome of the school board election. If the Douglas County board majority flips, the board will likely drop the lawsuit.

A Growing Trend: Outside Money in Local School Board Races

Douglas County is just the latest in a string of costly local school board races fueled by out-of-state actors, said Sarah Reckhow, an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University.

Reckhow and her colleagues have tracked this growing trend in Denver, Indianapolis, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. Earlier this year, the school board race in Los Angeles broke national records when it drew in more than $14.5 million in independent spending.

Candidates backed by charter school advocates went on to win the majority of seats on the Los Angeles Unified School Board.

All of those cities have a few important things in common, said Reckhow.

"If you look at the issues in these elections, choice, or charters, or in the case of Douglas County, vouchers, are very prominent issues," said Reckhow. Big spending from out-of-state groups, she continued, "seems to be a feature [of elections] where local school boards can really have a say in these policies."

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