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Union-Backed Candidates Win Control of Key District in Battle Over Vouchers

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A slate of teacher union-backed candidates have won control of Colorado's Douglas County school board—ousting its pro-school choice majority in a strongly Republican area.

The union victory will likely spell the end of the county's pilot school-voucher program as well as a high-profile lawsuit that could have become a vehicle for expanding vouchers across the country.

For that reason, the election for a local seven-member school board for a 68,000-student district drew outsized national interest and money.

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The American Federation of Teachers, a national union, spent around $300,000 on the race, while a group backed by the pro-voucher billionaire Koch brothers, spent around $100,000, according to local media reports.

This fits in with a small, but growing national trend of outside groups pouring lots of money into local school board elections, especially when the expansion or restriction of school choice is at stake.

This is likely a welcome victory for the American Federation of Teachers. As my colleague Daarel Burnette II has extensively reported, the AFT, along with the National Education Association, have been spending big in recent elections, but with few victories to show for it.

The election also comes at a time when school vouchers are receiving increased national attention as President Donald Trump's adminstration, in particular Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, have embraced the policy idea and are looking for ways to create a federal voucher program.  

A High-Stakes Voucher Lawsuit

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that Douglas County's plan to give students publicly funded tuition vouchers to use at private schools, including religious ones, violated the state's constitution.

The school board then asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case. Voucher advocates across the country hoped a decision by the High Court in their favor would nullify provisions banning state aid to religious institutions in state constitutions across the country, smoothing the way for school choice expansion nationally.

The Justices didn't hear the Douglas voucher case last year. They instead ruled narrowly on a similar case out of Missouri and remanded the Douglas County School Board's lawsuit back to the Colorado Supreme Court.

Voucher advocates had hoped the Douglas voucher case would make it back up to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the new school board majority has signaled its intent to drop the lawsuit.

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