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National implications? Major upset for pro-voucher education forces in Douglas County

November 7, 2017 Updated: November 8, 2017 at 9:17 am
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photo - CASTLE ROCK, CO - JUNE 29: The Colorado Supreme Court ruling the Douglas County School District's controversial school voucher program unconstitutional in a split ruling June 29, 2015 at The Supreme Court of the State of Colorado downtown Denver. (Photo By John Leyba/The Denver Post)
CASTLE ROCK, CO - JUNE 29: The Colorado Supreme Court ruling the Douglas County School District's controversial school voucher program unconstitutional in a split ruling June 29, 2015 at The Supreme Court of the State of Colorado downtown Denver. (Photo By John Leyba/The Denver Post) 

With the likely win of four anti-voucher newcomers to the Douglas County school board, the future is bleak for the controversial voucher program instituted by the board in 2011, portending major potential consequences for the voucher movement nationally.

Although results are still unofficial, the four newcomers - Kevin Leung, Krista Holtzmann, Christina Schor and Anthony Graziano - are expected to join the remaining three board members in throwing out the voucher program. The issue made this one of the most closely watched school board races in the nation, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside money spent on the contested seats.

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Leung is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, Taxpayers for Public Education v. Douglas County School District.

The voucher program, known as the Choice Scholarship, would award at least $5,000 each to up to 500 students in the district to attend a private or religious school, including schools not in Douglas County. The voucher program, approved by the conservative reform board, was the first in the nation to be set up by a school district rather than by a legislature. And unlike many voucher programs around the country, the Douglas County Choice voucher is not given based on income or whether the student is in a failing school.

The Choice program never got off the ground; Taxpayers for Public Education obtained an injunction blocking its implementation. The lawsuit wound its way up to the Colorado Supreme Court, which in 2015 ruled the program unconstitutional.

The district, with $1.8 million from the Daniels Fund and the Walton Family Foundation to cover legal expenses, appealed the Colorado court decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Last June, the federal Court returned the case back to Colorado, asking the state Supreme Court to rethink its position. The Colorado court sent the appeal back to the lower courts, where it now sits.

"Tonight, our students are the big winners," said Douglas County Federation President Kallie Leyba. "Douglas County voters have chosen a school board that places students at the center of every decision and believes in the value of an accountable, transparent public education system, not an ideology that fails our students and educators."

There was also drama in another high dollar education battle in Denver Public Schools, with one newcomer turning out an incumbent. Here the issue was not vouchers, but school choice, including an embrace of charter school options, the direction of the incumbent board. Unofficial results show Jennifer Bacon with a more than 10-point lead over incumbent Rachele Espiritu.

Another DPS race was too close to call as of 9 p.m. In District 3, the lead for challenger Carrie Olson over incumbent Mike Johnston has widened from about 1.5 points at 7 p.m to about 3 points as of 9 p.m.

Olson celebrated her possible win Tuesday night at the Bull & Bush in Cherry Creek, telling Colorado Politics that should her results hold, the victory belongs to the supporters who knocked on doors on her behalf.

"This belongs to the people of District 3," Olson said.

Most people didn't think she would win, she added, largely because she was massively outspent by her opponent. But Olson also had praise for Johnson, thanking him for running a clean campaign.

Former Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien was ahead in her bid to hold on to her at-large DPS seat.

In Jefferson County the landslide lead by two incumbents who faced challengers for school board seats remains unchanged: Brad Rupert and Susan Harmon both hold leads of at least 20 points over their challengers, Matt Van Gieson and Erica Shields. This was another race that drew national interest and big bucks.

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