For the past three months, a slate of four candidates, known as Elevate Douglas County, has championed the issue of “school choice” as they prepare for Tuesday’s election.
The term “school choice,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, is just one way to describe vouchers, which is the biggest issue for voters to consider for Tuesday. But a spokesperson for the Elevate slate insists the organization is not “pro-voucher.”
Tuesday’s election will determine the fate of the Douglas County Choice Scholarship program, which would provide a voucher of $5,000 or more to as many as 500 Douglas County students, regardless of income, to attend any private or religious school, including schools outside of the county.
In an email to Colorado Politics Sunday, spokesperson Michelle Lyng said the members of Elevate “are committed to seeing the Choice Scholarship case through to the end so long as no taxpayer dollars are used, as has been the case up until now. Should the final verdict be that the Choice Scholarship is found to be permissible, the slate (if elected) would ask the community whether this is the right option for Douglas County.”
She said “everyone” wants to see the case through to the end and that the community “should have clarity on the issue.As one candidate described it, it’s the bottom of the ninth in game seven of the World Series and the other side wants to stop the game. We should see the end of the game,” Lyng wrote.
The Elevate slate — made up of Debora Scheffel, Grant Nelson, Ryan Abresch and Randy Mills — is backed by donations from some of the nation’s most ardent pro-voucher millionaires, such as Houston oilman Alex Cranberg, who last week gave all four candidates $5,000 each; and Ed McVaney, founder of JD Edwards, who gave the same amount to all four candidates in August. The four candidates also received donations of $6,250 each from John Saeman, former chairman of the Daniels Fund, which has been paying the bulk of the legal bills for the district’s voucher program lawsuit. The contributions from Saeman, Cranberg and McVaney make up 44 percent of the total dollars raised by each of the four candidates.
Cranberg and McVaney have given tens of thousands of dollars to elect conservative education reformers to the DougCo school board since 2009. In that year, Cranberg and McVaney each donated $5,000 to each the four education reformers, led by now board-chair Meghann Silverthorn. Those donations, along with $5,000 a piece from fellow voucher supporter Ralph Nagel, made up more than half of the funds raised by those candidates. Two years later, the board initiated the district’s voucher program. In 2013, Cranberg and Nagel donated $140,000 to four reformer candidates, which made up 84 percent of the funds those candidates raised for their election campaigns.
The voucher program, initiated by the seven-member board in 2011, has never been implemented due to legal challenges. The Colorado Supreme Court declared the voucher program unconstitutional in 2015. The district, backed with $1.8 million in donations from the Daniels Fund and the Walton Family Foundation, both which back taxpayer-funded vouchers, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. After ruling in favor of a case out of Missouri that dealt with the same underlying issue — the Blaine Amendment, which bans the use of taxpayer funds for sectarian purposes — last June, the Court sent the Colorado case back to the state Supreme Court for another review. The Colorado Supremes sent it back to the Denver District Court, where it now sits.