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Judge dismisses Colorado districts’ universal preschool lawsuit

Judge dismisses Colorado districts’ universal preschool lawsuit

Judge dismisses Colorado districts’ universal preschool lawsuit

Inside Colorado’s free preschool initiative

A Denver district court judge on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit filed by several Colorado school districts over the state’s universal preschool program, ruling that the plaintiffs have no legal grounds to sue.

In his 20-page ruling, Judge Jon J. Olafson found that the six school districts, two educational groups, a cooperative education services board and two families who sued the state last year had not suffered any “injury” under state or federal law. The districts, groups and families had argued that the administration of the universal preschool program was harming students with disabilities, in addition to other claims.

The decision is a victory for the state and for Gov. Jared Polis, who spearheaded the popular free preschool program, which launched last summer after a rushed and complicated planning process. It comes a month after a partial victory for the state in another universal preschool lawsuit, filed by Catholic preschools that don’t want to enroll children from LGBTQ families. (Catholic preschools plan to appeal.)

State officials had no comment on Olafson’s ruling Wednesday night.

Melissa Gibson, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said in a statement Wednesday: “We are disappointed by the court’s decision, but will continue to focus on doing everything we can to advocate for resolution of the issues affecting students and families in the (universal preschool) system.”

He said filing the lawsuit was “a last resort” and that the plaintiffs would continue to work with the state to push for solutions and transparency.

In addition to Gibson’s group, the plaintiffs include the Special Education Directors Consortium, the Centennial Board of Cooperative Educational Services, two families and the six school districts: Brighton-based 27J, Cherry Creek, Harrison, Mapleton, Platte Valley and Westminster.

Last summer, they filed the lawsuit against the state, alleging that its administration of the universal preschool program was harming children with disabilities and breaking financial promises to families and school districts. In response, the state asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit. Olafson held a hearing on that motion in late April.

Olafson acknowledged that the school district plaintiffs had faced “headaches” in adjusting to the new universal preschool system, but said “these growing pains are not legally protected injuries.”

He also said some of the plaintiffs’ concerns would be better addressed through legislative or administrative means, rather than through the courts.

During the 2023-24 school year, about 39,000 4-year-olds received free preschool through Colorado’s universal preschool program, representing 62% of children in that age group in the state. Enrollment is expected to be even higher next year.

Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat covering early childhood and early literacy issues. Contact Ann at [email protected].