CASTLE ROCK — Douglas County school board members voted 7-0 Tuesday to launch Colorado’s first district-run voucher pilot, using state per-pupil funding to help up to 500 students attend private schools this fall.
They also voted to create a legal fund that will accept donations to defray the expenses of any court challenges.
“We’re not afraid of competition in Douglas County,” school board President John Carson said before casting his ‘yes’ vote in front of a standing-room-only crowd.
About 30 parents and community members addressed the board before its vote, with slightly more than half speaking in opposition.
“Your legacy will be destroying public education in Douglas County,” said Delana Maynes, with the opposition group Taxpayers for Public Education.
But Pam Mazanec, with Great Choice Douglas County, which supports the pilot, urged approval of the plan, called the Choice Scholarship Program.
“There’s nothing to fear here,” she said. “Choice is good, more choice is even better.”
Possibility of legal action
In the pilot, 75 percent of state per-pupil funding – or $4,575 – will follow participating Douglas County students to their private schools of choice in 2011-12.
Participating private schools must meet eligibility requirements, including monitoring attendance and giving state exams to voucher students.
Douglas County residents have been debating the plan since board members began public discussion of the possibility of vouchers in November.
Several opponents said they feared the outcome of Tuesday’s vote was a foregone conclusion from a recently-elected and conservative board majority.
“It was not surprising,” Sue Zloth said after the vote. “It was very, very disappointing.”
But Zloth, with Taxpayers for Public Education, believes lawsuits are sure to follow and could halt the pilot. That’s what happened with a statewide voucher pilot approved by lawmakers in 2003.
“Our group feels it is unfortunate the school district will be spending money, time and energy to defend lawsuits,” she said.
No organization has yet stepped forward with a court action. Mike Wetzel with the Colorado Education Association, which played a key role in the legal fight against the state plan, cited the union’s role in that court battle in a statement on Tuesday.
But he stopped short of saying the union would intervene in Douglas County, which is affiliated with a different national teachers union.
“It’s bad policy to use their public funds to support private institutions that won’t be held accountable to those taxpayers,” he said.
Eric Hall, an attorney who advised the Dougco board on its voucher pilot, has said what stopped the statewide plan doesn’t apply in the district pilot.
With the state voucher plan, the state Supreme Court ruled it usurped the local control of school boards. In Dougco, the board is driving the plan.
Reactions, recall, next steps
One speaker on Tuesday, Jonathan Tee with the Alliance for Choice in Education, said the group is launching a fund to raise money to help low-income Dougco families fill the monetary gap between the voucher and tuition. Some private schools charge far more for tuition than the voucher amount.
ACE, which Littleton oilman and voucher proponent Alex Cranberg helped found, is active in Denver, awarding scholarships to poor families so their children can attend private schools. In Dougco, Tee said the group will help students who qualify for federal lunch assistance.
At least one school board member cited the ACE fund in comments before casting a ‘yes’ vote.
Members of the Douglas County teachers union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, did not address the board Tuesday and have said little publicly in the months leading up to the board vote.
“We applaud the district and teachers for working collaboratively … to ensure money will not leave a budget with scarce resources, holds all participating schools accountable and provides an equal opportunity for all our students,” teachers union President Brenda Smith said in a written statement. “We will continue to monitor its implementation.”
Tuesday’s vote did prompt one group, however, to speak up. Sarah Mann, chair of the Douglas County Democratic Party, said the voucher pilot “is not about schools or Douglas County families. It’s about politics.”
“In the weeks ahead, we could see a recall election, but more importantly, there are three school board seats up for re-election this November,” Mann said. “If you’re tired of politics as usual, do what you can to change it.”
Dougco school board members did not mention politics as each read a prepared statement before casting their votes. They repeated their beliefs that the pilot will save the district money, encourage healthy competition and vest school choice where it belongs – with families.
“The system isn’t broken but we want to make it better,” Carson said of the high-performing district. “It’s time for more choice, competition and innovation in our public education system.”
Who could participate
- Students currently attending Douglas County public schools who have been enrolled for no less than one year.
- Students must live in the Douglas County School District.
- In the proposed pilot for 2011-12, up to 500 students may participate. A lottery would be held if more than 500 fill out choice scholarship applications.
- Participating students would be required to take state exams at a time and place designated by the district.
How the money would flow
- 75 percent of per-pupil funding would follow the student to a participating private school – based on an expected per-pupil amount of $6,100, that’s $4,575 per student.
- The remaining 25 percent – an estimated $1,525 – would stay with the district.
- The value of the voucher or scholarship would be $4,575 or the actual cost of tuition, whichever is less.
- The district would write checks to the parents of participating students and those parents would sign them over to the private schools they’ve chosen.
- Parents would receive four equal payments annually. Payment could be withheld if the student, parent or private school is in violation of program rules.
- If 500 students participate, at $6,100 per student, that’s a total of $3.05 million – with $2.28 million going to private schools and $762,500 staying with the district.
How private schools could participate
- Nonpublic schools located within or outside the boundaries of the Douglas County School District could participate. Kindergarten programs are not included in the pilot.
- Schools would not be required to change their admissions criteria to participate but they would not be allowed to discriminate on the basis of disability or any other area protected by law.
- Schools must be willing to provide the option of a waiver to voucher students for the religious portion of their program.
- Schools must agree to provide attendance data and qualifications of teaching staff to the district.
- Schools would be expected to “demonstrate over time that its educational program produces student achievement and growth results … at least as strong as what district neighborhood and charter schools produce,” according to draft policy on the voucher plan.
- Schools must demonstrate financial stability, disclosing at least the past three years’ worth of audited financial statements and other financial data.
- Schools must demonstrate their facilities are up to building codes and that they have a safe school plan as required by law.
How the district would use the money
- Of the $762,500 possible in the pilot year for the district, $361,199 would be set aside for administrative overhead such as providing staff to monitor attendance and state testing of voucher students. A Choice Scholarship Office would be created to administer the program.
- The remaining $401,301 would be set aside for “extenuating circumstances,” including assisting a district school adversely impacted by the voucher pilot.