Colorado’s third-largest school district has established a pilot program allowing up to 500 students to attend a public or private school of their choice. The Douglas County Board of Education unanimously approved the program, which is subject to annual review. Students will be eligible to receive $4,575 to attend a private school, starting in the 2011-12 school year.
The suburban district between Denver and Colorado Springs currently includes more than 60,000 students. Although it budgeted $2.29 million for vouchers, the board estimates it could save as much as $3 million a year through savings from the Colorado State Assessment Program and other state mandates.
A ‘Universal Voucher’
Ben DeGrow, a senior education policy analyst for the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado, says the Douglas County pilot project is unique among voucher programs around the nation.
“The program isn’t limited based on a family’s income, the success or failure of the current school, or any particular needs or abilities of the student,” DeGrow explained. “In this sense it’s a ‘universal voucher,’ which sets it apart from nearly all other choice programs.”
The only eligibility requirement is students must be enrolled in Douglas County schools for at least one year. A lottery will be held if more than 500 students apply.
Legal Challenge Possible
A group called “Taxpayers for Public Education” opposed the plan, saying tax dollars should not flow to private schools and Douglas County schools had no need for a voucher program because the district is one of the highest academic achievers in the state.
“A school district may provide parents a variety of its own programs and options, but the best choice for a number of families still may be something a private school can provide more effectively,” DeGrow replied.
The school board also established a legal defense fund in the event of court challenges to the program.
Colorado’s Supreme Court in 2004 struck down a statewide opportunity scholarship program aimed at students in failing schools, citing a state constitutional provision stating school boards must have “local control” over instruction within their district.
“What Douglas County has done is the epitome of local control and answers that concern,” DeGrow said.
Unions’ Power Still Formidable
Terry Moe, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and author of Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools, says the Douglas County program is a positive step for choice, but he opposes the 500-student cap.
“Ultimately, these kinds of policy decisions are shaped by power; power stands in the way of school choice,” Moe explained. “As long as the teachers unions are powerful, this is the kind of minimalism you get,” he added.
Moe says the Douglas County program is nonetheless likely to attract national attention and give other districts ideas to adopt and emulate. “There are 14,000 districts in 50 states,” he said. “With so many holes in the dike, it’s impossible for the teachers union to plug them all.”
Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.