Ruling on Co. District-Initiated Vouchers Expected this Week

Published August 2, 2011

A Denver district court is set to rule this week on a unique school choice arrangement in Douglas County, CO: offering vouchers through a district charter school. The pilot program, set to send 500 kids to 19 private schools this fall, offers parents of children previously enrolled in public school 75 percent of state per-student funding, approximately $4,600, or private tuition, whichever is less.

By administrating the vouchers through a charter school umbrella, the district keeps the remaining 25 percent of state per-student funds since voucher students are still technically enrolled in a district-funded school. 

If enacted, it will be the first voucher administered through a school district, rather than state or city. Beyond the 500 students allowed into the program this year, 22 are on a wait list. 

The American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and some local parents brought the program to court this summer, charging that since the vouchers could go to religious private schools, the program amounts to a state subsidy of religion. They requested an injunction against the program until further legal processes complete. Judge Michael Martinez promised a ruling this week after five days of testimony.

‘Parents Ought to Have that Choice’
Douglas County School District is Colorado’s third largest, with more than 61,000 students enrolled for this fall. It is also the highest-performing district in the state on standardized tests. Household income in the Denver suburb is nearly double the national median, and the district also offers charter, magnet, and virtual schools.

“We can still do better,” said school board President John Carson. He and other board members have said their goal is to offer parents more options to tailor education to their children as they see fit. “If services might be provided better by a private school, parents ought to have that choice,” Carson said. 

Voucher recipients must take the same state tests as public school students, and private schools that receive voucher funds must demonstrate that participating students make similar academic results and gains on standardized tests. Religious private schools receiving vouchers must also provide voucher students a waiver of participating in religious instruction if the student’s family requests one. 

Greater Opportunities to Solve Problems
“They’re being creative about using the policies the legislature has given them,” said Rick Hess, director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute. “It’s about growing the opportunity to solve problems.” 

Carson said the board’s idea is to strengthen public schools and local schools through competition. 

“We want to unleash the power of neighborhood schools to compete effectively, to market their programs, to develop magnet programs,” Carson said. 

Image by Howard Lake.