The Douglas County school board is considering whether to hand over some of its money to help students go to private schools.  The program would be the first of its kind in the state.  Colorado Public Radio's Megan Verlee reports the idea is already sparking strong reactions.

[photo credit: flickr user Conspirator]

 

Read the draft proposal for Douglas Country's Option Certificate Program here

 

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The proposal to help students pay for private schools is just one of many suggestions the Douglas County school board is considering to increase educational options.  It's also looking at things like expanding homeschooling and online classes. But it was the word 'vouchers' that brought more than a hundred people to this week's Board of Education meeting.  Many of them, like Jennifer Martinez, came worried the proposal could hurt public schools.

MARTINEZ: "I do not understand the thought process in pushing through changes like this during a recession and during a time when the school district is having to provide more and more on less and less money."

In other places with voucher programs, the debate is generally over whether the public schools have failed their students so much, kids need to take their chances elsewhere.  But Douglas County is one of Colorado’s top-ranked districts. And on a recent survey the vast majority of parents said they’re happy with their schools. So why look at vouchers?  According to school board member Meghann Silverthorn, it's all about choice, and giving students all the options possible.

Silverthorn is one of a slate of new board members who won election last year promising more alternatives to traditional public schools.

SILVERTHORN: "What can our private schools here in the county offer to our parents? And why do we have huge long waiting lists at charter schools? What are those parents looking for? I want to find out and I want to see if we can offer it through the private schools."

The draft proposal suggests creating vouchers worth a bit less than $5,000 – three quarters of what the district gets per pupil in state and local funding.  The district would hold onto the other 25%, which advocates say could be a windfall.  Critics doubt that’s worth it.  Students could use vouchers at any private school in the district, including religious ones.  The Colorado constitution does bar public money from benefiting religious institutions.  But education lawyer Eric Hall, says courts have allowed college students to use state grants at religious schools, and he sees a similar argument here.  The school district paid Hall to help develop the voucher proposal.

HALL:  "The purpose of this policy would be an educational purpose, to improve choice, to increase student performance, and the district is not interested one way or the other whether the schools that participate are religious schools or non-religious schools.  It’s open to both."

During lunch time at Lutheran High School in Parker noisy teenagers crowd the tables, swapping gossip and homework advice. Their families pay around $8100 a year to send them here, although the school does offer scholarships and a discount for church members.  Principal David Ness says Lutheran High has room for a lot more students, if they can afford it.

NESS: "You know we hear from parents often that price becomes a discouraging factor.  I do think with a voucher system, it might really open the door to more conversation with families."

But before Ness embraces any voucher plan from Douglas County, he says he wants to see a lot more specifics.

NESS:  "We do appreciate a certain amount of autonomy, as a private school or as a Christian school and that is something we would always want to preserve.  But I also think there are things that could be very compatible."

If Douglas County adopts a voucher program open to all students, most of Lutheran High’s current pupils could likely take part.  And that means the program would end up costing the state.  Colorado sends money to districts on a per-pupil basis.  So if Douglas County’s 2500 private school students applied for vouchers, it could mean millions in new funding.  The Colorado Department of Education won’t comment at this stage.  At Tuesday’s public hearing, past Douglas County board of education member Emily Hansen asked her former colleagues to look at the big picture.

HANSAN: "The pie is not getting any bigger.  And if other school districts decide to adopt this because you’ve set this precedent, that becomes an even bigger burden on the state of Colorado.  So please, please consider the fiscal state of this state as you consider this option."

For some though, a voucher program seems like a fair way to give parents control over their tax dollars, although a family making the median income in Douglas County would get far more back in the proposed voucher program than they currently pay in state taxes for education. 

Kendal Unruh’s son is at a private Christian school.  She’d like to enroll her daughter there too, but the family just can’t afford it right now.

UNRUH: "My husband and I really struggle and I think how much easier it would be if the taxes that we paid were applied to me in the form of a voucher to apply to the school where I want to send him."

Unruh says she doesn’t think public schools will suffer from vouchers.  She helped lead the charge years ago for charter schools in Douglas County, and heard many of the same arguments then.

UNRUH: "It was deja vu moments in there because it was “the sky is going to fall,” “everyone is going to forsake public education,” “charter schools will ruin public education as we know it.”  And history has shown, it didn’t ruin public education as we knew it."

Douglas County School Board members stress that they’re in the very early stages of considering a voucher program.  Parents and the community will have the next month to weigh in, and then the board will decide if it wants to research the idea further.