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Voucher pilot in legal limbo

Some 60 percent of Douglas County’s nearly 500 voucher students chose to stay in private schools after a judge declared the school district’s voucher pilot unconstitutional in August, including the four students whose families are involved in an appeal of that ruling.

Another 35 percent returned to Douglas County public schools while much smaller numbers chose other options – 3 percent are attending school in another district and 2 percent began home-schooling.

Dougco’s Choice Scholarship Pilot Program, the state’s first district-run voucher plan, remains in legal limbo, with any decision from the Colorado Court of Appeals not expected before March at the earliest.

Advocates of the pilot, meanwhile, trumpet the Nov. 1 election of three pro-voucher school board candidates as proof of the community’s support for the district effort.

“I think when you consider the fact that their opponents were very vocal in their opposition to the program, it’s a pretty clear mandate for the program to continue,” school board President John Carson said Monday. “And we continue now to have a 7-0 board in support of it.”

Others disagree. Susan Meek, the district’s former communications director who lost a bid to unseat pro-voucher candidate Craig Richardson, said she had hoped the school board elections would be a referendum on vouchers.

Instead, she said the winning candidates, who ran as a Republican Party-endorsed slate, targeted “union” candidates though the Douglas County teachers union did not make formal endorsements.

“Unfortunately, the pro-voucher candidates chose to run a partisan campaign based on false and misleading statements,” Meek said. “I don’t think we have a clear picture of whether the public supports vouchers or not as these candidates never mentioned the word ‘voucher’ in any of their print materials or in their robocalls.”

Trying to recoup voucher payments

Douglas County school board members approved the voucher pilot 7-0 on March 15, authorizing 75 percent of the district’s per-pupil funding – or $4,575 per voucher – to help up to 500 students attend participating private schools this fall.

Records show $45,750, or about 16 percent of the voucher payments issued by the district, remains outstanding from six private schools.When Denver District Judge Micheal Martinez ruled Aug. 12 against the plan, Dougco already had issued 248 checks totaling $283,037.50 to the families of voucher students, who in turn signed them over to their chosen private schools.

District leaders are attempting to recoup that money. Records show $45,750, or about 16 percent of the total, remains outstanding from six of the 18 private schools that received checks.

“We’re pretty pleased with the amount of money that’s come back,” said district spokesman Randy Barber. “I think it’s important to note we don’t want to be forceful, we’re trying to be as respectful as possible and allow the amount of time for things to happen. I don’t believe we have any reason to believe we wouldn’t be able to get all that money back.”

Valor Christian High School received the most district money, in 62 checks totaling $70,912.50. Regis Jesuit High School was second, with 39 checks totaling $44,606.25. The checks represent what would have been the first of four payments throughout the year. Both Valor and Regis have returned the total amounts they received.

Schools with outstanding balances include Lutheran High School, which has returned none of the 17 checks totaling $19,443.75, and Southeast Christian, which has returned some money but still owes $11,437.50, according to documents provided to Education News Colorado under the state’s open records law.

Under the voucher pilot, the checks are made out to the parents of a voucher student but they’re valid only if signed over to a participating private school screened by the district that has admitted the student. A total of 43 checks are outstanding.

“We think that, in some cases, it may be a situation in which a parent has to say it’s okay for the funds for come back,” Barber said. “Certainly we’re getting closer and closer to it being a family by family situation. We’ll be looking at each family’s story and is there a reason they’re not returning that money.”

Cindra Barnard, a Douglas County parent who was among those suing to stop the voucher program, said she’s concerned about the money yet to be returned to a district facing budget cuts.

“These funds were inappropriately handed to private schools while the program was in litigation,” she said. “Because the funds have been improperly spent, the state of Colorado should ask for the funds back, an additional financial burden to the already strapped district. This loss of funding directly impacts the education of the 60,000 students in Douglas County Schools.”

Characteristics of voucher students

Dougco’s voucher pilot, formally known as the Choice Scholarship Pilot Program, proved popular enough with families that a voucher lottery was held and a waiting list created after an initial 500 slots were filled.

But in July and August, six families declined scholarships and the district opted against moving students from the waiting list in light of a three-day hearing in August on the lawsuits filed by Dougco residents and civil liberties groups seeking to stop the pilot.

Of the 494 students who planned to use vouchers, 298 chose to continue at private schools after the judge halted the pilot and 174 decided to remain in Douglas County public schools. Eight students opted for home-schooling and 14 began attending schools outside of Dougco.

Hover over chart to see numbers and percentages. Story continues after graphic.

The nearly 500 voucher students would have enrolled this year in 70 schools across the county, with no single school having more than 24 students awarded vouchers and most having between five and seven. A handful of schools had 20 or more students awarded vouchers – Academy Charter School, American Academy Charter School, Lone Tree Elementary Magnet School, Ponderosa High School and Rock Canyon High School.

The single grade most impacted by vouchers was those students entering high school this year – 129 ninth-graders were awarded vouchers and 118 of those students decided to stay in their private high school despite the ruling halting the program.

Valor Christian High School is the most popular private school with Dougco voucher students, with 69 enrolled at the school. Regis is second, with 48 voucher students, and Cherry Hills Christian is third, with 41.Valor Christian High School is the most popular private school with Dougco voucher students, with 69 now enrolled at the school. Regis is second, with 48 voucher students, and Cherry Hills Christian is third, with 41 former Dougco students attending.

Michael Bindas, an attorney who represents three families who have joined the district in seeking to overturn the judge’s ruling, said all four of their voucher students remain in their chosen private schools. One family, Diana and Mark Oakley, were told by their private school not to worry about the portion of tuition that would have been covered by the voucher.

“The school is typical of many schools kind of bending over backwards to help these families who had the rug pulled out from under them at the last minute when the scholarship program was enjoined,” Bindas said.

Despite the judge’s ruling that the pilot violated five provisions of the Colorado Constitution and the state School Finance Act, both Carson and Bindas remain confident the plan will prevail.

“We’ll be arguing how the trial court erred in applying the case law, both binding precedent from the Colorado Supreme Court as well as persuasive authority from the U.S. Supreme Court and other state supreme courts,” Bindas said. “We’re confident the trial court’s attempt to rationalize away that case law will be corrected on appeal.”

See where students awarded vouchers are attending school this year

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See a school-by-school breakdown of students awarded vouchers

Use scrolling bar on right to see complete list of schools

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