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Voucher vote expected Tuesday

Douglas County school board members appear poised next week to approve the state’s first district-driven voucher program, which would launch this fall with up to 500 students.

District staff recommended approval of the voucher pilot Wednesday, winning unanimous praise from board members and paving the way for a March 15 vote.

The plan would provide Dougco families with $4,575 per student next school year – or 75 percent of the total per-pupil funding allocated by the state – to pay toward tuition at participating private schools.

At the same special meeting, board members approved a resolution directing district staff to explore asking voters for a tax increase in November.

The combination of the two issues – increasing choice and raising taxes – is no coincidence, one board member said.

“The juxtaposition of these two thoughts is not arbitrary at all,” board member Craig Richardson told the audience, then looked at staff.

“I think it would suggest, if the board were to go forward with both concepts, not only do we believe in choice and competition but we believe in you – we believe this district, going into that competition, is worth investing in and it will do well.”

Could vouchers foil tax increase?

Most seats were taken in the boardroom at district headquarters in Castle Rock but only a handful of people addressed the board, having been told walking in that public comment was limited to the budget.

Some connected the dots to vouchers anyway.

Anne Kleinkopf, the mother of two Douglas County graduates, said she was happy to hear the board was considering a tax request.

But she said it would be “disastrous” to ask for more money “when we are in the process of giving public dollars to private schools in contravention of Colorado state law.”

Leigh Shuster, who has twins in a district elementary school, said some might see the tax question as a referendum on vouchers.

“I believe many voters will lash out come election time … if they believe their tax dollars are financing private school tuition,” she said.

The voucher proposal recommended by staff is little different than what was discussed during three community meetings in February. Of the seven board members, only one, Cliff Stahl, asked any questions Wednesday.

Afterward, Stahl said he was “about 80 percent” in favor of the pilot, though he wanted more details on how the district would hold private schools accountable.

Questions on admissions, accountability

Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen said the district will track the academic growth of voucher students, who will be required to take state tests, to ensure the trend is positive.

In addition, she said, “We would do an annual financial review (of the private schools), an annual parent satisfaction review and an annual student achievement and growth review – by student, by school and by the entire program.”

Dougco Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen responded Wednesday to questions.
Dougco Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen responded Wednesday to questions.
Scott Elliott

Stahl also asked whether private schools participating in the pilot would have to change their admissions criteria.

“What we are saying to the private school partners is they do not have to change their admissions criteria and their admissions process,” said Robert Ross, the district’s attorney.

“For the purposes of accepting students, they can’t discriminate on an area that would be prohibited by law. Except for the religious schools, if they currently use religion as criteria for admission, they don’t have to change that.”

Board President John Carson repeated his conviction that the voucher proposal “contrary to what some people seem to believe, will actually improve the financial situation of the school district.”

He said the proposal is part of Douglas County’s push to innovate in the face of fiscal constraints. Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed $332 million cut in K-12 funding for 2011-12 means a loss of $465 per pupil for the district.

We’re “not going to sit here like lemmings” and do nothing, Carson said.

“I don’t have fears for our system. I think our system will compete very well,” he said. “I am excited about these changes.”

Details of Douglas County’s voucher proposal

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.

*Source: Draft board policy outlining the Choice Scholarship Program pilot. A final draft is expected to be posted Monday before the March 15 vote.

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