With interest flourishing in the Douglas County voucher pilot, school district officials are working to create the funding mechanism that will allow public dollars to flow through parents to private schools.
Robert Ross, the district’s attorney, said the creation of a district charter school for voucher students is the most likely of three possible options that have been considered, largely because of the flexibility of the state’s charter laws.
“One of the guiding principles here is that we want to make sure that these students are going to be funded,” Ross said Friday. “In order for that to happen, they have to be public school students.”
Creating a district-run charter school for up to 500 students participating in the pilot this fall would provide a single school number used by the Colorado Department of Education for funding purposes. The state’s per-pupil funding is based on enrollment counts in public schools and programs during a ten-day window each October.
And putting all the voucher students together in one charter school would make it easier to track the attendance and performance of voucher students, who must meet the same attendance and annual testing requirements of other public school students, Ross said.
Students receiving vouchers – or “choice scholarships” – would enroll in the charter but the charter would then contract with participating private schools to provide the students’ educational services. So the charter itself would not provide instruction.
“Really this concept is a combination of using the existing law for contracting educational services and the existing charter school law to accomplish the administrative and accountability pieces for implementing the scholarship program,” Ross said.
Under the pilot approved March 15, 75 percent of a student’s per-pupil funding would follow the student to a participating private school. That’s expected to be $4,575 in 2011-12, with the checks being written by the district to parents, who would then sign them over to the private schools. The remaining 25 percent of per-pupil funding would remain with the district.
Using charter, contract laws in a new way
It’s not unusual for Colorado school districts to contract with other providers for educational services. Denver Public Schools, for example, has contracted for years with a private school, Escuela Tlatelolco. And many districts contract with other providers to serve students with severe disabilities.
But combining the two concepts – creating a charter to essentially contract with others to provide instruction – is different.
“This is unlike any other charter that we’ve been involved in – or, I think, anywhere else in Colorado,” Ross said.
Douglas County officials also have considered keeping voucher students on the books at their home schools or enrolling them all in a single traditional district school. But Ross said the flexibility of the state’s charter laws, which allow for waivers of various statutes, make it the most attractive option for a pilot that needs to be up and running for fall. Charter schools often seek, and obtain, waivers of statutes governing teacher licensure, for example.
“That’s probably the direction we’re going to go,” he said, “and that means there’s a lot of work to be done to get that to happen before the start of school next year.”
Typically, a group wanting to create a charter school must submit a detailed application to the district’s school board, obtain board approval and sign a charter contract. The process can take a year or more.
But with waivers, Ross believes the charter for the voucher pilot could be in place in time.
For example, he said he would expect to seek a waiver of the charter school application since Douglas County board members approved the voucher pilot 7-0 and “it seems kind of silly to apply to ourselves.”
He does expect the Douglas County school board would appoint a charter school board to manage the new charter, including overseeing partnerships with private schools accepting the vouchers.
Asking the state Department of Education for advice
State officials, including Education Commissioner Robert Hammond and a representative from the attorney general’s office, have been advising Douglas County in recent months.
“One of the first things we did once our board of education turned this over to the superintendent … was contact the state Department of Education and start talking about, how could this work under existing law?” Ross said. “We’ve been trying to get the best advice we can and they’ve been helpful in giving us that advice.”
Mark Stevens, spokesman for the Department of Education, confirmed staff members have answered questions but he declined to say whether Hammond or others have endorsed the charter funding mechanism or the voucher pilot.
He said he has not seen a detailed outline of the plan and he did not want to comment on what’s been in the media: “Until we see what they send us – a plan or a note or something – we are not going to be weighing in on the concept.”
Ross said the issue is likely to be back before the district school board within six to eight weeks in the form of a resolution or policy creating the new charter school board. He also expects the district would need to ask the State Board of Education for some waivers of state statute, if the charter funding mechanism is pursued.
“The charter concept seems to be the most attractive to accomplish the funding of the students,” Ross said. “That’s probably the direction we’re going to go.”
Meanwhile, interest in the voucher pilot continues to be strong, said district spokeswoman Michelle Tripp.
In the week since the board approved the plan, an estimated 300 families have contacted the district about possible participation as have some 20 private schools. If more than 500 students want to participate, district officials say a lottery will be held.
“The interest has been robust, to say the least,” Tripp said.
Details of Douglas County’s voucher pilot
Who can 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 pilot for 2011-12, up to 500 students may participate. A lottery will be held if more than 500 fill out choice scholarship applications.
- Participating students will be required to take state exams at a time and place designated by the district.
How the money will flow
- 75 percent of per-pupil funding will 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 – will stay with the district.
- The value of the voucher or scholarship will be $4,575 or the actual cost of tuition, whichever is less.
- The district will write checks to the parents of participating students and those parents will sign them over to the private schools they’ve chosen.
- Parents will 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 can participate
- Nonpublic schools located within or outside the boundaries of the Douglas County School District can participate. Kindergarten programs are not included in the pilot.
- Schools will not be required to change their admissions criteria to participate but they will not be allowed to discriminate on the basis of disability or any other area protected by law.
- Schools must be willing to offer a waiver of the religious portion of their program to voucher students.
- Schools must agree to provide attendance data and qualifications of teaching staff to the district.
- Schools will be expected to “demonstrate that its educational program produces student achievement and growth results … at least as strong as what district neighborhood and charter schools produce,” according to 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 will use the money
- Of the $762,500 possible in the pilot year for the district, $361,199 will be set aside for administrative overhead such as providing staff to monitor attendance and state testing of voucher students. A Choice Scholarship Office will be created to administer the program.
- The remaining $401,301 will be set aside for “extenuating circumstances,” including assisting a district school adversely impacted by the voucher pilot.
*Source: Board policy outlining the Choice Scholarship Program pilot, district presentations to community.