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Dougco board approves ‘voucher charter’

CASTLE ROCK – Douglas County school board members on Monday unanimously approved a charter school that will serve up to 500 students receiving vouchers this fall as part of the district’s pilot Choice Scholarship Program.

The 7-0 approval comes with one condition – that members of the district accountability committee, who won’t see the charter school application until next month, get the chance to review it and provide input to the board.

That step isn’t likely to make a difference. Colorado law requires every school district to have an accountability committee of parents and community members but its powers are limited to recommendations.

Including the condition in its approval, however, means the Dougco board won’t need to seek an additional waiver for its unusual charter from the State Board of Education, which is expected to vote in August on a host of waivers for the “voucher charter.”

Most charters ask the State Board for certain waivers – such as waiving state law on the employment of teachers so charters have greater control over those they hire and fire. And the State Board typically grants them.

But there’s little typical about Dougco’s Choice Scholarship School or the fact that the State Board of Education is accused in two recent lawsuits filed to stop the voucher plan of helping to develop it.

Going the charter route for a voucher plan

Dougco officials have been working on the charter school since the board’s unanimous 7-0 vote on March 15 to create the voucher plan. It’s seen as the most efficient way to get public dollars to follow students to private schools.

Students receiving vouchers – or “choice scholarships” – will enroll in the charter, which would then contract with participating private schools to provide the students’ educational services. The charter itself will provide little, if any, instruction..

But enrolling all voucher students in one charter will 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 will 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.

Dougco board members, in their resolution on Monday, described the charter as “the most efficient way … to administer and monitor the numerous district reporting and financial obligations.”

The voucher charter, like other Douglas County charter schools, will receive 100 percent of per-pupil revenue allocated by the state for each enrolled student. It will then pass on up to 75 percent of that funding – or $4,575 in 2011-12 – to the parents or guardians of voucher students in checks issued four times a year.

Sue Zloth, with Taxpayers for Public Education, one of the groups suing to stop the voucher pilot, questioned board members Monday about the remaining 25 percent of per-pupil funding for those voucher students.

“Will it go back to help other schools?” she asked, noting, “There’s no mechanism for that” with the voucher charter.

Robert Ross, the district’s legal counsel, later said the other 25 percent will be used to fund the Choice Scholarship School staff, expected to include a head of school and an administrative assistant, which will oversee the pilot. And he said some funding would be used – as has been previously promised – to mitigate any adverse effects of the voucher pilot on district schools.

Still some unknowns with Choice Scholarship School

Ross said the charter school staff and a five-member board of directors have yet to be identified though he expects that will happen in the next month or so.

Dougco board members will appoint the first charter board members, according to the school’s bylaws.

By March 15, 2012, Dougco board members will decide whether to continue the voucher pilot – provided recent lawsuits fail to shut it down.

Ross said the district has 20 days from the June 21 filing of the complaints to respond to them or to file motions to dismiss. He has not decided which action to take.

Today, members of the Institute for Justice have scheduled a morning press conference to announce they’re filing a motion to intervene in the legal battles on behalf of four families whose students have been awarded vouchers.

The institute, based in D.C., is a frequent presence in court actions nationally on behalf of vouchers, including providing support for Colorado’s failed 2003 statewide pilot plan.

Dougco board members met in closed session Monday for about 40 minutes before convening in public and voting with no comment to approve the voucher charter. They also voted to direct district staff to prepare ballot language for a tax increase in November – though they don’t plan to formally decide whether to put it before voters until later this summer.

Check back later today for EdNews’ coverage of the Institute for Justice press conference.