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Advisory group questions ‘voucher charter’

CASTLE ROCK – Five parents who serve on Douglas County’s district accountability committee asked lots of questions Tuesday about the voucher charter school slated to open this fall.

The charter school will serve as the administrative home of the 500 students awarded vouchers – worth $4,575 in state and local tax dollars – to private schools in Colorado’s first district-driven voucher pilot.But the students won’t actually attend classes in a charter school – instead, they’ll be enrolling in the 19 or more “private school partners” approved by the district to accept vouchers in 2011-12.

“As far as we know, nothing like this has been done anywhere,” Robert Ross, the district’s legal counsel, said Tuesday in response to questions. “There is not a pattern for this, we’re creating it.”

District leaders say they’re creating the Choice Scholarship School because it is the most efficient way of tracking the achievement, attendance and funding for students enrolled in the voucher pilot.

Questioning the legality of admissions policies

The idea of using the state’s Charter Schools Act to further a voucher program clearly sparked concern for some members of the district accountability committee.

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Kevin Leung, a committee member who also is a plaintiff in one of two lawsuits filed to stop the voucher pilot, repeatedly cited sections of the law in questioning district staff.

For example, Leung pointed out that state law prohibits a charter from discriminating against students on the basis of religion and the need for special education services.

But 15 of the 19 approved “private school partners” to date are religious and many weigh a student and parent’s religious affiliation in their admissions policies. Some schools state they’re not a good fit for students with disabilities.

For example, Southeast Christian School in Parker “reserves the right to deny admission to any student whose needs we cannot meet or who compromises the expressed mission, goals, purpose, safety or philosophy of Christian education,” its application states.

And Valor Christian High School in Highlands Ranch, in its application, notes ““We do not have a special education program or resource program at Valor as our admissions standards preclude having a population with significant need.”

So, Leung asked Ross, how is the Choice Scholarship School a legal charter?

Ross said that the charter school itself doesn’t prohibit student participation based on religion or other factors. The few criteria to be part of the pilot include living in Douglas County and prior enrollment for at least a year in a Douglas County school.

Once a student is selected for the pilot, he said, it’s up to the families to decide which private school is a good fit: “The remainder is parental choice.”

Choice Scholarship School still needs state approval

By law, district accountability committee members are charged with reviewing all charter applications and making recommendations for approval.

But their input is advisory and school board members, who vote on the applications, have the final say.

In the case of the Choice Scholarship School, Dougco board members already approved it last month – on the condition that the committee review the application and provide input to the board within 48 hours of its meeting.

If the committee opts not to provide input, the application is deemed approved without condition. If input is provided, the board then has the opportunity to address it.

Kevin Larsen, the committee chair, said its recommendations will be sent to the school board by week’s end and then made public. School board members meet Tuesday.

The Choice Scholarship School is still subject to approval by the State Board of Education, which is expected to consider the application at its August meeting.

Ross said district leaders have met with Colorado Department of Education staff about the creation of a charter and “got favorable reviews from them.”

About 25 people attended the district accountability committee meeting and seven made public comments, with speakers for and against the voucher pilot.

At one point, Becky Barnes of Castle Rock, who supports the pilot, stood and asked whether Leung should review the charter application as a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the pilot.

Leung responded that some committee members were discussing running for the school board with the county Republican Party, which backed several pro-voucher board members in the last election.

“This will be a collaborative process,” Larsen, the committee chair, said. “We’ll figure out how to do that.”