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Denver-based private school scholarship provider to expand to Houston, Wyoming

The largest provider of scholarships subsidizing private school tuition for low-income Colorado students is launching an expansion just as the role of private schools in U.S. K-12 education is being thrust into the spotlight in the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Denver-based ACE Scholarships operates in Colorado and three other states now and is set to grow with a new national team and looming expansions this fall into two other markets.

The nonprofit was created in 2000 by oil and gas businessman Alex Cranberg, a conservative school choice proponent who has spent his own wealth to influence Colorado politics in the past. ACE expanded to Montana, Louisiana and Kansas beginning in 2012.

The latest expansion — starting in Wyoming and Houston — is funded by a $1.5 million gift from Stand Together, a nonprofit backed by billionaire libertarian businessman Charles Koch.

“We’re very enthusiastic about families who are able to go to the school that’s right for them,” Norton Rainey, ACE’s president and chief executive officer, said in an interview. “It’s totally about opportunity. It’s about leveling the playing field.”

This year, ACE provided 4,000 scholarships in Colorado, Montana, Louisiana and Kansas. About half of the recipients live in Colorado. The only requirement to be eligible is that the family’s income qualify it for government subsidized lunches at public schools.

Scholarships are capped at $3,000, which doesn’t come close to covering the full cost of participating schools’ tuition, with average more than $8,000. Families usually contribute more than $2,000 each year, ACE said. The schools will often waive a portion of tuition, as well.

Research is mixed on the success of private schools. One recent study from the University of Notre Dame found students using vouchers to attend private schools did worse in math after leaving public schools.

To track how their scholarship recipients are doing, ACE says it hired an independent statistician to compare the results from standardized tests given by private schools to the state’s.

According to ACE, Colorado high school students who have won an ACE scholarship averaged a 20.9 ACT composite score in 2014-15. That’s compared to 17.3 to their peers in metro Denver school districts. And 87 percent of students in the class of 2015 who started at a private school their freshman year graduated within four years. The metro area average was 77.2 percent.

President Trump during the campaign promised to spend up to $20 billion in federal tax dollars to incentives states to allow use of taxpayer money on private school tuition. His pick for education secretary, Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos, supports private school vouchers.

Voucher opponents say they siphon off much needed funds from public schools trying to improve. And in numerous states, including Colorado, vouchers have been deemed unconstitutional given the religious nature of many private schools.

Rainey said he believed public and private schools could and should co-exist.

“We do want to see healthy public schools,” he said. “And if a public school is doing better than a private school and the private school goes out of business — fine with me.”