The Douglas County School District would take another shot at launching a school voucher program — this time excluding religious schools to abide by a court ruling — under a proposal from a member of the school board’s conservative majority.
In a draft document provided to Chalkbeat, board member Doug Benevento sketches out a proposal to amend the district’s previous voucher program, which the Colorado Supreme Court struck down last June.
Benevento said he has been conferring with board president Meghann Silverthorn and the board attorney on a resolution laying out the amended voucher pilot program. He said he submitted it to Silverthorn for placement on the agenda for Tuesday’s board meeting, which has yet to be finalized.
“This is not the program we wanted to run,” Benevento said. “We did not want to run a program that would force us into a position of making a determination of who is faith-based or not, and be exclusionary based on faith. However, that is the ruling of the Colorado Supreme Court.”
In a 4-3 judgment last June, the state’s highest court held that the district’s Choice Scholarship Program violated a state constitutional provision barring spending public money on religious schools.
District officials petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court and are awaiting word on whether the court will take the case.
The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia complicated matters. If a court short one justice were to hear the case and rule 4-4, it would affirm the state Supreme Court’s decision.
School district officials floated the possibility of a purely secular voucher program last fall. Benevento said Scalia’s death did not play a role in the decision to proceed. He said the district is pressing on with the legal case, and will include language in the amended voucher program that will open it back up to religious schools if the court were to rule in its favor.
Even with religious schools stripped out, any voucher program is certain to be opposed by those against taking taxpayer money out of the public school system to pay for private education.
“This is the very first I have ever heard of anything remotely close to this, so that is a kind of a shock,” said Wendy Vogel, who joined the Douglas County school board after November’s election that saw three challengers unseat conservative incumbents.
“I will say I am against vouchers,” she said. “I always have been against vouchers. But other than that broad statement, I don’t know I could say anything else without seeing what he is presenting.”
Under the amended proposal, the district would develop a process for analyzing the policies, board structures and curriculum of schools that wish to participate and bar those deemed religious as defined in state law, Benevento said.
Of the 23 private schools accepted into the original program, 16 were religious and 14 were outside Douglas County. More than nine in 10 students taking part chose religious schools.
The new plan would abandon another contentious element — establishing a charter school that would have served administrative functions including being the conduit for state per-pupil funding flowing to the voucher program. Benevento said the amended program would be run out of a district office.
He called the charter school discussion a “distraction” — that piece of the program angered many in the charter community — and said it wasn’t necessary for the program to pass legal muster.
As many as 500 students could take part in the new voucher program at any one time, starting as soon as this fall. But it is unclear how many Douglas County families would want to enroll their children in secular private schools, or whether secular private schools in metro Denver have the interest or space to accommodate them.
The school district established its Choice Scholarship Program in 2011 after a conservative takeover of the school board, reasoning that competition can lift all schools even in a district consistently ranked as one of the state’s top academic achievers.
While most voucher programs are restricted to low-income students or those with special needs, Douglas County invited all families to apply — although the program was limited to 500 slots.
The novel attempt to bring vouchers to a wealthy district with no shortage of strong district-run and charter schools attracted national notice.
In 2011, the first 304 students were about to enroll when a lawsuit brought it to a halt. So began the legal fight that continues. District officials have said private donations have covered all costs, which last fall stood at about $1.2 million.
Anne Kleinkopf, a board member of Taxpayers for Public Education, an original plaintiff in the lawsuit against the voucher program, said Thursday she also would need to wait until the full plan is revealed and then review it before commenting.
Given an overview by Chalkbeat, she said: “None of that surprises me.”
The school district could find itself involved in yet more litigation if the amended voucher program gets off the ground and a religious school seeking to take part is turned away.
“Certainly, there is an exclusion of faith-based schools that we would prefer to have included,” Benevento said. “The Colorado Supreme Court didn’t see it that way. If there is some collision between what the Colorado Supreme Court says we are allowed to do and what federal law or previous federal opinions are in this area, that’s possible.”
“Our goal is to provide another option to our parents,” he continued. “But I can’t predict whether there will be additional litigation. I am hopeful to provide the next increment of choice for our parents.”
Here is his draft proposal: