choice battleground

New-look school voucher program approved by divided Douglas County board

The Douglas County boardroom Tuesday in advance of another voucher vote (Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat Colorado).

CASTLE ROCK — Parents of Douglas County public school students would use taxpayer money to send their children to private schools — but not religious ones — under a revised school voucher program approved Tuesday night by a bitterly divided school board.

Limited in scope, the south suburban district’s School Choice Grant Program would be a pilot open to up to 500 students starting this fall.

The Colorado Supreme Court in June rejected the district’s original voucher program, adopted in 2011, as unconstitutional because it included religious schools. Members of the school board’s conservative majority took two paths in response: petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court, and quietly working to revise the program consistent with the state high court ruling.

After a heated debate, the board voted 4-3 to approve a policy revision essentially reviving the voucher program in a new form.

Board member Doug Benevento, who crafted the revision, portrayed it as a modest proposal to gauge interest and determine whether to proceed on a larger scale.

“One side is trying to expand choice for parents and students,” Benevento said, “and the other side is trying to shut it down.”

Three board members who ousted conservative incumbents in November questioned the timing and short notice, and argued that a voucher program robs public schools of dollars and exposes the district to another lawsuit.

“Private school is not a right,” said board member Anne-Marie LeMieux. “It’s a privilege.”

LeMieux called it a “massive overreach,” citing requirements that participating private schools demonstrate they run a “quality educational program,” prove themselves financial stable and provide copies of employment policies.

The school district established its original Choice Scholarship Program five years ago after a conservative takeover of the school board, arguing that competition can lift all schools even in a district consistently ranked as one of the state’s top achievers.

While most voucher programs are restricted to low-income students or those with special needs, Douglas County invited all families to apply, with a limit of 500 slots. Bringing 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. In a 4-3 judgment last June, the state’s highest court held that the 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.

As of last fall, the legal bill had been run up to about $1.2 million, officials said. The costs have been covered in full by private donations, the bulk of it coming from the Denver-based Daniels Fund, the district said.

Among the details of the proposal approved:

  • The voucher program will be run through a district office that would issue checks in students’ names and send them to participating schools. This is a departure from the 2011 voucher program, which called for establishing a charter school that would have served administrative functions.
  • Vouchers would be worth whichever is less — the full freight of tuition or 85 percent of state per pupil revenue. The superintendent would have discretion to provide more.
  • Students in the program would still take state assessments.

The resolution does not spell out how the district would determine whether interested schools meet the “religious” definition. Benevento has said 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.

During public testimony Tuesday, Cindy Barnard of Taxpayers for Public Education, a plaintiff in the lawsuit against Dougco’s original voucher program, said the new plan is not sound.

“Every dollar put into the voucher program is a dollar taken out of the public school system,” she said.

Said county resident Bob Kaser: “This voucher program is an entitlement scheme for high-income families.”

It is unclear how many Douglas County families would want to enroll their children in secular private schools. 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.

Denver Post staff writer John Aguilar contributed information to this report. 

new plan

Lawmakers want to allow appeals before low-rated private schools lose vouchers

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Rep. Bob Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee, authored HB 1384, in which voucher language was added late last week.

Indiana House lawmakers signaled support today for a plan to loosen restrictions for private schools accepting state voucher dollars.

Two proposal were amended into the existing House Bill 1384, which is mostly aimed at clarifying how high school graduation rate is calculated. One would allow private schools to appeal to the Indiana State Board of Education to keep receiving vouchers even if they are repeatedly graded an F. The other would allow new “freeway” private schools the chance to begin receiving vouchers more quickly.

Indiana, already a state with one of the most robust taxpayer-funded voucher programs in the country, has made small steps toward broadening the program since the original voucher law passed in 2011 — and today’s amendments could represent two more if they become law. Vouchers shift state money from public schools to pay private school tuition for poor and middle class children.

Under current state law, private schools cannot accept new voucher students for one year after the school is graded a D or F for two straight years. If a school reaches a third year with low grades, it can’t accept new voucher students until it raises its grade to a C or higher for two consecutive years.

Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, the bill’s author, said private schools should have the right to appeal those consequences to the state board.

Right now, he said, they “have no redress.”  But public schools, he said, can appeal to the state board.

Behning said the innovation schools and transformation zones in Indianapolis Public Schools were a “perfect example” for why schools need an appeal process because schools that otherwise would face state takeover or other sanctions can instead get a reprieve to start over with a new management approach.

In the case of troubled private schools receiving vouchers, Behning said, there should be an equal opportunity for the state board to allow them time to improve.

”There are tools already available for traditional public schools and for charters that are not available for vouchers,” he said.

But Democrats on the House Education Committee opposed both proposals, arguing they provided more leeway to private schools than traditional public schools have.

“Vouchers are supposed to be the answer, the cure-all, the panacea for what’s going on in traditional schools,” said Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary. “If you gave an amendment that said this would be possible for both of them, leveling the playing field, then I would support it.”

The second measure would allow the Indiana State Board of Education to consider a private school accredited and allow it to immediately begin receiving vouchers once it has entered into a contract to become a “freeway school” — a type of state accreditation that has few regulations and requirements compared to full accreditation.Typically, it might take a year or so to become officially accredited.

Indiana’s voucher program is projected to grow over the next two years to more than 38,000 students, at an anticipated cost — according to a House budget draft — of about $160 million in 2019. Currently in Indiana, there are 316 private schools that can accept vouchers.

The voucher amendments passed along party lines last week, and the entire bill passed out of committee today, 8-4. It next heads to the full House for a vote, likely later this week.

RIP

Senate plan to expand parents’ access to state education dollars dies in committee

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The Senate Education Committee heard SB 534 on Wednesday.

A Senate plan that would’ve given parents of students with special needs direct access to their state education funding was killed yesterday — for now.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said during the Senate Education Committee hearing on the bill that there would be no vote on Senate Bill 534, which would’ve established “education savings accounts” for Indiana students with physical and learning disabilities. The plan would’ve been a major step forward for Indiana school choice advocates who have already backed the state’s charter school and voucher programs.

Kruse said there were still many questions about the bill.

“I don’t want a bill to leave our committee that still has a lot of work to be done on it,” Kruse said.

The Senate bill was one of two such plans winding its way through the 2017 Indiana General Assembly.

House Bill 1591 would create a similar program, but it would not be limited just to students needing special education. Authored by Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, the “radical” proposal is meant to give parents total control over their child’s education.

“The intent of 1591 is to give parents the choice and let the market work,” Lucas said. “…I want to get this conversation started.”

A hearing for the House bill has not been scheduled in the House Education Committee, led by Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis.

Education savings accounts are slowly gaining attention across the U.S.

Similar programs have passed state legislatures or are already operating in Tennessee, Florida, Arizona, Mississippi and Nevada. Advocates have called education savings account programs the purest form of school choice.

But critics of the savings accounts say they could divert even more money away from public schools and come with few regulations to protect against fraud and ensure families are spending the money according to the law.