School district begins public dialogue about school choice

Posted 11/18/10

Hours before public comment began on the Douglas County School District school choice proposal, district officials discussed the controversial plan …

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School district begins public dialogue about school choice


Hours before public comment began on the Douglas County School District school choice proposal, district officials discussed the controversial plan to share a choice that stops short of a voucher.

Douglas County School District superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen hoped to clarify a few misconceptions. Among them: The district has nothing set in stone when it comes to school option certificates; the board’s proposal for option certificates are not like traditional school vouchers; option certificates are not interlinked with the board’s proposal for contract schools; and the final concept remains a moving target.

“It’s so early in the process, the conversations I’m having right now are ‘stay tuned,’” Fagen said. “We don’t know what this looks like yet.”

The school board hosted a retreat Nov. 13 to discuss the school choices available to district parents, including a draft for contract schools and option certificates, which the board aims to distinguish from school vouchers. With more than 30 people in attendance at that meeting and another 32 on the Nov. 16 board agenda for public comment, board members know the dialogue is just beginning.

The board assembled a task force over the summer to study the school options available in Douglas County. The task force presented a pair of new options in the way of contract schools, private schools that can qualify for the district’s per pupil funding, and option certificates, an option for parents to take their child’s per pupil funding to a private school of their choice.

Contract schools would be subject to qualify through a district-issued set of criteria, including performance outcomes, to allow the school to enter into a contract with the district. For every student that opts to attend that contract school, the school district would hand over that student’s state-issued per-pupil-funding directly to the contract school.

According to the board’s executive summary of contract schools, a contract school cannot be religious in nature.

The proposal for option certificates is similar to school vouchers, with one exception, Fagen said. Option certificates would allow parents to take their child’s per-pupil funding to a school of their choice, including religious institutions, as long as the school meets other district criteria. Among the criteria for a qualified option certificate school are that the school provides a quality education program that matches the board’s End Statements, financial stability, safety, sound employment, enrollment and student conduct policies.

What makes option certificates different from vouchers is that an option certificate is not a blank check, said John Carson, Douglas County School Board president. While traditional vouchers go directly to the school with no questions asked, in Douglas County, any participating school would have to qualify to receive option certificates, he said.

“That’s why we had this legally scrubbed,” Carson said. “It’s likely to be a small-scale pilot program targeted at special education kids.”

The task force began its work on option certificates and contract schools with an analysis to consider the legal hurdles the district could face with its proposals. Carson cites a 2003 Colorado Supreme Court decision to shut down a voucher program passed by the Colorado Legislature. He notes among the reasons for the high court decision was the fact that the voucher program was not a district-driven initiative.

“We believe we can put together a plan that can be compliant with Colorado and federal law,” Carson said. “If a local school district is doing it, you’re in a better position.”

Despite the constitutional provision prohibiting the use of public money for private or religious schools, precedent has long been set by federal grant and educational programs, Carson said. Any higher education student armed with federal grant money can choose to spend that money at a school of his or her choice, religious or not, he said. Whether the district is positioning itself for a drawn-out legal battle is too soon to guess, Carson said. The board does not have a firm plan to present to other school districts but is not afraid to have those “difficult conversations,” he said.

“We welcome that dialogue,” Carson said.

The school board convened Nov. 16 for its regular board meeting and planned to open public dialogue about the school-choice proposal.

“We believe we can put together a plan that can be compliant with Colorado and Federal law.”

Douglas County School District Board President John Carson on the board’s proposal for school option certificates, or vouchers.

When will this happen?

The Douglas County School District board of education on Nov. 16 begins public dialogue about school choice. The board aims to raise the bar for district parents with a wider variety to school choices, including contract schools and option certificates. While school board President John Carson believes the district can launch a plan by the 2011 school year, district superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen is not as optimistic.

“Ask me and I’ll say 2012,” Fagen said. “We want to be sure we have the time and energy to do this right. This is one of many things we’ve got going on right now.”

The board plans to unveil its school choice program in three phases, beginning with a new website in early 2011. Working from recommendations provided by its school choice task force, the district is gathering information from neighborhood schools to provide an online “map” for parents to use as they make their school choices.

If Phase I goes as planned, the new website will provide an easy way for parents to select a school of their choice, based on options available at neighborhood schools. Faced with the question of whether a contract school or option certificate program indicates a breakdown in the competitive quality of neighborhood schools, Fagen responded that nothing could be further from the truth.

“We believe we have the best school district in the state and parents in Douglas County are highly educated and very involved,” Fagen said. “They are already shopping our schools. We are looking for ways to meet the needs of every single student.”

The board enters into the public discussions with a goal to assemble a draft plan for contract schools and option certificates by the end of December, Fagen said. Beyond that, board members do not know when Phase III could begin.

“I’m in favor of putting all of the options out there and having the board decide where they want to go,” Carson said.


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