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