By Marjorie Haun | Watchdog Arena
The fight for a universal school voucher program in Colorado’s innovative Douglas County School District has lasted for years, but late in June the latest skirmish in the battle was won by the opponents of school choice.
The battle began several years ago in Colorado Springs when reform-minded conservatives ran for, and won, a majority of seats on the Douglas County School Board. They quickly devised reforms, including a voucher system allowing those students who desired an alternative to public school to attend private schools, including those run by faith-based organizations. The “Choice Scholarship” voucher allowed $4,500 in education funds to follow a student to the school they believed was the best fit for their educational needs.
Opponents challenged the “Choice Scholarship Program” in 2013, but it was found by the Colorado Court of Appeals to be within constitutional limits. Undaunted, the detractors continued their legal challenges to the program, and last week the Colorado Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional.
The most recent ruling was based on the fact that public dollars were being spent to educate some children in schools run by churches. Despite improvements in overall academic performance and parent empowerment, opponents argued successfully that no public monies can go to religious schools. Proponents of the voucher system remain optimistic, with the Douglas County School Board promising to take the battle to the federal courts.
The groundbreaking school choice program in Douglas County, however, had become a model for numerous other school districts, and its overturning by the Colorado Supreme Court may have far-reaching implications. In a July 1 interview with Watchdog Arena, Pam Mazanec, a member of the Colorado State Board of Education, speaking for herself and not the board, said:
“I would guess that other school districts interested in formulating their own school choice programs might now wait to see the outcome for Douglas County’s program, should it go to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, Douglas County has indicated they will seek to implement the program with non-religious private schools, and if so, other districts may do the same.”
The voucher program was just one facet of the school reforms implemented in Douglas County. Market-based pay and locally-tailored teacher and student assessments were also successfully implemented. This Colorado Springs school board has been praised and panned, but its innovative and bold approaches have been the subject of national attention.
Pam Mazanec appeared optimistic about the effect the court ruling may have on such innovation. She went on to say:
“I think Colorado can still be innovative and bold in providing alternatives within public education, as they have been–new ideas are certainly being formulated, but access to private schools remains a barrier to many parents most in need of that option.”
Numerous states have voucher programs, which, unlike the Douglas County Choice Scholarship Program, are often limited to students with qualifying disabilities, at-risk students, and students in foster care, children of active-duty service members, or other factors.
However, the “School Voucher Laws: State by State Comparison” on the National Conference of State Legislatures website indicates that, although there are qualifying limitations for student applicants, there are currently no explicit prohibitions against religious schools.
And that seems to be the crux of the argument. Private schools—particularly those run by religious organizations—are the first choice of many parents and students. Private schools generally have higher academic achievement than public schools in the same area. Studies have shown that this is not simply because higher-achieving students prefer private schools, but that all students, including minority and under-privileged students, perform better outside of the public system.
Ann Tisue, a member of the Mesa County Valley School District in Western Colorado, was perplexed by the ruling. She spoke with Watchdog Arena:
“If the aim is for the best education possible for students, and for a cost-efficient education, then it seems rash to ignore the option of private schools. The Dougco voucher system gives 75 percent per pupil funding- hence eliciting cost savings for every student educated through vouchers. This is not stripping money from the public school system; it is saving 25 percent per student for the public school system. If instituted in all of Colorado, it would allow much higher funding of remaining students in public schools.”
Since student performance is up, and the potential to save the public school system in Douglas County is obvious, it may ultimately be the “religious” aspect which determines school choice cases. The American Federation for Children counsel, Kevin P. Chavous, however, denounced the court’s decision with this comment:
“We are deeply disappointed in the Court’s ruling and what it means for children in Douglas County and the entire state of Colorado. We are saddened that the Court decided to take power away from parents to make education decisions on behalf of their children.”
Judith Reynolds, a member of the Douglas County School Board, also spoke to Watchdog Arena, and echoed the sentiments of others disappointed by the ruling. She stated:
“Disappointed. That is the word that best describes the reaction of parents and students who were potential recipients of vouchers from DCSD. It also describes my own reaction. While this may eventually be sorted out at the U.S. Supreme Court, the opportunity for educational choice for the 500 or so students who were part of the original pilot program, slated to start in 2011, has passed.
Parents should be the drivers behind what is best for their children, not the system. For a system of education to be responsive to the needs of all students, it needs to be flexible and offer a wide variety of choices. The voucher program was designed as a pilot to attempt to meet the needs of the students who our current system is not serving well. Now those students have once again been put in limbo by those that think they know what is best for children that are not theirs.
As a parent, my heart breaks for the families that this program was designed to help. If the goal is to educate our students, we should not care where and who is doing the educating, only that it is being done in an environment that works for that child’s success. Thank you to those that are standing up for children and your willingness to stand for what is right.”
Correction: Reforms began in Douglas County’s Castle Rock, not Colorado Springs.
This article was written by a contributor of Watchdog Arena, Franklin Center’s network of writers, bloggers, and citizen journalists.