Douglas County School Choice Recap and Update

The Douglas County School District (DCSD) in Colorado instituted a Pilot Choice Scholarship Program this spring, which offers scholarships for up to 500 students living in Douglas County and currently attending Douglas County public schools who have been enrolled for no less than one year. Below is a summary of the program:

  • Participants will receive the amount equal to 75 percent of the per pupil revenue ($4,575 in the 2011-2012 school year) or the actual cost of the Private School Partner’s tuition, whichever is less.
  • The remaining 25 percent of per pupil revenue ($1,525) will stay with the district.
  • If 500 students participate at a cost of $6,100 per student:
    • $2.28 million would go to private schools and $762,500 would stay with DCSD (totaling $3.05 million);
    • DCSD would use $361,199 of its proceeds for administrative overhead, such as monitoring attendance and state testing of voucher students; and
    • The remaining $401,301 would be set aside for “extenuating circumstances,” like aiding a DCSD school that is negatively impacted by the program.
  • During the pilot program DCSD will annually report and review the program to measure its success in meeting the needs of students, including comparative academic performance analysis between pilot program partipants and non-participants.
  • For more information on the pilot program see here.

In order to participate each school is be expected to:

Demonstrate over time that its educational program produces student achievement and growth results… at least as strong as what district neighborhood and charter schools produce.

After the program passed a unanimous 7-0 DCSD vote, it faced legal challenges; the Independence Institute’s Education Policy Center reports:

On June 21, 2011, plaintiffs including the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a legal complaint against the Choice Scholarship Program. Two weeks later plaintiffs submitted a formal injunction request. A three-day hearing (August 2-4) in Denver District Court resulted in a ruling by Judge Michael A. Martinez to enjoin the program. More than 300 Douglas County students had enrolled in a private school partner for the 2011-12 year, and some had begun class as of the August 12 decision. Judge Martinez determined that “the threatened constitutional injuries…outweighs the threatened harm the injunction may inflict on” scholarship students and families.

Some defendants have promised to appeal the injunction ruling, and the case is expected to reach the Colorado Supreme Court.

According to Education News Colorado, a second lawsuit was recently filed in Denver District Court by a Douglas County group called Taxpayers for Public Education, which opposes the pilot program.

Today Douglas County’s pursuit of school choice took another turn. Carlos Illescas of The Denver Post reports that despite the judge’s injunction, the private schools that agreed to enroll students through DCSD’s pilot program are standing by those students and allowing them to attend class without scholarship funding. If the court rules the program is unconstitutional then the schools will lose the money they’re expecting from the district. This case is certainly one to watch in the months ahead.

For the latest updates on this story, see Independence Institute’s Education Policy Center website. For more on school choice and education reform, see Reason Foundation’s education research archive.