They “Gott’er Done” in South Denver!


Here’s a nice WSJ article about a bold school district that decided to issue vouchers to save money.  The best tidbits are italicized.

County Ups the Ante in Voucher War

DENVER—In a bold bid to revamp public education, a suburban district south of Denver has begun handing out vouchers that use public money to help its largely affluent residents send their children to private and church-based schools.

The move is being challenged in state court and a judge has held hearings this week to determine if the program can go forward.

The Douglas County School District experiment is noteworthy because nearly all voucher programs nationally aim to help children who are poor, have special needs or are trapped in failing public schools. Douglas County, by contrast, is one of the most affluent in the U.S., with household income nearly double the national median, and has schools ranked among the best in Colorado.

The program is also unique in that the district explicitly promotes the move as a way for it to save money. The district is, in effect, outsourcing some students’ education to the private sector for less than it would spend to teach them in public schools.

If Douglas County persuades the courts to sign off, it could transform the debate about vouchers nationwide, potentially turning them into a perk for families who want more than even high-performing public schools offer.

“This is a radical idea,” said Claire Smrekar, an investigator at the National Center on School Choice, a federal research organization.

Nationally, most voucher programs are run by states. Qualified students receive a voucher that is accepted as full payment at local private schools.

Douglas County does it differently, acting as middleman between state and student—and taking a cut. The state sends the district $6,100 per pupil; the district forwards 75% to each voucher recipient and keeps the rest. Even after administrative costs, the district expects to make what amounts to a profit of $400,000 this year on the 500 students in its pilot program.

That money will be used to “provide services to the students that are left behind in the regular schools,” district spokesman Randy Barber said.

State education officials consulted with the district on the program and haven’t objected to it.

Opponents, however, fear kids in traditional public schools will suffer. If a high school loses 10 freshmen to vouchers, for instance, it loses more than $50,000. In response, the principal may lay off a math teacher and distribute his students among other instructors, raising class size. The district says it will help the hardest-hit schools, but acknowledges some class sizes may increase.

[This] enrages parent Cindy Barnard, who says it isn’t fair that her son’s education in public schools may be diminished so her neighbors can use tax dollars to pay private-school tuition.

But Derrick Doyle, who plans to use vouchers to send his twins to a religious school, says the district is right to help all parents find the best fit for their kids. Parents dissatisfied with class size at their public school, he said, can always pursue other options.

Indeed, the Douglas County system embraces school choice, already offering charter, magnet and online schools. Officials there say the vouchers are a logical next step, helping parents to access different types of education, including faith-based schooling. “It’s about parents being able to decide what’s best for their children,” said Meghann Silverthorn, a school-board member.

About 20 private schools in the area accept vouchers. They’re a diverse lot, though predominantly religious: A tiny secular academy serving a few dozen first- through eighth-graders; a Jesuit high school with nearly 1,600 students; a church-based school that touts its curriculum as “unashamedly creationist” and Bible-based. One school accepting vouchers serves only gifted kids, another focuses on students with disabilities.

Many are highly selective, requiring entrance exams and, in some cases, statements of faith. Tuition ranges roughly from $7,000 to $15,000 a year, and vouchers only cover the first $4,500 or so; parents must find other aid or pay the rest out of pocket. The most popular school among voucher recipients, Valor Christian High School, charges $14,000 tuition plus fees of as much as $6,000 for books, sports and field trips.

Because the vouchers are being used at religious schools, the move has drawn fire from the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and a parent coalition. All have sued in state court. A ruling on their request for an injunction is expected soon.

Their lawsuit cites a state constitutional provision forbidding public expenditure to support church-based schools. The state Supreme Court has signaled a flexible interpretation, ruling that college students can use state scholarships to attend religious institutions. But Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU of Colorado, says K-12 education is different because young students are more vulnerable to indoctrination.

District officials say they aren’t sending money directly to religious schools. Vouchers go to parents, who decide where to spend them. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a similar arrangement in Cleveland, Ohio.

Critics also say the voucher plan discriminates because most private schools won’t accept disabled or struggling students, and because families can only use the vouchers if they have the resources to pay the rest of the tuition bill. District data show the vouchers have been claimed disproportionately by students in the county’s wealthiest public schools.

Mr. Barber, the district spokesman, says the vouchers were available to all, without regard to ability, faith or wealth. “We really had nothing to do with who chose to take them,” he said.

Write to Stephanie Simon at

Copyright 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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