A different kind of voucher plan

A pastoral scene in suburban Douglas County.
A pastoral scene in suburban Douglas County.

Parents in Douglas County get their chance tonight to weigh in on the state’s first serious voucher proposal since the Colorado Supreme Court struck down a 2003 law.

Details of the “option certificates” proposal are still in flux and, because of that, so are the legal risks.

“We have not explored what we might do and we don’t have any immediate plans,” said Jeanne Beyer, spokeswoman for the Colorado Education Association, which did much of the legal heavy-lifting to defeat the earlier plan. “But we are saying officially that we are opposing what they are considering doing.”

Discussion by Douglas County school board members during a weekend retreat sparked key questions about the proposal, including:

  • Would vouchers be a financial gain or drain on a district that cut millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs to balance its 2010-11 budget?
  • Should the district allow participating private schools to keep their admissions policies intact, even if those policies refuse to admit students or hire teachers with different religious beliefs?
  • How many of the district’s nearly 60,000 families would make the jump to private schools? Of 4,361 respondents in a July survey, 9 percent checked “private” as their most desired school type.

Board President John Carson told his colleagues that “all options are on the table” as they explore what the final proposal might look like.

“If you just basically believe as I do, that competition and choice in anything gets you a higher quality, I believe we should look at it because we’ve got clear problems in this country with the results we’re getting in public education,” Carson said.

“We have a clear problem in this country but, relative to Douglas County, that may not be the case,” shot back board member Clifton Stahl, referring to the affluent district’s high achievement. “I wholeheartedly agree with you in terms of the competition, but at what cost?”

Lowering the litigation risk

Colorado’s third-largest school district may be best known for rapid growth, affluence – only Aspen reported a lower student poverty rate last year  – and high test scores.

Voucher basics
  • Students enrolled in Douglas County schools could receive up to 75 percent of per-pupil funding to attend private and religious schools in the county. School board members are considering a small pilot program to begin in fall 2012.

Learn more

But the all-Republican school board, swept into office last November, is looking at a range of ideas that could transform Douglas County into a national model of parental choice. That includes home-schooling centers, an RFP process for new schools and open enrollment.

Vouchers are the most controversial element, and board members seem well aware of the legal risks.

“What would it cost us to defend something like this?” Stahl asked during a working dinner on Friday.

“The litigation risk is a function of scale,” said board member Craig Richardson. “If we do something small and piloted, then I think the litigation risk is lower. If you go with something that is full-scale, the litigation risk is higher … go all the way to the Supreme Court and I think it’s seven figures.”

Eric Hall, the Colorado Springs attorney who helped write the 2003 voucher law and who recently drafted the Dougco plan, said the district might lower its risk by tweaking parts of the proposal.

For example, the way it’s written now, private schools would be required to follow state and federal anti-discrimination policies in admissions and employment – with the exception of religious belief.

“A religious school could say, we would not accept a student because they have a certain religious belief?” Stahl asked.

“Yes,” Hall said. “There are religious schools in Colorado that, for instance, have statements of faith … if you want to come to our school, sign our statement of faith saying I profess these same beliefs.”

The board could require schools not to discriminate on the basis of religion, Hall said, but he added, “It’s going to be less likely you’ll get private schools to participate if you force them to change who they are.”

Discrimination in admissions became an issue during the state’s short-lived voucher pilot in 2003, when a Lakewood Baptist school that prohibited homosexual students sought to join the program.

Financial gain or drain?

Much of the board’s weekend discussion focused on the financial implications of vouchers, with some members contending they’ll be a clear gain for the district and others not as certain.

Image of Clifton Stahl

The proposal calls for the voucher to be either equal to a private school’s tuition or 75 percent of the per-pupil funding Douglas County receives from the state, whichever is less. That works out to just under $5,000.

The district would keep the other 25 percent of the per-pupil funding, or about $1,600 per voucher student.

“We need to do a really good job explaining to people that if we were to implement any kind of proposal that it would not result in a net loss of teachers, it would not result in mass chaos at local schools,” said board member Meghann Silverthorn, “because that’s what people are afraid of.”

Hall, the attorney, said the district gains in two ways. First, the program might draw back some of the 2,500 students who leave Douglas County schools every day for another district. It might also entice students living in nearby districts to cross the county line. So that’s 25 percent more per student than the district is currently receiving.

Image of Craig Richardson

And, yes, some students currently enrolled in neighborhood schools might exit for private schools, Hall said. But that could happen anyway and the voucher plan means the district keeps 25 percent of their funding dollars, rather than losing it all.

Board member Dan Gerken said the district could end up making money. Consider, for example, if the growing district enrolled 500 new students one year and another 500 students chose vouchers.

“We’re left with the same number of kids and, all things being equal, more money to educate them with because of the 25 percent,” he said.

Other board members were more skeptical. Stahl pointed out that the plan calls for a new office to run the voucher program and questioned whether the overall effect might be a stagnant enrollment.

And Richardson said the number of new students in Dougco, which has seen its growth spurt slow, could be less than those current students departing with vouchers in hand.

“I believe to be credible, we have to say this is a debate about a potential concept for additional choice,” he said. “But we can’t say, at this time, that it will be profitable.”

Figuring out supply and demand

More than 8 in 10 Douglas County students are enrolled in neighborhood schools and another 6 percent attend charters. The others attend alternative, magnet and online programs.

In that July survey of more than 4,300 parents, 84 percent said they were satisfied with their current school. But they also said they were interested in other options.

Image of Eric Hall

For example, 10 percent of parents with students in neighborhood schools listed private schools as their desired school type and 15 percent of those with kids in charters said they preferred private schools.

Extrapolate those figures out over the district’s 60,000 students and that means thousands of families are likely to consider vouchers.

Those demand numbers are imprecise but fuzzier still is the interest on the part of Douglas County’s private schools.

In fall 2009, the Colorado Department of Education listed 11 private schools serving 3,296 students in the county. Seven of those were obviously religious. The list is incomplete, however, leaving out such private school powerhouses as Valor Christian High School in Highlands Ranch.

Valor’s tuition this year is $13,350, plus hundreds of dollars more in books, electives and athletics.

Under the current proposal, a student attending a private school with tuition higher than the $5,000 voucher would have to make up the difference.

That prompted a teacher at the board retreat to question whether some families would be left out.

“So who are you benefiting?” Hall responded. “You’re benefiting those parents who would have liked to send their children to private schools but can’t quite afford it…

“And the market idea is that there are other private schools that would grow up to serve the needs of parents who want to use only the voucher amount.”

Similar questions are likely to crop up as the board today begins taking its voucher proposal to the public. All seven members seemed eager to move ahead and hear what others have to say.

“I remain very optimistic that we can fashion a small pilot program that will be a win-win for all of our stakeholders,” Gerken said.

How can they do that? A legal primer on vouchers in Colorado

This Q & A includes three key cases in the legal history of Colorado’s voucher efforts. Voters in 1992 and in 1998 rejected ballot initiatives for vouchers and tuition tax credits. A 2003 pilot approved by lawmakers was halted by the state Supreme Court before a single voucher was issued.

  • How can taxpayer money be spent on private and religious schools?
  • In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that providing parents with vouchers to pay tuition at private schools does not violate the First Amendment’s ban on mixing church and state. The nation’s highest court, in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, concluded by a 5-4 vote that “neutral educational assistance programs that … offer aid directly to a broad class of individual recipients defined without regard to religion” are legal.

  • Isn’t there an amendment to the Colorado constitution that prohibits this?
  • The Blaine amendment states, in part, that no school district “shall ever…pay from any public fund or moneys whatever, anything in aid of any church…” Eric Hall, the Colorado Springs attorney who drafted the Douglas County policy, points to a 1982 case involving a state grant program to aid college students. In Americans United for Separation of Church and State Fund, Inc. v. State, the Colorado Supreme Court found the state aid benefited the student and not the institution. This distinction shapes the dollar flow – voucher checks sent to private schools are in the parents’ names and valid only if signed over by them.

  • So why was the 2003 Colorado voucher program stopped?
  • The state Supreme Court decision that struck down the Opportunity Contract program in 2004 did not address religion. Instead, the court found that the pilot program for students in 11 districts violated the local control vested in elected school boards by the state constitution. In Owens v. Colorado Congress of Parents, Teachers and Students, the court said the law “directs the school districts to turn over a portion of their locally raised funds to nonpublic schools over whose instruction the districts have no control.”

  • How is Douglas County getting around that ruling?
  • Because it’s a decision by a local school board to include private schools within the district as an educational option, Hall said. The board could be cautious and designate that only locally raised taxes be used for the vouchers – on average, per-pupil funding in Colorado is 35 percent local property taxes and 65 percent state dollars. But Hall doesn’t believe that’s necessary: “I don’t see any barrier to a local district saying we’re providing an educational program that uses some state dollars, just like we use state dollars when we run any other educational program in our district.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”