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Douglas County school board ends controversial voucher program

December 4, 2017 Updated: December 5, 2017 at 6:16 am
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(Marianne Goodland, Colorado Politics)

The Douglas County school board Monday put to bed the district’s controversial Choice Scholarship program, ending a six-year battle to set up the nation’s only district-approved voucher program. 

The vote to end the voucher program, and the legal battle that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, was unanimous: six to nothing. One board member, Kevin Leung, did not participate in the deliberations or the vote, fulfilling a campaign pledge that he would sit out the vote because he is a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the school district.

Leung is one of four board members elected on a campaign pledge to end the voucher program. He initially asked to be excused from Monday’s meeting but was asked to be present as the board would also discuss its search for a permanent superintendent.

The other three — Chris Ciancio-Schor, Anthony Graziano and new board Secretary Krista Holtzmann — all voted to end the program along with board President David Ray, Vice President Wendy Vogel and Board Treasurer Anne-Marie Lemieux.

The Choice Scholarship was authorized in March 2011 by a conservative majority elected in 2009 and backed with tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from wealthy pro-voucher Republicans including Alex Cranberg of Aspect Energy and Ed McVaney, founder of software company JD Edwards.

The program would have given a taxpayer-funded voucher, valued in 2015 at around $5,000, to up to 500 Douglas County students who lived in the district and attend Douglas County public schools for one year.

The Choice Scholarship was the first in the nation to be authorized by a school district. Most voucher programs are created by state legislatures and are targeted to low income students in failing schools.

Douglas County, the fifth wealthiest county in the nation, did not include an income qualifier for its voucher.

Until recently, school board races have generally been low-key (and low-dollar) campaigns. But the big dollars spent in Douglas County and Denver on this year’s races signaled the beginning of radical change in those two school districts around the issue of school choice. In Douglas County, the hot button issue was the voucher program; in Denver, it was charter and “innovation schools.” The Denver school board hiked the number of charter schools from 17 to 60, beginning in 2010, and the number of innovation schools, similar to charters, from seven to 49.

In June 2011, the parents group Taxpayers for Public Education filed for an injunction against the school district to block the program’s implementation. The case wound its way to the Colorado Supreme Court, which in 2015 ruled the program unconstitutional based on the state’s Blaine amendment, which bans the use of taxpayer dollars for religious purposes, including religious education.

The district, the third largest in the state, with more than 60,000 students, received $1.8 million in donations for its legal expenses from the Daniels Fund and the Walton Family Foundation. The district appealed the Colorado high court’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sent the case back to the Colorado Supreme Court last June.

Prior to Monday’s board vote, which took place just after 7 p.m., the board listened to more than an hour of pleas from those who wanted to make sure the new board members held to their pledge, as well as from those who wanted the voucher program to have a chance to work.

During the board’s public comment period, every speaker who addressed the voucher program asked the board to end it.

Bob Kaser called the voucher a “scheme” to “willfully divert” taxpayer funds to private schools, one that’s “difficult to reconcile when we are trying to pursue future funding.”

The district should be a destination for teachers and students, not an export, Kaser added.

The voucher program is “a big pile of garbage and deserves to be thrown out!” according to Tim Krug, a member of the DougCo District Accountability Committee, which advises the school board on spending priorities.

“Our community spoke when we elected” the four new board members, said Julie Keim.

Several speakers noted that private schools are allowed to pick and choose who they enroll, and can discriminate against students with disabilities or those who don’t share the school’s religious affiliation.

“It is a fiction” that vouchers open up choice for every student, said Barbara Gomes Barlow, a former educator.

Vouchers are not a choice, said Meg Masten. Vouchers “are an intentional mechanism to de-fund public education.”

A few had a message for the “outside groups” they said were trying to enact their voucher agendas, identifying Americans for Prosperity, the Independence Institute and the conservative Leadership Program of the Rockies.

Said Stephanie Van Zante, “They don’t live here and aren’t headquartered here. I look forward to the day when their comments on DCSD stop.”

Lemieux noted that the board members got form emails from people supporting the voucher program, but none signed up to speak directly to the board Monday night.

“No one does choice better than Douglas County,” Ray said, pointing to 49 neighborhood schools and 15 charter schools.

“I take offense” to statements that the district doesn’t offer choice, he added.

The board resolution also directs the district to drop the legal fight. Lemieux asked for an accounting of the legal costs, which revealed that in addition the $1.8 million for the Supreme Court fight, the district spent $138,000 to defend a second voucher program that was also never implemented. The district did not receive donations to cover those expenses, meaning taxpayers would have to cover that cost.

Americans for Prosperity announced last Friday it would conduct a “five-figure” effort to persuade the board to support “educational opportunity,” a euphemism for the voucher program.

AFP plans to continue that effort with a petition drive and social media campaign past Monday’s vote.

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