It’s been clear since before her first day on the job that U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is all about school choice. She has a long record of supporting school vouchers in her home state of Michigan, so it is no surprise that she is proposing school vouchers as a means of providing families with educational alternatives to failing public schools.
This is an interesting shift from the rhetoric of the late 1980s and early ’90s that placed magnet schools center stage, and from the Obama administration’s push for charter schools. But unlike in years past, what’s happening on the national education stage has little to do with what’s going on in the nine school districts in and around Colorado Springs, especially as it relates to school vouchers.
Vouchers allow families to take a percentage (50 percent, 90 percent, or 100 percent depending upon state policies) of the per pupil revenue their local district would have received on behalf of their child and apply it toward private school tuition or toward educational expenses associated with homeschooling. Vouchers are not a school choice option in Colorado Springs because the state’s only voucher program was ended in January 2017 for violating Colorado’s constitution, which has a no-aid provision that prevents public dollars from being used to fund religious education. But even if Colorado did have a voucher program, private school tuition in Colorado Springs is as high as $29,900, so even the highest voucher of $8,277 in Harrison School District 2, at 100 percent value, offers little discount for most Colorado Springs families.
Coloradoans instead take advantage of Colorado’s designation as an open-enrollment state. This means families can choose to enroll their children in schools other than their neighborhood school. The catch is that not all school districts or schools guarantee transportation to “choice” students or have space or staffing to accommodate them. There are also murky rules guiding when schools can deny students admission, such as if the school determines it doesn’t have the resources to meet the student’s learning needs or if the student doesn’t meet the requirements for a particular academic program. The number of families participating in open enrollment in Colorado Springs is unclear, but 12.3 percent of Colorado Springs students attend public charter schools and 2.5 percent are enrolled in one of the state’s 28 magnet schools.
Like vouchers, charter schools have a financial cost to local school districts. For each child present in school on “count day” (the day when the government counts the number of students enrolled in each school), charter schools receive 85-95 percent of per pupil revenue from their local school district (the average per pupil revenue of D-2, D-3, D-11, D-12, and D-20 is $7,902). The remaining money stays with the school district, or in the case of state-authorized charter schools, goes to the authorizer and the state department of education.
Secretary DeVos hoped to increase charter, magnet, and school voucher funds through a $1 billion Opportunity Grant initiative in the Department of Education budget. But for the second year in a row, Congress rejected Secretary DeVos’ school choice budget proposal, even though it cut the budget by about 3 percent. These cuts would have come at the expense of after-school programs, student mental health services, work study programs, Pell Grant funding, and by reducing the budget for the Office of Civil Rights. The only concession toward school choice in the approved budget was a $45 million increase in charter school grant funding, bringing that budget to $445 million.
As the majority of public school budgets are disproportionately funded at the local level in Colorado, it doesn’t look as if the national battle over school choice will affect us much here in Colorado Springs.
So, while Secretary DeVos and Congress battle it out, we would do well to dedicate our efforts to improving our existing school choice options, rather than worry about expanding them.
Manya Whitaker, PhD is an assistant professor in the Education Department at Colorado College.