Let's Shed Light, Not Heat, on Douglas County School Choice Reform Efforts

Update, 11/9: Blogger Ben Boychuk at Somewhat Reasonable gives a plug to Douglas County and to little ol’ Eddie. He echoes our remarks and raises a great point: “Indeed, what if the public schools in Douglas County, Colorado served the interests of taxpayers and parents, and not those of the unions and ranking members of the establishment with a vested interest in preserving the status quo?”

I love it when the Denver Post brings big attention to issues I’ve covered here weeks before. It tells me little Eddie is ahead of the curve. It was true of this summer’s Common Core standards debate, and today it’s true of the Douglas County school board looking to expand the boundaries of parental choice. I wrote on October 18 about the DCSD School Choice Task Force:

The Task Force has looked at a range of changes for possible recommendation and adoption — everything from improving open enrollment policies to enhancing services available to home schoolers to ensuring equitable treatment of charter schools to considering a local private school choice program.

I wrote that after the Board itself publicly reasserted in a public memo:

We believe that informed parents, not Board members, are best suited to determine which schools will best serve the needs of their individual students.

But doing what newspapers do so well, this morning’s Denver Post headline “Douglas County School District considers starting voucher program” latches on to the potential controversy. So let’s engage by providing some clarity. The Post‘s Jeremy Meyer reports concerns about families using public money to choose religious education, then notes:

All six Douglas County private schools that serve students after first grade are Christian-based, according to the Colorado Department of Education. According to the department, about 2,500 students attend those six schools.

“We come from a fabulous school district, and they are high-performing schools,” said Barnard, who is a parent to a high-school student and a recent graduate. “Ninety-eight percent of our parents are very happy with Douglas County schools. I truly believe the Option Certificate Program has the possibility to destroy the district.”

First, let’s set aside the hyperbole. If DCSD is doing a fabulous job and parents are happy, it’s extremely difficult to see how this proposal (still under consideration) would destroy the district. A close look at the proposal shows careful consideration has been given to ensuring public and parental accountability and compliance with existing laws. Any final decision also will have to take those issues into account.

Second, what CDE is reporting is incomplete. The Parker Montessori School has served students beyond 1st grade before, and the Woodlands Academy in Castle Rock (3rd-8th grade) was omitted from the list. Nor does anything preclude the creation of a new legitimate private school if parental demand exists. If not, no harm is done to students.

Also, a couple persons interviewed in the story expressed their concerns about a possible negative fiscal impact on the district were this plan to be adopted. So I respond: What if the plan included private school choice AND provided a fiscal benefit to the district on a per-pupil basis? What if the overall school choice plan (that includes better advertising available options, making the open enrollment process more parent-friendly, enhancing neighborhood school autonomy, improving charter school relations and expanding services to home educators) yields similar benefits?

The main thing right now is to get involved in the public process that started with the School Choice Task Force months ago — and getting involved means getting informed, too. My understanding is that as the different formal proposals are submitted to the Board they will become available for public inspection and review — and that should include online.

This won’t be the last you hear of this story. But now that the Denver Post has taken notice, let’s ensure we are generating more light than heat about the whole process.