Rubric's Cube: Understanding Colorado's Recent Voucher Grade

We’re all instinctively wary of being graded, I think. Being evaluated can make you a little nervous, and there’s always that slight moment of panic as a teacher hands back an exam. Yet, that information often proves to be extremely valuable. A good evaluation helps you identify strengths, weaknesses, and things you’ll do differently moving forward. Still, it’s always important to look at the rubric being used when you interpret results.

Today, the Center for Education Reform released a new report that grades voucher programs across the United States.  Being well-informed readers of my blog, many of you may recognize the template; the organization has previously released reports that grade state charter laws (Colorado outscored all but eight other states) and scholarship tax credit programs. The voucher grades, however, are brand new.

I know, I know. You want to know how Colorado on the test. But like that infuriating teacher that stands in front of the class making small talk while his students sweat bullets over the stack of graded tests in his hand, I’m going to make you wait. Yes, I’m that guy.

First, let’s talk about how the evaluation was designed and how the results looked overall. The grades were based on eligibility requirements, design elements, and the degree of autonomy granted to participating private schools. You can see a detailed grading rubric here. Only three states—Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin—got an A. Three more states got a B, seven got a C, and two got a D. The grades were based on eligibility requirements, design elements, and the degree of autonomy granted to participating private schools. You can see a detailed grading rubric here.

As for Colorado, well, we got a C. Don’t panic yet, though. That grade is based entirely on Douglas County’s Choice Scholarship Program, which is, as I’ve detailed before, currently tied up in legal proceedings and awaiting its day before the Supreme Court. As you may remember from one of my previous posts, Douglas County recently received support in the form an excellent empirical amicus brief filed jointly by the Independence Institute and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

So which factors dinged the Choice Scholarship Program in this evaluation? The first is size. The CER report lauds the program for making all public school students in Douglas County eligible for participation, but initial participation is capped at 500 students to the program being a pilot.

Interestingly, this is an important piece of the upcoming litigation; Douglas County responsibly designed the Choice Scholarship Program as a pilot precisely in order to allow for tweaks and course corrections should they be necessary. There is essentially no research on large-scale, universal voucher system in the United States, after all.

The second factor that played into the C grade was the program’s voucher value cap, which is set at 75 percent of state funding for each student. Like CER, I’d love to see that value be higher for a variety of nerdy policy reasons discussed in the amicus brief I mentioned earlier.

Even so, the cap exists to mitigate one of the most frequently cited “problems” with voucher programs: they pull too much money away from public schools. Dougco’s cap guarantees that the district will actually save money for each student who leaves a traditional public school to participate in the program.

All of this is to say that, despite the grading rubric applied in this case, Douglas County is doing pretty well. In fact, if (when?) the Colorado Supreme Court rules in favor of the Choice Scholarship Program, the district has a strong foundation to learn from and build upon moving forward. Here’s hoping that decision comes soon.