The upcoming Douglas County School District school board election is gaining national attention. Douglas County is the third largest district in Colorado serving 67,000 students. This hits close to home for me since this is the school district that I grew up in and went to school from kindergarten through high school. The election is gaining more recognition than most because it centers around the controversial issue of vouchers.
In 2011, the school board approved a voucher/scholarship legislation, in a 4 to 3 vote. According to the non-profit journalism organization, The Colorado Independent, the legislation proposed giving approximately $6400 to students in the district to give them the option of attending a private school, religious or non-religious, that is either in or outside of the district. After the school board approved the proposal, the legislation was sent to the Denver District Court where it was blocked. Douglas County appealed and sent the legislation to the State Supreme Court where it was forwarded to the U.S. Supreme Court. The past June, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the case and sent it back down to the Colorado Supreme Court. On July 31, the Colorado Supreme court sent the proposal back down to the district court where it waits for further review. The terms of the four board members that voted for vouchers in 2011 are now coming to an end, leaving four very influential seats up for grabs in this election. If even one seat is filled by a candidate that does not support vouchers, the legislation could die. However, if four candidates that support the vouchers program win the open seats, the voucher proposal could go back through the courts. Right now, these four candidates have grouped together and are termed Elevate Douglas County. These individuals are united in the idea of expanding school choice opportunities in the district.
This past January, the Center for Public Education (CPE) released an updated report looking at the effects of school choice policies on students. One conclusion that came about was “school choice works for some students sometimes, are worse for some students sometimes, and are usually no better or worse than traditional public schools” Basically, the evidence is unclear because school choice can look very different depending on the individual policy and the context. However, CPE’s report did highlight a study of the Louisiana voucher program. In the study, the public-school students that participated in the voucher program and attended private schools lost academic ground in both math and Language Arts over a two-year period but began to recover by the third year.
CPE’s report concludes with two warnings to education policy makers. First, “there is no reason to conclude that choice in itself will produce better outcomes.” Choice does not translate into better student achievement 100% of the time, so it should not be treated as a guaranteed method to boost student learning. Second, “policymakers who are considering supporting parents who wish to choose private schools or homeschooling should be aware that very little is known about the overall efficacy of schooling outside of public schools.”
Only 1% of students in the United States use vouchers, and only 10 states have approved voucher programs. Clearly, this is not a widely adopted policy effecting a large number of students, so much is still unknown about the effects it can have in different contexts. Some studies on vouchers have reported test score gains for low-income, African American students who have taken advantage of voucher programs, however, as someone who grew up in Douglas County, “low-income” is not a commonly used term to describe area. The district is located in the fifth wealthiest county in the nation, with only 3.5% of the population in 2015 earning below the poverty level according to the Douglas County Demographic Summary. This is a very different type of community than those that have reported success from vouchers in the past.
When I was a student in the district, vouchers had not yet become a hot button topic. The issue around vouchers in the district has sparked a heated debate because there is a lack of agreement about the actual effectiveness of these programs. Whatever happens in next month’s election, we’ll be watching to see how school choice in Douglas County plays out.