Saturday, August 20, 2011

A Voice Against Vouchers in Douglas County Schools

Currently there is a huge debate in Douglas County over their new school voucher program. I believe they have replaced the word voucher with scholarship, to soften the blow in discussions. My biggest gripe with the word scholarship being used to replaced voucher, is that a scholarship generally comes with the assumption that money is awarded based on academic achievement or financial need that is funded privately by a foundation or trust NOT with public tax dollars. Unfortunately, as I understand it in Douglas County, their vouchers are given out simply by application from a family to a school that is "approved" from their list. School vouchers are something I don't take lightly and I definitely have an opinion on the matter. I don't typically use Eat Play Love as a platform for such issues, but I think my opinion deserves a forum because I am very passionate about education.

I'm trying desperately to stay concise in my views on school vouchers, but I do feel the need to share my background personally and professionally before I move into my stance. I am a Licensed Elementary Teacher in Colorado, I've spent time volunteering and teaching in many educational settings from Boulder Valley (the 1st Charter School in Colorado, may I add) to a Longmont Migrant Worker Housing After School Program to Title 1 schools in Denver Public Schools and Adams County Mapleton Public School District 1. If you don't know Title 1 schools refer to "disadvantaged schools" which have a large concentration of students living in poverty. I've always been drawn to teaching students that deserve an exceptional education regardless of their family's economic status, it's just a part of who I am.

Beyond a professional background, I am a mother of a school age daughter and my second is entering the public school system (in pre-school this year as well). When Sj was entering Kindergarten, we utilized the "open enrollment" lottery option for her in Boulder Valley Schools. Our neighborhood school wasn't a fit for her for a few reasons, but the top reason was schedule. Our neighborhood school operated on a strange 2 full days a week, 1/2 day on Friday system. With Sj being the youngest in her class, I was interested in a 1/2 day, 5 day a week program. We did not get accepted into any BVSD schools of our choice for Kindergarten (you can choose 4), so we opted to enroll her in a Jefferson County Public School that was 2 miles from our home.

The town we lived in for 8 years, with a population 45,000, actually does not have it's own school district, but rather is home to 4 school districts. Enrolling in a neighboring district in our City was not a big deal to us, it's a choice a large percentage families in Colorado have. Open Enrollment is not limited to school district boundaries, you can enroll in neighboring districts. There are examples of students living in Vail and enrolling in school in Denver. It's possible, just depends how far you want to drive. Just generally confirming for our area which is Boulder-Denver metro area, I couldn't find a school district that does not participate in Open Enrollment (it may have a different name, but it's the same thing). The school your child can attend is not solely based on where you live, you can apply for Charter Schools, Focus Schools, Magnet Schools, and other neighborhood schools, based on space availability. Space is only guaranteed in your neighborhood school, if you do not chose to participate in an Open Enrollment Lottery. How a district handles a lottery is at their discretion, BVSD runs a computerized lottery system.

I consider that plenty of CHOICE in education. Thank goodness the educational system of my childhood (which was exceptional actually) is a thing of the past. Your home address does not dictate where your child goes to school. Open Enrollment is a great system that allows for many options within the area surrounding you, beyond district boundaries. I love that about Colorado.

Onto vouchers...

The district under the magnifying glass is Douglas County Schools. In a quick snapshot, Douglas County is a wealthy school district. Their graduation rate is exceptional and 90% of parents are satisfied with their child's education. A miniscule 10% of students receive free and reduced lunch. A quick comparison, Denver Public Schools are at 73% free and reduced lunch, talk about stark contrast! Wow! Douglas county in 2000 had the highest median income in Colorado and in 2009 that average was just over $100,000. Here's DCSD's open enrollment policy information.

Why do those facts matter? Typically in school voucher debates, it's an issue for students living in poverty, mainly in failing inner city schools to give them a better education. Clearly Douglas County does not fit this general model, it's a hugely successful school district with above national average, wealthy families. Families may I add, that don't need tax payer's money to send their children to private school. Do I believe all families living in DougCo are wealthy, NO, but on a whole $4,500 is not going to affect the majority of families ability to fund school. Even a few hundred, if they all had the need, are not the majority in this district, they are considered the minority. I have stated if the process was different and it truly showed a needs based system for a child that could not be serviced by the Public School, I may be open to alternative types of funding kids in THOSE SPECIFIC INSTANCES. As to put a number on that specific need, I'm not quite sure. I can say with confidence, I'm sure it's less than 1% of kids attending DougCo schools. Also, I don't consider most religious based schools equipped to handle very specific special needs children, therefore religious schools should be out of the equation, if this is truly about KIDS.

My opinion in the matter of school vouchers is just addressing K-12 education. I am not blurring the lines with things such as Social Security, Head Start Funding, Pell Grants, Women's Choice, and GI Bills. Those are all based on completely different criteria. K-12 education in the United States is a open to all school aged citizens, free of income status, sex, religion, or any other discriminatory practices, so that is why it remains my focus. 

Tax Dollars:
It is assumed as a citizen of the United States that you pay taxes. If you are a homeowner you pay tax on your home, you pay tax when registering a vehicle, tax on personal purchases, tax on your income. I believe Public Schools are funded with a combination of property taxes and state revenues. Our tax dollars become the government's money which is allocated by Government Elected Officials or Officials appointed by our leaders that were voted into office.

Which means, our tax money is NOT "MY TAX MONEY", it goes into a general fun and is divvied up. We don't directly have a say in our money. If we did, I would assume people with out children or at best school age children would love a kick back of their tax dollars that fund Public Schools. I know I would. So the argument that it's my money, is not much of an argument. It's the State of Colorado's money and a tax system that protects it in such a way.

Public money funds Public Schools.

If I had my way, I would love to funnel my tax money, as I saw fit. In that case I would make sure not one dime of taxes I pay would be used to subsidize Genetically Modified Crops.

Choice In Education:
I've already addressed the choice issue above. No less than 8 school districts from Colorado Springs to Boulder offer Open Enrollment, which means you are not forced by the government to attend one school. You can choose the school that best fits your child's needs.

Problems With Public Funds Being Used For Private Schools:
There's a pretty rigorous system in place that keeps Public Schools and tax dollars in check. Beyond accreditation and hiring teachers that meet State Based Standards, which is complete with Colorado Bureau of Investigations background checks and Licensing tests to compliment a rigorous educational background. To achieve a Teaching License in Colorado, one must first receive an undergraduate degree in a select academic field in addition to two years of training in Teacher Training Program at an accredited University. Not to mention, a teaching License is not something that is handed to you when you finish school. They expire and teachers have to maintain a minimum level of course work to renew their teaching license, which promotes learning in cutting edge philosophies and strategies.

As for Private Schools? We would hope their teachers come with a great background in education, but it isn't mandatory. All private schools set the standards at where they deem fit for their school. I know first hand a Catholic K-12 School in my area, does not require a teacher to have a State of Colorado Teaching License, but rather a Bachelor's or equivalent degree. I don't take for granted my teacher training, as it was an amazing tool to prepare me for real world scenarios, which included a full semester in the classroom with a Master Teacher Mentor.

This next issue is a big one for me. Tax dollars being used to fund Religious Education. Let me allow one of our great leaders Thomas Jefferson to do a little talking for me, in 1802 he stated this,

"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."

If it was Jefferson's wishes to establish a right for Citizens to practice any religion they see fit and protect that right with a separation of Church and State, it is also our right to protect that separation. Those firm beliefs make America the wonderful place that is today, I have no issues with my fellow citizens practicing a religion that meets their needs.  If we fund one religion, we must fund schooling for ALL religions. Even if it's a religion that you vehemently oppose. Funding of religious based schools are a prime example of the government REGULATING and ENDORSING a religion, which is a 1st Amendment FAIL. I personally do not hold one religion in higher esteem to another, so if tax dollars are used to fund a Christian School, they absolutely should be used to fund Jewish Schools, Schools of Islam, Buddhist, Hindu, and all other established religious schools. Where do we draw the line though? Do the Ku Klux Klan Schools deserve such funding of tax dollars as well? Just a thought. The list of approved DougCo voucher schools includes 20+ Christian schools, a pending Jewish School, and no other religions were represented. Coincidence? Is DougCo "endorsing" one religion. Sure seems that way to me.

How is DougCo going to use the $1,500?
In the discussions, Douglas County is calling this a win, win situation. Allowing money that would normally be unavailable to them because a student chooses to attend a private school, they would receive approximately $1,500 of the money, $4,500 would go to families towards tuition. DougCo is anticipating a $400,000 windfall from these vouchers.

Only problem, they are now going to have to be present and regulate the 500 students that are a part of the private education system. These 500 students would still be required to complete State Issued Standardized Tests (CSAP), which would be administered by whom exactly? A DougCo official, I can guarantee. You can not tell me this doesn't mean added positions and new staff on the Administrative level for Douglas County. Bloated Central Administration is already one of the huge ills of our school system, therefore I oppose creating even more overpaid Administrators. My stance is all of that money should go to fund only teachers, or teacher support and classrooms, which isn't possible.

Private Education For All?
Private schools have an application process. They can turn down students for their native language, special needs, income restrictions, generally speaking "societal status", religious backgrounds, and a whole other host of discriminatory practices. I personally do not feel comfortable supporting schools with tax dollars that groom children in such elite manners. If they are a school that is approved by DougCo are they going to change their mission? I highly doubt it.

Public Education, may I emphasize especially DougCo Schools, does a heck of a job offering the best education possible for EVERY CHILD regardless of all of those instances of discrimination I mentioned. Also not to overlook, there are established systems in place for every Public School District to have a fair and due process if you feel your child is being discriminated against by teachers or the school as a whole. In a private school, that is not guaranteed.

Loss of Revenue:
Currently our schools are fighting tooth and nail to hold onto the funding they have left. Vouchers create a grey area that ultimately takes away money from every child. Please refer back to my Central Administration issue.

Related is the current Mill Levy system. Traditionally we have established a voting system to decide if an individual supports an increase via their property taxes to be specifically funded to Public Schools. If there is a stress on our school districts, I can predict we will see more cries for money via a Mill Levy. Right now, this is not what we need.

Conclusion! Yeah! 
As a parent and educator, I whole heartily agree with all parents that want the absolute best education for our children. There is always going to be a percentage of students that slip through the cracks, run into difficult situations, and face odds that are just down right unfair. No one wants that. If it turns out there is a private school that better suits your child, I feel it is in the best interest to seek out that school. If it's private then your family has to seek out ways to fund it.

I am very disheartened by what is happening in Douglas County Schools, as ultimately it's 500 children being caught in this awful debate and drawn out lawsuits. Those children are being hurt by this and it is DougCo's best interest to protect our children, not hurt them. I feel protecting children should be at the top of our priority list, always.

Additional Reading:
Injunction on Douglas County voucher program leaves families, schools in limbo
Mom Off Track: Dougco Voucher Disaster 

Related Links:
Los Angeles Times: Colorado District Has Wealth and Success, An Eye on Vouchers
Districts and their deadlines for Open Enrollment on the Front Range
Separation of Church and State: A First Amendment Primer
Vouchers, What's at Stake?

Posts by me on Education:
Former Posts on Our Open Enrollment Process and Dilemmas! You have to scroll through them, there's a good handful.


4 comments:

  1. Very well presented opinion Denise. Lots of food for thought here.

    I would be interested in hearing an exact accounting from Dougco on how that $1500 is being spent because I admit I have just accepted their statement "Under the proposed program, the district could receive 25 percent of each participating student’s PPR, which is revenue for a child they don’t have to educate – increasing funds available to students remaining in the district. That will save the state and the district money since the cost of a voucher for a participating child is less than what would have been spent on a public school education." without looking into the exact numbers. I would have assumed testing would be carried out by the school of choice so I will clarify that.

    In looking at the list of schools that did apply, I find it interesting that one highly rated private (religious) school in that area is absent. I wonder what the reasoning for them not applying (or not being approved) were and it is something else I need to investigate.

    I am so happy that through all of this debate and attention it appears that most of the families affected have been able to start at their chosen schools under various arraignments.

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  2. Excellent post, Denise! With Open Enrollment as an option for ALL of the school districts in our area (Douglas County included), I just don't understand the need for the private schools to dip into the public funds, ESPECIALLY when so many districts are already hurting! It just doesn't make sense to me.

    As a taxpayer, I understand that my tax dollars go where the elected officials say they go, which is why I try to be as involved as I can in the voting process.

    Thanks for the post!

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  3. Well-written and detailed. When you take emotion out of the issue it is definitely much more detailed and more than just about choice. Choice is not taken away just because the $ is not there. One argument would be from a friend of mine - why can't counties decide how to allocate the revenue they individually collect. Ie. Doug Co voted on this issue and it is only alive and well in Doug co?

    As far as tax dollars, it is interesting to me that people who pay taxes want their money back so they can use it towards a non-public option. I do not get that side of the argument at all because we all pay taxes into things we would not get subsidized- medicaid, welfare, social security. Do I hope to get some of that back someday? Sure... medicare and social security but who knows? The money may run out so it is not an entitlement to get $ you pay for taxes back even in education. And yes, it is a money thing because the kid will get an education no matter what. I think if we start doing programs like vouchers, we do run the risk of comparisons to same yet different programs- don't all kids deserve a shot at healthcare, shelter, food, clothing, and the list goes on? They deserve a fair chance at it all then - education is not any different or better than the other things I mentioned above- they need other things too and then, do we provide that too? Where is this money coming from?

    Now, that being said, the win-win side of vouchers if THIS is true- I DO like it if the county is getting some money for public school- ie. 25% as stated but ONLY if that is going to the public school system and not the hands of the county to use for other things like road construction etc.

    Ultimately, DougCo and the parents of the kids affected should most likely win their court case. I also think terminology should be what it is: VOUCHER- it's not a scholarship- that just makes people feel better about taking public funds but trust me, THIS IS NO SCHOLARSHIP. Second, this has brought me to consider all the other things we should have CHOICE in... CHOICE - you're in favor of choice across the board or nothing at all. Sorry this comment is so long and thanks for writing the other side as well!

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  4. Thank you for giving a clear, well-written, and fact-supported argument. Thank you!

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I always appreciate the gesture to stop and take a moment to comment. Thank you!