Karin Piper is an author, speaker and education advocate
“Something of a public school paradise.” That is how the Los Angeles Times recently described the Douglas County School District (DCSD). So what merits this title of academic bliss?
Well, Douglas County is largely a suburban community between Denver and Colorado Springs and what research-type folks like to call largely homogeneous. Douglas County schools have roughly 60,000 children enrolled, the dropout rate is merely 1.3 percent, 89.1 percent of its students graduate and just 10.9 percent of the enrolled students receive free and reduced lunch.
Each year 15,000 Douglas County parents and community members contribute more than a half a million hours of volunteer service, and recent survey results show a satisfaction rating of more than 90 percent.
Perhaps it is this active and engaged role in our kids’ schools that also has created a highly informed parent community. Parents start “shopping” for schools very early, sometimes as part of a planned pregnancy. After all, schools aren’t just schools to involved parents; schools are selected based on fit for both student and family philosophy.
As a cultural result, this public Garden of Edu-n has a thriving flora of quality schooling options. There are online schools, charters, magnets, and naturally the traditional neighborhood schools. If you are wondering what makes each of these schools unique and attractive to the astute school shopping families, keep a keen eye on the Douglas County website www.dcsdk12.org. Over the next few weeks, Douglas County is going to reveal an online presence that will knock choosy parents’ socks off.
Just as in any other district in the United States, Dougco families can also opt to send their children to private schools. Or can they?
You see, many families in areas like Douglas County do have the option of private education, because they can afford it. To others, this is not a financial possibility. Remember 10.9 percent of Douglas County’s students receive a free or reduced lunch. Many other families fall somewhere in between. There are plenty of families in Douglas County who do not qualify for financial aid for private schools, but cannot afford adding tuition costs to their budget.
This would make non-public academic options for some, well, the forbidden fruit.
It also raises the question about kids whom the current schools could not serve well. Even in an overall high-performing district, being everything to everyone is still impossible. What about the 1.3 percent that dropped out? Or the 10.1 percent that did not graduate? These statistics do not represent numbers, but real children with beating pulses, names and futures. Could an additional type of education provider have made a difference? How will we know without actually offering it?
That’s what the elected Douglas County Board of Education would like to do.
In response to public demand for choice, and based on task force recommendations, the board voted in December to accept a proposal to make non-public education available to public school families through exercising local control. Parents, the board had said, should be given the power to choose where their kids go to school and should have as many options as possible. The program would allow parents to spend a portion of their children’s per pupil revenue toward tuition costs at a participating private school.
Since then the DCSD staff has been working hard on creating a program which is viable within this space and current laws. That is both an arduous and sizable task.
There is pressure on staff and education leaders from all sides. Some are hopeful for a design that has so little accountability that it is unlikely to be created under current laws. Others won’t like it even if it was dipped in chocolate. And it sort of is.
In a perfect scholarship world per-pupil revenue ought to follow the student all the way. In the current Dougco scholarship program only 75 percent would follow the child. The remaining 25 percent would stay in the district to pay for overhead costs and a “contingency fund,” to alleviate any financial burden if “too many students from one public school would leave.” How many kids are we really talking here? The 2011-12 pilot program is suggested to permit up to 500 kids to sample this new concept. To clarify, that is 500 children in a district of 60,000, or less than 1 percent. According to the district financial staff, the pilot program at capacity would net the school district $400,000.
Personally I am a supporter of this program, but not due to possible revenue gains or political reasons. As a matter of fact, if you thought I was a political zealot you may just as well put away your label-gun now. I can guarantee that you have me all wrong, regardless of which brand you had in mind.
No, I am just a mom and my motives are very simple: The Douglas County Scholarship Program will make private schools a possibility for more families who seek it.
Is it perfection? Nope. Until all children truly have equal access to a free education regardless of schooling type, it won’t be. But take it from someone who gets giddy over a coupon for free coffee or 10 cents off my gap, a $4,000 discount will make a significant difference for many, many families. And hopefully this creative approach to bridging public and private education will invite investors with the purpose of providing additional support for the neediest families.
Are private schools better than Douglas County public schools? That depends on whom you ask. I can sit here and regurgitate data all day long, but in the end who gets to decide if one is better serving a child or not? The parent.
Until the day that we have found the magic bullet of education, even the best schools—regardless of type–will continue to see drop-out rates, lack-of graduation, or dissatisfaction for one reason or another. Better from an educrat’s standpoint isn’t always better in the eyes of a parent.
Why should this be done in a high performing district? Why not? Wouldn’t we want districts that already do well for the majority of kids to try innovative ideas and lead? It would be great if this program had already been introduced by districts where needy children are stuck in failing schools. But haven’t we waited long enough for those leaders to take action? Certainly another district being first out of the gate won’t stop those districts for developing such programs too, if it so behooves them.
Do public education dollars belong to the district or the student? We can argue this until pigs fly, so here is the argument from me, the parent. To be brief: It is called per pupil revenue. That implies the education dollar belongs to the pupil, in translation, the child. The child definitely belongs to the parent. Not your neighbors. Not the neighbor’s grandpa. And in most cases, our kids are not wards of the state. Therefore, the parent decides where the student goes to school and the funds come along.
Will the scholarship program cause DCSD to lose families to private schools? They already do.
Would parents take their kids out of DCSD neighborhood schools because the cost went down? I find that doubtful. Remember that Dougco parents are savvy shoppers and know what they want. If they are happy with their children’s school, as 90 percent said they are, then they are going nowhere.
What would make parents enthusiastic about staying in their current schools? I am so glad you (hypothetically) asked! The Douglas County School Choice Plan is packed with exciting programs. The scholarship program is only a fraction of it. Again, I strongly encourage you to visit Douglas County’s website and often over the next few weeks. You don’t want to miss Education Paradise 2.0.
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