"We had to find a way to do this," Randy Barber, media and events director for the Douglas County School District, said.
The district is trying to establish the first widespread school voucher system in Colorado history. Dubbed the Choice Scholarship Pilot Program, 500 students have been selected to receive 75 percent of their per-pupil funding to pay for private school tuition. The remaining 25 percent will be kept by the district.
Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado and Taxpayers for Public Education have sued Douglas County. Out of the 19 private schools eligible to receive students, 14 of them are religious schools. The lawsuits allege diverting public money to religious schools is against Colorado law.
"What they had to do was figure out a way to disguise the money flow as a public school," Anne Kleinkopf, director of Taxpayers for Public Education, said.
Tuesday night, the district sought final approval of the application of the Choice Scholarship Charter School from the Douglas County District Accountability Committee. Public comment was taken, but the vote was largely ceremonial since the school board already approved plans for the new charter school.
Barber says the charter school will be used as a mechanism to administer the voucher program.
"By having that charter school, we're able to have a group of people that are dedicated to looking after these 500 students," Barber said. "Being accountable, to insure that they get the education that they need; that that money is going to the right places."
The students in the Choice Scholarship Program will technically be enrolled in this charter school even though they will really be attending classes at the private school of their choice.
Barber says after consulting with the Colorado Department of Education, district leaders came up with this plan because it will allow the district to waive certain requirements to keep counting the students as within the district.
"This is something that's been thought of since the early days of trying to figure out how this would run," Barber said. "We're kind of doing this from scratch and talking to partners seeing what they think would work."
Kleinkopf says it's an example of the school district trying to skirt the law.
"They are setting up a sham charter school, which is a public school, and they are using this sham charter as a flow through of funds from the state to the private schools," Kleinkopf said.
Barber says the Choice Scholarship Program will not provide money directly to the private schools which, he says, makes their program different - and legal.
"If the money is given to a parent, and then they make the choice, that money can go to any private school including those that are religious," Barber said.
Kleinkopf says the formation of this faux charter school is an insult to others who work for years, at times, to establish traditional charter programs.
"I am totally on board with how much of a travesty this makes of the charter school process," Kleinkopf said.
Barber says the district is just trying something that could open up a school voucher process that can be copied in school districts everywhere.
"We want to be a model for other school districts throughout the country, not just here in Colorado," Barber said.
Currently, a judge is considering a motion for a preliminary injunction filed by both the ACLU and the Taxpayers for Public Education asking for a halt to the voucher program. A decision is expected in August.
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