August 5, 2011; Source: Wall Street Journal | A wealthy suburban school district outside of Denver, Colorado, is changing the parameters of voucher programs. According to the Wall Street Journal, Douglas County has household incomes just about double the national average and public schools that are among the best in the state. But the County has decided to finance vouchers to pupils regardless of their income or the quality of their public schools, because it’s cheaper for the County to provide vouchers for private schools rather than pay for kids in public schools. So far, the non-means-tested vouchers have been claimed predominantly for pupils from the wealthiest Douglas County schools.

This was a stunning piece of news about educational policy, shifting the nature of the debate about publicly funded vouchers that families could use to pay for the education of their children at private schools. Generally, voucher programs such as those in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and in Ohio are focused on providing assistance to lower income families. Also, the assistance is generallyvoucher assistance given directly to the families to use. The government is not directly giving assistance to private religious schools, for example, but the families themselves can choose to purchase educational services at religious schools if they want.

Colorado makes vouchers available to families at a cost of $6,100 per pupil.  In Douglas County, the vouchers go to the school district instead of the family  The County then gives families 75 percent of that amount and keeps the rest, making a profit this year of $400,000 even after the County’s administrative costs on the 500 kids in its initial pilot voucher program on this model.  So far, the State seems OK with the Douglas County program. 

Since participating families get only $4,500 from the vouchers to use for private school tuition, they have to pay the rest out of pocket or find some other assistance.  The 20 schools accepting vouchers charge tuitions ranging between $7,000 and $15,000 a year.  Most of them are religious schools, including a Jesuit high school with 1,600 students and another church-based program that describes its curriculum as “unashamedly creationist.” The most popular voucher choice is Valor Christian High School, with tuition of $14,000, but fees as high as $6,000 for books, sports, and field trips.  

Not only does Douglas County get to provide education to its voucher kids at less cost than the cost of a regular public school education and even make some money off its middleman role, public schools that lose kids to vouchers will likely lay off teachers and increase class sizes.  

As contentious as “typical” voucher programs might be, Douglas County’s version is a radical departure that will attract lots of legal challenges.—Rick Cohen