This post breaks all my rules for What Not to Blog About, but it is an issue that is weighing heavily on my mind. Those of you who live in Colorado are probably pretty familiar with the issues regarding the Douglas County School District and the School Choice Program. For those of you who aren’t, here is a recap of the issues.
During the School Board Elections this past year, many candidates ran on platforms promoting school choice. A number of these candidates won their elections. Within months, the School Superintendent announced that he was leaving. A search for a new Superintendent was started and it is my understanding that the new Superintendent was sympathetic to allowing school choice. School Choice, is essentially a voucher program. The School Board and the Superintendent would disagree, but here is how I think it works. Parents want their child in a private school. The child applies for a “Choice Scholarship.” If the child is accepted into the program (and 500 kids were) the child is permitted to enroll in a “qualified private-partner school.” The “Choice Scholarship” program is run by the district, the Scholarship money goes to the parents to use for tuition for a private school. Where does the money come from? It comes from the per student allocation. The District has the students “enrolled” in the Choice Scholarship program and while they attend private schools, they are District students. The District takes part of the per student allocation to administer the program (these kids need to take standardized tests, even if the rest of their school doesn’t because they are public school students).
A good portion of the private schools that are “qualified private-partner schools” are religious based. I am not opposed to parents choosing to send their child to a religious based private school. I am not opposed to religious based schools. I AM opposed to using public money to support religious based private schools. The “Choice Scholarship Program” seems to be a way to manipulate public funds into private religious schools. And this, in my opinion, violates the Constitution. For those of us who need a reminder of our American History lessons, here is the First Amendment to the Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
I am not an attorney or a Constitutional Scholar, but somehow I see the program as “respecting an establishment of religion” since the scholarship monies are being used to fund students attending religious schools. Admittedly, not all the schools are religious schools, but the majority are and therein lies the problem.
Students who are enrolled in the “Choice School Scholarship Program” can opt out of religion classes (the private schools must allow them to opt out as part of their participation in the program). However, I fail to see how allowing a student to opt out of religion classes removes the religious part of a religious school. I picked a school at random and located their mission statement:
We are committed to honoring Christ by teaching, encouraging, training and grounding students in God’s truth within a dynamic, academic environment.
Here is another one:
The goal of *** School is to provide a Christian atmosphere in which a student is encouraged to grow in spiritual values, right judgment, and academic knowledge. Every effort is made to guide each student’s spiritual, intellectual, and social and emotional development in the light of the teachings of Jesus Christ. *** School strives to act in a professional manner to participate in the spiritual growth of the students. An atmosphere of faith and friendliness are conducive to Christian learning.
It is my belief that such mission statements indicate that Christian religious beliefs permeate the entire curriculum and the teaching within the school. While I have never attended a Christian school, it is my belief that because the school is religious, all subjects are taught in context with that religion, in addition to the specific religious education that is taught. Again, I don’t have a problem with this, if the parent wants to educate their child with Christian theology. The problem is, I shouldn’t have to pay for it with my tax money.
That is the heart of the problem: should public money be spent on private religious schools? I wonder if the Douglas County School Board would be so accepting of allowing money to go to, let’s say, an Islamic private school? If they could meet the requirements to become a private-partner school, would that be embraced as easily? I find that hard to believe.
Furthermore, is there really an equal opportunity for all students to attend private schools? Through a quick search of the internet, it seemed to me that almost every private school in the county is Christian-Based. I am certain that there are religious schools outside of the county that are not Christian-Based, but is it appropriate to send county school money outside the county? In most cases, I think not. What about non-religious private schools? These are few and far between and the majority of schools on the private-partnership school list are religious based. Would I feel that it was appropriate for public money to be spent on non-religious private schools? As a rule, no.
However, there is an exception. One student out of the 500. This one student has Asperger’s (a form of autism) and his parent wants to send him to a school that was founded to educate students with exceptional needs. Can this student get the same education in the public school? As a Special Education Teacher, I understand why the parent wants this for her child. The student/teacher ratio at this school is 7:1 and the teachers are specialists. The tuition for one year is approximately $17,000 and the district is contributing about $4,500 towards his tuition. (see the attached article from the Denver Post) I am unsure if this single student receiving scholarship funds to attend this school is inappropriate. This one instance does not violate (or come even close to violating) the separation of church and state. It is not a religious institution. And how do I feel about this? I am really uncertain. If every parent of a student with special needs wanted to enroll their child in a special school using public funds, it might not be a bad thing.
Students with special needs generally cost more than the $4,500 per student allocation, to educate. If we were to give parents the option to take the money and educate their children elsewhere, it would cost the school district less. However, regular education students would miss out on having these exceptional students at their schools. The exceptional students would not have the interactions with exceptional students. Our educational system would be no different from when we segregated the special needs students. I do not think that this would be a good thing. But in the case of individual students, I don’t know.
What I do know is this, Douglas County School District had to create a special “charter” school for the Choice School Scholarship students. They have an administrator for the program and the private-partner schools have to report attendance to the program administrator. The school district administers standardized tests, as well. This seems to me, to be a way for Douglas County to syphon public funds to private schools.
Douglas County already has a large number of choices for parents: traditional public schools, charter schools, online schools and open enrollment. They have International Baccalaureate Programs, Advanced Placement, Gifted and Talented (self-contained and pull-out) and Special Education. They have programs for kids so they can get dual credit for High School and College. They allow dual enrollment (homeschooling and attending school). The C-SAP scores from last year were some of the best in the state and they showed improvement by a significant amount in some areas.
It is my belief that Douglas County already gives parents a large number of choices. The only thing they do not seem to offer is a religious education. This is as it should be for a public school. If the students in Douglas County did not have so many other choices, if the schools were failing, if C-SAP scores were stagnant, then perhaps allowing parents to enroll their kids in a Choice Scholarship program would be ethical. Choices are part of American Society and they cause us to strive to be better. Competition is a good thing. But Douglas County kids already have a ton of choices and the schools are successful. Why, then should public money be used to supplement private-school tuition? Especially, religious private schools?
Like I said at the beginning of this post, this is a “no-no” topic for my blog. However, I really feel strongly about this topic. And the program has been halted indefinitely because of a suit brought by the ACLU on behalf of some parents who oppose the program. It seems that Douglas County is going to appeal the decision. So the case goes on and more money (some of it donated) gets spent that could have been spent on education rather than a legal battle.
You can read about the lawsuit and the Judge’s decision and the other issues regarding the Choice Scholarship Program on the Denver Post’s website.