School officials criticize voucher program | VailDaily.com

School officials criticize voucher program

Christine Ina Casillas

Superintendent, John Brendza, speaks at the Colorado Mountain College groundbreaking in June.

Like many parents hoping to give their children’s education a lift with a new state school voucher program, Eagle County school officials are optimistic, but say the program has problems.

School officials say there needs a way other than the vouchers proponents of the concept say will improve low-income students improve their grades.

“Personally, I have a problem with the voucher concept,” said John Brendza, Eagle County School superintendent.”I don’t see vouchers as being the end-all to reform.”

Colorado law required $4,500 vouchers per student to be offered to children in kindergarten through 12th grade to help offset the cost of private school tuition. The law would have required some districts with low-rated schools to offer the vouchers, while other districts could participate if they chose.

The districts are rated based on the state’s accountability report cards and the Colorado Student Assessment Program tests, said Karen Strakbein, financial director for the Eagle County School District.

Eleven out of 16 Eagle County schools scored as “high” or “excellent” on the school accountability report. In its third year, the accountability report acts as a report card, rating schools on academic improvement. The rankings are “significant improvement,” “stable,” “declining” and “significant decline.” Seven county schools showed “significant improvement” or “improvement,” and the remaining schools rated as “stable.”

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Schools that have an unsatisfactory rating and fail to improve for three consecutive years face conversion to charter schools. Such sanctions, however, cannot occur until the 2005-2006 school year.

“If we had a school that was failing and if we had a school with more than 9,000 students, we would have to offer school vouchers,” Strakbein said. “We’re not a district that met the qualifications. We don’t have a failing school, and we don’t have more than 9,000 students.”

Unfairly stripped

District Judge Joseph Meyer last week ruled the new law unfairly stripped local school boards of their authority and experts said the same argument could be used to scrap voucher plans across the country. Attorney General Ken Salazar, who opposes the concept, and a pro-voucher group filed separate appeals less than a week after the judge overturned the voucher law.

The state Supreme Court agreed Wednesday to a speedy review of Colorado’s new school-voucher program and ordered supporters and opponents to file new arguments by Feb. 2.

“The Supreme Court decision means a lot to school districts because it’s going to say what legislation can dictate to schools.” Strakbein said. “It’s going to have a big influence on the legislative session, and hopefully it will make them think of what their bringing forward for the future.”

The voucher program, aimed primarily at low-income students, ordered 11 districts to participate with about 125,000 students eligible. It was the first voucher program in the nation to be enacted after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a voucher program in Cleveland last year. It was challenged in court by a coalition of teachers and education groups.

Urban settings

Brendza said the problem with vouchers is that funds are offered to districts will low-performance reports and poor scores.

“Generally, the districts that are impacted mainly have minorities, transient populations and a lot of mobility,” Brendza said. “It’s usually in an urban setting with (moderate) circumstances. We don’t experience that kind of stuff up here.”

Brendza said the pilot program, “in theory,” might not be intended as “all bad,” but it unfairly places a burden on students at low-performing schools.

“The minority kids aren’t getting a break,” Brendza said. “They’re getting locked in a low-performing schools. I think the voucher program is a shotgun approach and I think it needs to be done a little differently.”

Training teachers, restructuring schools and looking outside of the traditional approach to teaching students might be some of the things that could be done differently, Brendza said.

“I understand the intent of vouchers, especially in areas where there’s a specific number of underachieving schools,” said Brendza. “And parents will put their kids in schools where they can fully meet their potential.”

Parents of students at underachieving schools can pull their children out of those schools and enroll them into private schools using public funds for schools of their choice – if they qualify, Brendza said.

“The problem with private schools is how do we know the students are going to do better at a private school than the public school they just left,” Brendza said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.