suburban house

Five years ago, the issue of school vouchers showed up in the unlikeliest of places—affluent Douglas County, a suburban district (and my home district) south of Denver.

That original vouchers-for-people-who-already-have-school-choice program is now stalled in the courts.

Then yesterday, five years to the day after the launch of the first program, the issue of school vouchers showed up again…in the same unlikeliest of places, when the Douglas County Board of Education voted 4-3 to revive the program, minus the religious schools.

So let’s see if we have this straight now: It’s a voucher program to allow people who already have school choice and can live pretty much wherever they want to use tax dollars to choose private, non-religious schools (that most of them can already afford) instead of the fairly high-performing public schools that those same tax dollars already pay for?

Now I try and keep an open and limber mind, but I’m having a hard time wrapping my brain around that one.

And I’m certainly open-minded about vouchers. But my version is more like: a voucher program to give the power of school choice to people who don’t really have any good choices where they live, can’t afford to move to where good schools are, and can’t afford to pay tuition.

That type of program is worth considering—essentially a K-12 Pell grant (public money that can be used for tuition at private universities)—but only if there’s strong oversight and accountability. The voucher schools could not pick and choose their students and must be bound by the same federal civil rights laws that Pell-accepting universities are. And they’d need to be accredited, high-quality schools.

But the most compelling voucher argument to me is need and hope. We still have far too many families who need a good school that gives them hope for their kid’s future. And if we blur the church-state line a little and spread tax dollars around a bit more in order to fill that need and provide that hope to more families, that’s worth trying.

I can’t really see a compelling reason for the Douglas County vouchers-for-people-who-already-have-school-choice. And I’m not sure the target market here will see one, either. According to the Denver Post, more than 90 percent of the families who signed up for the original DougCo voucher program five years ago chose religious schools, which are not part of the new program.

The best I can come up with is: Maybe if this program for affluent people works, it’ll make it easier for families who actually need vouchers to get them. Trickle-down school choice?

I’d rather we just take the $1.2 million that’s been spent in DougCo to try and create legal vouchers for people who already have school choice and give it to people who don’t.