NC lawmakers to learn about Colorado county that emphasizes school choice

pgannon@ncinsider.comAugust 24, 2013 

Three employees of the General Assembly went to Douglas County, Colo., for nearly a week in June to examine that county’s school funding model and determine the feasibility of trying something similar in North Carolina.

The Douglas County school district, the third largest in Colorado, is known for its emphasis on school choice and has pursued major – and often controversial – education reforms in recent years. According to the district’s website, it embraces school choice by “offering a wide variety of pathways to learning, including: neighborhood schools, magnet, charter, online, home education, contract schools, and scholarships to private partner schools.”

The legislative employees work for the General Assembly Program Evaluation Division, a nonpartisan agency that evaluates the effectiveness of various agencies and programs. Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, R-Cabarrus, first proposed the study, which was then chosen by lawmakers from among dozens of possible topics.

The Program Evaluation Division is expected to release a report with findings and recommendations to the General Assembly in October.

The study, according to information on the PED website, will “review and describe how the Douglas County School District in Colorado is using public funds to serve students in educational settings other than traditional public schools.” It will explore the costs and benefits of implementing a system similar to Douglas County.

John Carson, president of the all-Republican Douglas County Board of Education, said in a phone interview that the board believes parents should decide how and where their kids learn, and that drives how the county spends its education dollars. He said board members believe in publicly funded education, but that it doesn’t necessarily have to be delivered by public entities.

“Basically, we say that parents should be able to use education dollars allocated to their children to choose the school that best fits their child,” he said. More competition among schools, he said, improves students’ education.

The district, with about 65,000 students, has more than a dozen charter schools. It recently received the Pioneer Award from the Colorado League of Charter Schools, which described Douglas County as a “hotbed for charter school activity.” In a news release posted on the district’s website, Doug Benevento, another board member, said the award acknowledges the district’s commitment “to putting what’s best for our students first and our belief in school choice.”

“As the only public school district in Colorado to fully embrace charter schools, this recognition truly re-emphasizes our belief that parents and families know what is best for their child,” Benevento said.

John Turcotte, PED director, said the division spent about $4,200 on the Colorado trip for the three staffers from June 16 to June 22. He said they were sent there because he wanted the division to learn as much about the system as possible, receiving input from parents, teachers and state education officials as well as district employees.

Hartsell said the Douglas County district was mentioned to him as one possible way to integrate various school types into a cohesive unit. He said he personally doesn’t know much about the Colorado district but that the study would be a first step in determining whether the system is effective in educating students and whether its approach could be duplicated in North Carolina.

Hartsell is on both the Senate Education and Education Appropriations committees. He is also a chairman of the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee, which determines what the Program Evaluation Division will study.

Patrick Gannon writes for the NCInsider.com, a government news service owned by The News & Observer. For more information, visit www.ncinsider.com.

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