11/09/2010 04:45 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Feed the Rich!

Establishing a school voucher program in Douglas County would be akin to sending famine-relief supplies to the Upper East Side of Manhattan while people starve in Darfur. Whether you're a supporter or foe of vouchers, this should strike you as a strange idea.

It's not entirely clear that what's floating around in early draft form in Dougco is a full-blown voucher proposal. In some ways it may not be that much different than contract arrangements Denver Public Schools has with three schools. But it's close enough for the sake of argument. More on that later.

I'm a voucher skeptic at best, though I have been swayed in recent years by arguments for means-tested vouchers, with ample conditions attached. I've quoted Howard Fuller on this before: The Harriet Tubman school of education reform believes in helping as many kids as possible escape bad schools, by whatever means necessary, rather than waiting for that far-off day when all schools are good.

But I'm not there yet; not quite. I see too many booby traps along the way, and the stench of ideology hangs over the whole debate.

So I strongly disagree with those who would provide tax credits or vouchers for everyone, or at least anyone who chooses to opt out of the public system but wants to take their tax dollars with them to whatever private or religious school suits their fancy.

For some other viewpoints, see a couple of blog posts below, and the comments they prompted.

It seems to me that forward thinking voucher proponents would oppose Douglas County's nascent proposal as well, but obviously I'm naïve to think so (see Vince Carroll's recent column in the Denver Post, for example). If you want to win support for a controversial concept like vouchers, start with the low-hanging fruit. There are plenty of moderates out there who would support some kind of means-tested program.

Such was the case with the Washington D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which sent 2,000 low-income school kids to private (including religious) schools with $7,500 vouchers. It was snuffed out last year by the Obama administration and Congress. One would hope a centrist coalition might resurrect it.

But you will find precious few allies from the moderate camp if you start asking permission to let wealthy people take their tax dollars out of the public education system to support, say, a fundamentalist Christian school that belittles the theory of evolution and teaches that anyone not born again in Christ will end up in hell. I'm not saying any Douglas County private schools espouse those beliefs, but the potential for such schools to receive public money is there, under the current draft proposal.

Where I part company with voucher advocates, and even some charter advocates, is that I see choice as a means to an end, not an end in itself. The end is a quality education for every child. For the foreseeable future, the traditional public system alone cannot make that happen. Some charter schools are blazing new trails that district schools would be wise to follow.

I believe there is inherent value in public education, in the concept of the common school. It is not just another marketplace in which individuals can take their sliver of tax revenue and go wherever they please.

I willingly pay property taxes to fund public education even though my daughter is several years past high school. I want schools to be places where people of varying backgrounds come together to learn. I'm not interested in having my tax dollars, or anyone else's, support schools that promote religious ideas I consider extreme.

People who so choose of course have the right to educate their children privately, in whatever kind of school they choose. And this, perhaps, is where voucher proponents have their strongest argument when it comes to low-income communities.

Why shouldn't families in poverty have the same range of educational choices as more affluent families? Even under most voucher plans, of course, the range of choices is narrower for the poor. The reality is that the highest-end private schools - the Kent Denvers, Gralands and Colorado Academies of the world - charge tuitions that are far beyond the reach of most voucher programs, and in any case usually to decline to participate.

But Douglas County? Seriously? We're talking about one of the most affluent, highest performing districts in Colorado. Just 8 percent of it students qualify for subsidized lunches -- second lowest in the state behind Aspen.

And if you look at state data, Dougco schools (with the exception of Hope Online charters, which serve many low-income kids from across the state) are clustered in the high-performance, high-growth quadrant of the state's SchoolView data system.

So where is the need for vouchers? Yes, need should be a primary criterion.

Some argue, with justification, that districts with high numbers of low-income students also tend to be politically liberal urban corridors, where vouchers are anathema. This makes a conservative area like Douglas a good place to test how a voucher program can exist within the strictures of local control.

But why? Really, now, how many Douglas County children are being badly served by public schools? How many of those families cannot afford a private option? How many low-income Douglas County families are trapped in failing schools? Bring me that number and then we can talk.

Finally, is the draft proposal for Dougco even a voucher program? Superintendent Liz Fagen sent a letter home to parents last Thursday in advance of a Denver Post story, saying that what was being proposed was creating a series of private contract schools. Denver has had contract schools since the days of Jerry Wartgow (Escuela Tlatelolco, Florence Crittendon and the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning). Would Dougco's be so different?

Read the draft proposal and decide for yourself. Religious schools would be one major difference, and there appears to be only one private non-religious school in Dougco. Saying, as Fagen did in her letter to parents, that the proposal would create contact schools and not a voucher system may be more politically palatable within the school district. But I'm not convinced it's an accurate description.

So let the debate proceed. Douglas County seems a silly place to be having it. But when politics and ideology mix, common sense is often the first victim.