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Delta County School District Has VISION for School Choice

IP-5-2005 (May 2005)
Author: Marya DeGrow and Jared Polis

PDF of full Issue Paper
Scribd version of full Issue Paper


Delta County School District: A Secret No Longer When discussing the most innovative education reforms in Colorado, I frequently mention Delta County School District. Until now, no one in Colorado has provided for broad-based public consumption a description of the exciting path that Delta County School District has embarked upon with its VISION program. This small district is one of the “best kept secrets” of education reform in Colorado.

One of the most important things that we as a society can do to meet the important challenges of educating our next generation is to encourage the vast creativity of our citizenry to form solutions. Empowering individuals to reform education is paramount.

Reaching out to innovative non-governmental organizations and inviting them to participate in the public education system can help provide the new ideas we need to successfully educate all children. Through its VISION program, Delta County School District found a way not only to partner with private schools but also to provide meaningful assistance to homeschool families, employing a wide variety of learning models and offering more differentiated options within the public education system.

When I first brought Delta County School District to the attention of Pam Benigno, Director of the Education Policy Center at the Independence Institute, I was hopeful that the organization could play a role in the dissemination of this “best practice.” After having read the publication, I am even more thrilled that this policy paper not only accurately presents the history and current status of the choice program in Delta County School District but also includes some thoughtful ideas for Delta and other districts to consider for making the program even more robust.

My hope is that people across Colorado and the nation read this Issue Paper and that more districts open up their system to these forms of public-private partnerships that foster the creation of innovative programs to meet the needs of all students.

Jared Polis
Colorado State Board of Education

Executive Summary

An innovative school district on Colorado’s Western Slope created a system of unique educational choices to satisfy the demands of families in its community. In fall 2000, Delta County 50 (J) School District unveiled the VISION Coalition. Built on the pillars of trust and autonomy, the program now serves nearly 15 percent of the district public school student population.

A large and growing number of Delta students had been pursuing home-based and private school options outside the public education system. While discussions about VISION were taking place in 1999, some parents were also proposing a Montessori charter school. The challenging circumstances facing then- Superintendent Laddie Livingston convinced him “that the future of public education hinged upon having real and meaningful choice within public schools.”

Today the Coalition includes the “VISION Home and Community Program” (HCP) and three brick-and-mortar “independent campuses.” All students in the VISION Coalition are required to participate in the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP).

In order to implement VISION, the district obtained 14 waivers from the Colorado State Board of Education. The waivers give each VISION school and program autonomy from local school board policies and authority to determine the educational program, to hire teachers who may or may not be licensed, to dismiss ineffective teachers, and to determine salaries.

VISION HCP allows each enrolled student and her parents to work together with a district employee to create an education program called a “Learning Plan.” Students study at home and with approved community members— ”Educators”—who tutor or teach classes in particular subject areas. At least 180 of the student’s required 720 hours of learning per year must occur outside the home with an Educator. The school district allocates as much as $2,150 to each full-time student for educational expenses related to the Learning Plan, such as curriculum, science class, violin lessons, or math tutoring. Students enrolled in traditional public schools or VISION brick-and-mortars may also take advantage of classes and tutoring provided by VISION HCP.

The three VISION brick-and-mortar schools are not charter schools but can be described as public “contract schools” that have an agreement whereby the school district purchases educational services from the governing board, which then runs the school. The schools offer diverse programs: a middle school using Core Knowledge curriculum, a former private school with an experiential learning and arts emphasis, and a Montessori school. The Core Knowledge school and the former private school each receive 82.5 percent of the district’s Per Pupil Operating Revenue; the Montessori school receives 95 percent.

Delta County School District leaders deserve credit for their flexibility and willingness to change with the demands of families in their community, particularly because the district voluntarily divested itself of some power by requesting waivers from state law for the VISION schools and programs to operate autonomously.

VISION HCP levels the financial playing field for parents and gives students a greater opportunity for enhanced education. Without school district funds, some parents of VISION HCP and traditional public school students would have lacked the resources to pay for highquality materials, tutors, or special classes.

Delta County School District and the families that have enrolled in VISION HCP, many of whom are former homeschoolers, benefit from the spirit of collaboration and respect that helped shape the program. While some school districts have a strained relationship with homeschooling families, Delta County School District chose to partner with them.

The district also seized the opportunity to partner with private schools. The experiential learning program was originally operated by a private school. The program now exists as a public school and the staff utilizes the former private school’s nonprofit status exclusively for fundraising purposes. A private school in Colorado can serve public school students but remain a private independent contractor. A north Denver private school has proven this through its contract with Denver Public Schools. The private school serves public school students and operates as a public school but legally is an independent contractor.

Such differences in contracts exist because districts have leverage to shape contracts. Unlike when they are in negotiations with charter schools, districts can stop talks at any time with no appeals process for the contract schools. Delta County School District retains for itself more per pupil funding for two of the VISION schools than if they were charter schools. The arrangement benefits the district but financially burdens the schools. Additionally, the schools cannot access many public and private grants available to charter schools, making fundraising more difficult. The school district currently has a moratorium on any new schools joining VISION, which clashes with the innovative spirit that started the program.

All VISION Coalition CSAP results are compiled into a single State Accountability Report (SAR). Yet each brick-and-mortar school has a unique philosophy, and every student enrolled in VISION HCP is enrolled in a one-of-a-kind school. Combining all the scores into one SAR defeats the purpose of the SAR, which is to hold a school accountable for its program.

The following recommendations would advance the spirit that gave birth to the VISION Coalition:

  • Delta County School District officials and the Colorado Department of Education should stop combining VISION Coalition CSAP scores into the same State Accountability Report and only create a SAR for each VISION brick-and-mortar school.
  • Delta County School District should lift the moratorium on new VISION schools while establishing policies to approve only new schools that will provide a quality education.
  • Colorado public school districts should not abandon chartering schools in favor of contracting with schools. Some schools are better suited to be contract schools while others should be charters. School districts should recognize the difference and seek to do what is best for the sustainability of the school.
  • Colorado public school districts should explore contracting with private schools to provide more educational choice. However, the schools should remain independent contractors and not abandon their private school status.
  • Colorado public school districts should consider implementing the Home and Community Program in their own districts.
  • Nonprofit organizations and the federal government should seek to find and fund unique programs like VISION.

The multi-faceted VISION Coalition demonstrates how a school district can identify needs in the community and partner with its citizens who, for various reasons, decide not to enroll their children in traditional public schools. All school districts should follow Delta County School District’s lead in moving beyond the status quo and developing innovative programs that satisfy the educational needs of students in their communities