School Choice

Dougco vouchers moving forward

CASTLE ROCK – It will take a judge or two to settle the legal challenges swirling around Douglas County’s pilot voucher program but Gretchen Immen already has her verdict: “Dream come true.”

Gretchen Immen and son Sam hug Wednesday after learning he's received the last voucher slot.

Wednesday, during a lottery held in a former school here, Immen learned her son Sam was picked for the last available slot – seat no. 25 – for a voucher that will allow him to attend a private school this fall.

“We feel so blessed,” Immen, a Parker resident, said after bursting into a smile and embracing Sam, 15, who hugged her tightly back.

About a dozen parents and students attended the district’s first voucher lottery, held to determine which of 76 applicants would get the last 25 seats – and which would go on a waiting list.

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Dougco’s pilot, the first district-driven voucher program in Colorado, is capped at 500 students for 2011-12. A first round of applications netted nearly that number but some students were found ineligible and others dropped out, leaving 25 spots in a second application round that drew more than 70 families and prompted the lottery.

Families participating in the program will receive four checks during the school year, totaling either the cost of tuition at their chosen private school or 75 percent of state per-pupil funding, whichever is less. That 75 percent figure works out to $4,575.

They’ll sign the checks over to the private schools, which must have signed contracts as “partners” with the Douglas County School District.

At least, that’s how the pilot is set up to work. Two lawsuits filed Tuesday, by legal heavy hitters such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, are seeking to stop the program before a single voucher check is issued.

Vote set Monday on “voucher charter”

Dougco district leaders responded to the lawsuits by vowing that they’ll continue moving forward until a court orders them to stop.

“Voucher charter”

So Wednesday’s lottery continued as planned, and Douglas County school board members are expected Monday to approve a charter application for the Choice Scholarship School – a charter that will serve as the administrative home for voucher students though they’re physically attending private schools.

Part of the Choice Scholarship School resolution that board members will vote on Monday describes the grouping of students in a charter as “the most efficient way of maintaining … the numerous district reporting and financial obligations.”

State Board of Education members are expected in August to consider approval of waivers for the scholarship or voucher school. Robert Ross, the district’s legal counsel, said Tuesday that such waivers are typically sought by Colorado charters and he does not anticipate any problems.

The voucher or scholarship school application does not include names of staff or governing board members. Dougco spokeswoman Michelle Tripp said the district’s school board is expected to discuss those topics Monday but it’s unclear if the names of charter school board members will be released before the board vote.

Legal, administrative issues not on families’ minds

But if lawyers and district staff are occupied with program structure and legal strategy, those details are not on the minds of families such as the Immens.

Gretchen Immen said her husband began researching a private school option for Sam several months ago but their choice – Parker Lutheran High School – was out of financial reach without a voucher.

“Without this type of voucher system, that would not have been possible,” she said.

Sam is slated to be a freshman this fall in a school, Ponderosa High School, that has received the state’s top rating of “performance.” But when he and his mom toured Parker Lutheran on a “visit day,” they were impressed.

“I just think it’s better academic-wise,” Sam said. “It’s a nicer place … and I think I’ll be able to make a lot more friends there.”

Gretchen Immen said the family isn’t Lutheran – that’s not a condition of enrollment – but their values are similar.

“It’s a good fit,” she said, noting Sam’s already applied and been accepted, though they weren’t sure of a voucher slot. “We did it on faith.”

As for concerns that the legal action could halt the pilot, the mom said they’re taking it one step at a time.

“We’re no. 25,” she said. “We could have been 75 or 100. So … so far, so good.”

Reactions to lawsuits filed this week challenging Dougco’s voucher pilot

    • “I am extremely disappointed that liberal activist groups continue to assault education reform in Colorado. The lawsuit against the Douglas County School District is nothing short of an all out attack on our teachers, parents and students by national liberal groups. Colorado families deserve better than to have these national attack dogs waste money that would otherwise go into our classrooms.”

— Colorado Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch.

    • “We believe the interests of students and parents are paramount. We believe the Choice Scholarship Program is a wise use of taxpayer dollars that will also result in a significant return on investment for the District. Great Choice Douglas County, representing many hundreds of parents and citizens in Douglas County, who support school choice, is eager to see the implementation and future expansion of this program.”

— Great Choice Douglas County. See full release.

    • “The lawsuit is disappointing, but really not surprising. Opponents of parental choice and educational freedom have tried this approach many times before. For the sake of the families who will benefit, we hope it fails.”

— Pam Benigno, Independence Institute. See full release.

    • “The Institute for Justice will move to intervene in the coming days on behalf of Douglas County parents and children to defend this choice program from legal attack. IJ has defended school choice programs from legal attack every single day from the time we opened our doors 20 years ago. We know what it takes to make a school choice program constitutional, and there is no question the program passed in Douglas County will pass constitutional muster.”

— Michael Bindas, senior attorney, Institute for Justice. See full release.

New Arrivals

Advocates decry Fariña’s explanation of low graduation rates among English learners

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Nancie Adolphe, a case manager at Flanbwayan, a group that helps young Haitian immigrants hosts a press conference on English Language Learner graduation rates.

When the head of New York City schools suggested that English Language Learners fail to graduate, in part, because they lack formal schooling and are “coming from the mountains,” advocates from a group that serves Haitian immigrants said she undoubtedly missed the point.

“We are insulted by her statement,” said Nancie Adolphe, a case manager at Flanbwayan, a group that helps young Haitian immigrants, during a Thursday press conference. “As a community of immigrants, of English learners, we care about what happens to each student, no matter where they come from.”

The city pointed out that combining current and former English Language Learner graduation rates, 57 more students graduated this year. Fariña also said that while she is working to help more English learners graduate, it is harder for students to earn a diploma if they start off years behind.

Members of Flanbwayan have a different explanation for the city’s 27 percent June graduation rate for English learners, a 9.6 percentage point decrease over the previous year. In their view, many ELL students face a huge disadvantage because of how the city’s high school admissions process treats newly arrived immigrants.

New York City’s admissions process, which allows students to apply to any high school throughout the city, is notoriously difficult even for students born and raised in New York. But for newly arrived immigrants, the process is even worse, said Darnell Benoit, director of Flanbwayan.

Students have years to wade through a thick directory of more than 400 high schools, tour the ones they like and apply for competitive programs. For new immigrants, that process is often replaced by a quick trip to an enrollment center. Many times the only seats left are at low-performing schools, and students often find they don’t have access to the language help they need, Benoit said.

“They don’t have a lot of time to fight for their lives,” said Alectus Nadjely, a Haitian immigrant who arrived in the United States when she was twelve and is now a senior in high school, about the process.

A student’s high school placement is directly connected to whether or not they will graduate on time, advocates said. When newly arrived immigrants enter the country, they have to move quickly to pass the state’s required exit exams in time for graduation — and they need all the support they can get, advocates said. Twenty-seven percent of English learners in New York City drop out before graduating, according to state data.

“If a student is not set up in the right placement from the start, the likelihood of being able to stay engaged, be on track for graduation and not drop out, all of that will be impacted,” said Abja Midha, a project director at Advocates for Children. “We really think the high school enrollment piece is a really critical point.”

Education department officials pointed out that the graduation rate for former English learners went up by more than five percentage points this year. They also noted that enrollment information is available in Haitian Creole and that they have increased translation and interpretation services.

“We’ll continue our work to ensure that all our students receive a high-quality education,” said education department spokesman Will Mantell, “and have the support they need to be successful in the classroom and beyond.”

This story has been updated to include additional information.

Charter changes

This sweeping proposal would rewrite Tennessee’s charter school law

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Rep. Harry Brooks and Assistant Commissioner of policy Elizabeth Fiveash present the charter proposal to lawmakers on Wednesday.

A wide-ranging charter school bill written by the State Department of Education seeks to overhaul Tennessee’s 15-year-old charter law and address concerns of both advocates and opponents.

Called the “Tennessee High-Quality Charter Schools Act,” the bill attempts to address the often rocky relationships between the state’s 105 charter schools and the districts that oversee them. The legislation clarifies rules on everything from applications to closure, and includes measures that charter and local district leaders have fought for — and against.

“This bill develops a stronger partnership between the (districts) and the charter schools,” said Rep. Harry Brooks, the Knoxville Republican sponsor.

But smoothing over fractious relationships won’t be quick or easy, based on the first discussion in a House subcommittee on Wednesday. Lawmakers adjourned before casting a first vote on the proposal, with plans to pick up the discussion next week.  

And while representatives of the Tennessee School Boards Association and the Tennessee Charter School Center told lawmakers that the bill is a “step in the right direction,” some critics remain concerned about the growing sector’s impact on traditional public schools.

For years, local school board members — especially from districts in Memphis and Nashville, which are home to most of the state’s charter schools — have charged that charter schools drain resources from traditional public schools. Charter leaders, meanwhile, have complained that they don’t get enough funding to cover facilities, forcing them to spend money that should go toward students instead on rent and building upkeep.

The Department of Education tried to address both concerns in its bill. The legislation establishes a $6 million fund over three years to help cover leaky roofs and cramped quarters that operators say make their jobs harder. But the bill also allows local districts to charge operators an authorizer fee to offset oversight costs.  

Local districts have sought to charge an authorizer fee for years, and charter operators in Memphis recently have shown willingness to voluntarily pay one. In 2015, the state legislature voted to allow the state’s Achievement School District to begin collecting a fee, too.

The state proposal would allow a district with 21 or more charter schools to charge a fee up to 1 percent of per-pupil funding. Districts with 10 to 20 charters could charge a 2 percent fee, and those with 10 or fewer could charge 3 percent. The change would go into effect in 2018.

“The local district has significant responsibility in regards to being an authorizer of charter school,” Brooks explained when introducing the bill. “There’s expense tied up in that; there’s personnel tied up in that.”

But some think the proposed fee isn’t nearly enough, especially in Memphis and Nashville, where the ASD and State Board of Education can charge charter schools 3 and 4 percent, respectively. In Shelby County Schools, for instance, the district is doubling the size of its charter office to keep up with its oversight duties.

“When state authorizers are getting higher fees than districts, that’s a red flag,” Nashville school board member Will Pinkston told Chalkbeat. “One percent seems like a nice first offer, but districts need to make significant counter offers to get that higher.”

Other parts of the expansive bill would curb local attempts to rein in charter schools. One section says that applications can’t be based on “conditions or contingencies” — a provision that concerns Pinkston, who spearheaded an effort to make the approval of Nashville charter schools contingent on their location.

“Every local school system needs to have the ability to ask for the details they think are necessary before making a decision,” he said.

Charter operators argue that such contingencies put them in impossible situations, unable to secure a location without a contract, and vice versa.