School Choice

Appeals court reinstates Dougco vouchers

Douglas County’s school voucher program does not violate the state constitution, the Colorado Court of Appeals said in a 2-1 ruling Thursday, overturning a lower court’s finding that the program is unconstitutional.

An audience member fills out a question card about the Douglas County voucher plan.
One of many audience members filling out a question card on the Douglas County voucher proposal in early 2011. <em>EdNews</em> file photo

The ruling won’t have an immediate impact on the district’s pilot Choice Scholarship Program, which would allow Douglas County students to attend private and even religious schools using public funds, district officials said. The program remains on hold.

But the district is hailing the ruling as a victory in a case that may have national ramifications.

“This is incredibly positive news and a huge victory for the students and parents of Douglas County,” said Douglas County Public Schools board President John Carson. “We know that each student learns differently, and our goal is to provide every parent with the opportunity to choose the best possible educational environment for their child.”

Plaintiffs in the case, including the Taxpayers for Public Education, vowed to appeal the ruling to the Colorado Supreme Court.

“We are disappointed but not discouraged,” said Anne Kleinkopf, a director of the organization. “We have every confidence the Colorado Supreme Court will read the facts and law in the same way the dissenting appeals judge and the same way the trial court did and will indeed find that the voucher program is illegal and unconstitutional.”

Douglas County board member Craig Richardson, an attorney, said he didn’t expect a Colorado Supreme Court ruling until 2014. The voucher pilot program will be on hold until the Supreme Courts issues its ruling, he said.

“The effect of going to the Supreme Court will be to stay the Court of Appeals reversal,” Richardson said.

Appellate Judges Steven Bernard, Dennis Graham and Jerry Jones issued the final ruling, with Bernard dissenting.

In Thursday’s ruling, Jones said “Plaintiffs failed to carry their burden of proving the unconstitutionality of the (voucher program) beyond a reasonable doubt, or by any other potentially applicable standard. None of them have standing to assert a claim under the (law). Accordingly, the district court’s judgment cannot stand.”

Kleinkopf said Bernard in his dissent argued that the voucher program violated the “no aid to sectarian” provisions of the Colorado Constitution. By casting a dissenting vote, Kleinkopft said Bernard sent a “strong signal that he believes his colleagues were wrong.”

In November, legal advocates for and against the district’s voucher program argued their case before the three-judge panel.

Proponents urged the appellate judges to overturn a lower court’s decision in August 2011 finding the voucher plan unconstitutional. Meanwhile, critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Taxpayers for Public Education, argued that the initial ruling was sound.

Douglas County school board members approved the voucher pilot, which would use public dollars to help send students to private schools, by a 7-0 vote in March 2011. A Denver judge declared the plan unconstitutional last August and the district filed its notice of appeal with the Colorado Court of Appeals.

In April 2012, opening briefs were filed by the district and the state, its co-defendent in the suit. Taxpayers for Public Education and other plaintiffs then filed their responses.

Under the program, private schools, including private schools that are not located in Douglas County, can apply to participate.

Those private schools must satisfy a variety of eligibility criteria, some of which relate to academic rigor, accreditation, student conduct and financial stability, according to court records. Participating private schools must agree to allow the district to administer assessment tests to students enrolled in the choice scholarship program.

Thirty-four private schools applied to participate in the Choice Scholarship Program for the 2011-2012 school year and the district contracted with 23 of those schools. But the district court ruled halted the program before it began.

Of the 23 schools, 14 are located outside Douglas County, and 16 teach religious tenets or beliefs. Many are funded at least in part by and affiliated with particular religious organizations.  Many of the participating private schools base admissions decisions at least in part on students’ and parents’ religious beliefs and practices. Many also require students to attend religious services.

However, the voucher program – modeled after other programs across the country that have prevailed in court – gives students the right to “receive a waiver from any required religious services at the [participating private school],” according to court documents.

The district would administer the program under the Choice Scholarship Charter School, which would handle monitoring students’ class schedules and attendance at participating private schools. However, the charter school would not “have a building, teachers, or curriculum.”

new plan

Lawmakers want to allow appeals before low-rated private schools lose vouchers

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Rep. Bob Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee, authored HB 1384, in which voucher language was added late last week.

Indiana House lawmakers signaled support today for a plan to loosen restrictions for private schools accepting state voucher dollars.

Two proposal were amended into the existing House Bill 1384, which is mostly aimed at clarifying how high school graduation rate is calculated. One would allow private schools to appeal to the Indiana State Board of Education to keep receiving vouchers even if they are repeatedly graded an F. The other would allow new “freeway” private schools the chance to begin receiving vouchers more quickly.

Indiana, already a state with one of the most robust taxpayer-funded voucher programs in the country, has made small steps toward broadening the program since the original voucher law passed in 2011 — and today’s amendments could represent two more if they become law. Vouchers shift state money from public schools to pay private school tuition for poor and middle class children.

Under current state law, private schools cannot accept new voucher students for one year after the school is graded a D or F for two straight years. If a school reaches a third year with low grades, it can’t accept new voucher students until it raises its grade to a C or higher for two consecutive years.

Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, the bill’s author, said private schools should have the right to appeal those consequences to the state board.

Right now, he said, they “have no redress.”  But public schools, he said, can appeal to the state board.

Behning said the innovation schools and transformation zones in Indianapolis Public Schools were a “perfect example” for why schools need an appeal process because schools that otherwise would face state takeover or other sanctions can instead get a reprieve to start over with a new management approach.

In the case of troubled private schools receiving vouchers, Behning said, there should be an equal opportunity for the state board to allow them time to improve.

”There are tools already available for traditional public schools and for charters that are not available for vouchers,” he said.

But Democrats on the House Education Committee opposed both proposals, arguing they provided more leeway to private schools than traditional public schools have.

“Vouchers are supposed to be the answer, the cure-all, the panacea for what’s going on in traditional schools,” said Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary. “If you gave an amendment that said this would be possible for both of them, leveling the playing field, then I would support it.”

The second measure would allow the Indiana State Board of Education to consider a private school accredited and allow it to immediately begin receiving vouchers once it has entered into a contract to become a “freeway school” — a type of state accreditation that has few regulations and requirements compared to full accreditation.Typically, it might take a year or so to become officially accredited.

Indiana’s voucher program is projected to grow over the next two years to more than 38,000 students, at an anticipated cost — according to a House budget draft — of about $160 million in 2019. Currently in Indiana, there are 316 private schools that can accept vouchers.

The voucher amendments passed along party lines last week, and the entire bill passed out of committee today, 8-4. It next heads to the full House for a vote, likely later this week.

RIP

Senate plan to expand parents’ access to state education dollars dies in committee

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The Senate Education Committee heard SB 534 on Wednesday.

A Senate plan that would’ve given parents of students with special needs direct access to their state education funding was killed yesterday — for now.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said during the Senate Education Committee hearing on the bill that there would be no vote on Senate Bill 534, which would’ve established “education savings accounts” for Indiana students with physical and learning disabilities. The plan would’ve been a major step forward for Indiana school choice advocates who have already backed the state’s charter school and voucher programs.

Kruse said there were still many questions about the bill.

“I don’t want a bill to leave our committee that still has a lot of work to be done on it,” Kruse said.

The Senate bill was one of two such plans winding its way through the 2017 Indiana General Assembly.

House Bill 1591 would create a similar program, but it would not be limited just to students needing special education. Authored by Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, the “radical” proposal is meant to give parents total control over their child’s education.

“The intent of 1591 is to give parents the choice and let the market work,” Lucas said. “…I want to get this conversation started.”

A hearing for the House bill has not been scheduled in the House Education Committee, led by Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis.

Education savings accounts are slowly gaining attention across the U.S.

Similar programs have passed state legislatures or are already operating in Tennessee, Florida, Arizona, Mississippi and Nevada. Advocates have called education savings account programs the purest form of school choice.

But critics of the savings accounts say they could divert even more money away from public schools and come with few regulations to protect against fraud and ensure families are spending the money according to the law.