School Choice

Civil liberties groups challenge Dougco voucher ruling

Three civil liberties organizations Thursday asked the Colorado Supreme Court to overturn an appeals court ruling that upheld Douglas County’s Choice Scholarship program, a voucher program that would allow public school students to attend private schools — including those with a religious affiliation.

A scene from Douglas County's voucher lottery in June. The plan is on hold with an appeals court ruling not likely for months.
A scene from Douglas County’s voucher lottery. The plan is on hold with a Colorado Supreme Court hearing not expected any time soon. <em>EdNews</em> file photo

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a petition Thursday with Colorado’s high court, asking it to accept the case and overturn a 2-1 Colorado Court of Appeals ruling that upheld the program by determining it did not violate the state’s Constitution.

The groups say that the voucher plan illegally diverts taxpayer money to religious schools in violation of the Colorado Constitution.

“The Colorado Constitution is very clear on this question: Public funds may not subsidize religious institutions,” said Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United. “We’re urging the Colorado Supreme Court to accept this case and strike down this misguided scheme.”

But Douglas County Board of Education President John Carson said the appeals court ruling was clear in declaring the district’s Choice Scholarship Program constitutional. Furthermore, he said the appeals court rejected all statutory claims made by the plaintiffs.

“The ruling was a huge victory for the students and parents of Douglas County and we are confident that the Court will once again reject the arguments made by the ACLU,” Carson said in a prepared statement. 

Carson defended a parent’s right to choose the best school for their child.

“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,” Carson said. “Douglas County provides many options for students including the finest neighborhood schools in America, a superb array of charter schools, and a world-class variety of learning opportunities. The Choice Scholarship Program will give our students one more choice to achieve educational success and to prepare for the exciting opportunities that lie ahead in 21st Century.”

The Choice Scholarship Program, initiated as a pilot, offered tuition vouchers worth $4,575 to 500 students to spend at 23 schools that had been vetted by the school district. The program remains on hold pending the Colorado Supreme Court ruling.

“Taxpayers in Colorado should not be compelled to subsidize religious education,” said ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein.

Heather Weaver, staff attorney for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said parents can elect to send their children to religious schools, but not on the public dime.

“We are hopeful that the Colorado Supreme Court will accept this case and vindicate the religious liberty right of taxpayers to ensure that public funds do not support religious institutions,” Weaver said.

lower court struck down the plan, but the Court of Appeals overturned that decision in February in a 2-1 ruling.

The latest lawsuit, LaRue v. Colorado Board of Education, argues that the voucher plan violates the Colorado Constitution’s ban on the use of public funds for religious schools, as well as state laws that require educational funds to pay for public education and remain under government control.

“This case raises issues important to the constitutionally mandated public-education system in Colorado, which is facing serious financial difficulties,” said attorney Matthew Douglas, of the Denver office of the international law firm Arnold & Porter, which  argued the appeal.

“If the Court of Appeals’ decision stands, the result could be widespread public funding of religious education throughout the state, as other school districts would be able to enact voucher programs similar to Douglas County’s. We believe the Colorado Supreme Court should weigh in on this important issue and enforce the Colorado Constitution’s clear prohibition of such funding.”

The plaintiffs are represented by Douglas, Timothy Macdonald and Michelle Albert of Arnold & Porter; Luchenitser and Ayesha Khan of Americans United; Weaver and Daniel Mach of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief; and Silverstein and Sara Rich of the ACLU of Colorado.

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 in August 2011 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.

In February, the Court of Appeals overturned the ruling — continuing one of the most watched court battle over school vouchers in the country.

Under the Choice Scholarship 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.”

LaRue vs. Douglas County School District

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Try again

State education officials question another batch of Success Academy charter renewals

PHOTO: Success Academy
A "Slam the Exam" rally for Success Academy students

This July, New York’s top education policymakers are gearing up for next year — with a little charter school drama brewing on the side.

Reigniting a debate that flared in April, the board is poised to send a set of Success Academy charter school renewals back to SUNY, the network’s authorizer, rather than approving them.

The state also plans to release a revised draft of its plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act on Monday, according to state officials. The Regents are not planning to vote on the state’s revised learning standards, though they are scheduled to discuss them.

The majority of July’s meeting will be devoted to a public “retreat,” which includes discussions about school integration, graduation requirements and principal standards. These conversations will likely provide insights into what policymakers are interested in tackling next school year.

Success Academy renewals (again)

In April, the state’s Board of Regents sent a slate of Success Academy charter renewals back to SUNY, arguing the authorizer had renewed them too soon.

The same appears poised to happen at July’s meeting. There are eight Success Academy schools tentatively approved for full, five-year renewals by SUNY along with one other city charter, the Bronx Charter School for Better Learning. State officials recommend sending the renewals back to SUNY with comments.

The move is largely symbolic, since SUNY has the final word, but it caused some debate last spring. After the Regents meeting in April, the decision to send the renewals back to SUNY gave rise to dueling op-eds written by Robert Pondiscio and New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa.

The board is not scheduled to discuss SUNY’s recent proposal to allow some of its charter schools to certify their own teachers, though that announcement drew criticism from State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa earlier this month.

A whole new law

New York state education officials are also in the final stages of completing their plan to evaluate and improve schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act, a new federal law.

The state released its draft plan in May and state officials said they will present revisions at Monday’s meeting. The final vote is expected in September and state officials said they will submit the plan to the U.S. Department of Education later that month.

The revisions are not yet public, but questions have already been raised about how the state will assess transfer schools, which are geared toward students who have fallen behind in high school, and how it will display information about schools to the public.

“We’re going to be looking at the dashboard and what represents a [good] set of indicators,” said Regent Judith Johnson. “What indicators do we need as measures of professionalism, measures of assessment, measures of success?”

The board could also discuss the U.S. Department of Education’s comments on other states’ plans that have already been submitted. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s team surprised states by taking a hard line in initial feedback.

New learning standards?

There is no vote scheduled on new learning standards at this meeting, but the board will hear an update on the process.

The state has received 238 comments on the Next Generation math standards and 252 responses about English, according to a Regents document. The document suggests they are still working on early-grade reading standards and clarifying how they will apply to students with disabilities and to English learners.

This work is part of the lengthy process of revising the Common Core learning standards and unveiling them as the Next Generation Learning Standards. So far, state officials have released a draft set of revised standards, revised them again and given them a new name.

When they unveiled the revisions (to the earlier proposals) in May, state officials said they expected to officially approve new standards in June. But they have yet to come to a consensus and now expect the final version to go before the board in September.

Integration

At the Regents’ last meeting, state officials planted a stake in the ground on the topic of integration, calling New York schools the most segregated in the country and kicking off a preliminary discussion on how to integrate schools. The conversation came soon after the city unveiled its own diversity plan, which some critics found disappointing.

But the state’s discussion left many questions unanswered. During Monday’s discussion, it’s possible some of the Regents’ positions will become clearer.

Graduation

The Regents have been working to reform graduation requirements for years. Last year, the board took some steps in that direction when it allowed students to earn a work-readiness credential in place of a final Regents exam and made it easier for students with disabilities to graduate.

At July’s meeting, the topic is slated for a broader discussion, prompting the question: Could a more substantial rethinking of what it means to earn a New York state diploma be on the way?

Regent Roger Tilles, who has been active in discussions of changes to graduation requirements, suggested that anything could be on the table, including an end to using Regents exams as graduation requirements.

“I’m not sure I know exactly where we’ll end up,” Tilles said. “I know where I don’t want to end up: where we are now.”