v(ouch)!

Plaintiffs: Dougco voucher program thwarts constitution

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Highlands Ranch High School science teacher Bob MacArthur leads a class discussion May 16 on propaganda art. His ninth grade science class was asked to design a propaganda poster in support of an energy source they have been studying.

Gearing up for a constitutional slug match over the fate of private school vouchers in Colorado, lawyers for Douglas County parents and taxpayers made their first pitch to the Colorado Supreme Court on the 2011 suburban scholarship program.

The voucher plan, which is on hold pending litigation, would allow Douglas County students to use public tax dollars to enroll in private — and often religious — schools would siphon away much-needed revenue from public schools and subsidize religious institutions. In effect, the program is unconstitutional, lawyers argued in a brief filed late Thursday with the Colorado Supreme Court.

The 80-page document, filed on behalf of two groups of plaintiffs, argues why the district-created voucher program, known as the Choice Scholarship Program, should not be permitted to launch.

The Colorado Supreme Court agreed to hear the case earlier this year after a three-member appellate court overturned a lower courts ruling that deemed the program unconstitutional.

The appellate court ruled the plaintiffs, including parents, clergy, and tax payers, did not have legal standing to bring the lawsuit. That decision will be one of six points the Supreme Court will consider in its ruling.

Other questions the Supreme Court will look to answer include whether the program violates Colorado’s Public School Finance Act of 1994 and four different sections of the Colorado Constitution.

“The majority court of appeals opinion that upheld the Program, if allowed to stand, would eviscerate core provisions of the religion and education clauses of the Colorado Constitution, restrict citizens’ ability to enforce the Public School Finance Act, and give school districts around the state carte blanche to implement similar programs, with potentially devastating consequences for the State’s constitutionally mandated public-school system,” the brief says.

The plaintiffs’ brief is one of a few initial steps in what is expected to be a rather long and uncertain process. The Douglas County School District has until Aug. 4 to file its response. A date for oral arguments has not been set. Those arguments may not be heard until next year, according to a spokesman for the the Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The voucher program, which was unanimously passed by the Dougco school board in 2011, would have allowed up to 500 Douglas County students to use 75 percent of the district’s per-pupil funding – or $4,575 at the time – to attend a participating private school approved by the district.

Students would have been able to use those funds to attend private religious schools.

Thirty-four private schools applied to participate in the voucher program. Dougco approved 23 of those schools.

Of the 23 schools, 14 were located outside Douglas County, and 16 taught religious doctrine.

The voucher program was modeled after other programs across the nation that have prevailed in court. It gave students the right to “receive a waiver from any required religious services at the [participating private school],” according to previous court documents filed by the district.

However, lawyers for the plaintiffs argue the waivers weren’t enough to meet constitutional muster.

The Douglas County school board remains confident in its case, a spokeswoman for the district said earlier this week referring to a previously issued statement from board member Craig Richardson.

“The District welcomes the opportunity for the state’s highest court to review a case that presents such important issues for our state and our country,” Richardson said in March. “DCSD is committed to expanding choice for parents and one of the ways is our innovative Choice Scholarship Program. We believe the Court of Appeals will be affirmed and that the parents and children of our District will, someday soon, be afforded more educational choice.”

From the brief

One of the main objections to the voucher program was the inclusion of religious-run institutions. Critics saw this as a violation as of the Colorado’s Constitution as using public dollars for religious activities. While there was a waiver policy for students who might not participate in a particular religion, a lower court agreed the waiver was limited at bets. The brief argues:

The Program purports to afford students the right to “receive a waiver from any required religious services at the Private School Partner,” but the waiver only applies to saying prayers aloud; students can still be compelled to attend religious services. Nor may students opt out of full participation in other religious exercises — such as prayer recitations and scriptural readings — that many of the schools mandate throughout the day. Moreover, most of the schools require students to receive instruction in religious doctrine. Even the District acknowledged that this was “[n]ot much of an opt out.”

During the initial trial, testimony suggested one participating religious school only signed up for the program to beef up its own reserves. Here’s why:

There are no restrictions on how participating schools may spend the public funds they receive through the Program. Schools are free to use the funds for religious instruction, worship services, religious literature, clergy salaries, and construction or maintenance of facilities used for worship and prayer.

One of the more nuanced parts of the Dougco voucher case revolves around a charter school established by the district that students in the program were to enroll in. The charter school had no teachers, curriculum, or walls. Its primary function was to cut voucher checks to parents.

In sum, the Voucher Program rests on the transparent fiction that the Charter School is a “qualified charter school” entitled to claim and spend public funds under the Act. The Court should not sanction such a fiction.

If the Douglas County wants to expand school choice, as it has purported to do, there is a constitutional solution, the brief says:

If the citizens of Colorado want to rewrite the State Constitution to allow public funding of religious schools, they can try to do so at the ballot box. Until then, the language and intent of the Colorado Constitution’s framers must be followed.

The plaintiffs’ brief

School Choice

One of the top ranked high schools in the state just joined Indianapolis Public Schools

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Herron High School is the latest addition to the IPS innovation network.

One of Indianapolis’ most sought after charter high schools just joined Indianapolis Public Schools — an unusual shift in a relationship that has long been competitive.

The IPS board voted to add Herron High School, a charter school on the northside, to the district portfolio of innovation schools at a meeting Thursday. Board member Elizabeth Gore was the only one to oppose the measure.

The move is the latest example of district collaboration with charter schools, which were seen in the past as rivals for students.

“Way back at the beginning, there was this huge animosity between IPS and charter schools,” said Herron board chair Joanna Taft, who has been involved with the school since it opened in 2006. “It’s really exciting to be able to see the charter schools and public schools start coming together.”

Herron and a second campus expected to open this fall, Riverside High School, are now under the IPS umbrella, but the schools still retain virtually all of their independence. The teachers are employed directly by the charter network and are not part of the IPS union. And unlike most innovation schools, neither campus is in an IPS building.

The deal offers the charter schools an influx of cash and extra control over which neighborhoods they serve. IPS will add well-regarded schools to the list of high schools on its books, and it will get credit for Herron’s test scores and other academic outcomes when the district is assessed by the state.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the district wanted to add Herron to the innovation network so the classical liberal arts curriculum is available to more IPS students.

“The access to the classical model, which currently doesn’t exist in our district and … has a strong track record of success is obviously appealing to us,” Ferebee said. “We want to ensure that we give our students access to this option.”

Both Herron and Riverside are located within the boundaries of IPS, but the schools also draw students from nearby township and suburban communities. About half the students who attend Herron live in IPS boundaries, said Taft.

The school, which regularly ranks among the top Indiana high school, has historically drawn high-achieving students from IPS. But it has faced criticism for having student demographics that don’t mirror the community. Herron enrolls about 35 percent students of color, compared to about 80 percent of IPS students. Additionally, about 32 percent of Herron students are poor enough to get subsidized meals, less than half the rate in IPS.

Because IPS educates so many poor students, it gets more money from the state. Next year, the district is expected to receive a base rate of nearly $7,000 per student from the state, while Herron will receive about $5,500. Under the agreement approved tonight, IPS will give Herron and Riverside $6,000 per student next year.

If the school’s demographics fit the projections from the state, the district would be giving the charter schools more than $475,000 on top of what they would normally get from the state.

Herron leaders are taking steps to increase the number of low-income students they serve, said Taft. In addition to joining the innovation network, Herron will participate in EnrollIndy, a planned unified enrollment system that will allow students to apply to Herron and other charter schools through the same website as IPS schools.

Ferebee also said joining the new enrollment system should help increase the number of low-income students at the schools.

“We have been very intentional with this agreement around ensuring that the student population with these schools mirror as much as possible our IPS population,” said Ferebee.

As innovation network schools, Herron and Riverside will also be able to give students from the surrounding neighborhoods first dibs on seats at the schools, which could increase the number of students who live within IPS boundaries. (With a few exceptions, charter schools are required to admit students by lottery.)

That was one of the most important reasons Herron wanted to join the innovation network, said Taft. Riverside staff have been working closely with neighborhood leaders around the new campus, and they wanted to be able to give local students priority in admission.

That’s an attractive prospect for board member Kelly Bentley, because the nearby students who will get an edge come from within the IPS boundaries.

“I think that Herron is an excellent academic program,” she said. “I’m really excited that our students will have a better chance of getting into that program.”

School choices

School choice supporters downplay new voucher research, saying schools are more than a test score

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

At this week’s gathering of school choice supporters, there was an awkward fact in their midst: A wave of new studies had shown that students receiving a voucher did worse, sometimes much worse, on standardized tests.

That was the inconvenient verdict of studies examining programs in Louisiana, Ohio, Washington, D.C., and in Indianapolis, where the advocates had convened for the annual conference of the American Federation for Children. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the group’s former leader, gave the keynote address.

But many of the school choice proponents, who had long made the case that their favored reform works, had an explanation at the ready.

Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, only alluded to the recent studies. “In spite of a few research projects of a narrowly identified group of students, the simple fact is when you create a marketplace of choices and informed parents … the children do better,” he told the audience.

Other leading supporters emphasized the impact the programs have beyond test scores, as well as the shortcomings of recent studies.

“Some of the data that is really interesting [looks at] not just achievement, but attainment,” Robert Enlow, head of EdChoice, a group that backs vouchers and tax credit programs, told Chalkbeat. “A kid may not be doing as well on a test score as we would like, but they’re graduating at higher rates [and] they’re going into college at higher rates.”

Indeed, older studies show that students in Milwaukee’s voucher program were more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college. Students in D.C.’s initiative also completed high school at a higher rate.

Enlow also pointed to evidence that private school choice can spur improvements in public schools through competition and increase parent satisfaction rates. Sounding a bit like some of his opponents who lead teachers unions, Enlow argued that test scores are a poor measure of educational quality.

“We want a vibrant society of people who know what they’re doing who are productive members of society,” he said. “A single test doesn’t prove jack about that.”

While EdChoice has said that school choice leads to academic gains, the group has also argued, prior to the recent studies, that parents care about more than just test scores when choosing schools. EdChoice opposes requiring students in voucher programs to take state tests at all. Without such data, making comparisons to public schools is more difficult.

Still, Enlow said, “there are some studies showing that private schools need to get better on test scores.”

Supporters also noted that the studies in D.C. and Louisiana were based on just one and two years of data, respectively. Enlow says that is too little information to draw helpful conclusions, a point echoed by Kevin Chavous, a board member at the American Federation for Children and a former D.C. city council member.

“This is after one year in the program,” said Chavous referring to the recent D.C. report, which analyzed three groups of students after a single year of receiving a voucher. “Studies also show … the longer the kids are in these programs, the better they’ll do.”

An overview of past research on school vouchers, including studies in other countries, found that students were neither helped nor harmed after three years, but saw significant test score jumps in the fourth year.

DeVos hasn’t addressed the topic in depth. After her own Department of Education released the report on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, DeVos stated, “The study released today found that D.C. OSP parents overwhelmingly support this program, and that, at the same time, these schools need to improve upon how they serve some of D.C.’s most vulnerable students.”

Chavous argues that giving families choice means allowing them to pick schools based on what is important to them, which may not be test scores. It’s also hypocritical for those who are skeptical of testing to then use test results to criticize voucher programs, he said.

“You can’t have it both ways — you can’t say we have too much high-stakes testing when it comes to public schools and then when it comes to private choice programs, OK, they aren’t passing the test,” he said.

But he acknowledges inconsistency on his own side among those who use test results to claim that public schools are failing.

“We’re all hypocrites on the testing thing,” Chavous said.

This story has been updated to clarify EdChoice’s previous statements on the value of test scores.