Vouch for this

In Douglas County voucher case, Supreme Court wonders what defines a public school

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
James Lyons, representing the Douglas County School District, speaks during oral arguments at the Colorado Supreme Court in the Douglas County vouchers case.

The Colorado Supreme Court on Wednesday churned through a list of constitutional arguments for and against the Douglas County voucher program — and any one of which could decide the fate of the choice system.

But the case could also be determined on one central question: what constitutes a public education in the 21st century.

The oral arguments centered around whether the program violates the state’s school funding and charter school laws, whether the program is designed to benefit the student or religious institutions, and whether the plaintiffs — a group of parents and taxpayers — have legal standing to challenge the program.

Justices fired questions at lawyers on both sides of the case about the role of the Colorado Department of Education, whether Colorado school districts are required to provide religious programs along with non-religious programs to students, and what role the state plays in public education.

“Is this a paradigm shift?” Chief Justice Nancy Rice asked James Lyons, the lawyer representing Douglas County schools. “Are you saying public education is just a funding mechanism? … Is all education now public [and parents] can just choose?”

“Not exactly,” Lyons answered. But, he continued, public education has undergone radical changes that the framers of the state’s constitution could not have imagined 140 years ago.

Developed after a conservative majority took control of the Douglas County School Districts Board of Education, the voucher program would allow some families in the affluent school district to use public tax dollars to pay for tuition at private schools.

If the state’s highest court agrees with an appeals court that found the voucher system is constitutional, the program, which has been put on hold since 2011, could be operational by the beginning of next school year. And it could open up the possibility that similar programs could launched across the state.

If the court sides with a trial court that found the program unconstitutional, it would be more in line with a 2004 state Supreme Court decision that halted a statewide voucher program that would have provided similar scholarships to low income families. But that case was not mentioned during Wednesday’s hearing.

Arguing for the plaintiffs, Michael McCarthy said the voucher program violated state law because it was dependent upon a charter school, created by the district solely to pass public funds to private and often religious institutions.

“The charter school is a mirage,” McCarthy said. “There are no classrooms. There is no principal. There are no textbooks. It is little more than a false front from an old western movie.”

McCarthy stressed that the program benefited the religious institutions more than the students.

He pointed to testimony from one private religious school operator who testified under oath that the only reason his school participated in the program was to collect the revenue.

But Lyons, arguing on behalf of Douglas County schools, said the charter school was a mechanism used by the district to fulfill state requirements like testing and met the legal definition of a charter school. But he said the district could fulfill those requirements in other ways.

On the question of whether public tax dollars can be used at religious institutions, lawyers for the plaintiffs said the answer is a resounding no.

But lawyers for the school district argued that because the money is given directly to parents and not the private school, the voucher system passes constitutional muster.

Lyons pointed out to the Denver Preschool Program and the Colorado Opportunity Fund as just two examples of programs that collect taxes from residents and distributes the money directly to students or their parents, who then choose which educational institution — religious or not — to give the money to.

“All of those programs would be thrown into jeopardy” if the court permanently disbands the Douglas County voucher program, Lyons said.

Lyons also said that a driving philosophy behind the program is parent choice. Choice, he said, is not only a Colorado value but also fosters competition and better schools.

Before the justices can answer the constitutionality question about the voucher program, they must first decide whether the parent organization the Taxpayers for Public Education that is behind the lawsuit can sue the state to stop the program from launching. 

“What is the injury that allows the citizens to challenge the setting up of this charter school?” Justice Gregory Hobbs asked McCarthy, the lawyer for the Taxpayers for Public Education.

He answered the program would siphon away $3 million from Douglas County schools.

Further, McCarthy argued his parents have the right to challenge the program because it appeared, based on evidence provided at the trial court, that the Colorado Department of Education, the organization tasked with regulating school finance, was working in tandem with Douglas County schools and was therefore not a viable agency to hold the district accountable.

Lyons countered parents only received 75 percent of their individual per pupil funding and that CDE was merely advising Douglas County schools and that the program was halted before the department could throughly vet and regulate the program.

It’s unknown when the court will issue its ruling, but it will likely be next year.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.