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.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.