Choose Your Own Adventure

More students used Denver’s school choice enrollment system this year

Families attended a Denver Public Schools "choice expo" in 2011. Photo courtesy DPS.

Participation in Denver’s unified enrollment system, which parents can use to apply for any of the district’s public or charter schools, jumped nearly 10 percent this year, the district reported Friday.

Close to 25,000 students applied through the system, compared to 22,729 last year. That means well over a quarter of the district’s 90,000 students used the SchoolChoice system.

Families learned by email  today which schools their children will be attending.

SchoolChoice was introduced four years ago to replace a convoluted system in which there were dozens of applications to various public and charter schools in the city.

This year, 95 percent of students were placed in one of their top five schools, compared to 94 percent last year. That’s a reversal from last year’s trend, when there was a drop in the number of students who were placed in their requested schools.

DPS officials say they will work directly with any families who did not receive a placement in any of the schools to which they applied.

Most families who used the enrollment system are preparing for transition years: Kindergarten, sixth, or ninth grades. This year, kindergartners were most likely receive first-choice schools: 83 percent, compared to 74 percent of sixth graders, 77 percent of ninth graders, and 78 percent of students overall.

Areas of the city that now have shared enrollment zones saw particularly high participation. Under the shared zone system, students are not guaranteed a spot in one particular school, but are guaranteed a spot in one of a number of schools within a limited geographic area.

DPS said the enrollment zones in west and southwest Denver saw the biggest bumps in participation in SchoolChoice, with 91 percent of students in those zones submitting applications compared to 67 percent last year.

The district created two new shared enrollment zones this year, including the one in southwest Denver.

District officials are also predicting that more middle school students will enroll next year than ever before. In Stapleton and the Far Northeast there were particularly big jumps. For instance, in Stapleton, 417 sixth graders enrolled in DPS schools in 2009, compared to 735 projected to enroll this year.

The district has at times walked a tightrope as it tries to create broad selection of school choice options while also supporting neighborhood schools.

In a press release, Superintendent Tom Boasberg emphasized that neighborhood schools still have a role. “We always recommend families look first to their neighborhood schools,” said Boasberg. “We know it is also important to provide schools throughout the city that meet the unique needs of our students.”

A report from A+ Denver, a local education advocacy group, released earlier this year found that most families in Denver that used SchoolChoice were placed in their top choice school, but that there are still inequities in the quality of schools where low-income and higher-income families enroll.

DPS officials said they would provide more information about school choice participation later this spring.

rebuffed

Charter school proposals rejected by Memphis officials — for now

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Shelby County’s school board sent 13 groups back to the drawing board Tuesday after denying their initial bid to open or expand charter schools in Memphis in 2018.

The unanimous vote followed the recommendations of district staff, who raised concerns about the applications ranging from unclear academic plans to missing budget documents to a lack of research-based evidence backing up their work.

Applicants now have 30 days to amend and re-submit their plans for a final board vote during a special meeting August 22. Memphis Academy of Health Sciences rescinded its application to expand grades last week.

Since 2003, Shelby County Schools has grown its charter sector to 45 schools, making the district Tennessee’s largest charter authorizer.

Nationally, the rate of charter school growth is at a four-year low, in part because of a shrinking applicant pool, according to a recent report from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. But Memphis is bucking the trend with a slight increase in applicants this year.

District leaders frequently deny charter applications initially, but it’s unusual to turn down all of them at once.

New to this year’s application process was five consultants from NACSA, which has worked closely with Shelby County Schools to bolster its oversight of the sector.

back to the future

Colorado Supreme Court ordered to reconsider Douglas County school voucher case

Douglas County parents protest the district's voucher program in 2010 (Denver Post photo)

The Colorado Supreme Court must reconsider its ruling against a private school voucher system created by the Douglas County School District, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Tuesday.

The edict comes a day after the nation’s highest court issued a ruling on a case that touched on similar issues.

At issue is whether Douglas County parents can use tax dollars to send their students to private schools, including religious schools. The Colorado Supreme Court said in 2015 the program violated the state’s constitution.

What connects the Douglas County voucher debate to the just-decided Trinity Lutheran v. Comer case from Missouri is that both states have so-called Blaine Amendments. Such provisions prohibit state tax dollars from aiding religious practices. Nearly 40 states have similar language.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that the state of Missouri violated the U.S. Constitution by prohibiting Trinity Lutheran’s church-run preschool from participating in a state program that repaved playgrounds. The court found that the state must allow churches to participate in state programs when the benefit meets a secular need.

That distinction likely will be the question the Colorado Supreme Court wrestles with when it takes up the issue again.

“The Supreme Court in Trinity Lutheran expressly noted that its opinion does not address religious uses of government funding,” Mark Silverstein, the ACLU of Colorado’s legal director, said in a statement. The ACLU was one of the organizations challenging the voucher program.

“Using public money to teach religious doctrine to primary and secondary students is substantially different than using public money to resurface a playground,” Silverstein said.

The school district said it was encouraged by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision.

“We look forward to the Colorado Supreme Court’s second review and decision on this important matter,” William Trachman, the district’s legal counsel, said in a statement. “As always, the Douglas County School District is dedicated to empowering parents to find the best educational options for their children.”

It’s unclear when the Colorado Supreme Court will take up the Douglas County case. The court has three options: It may revise its earlier opinion, request new arguments from both sides or ask a lower court to reconsider the case.

Given the national implications, it’s unlikely the Colorado justices will have the final say — especially if they again conclude the voucher program violates the state’s constitution. The question could end up being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Douglas County School District launched its voucher program in 2011 after a conservative majority took control of the school board. The district was prepared to hand out more than 300 vouchers to families before a Denver District Court judge blocked the program from starting.