v(ouch)!

Douglas County officials might seek U.S. Supreme Court decision on voucher program

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Second-grader Aaleyah Stone reads aloud to Zoe, a therapy dog who visits Keystone Elementary School with her handler, Pam Westphal.

CASTLE ROCK — Douglas County School District officials said Monday they may seek a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of their voucher program.

That announcement came just hours after the Colorado Supreme Court struck down the program, which was developed in 2011 but never went into effect, in a 4-3 ruling.

Douglas County school board members at a press conference said they believe today’s decision could pave the way for a U.S. Supreme Court challenge over the part of the state constitution that prohibits aid to religious organizations.

“This is a disappointing ruling for the students of Douglas County and all students in Colorado,” said Douglas County Board of Education President Kevin Larsen. “But today’s ruling paves the way for the U.S. Supreme Court to evaluate the constitutionality of Colorado’s Blaine Amendment, which is an ugly part of no fewer than 37 state constitutions.”

The so-called Blaine Amendment is a provision in Colorado’s state constitution that forbids direct government aid to educational institutions that have religious affiliation.

The Colorado Supreme Court in its opinion said because the Douglas County voucher program gave money to religious schools, it violated that constitutional provision and was illegal.

About 30 other state constitutions also have such clauses.

The clauses are named after the Republican U.S. Congressman James G. Blaine, who in 1875 unsuccessfully attempted to pass a federal Constitutional amendment that would prohibit state tax dollars or land to support religious schools. Blaine’s aim for the failed amendment, which spurred dozens of copy-cat initiatives in state legislatures, was to prohibit tax dollars to fund Catholic parochial schools.

Mark Silverstein, legal director of the Colorado ACLU, one of the organizations that argued against the voucher program, said he believes a U.S. Supreme Court hearing is a long shot.

“I’ll be interested to see their brief,” Silverstein said. “I think that the so-called Blaine Amendment argument is a red herring. In the 1870s, it’s true, there was an amount of anti-Catholic basis. But the school board’s argument is that [anti-Catholic bias] explains the presence of Section 7 in the Constitution. And I think that is too much of a stretch.”

Silverstein said the Blaine Amendment argument is nothing new when it comes to vouchers for private or religious schools.

“This argument has been bubbling up over school voucher programs for years,” Silverstein said. “But I don’t know if the U.S. Supreme Court has ever invalidated a state constitutional provision because the drafters were anti-Catholic bigots.”

Silverstein said he believes even if the Section 7 has anti-Catholic roots, it doesn’t detract from the validity of a neutral application to all religious schools today.

“A system of free secular public schools — that’s the principle Article 9 Section 7 embodies,” he said.

But Douglas County Superintendent Liz Fagen, and others, said the Choice Scholarship Program, as it is known, is about providing students with the best education to fit their needs.

“We don’t fear the idea that a student could benefit at another school,” she said Monday when asked why the district, which has the state’s highest accreditation rating from the state, needed to offer an alternative to its schools.

Although he declined to discuss specifics, board member Craig Richardson said the district will also work to modify the voucher program to be in compliance with the state’s Supreme Court ruling as early as this fall.

“We will adopt modifications to our Choice Scholarship Program expeditiously and in compliance with today’s Supreme Court decision,” he said. “We will not wait. We are undaunted.”

new plan

Lawmakers want to allow appeals before low-rated private schools lose vouchers

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Rep. Bob Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee, authored HB 1384, in which voucher language was added late last week.

Indiana House lawmakers signaled support today for a plan to loosen restrictions for private schools accepting state voucher dollars.

Two proposal were amended into the existing House Bill 1384, which is mostly aimed at clarifying how high school graduation rate is calculated. One would allow private schools to appeal to the Indiana State Board of Education to keep receiving vouchers even if they are repeatedly graded an F. The other would allow new “freeway” private schools the chance to begin receiving vouchers more quickly.

Indiana, already a state with one of the most robust taxpayer-funded voucher programs in the country, has made small steps toward broadening the program since the original voucher law passed in 2011 — and today’s amendments could represent two more if they become law. Vouchers shift state money from public schools to pay private school tuition for poor and middle class children.

Under current state law, private schools cannot accept new voucher students for one year after the school is graded a D or F for two straight years. If a school reaches a third year with low grades, it can’t accept new voucher students until it raises its grade to a C or higher for two consecutive years.

Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, the bill’s author, said private schools should have the right to appeal those consequences to the state board.

Right now, he said, they “have no redress.”  But public schools, he said, can appeal to the state board.

Behning said the innovation schools and transformation zones in Indianapolis Public Schools were a “perfect example” for why schools need an appeal process because schools that otherwise would face state takeover or other sanctions can instead get a reprieve to start over with a new management approach.

In the case of troubled private schools receiving vouchers, Behning said, there should be an equal opportunity for the state board to allow them time to improve.

”There are tools already available for traditional public schools and for charters that are not available for vouchers,” he said.

But Democrats on the House Education Committee opposed both proposals, arguing they provided more leeway to private schools than traditional public schools have.

“Vouchers are supposed to be the answer, the cure-all, the panacea for what’s going on in traditional schools,” said Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary. “If you gave an amendment that said this would be possible for both of them, leveling the playing field, then I would support it.”

The second measure would allow the Indiana State Board of Education to consider a private school accredited and allow it to immediately begin receiving vouchers once it has entered into a contract to become a “freeway school” — a type of state accreditation that has few regulations and requirements compared to full accreditation.Typically, it might take a year or so to become officially accredited.

Indiana’s voucher program is projected to grow over the next two years to more than 38,000 students, at an anticipated cost — according to a House budget draft — of about $160 million in 2019. Currently in Indiana, there are 316 private schools that can accept vouchers.

The voucher amendments passed along party lines last week, and the entire bill passed out of committee today, 8-4. It next heads to the full House for a vote, likely later this week.

RIP

Senate plan to expand parents’ access to state education dollars dies in committee

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The Senate Education Committee heard SB 534 on Wednesday.

A Senate plan that would’ve given parents of students with special needs direct access to their state education funding was killed yesterday — for now.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said during the Senate Education Committee hearing on the bill that there would be no vote on Senate Bill 534, which would’ve established “education savings accounts” for Indiana students with physical and learning disabilities. The plan would’ve been a major step forward for Indiana school choice advocates who have already backed the state’s charter school and voucher programs.

Kruse said there were still many questions about the bill.

“I don’t want a bill to leave our committee that still has a lot of work to be done on it,” Kruse said.

The Senate bill was one of two such plans winding its way through the 2017 Indiana General Assembly.

House Bill 1591 would create a similar program, but it would not be limited just to students needing special education. Authored by Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, the “radical” proposal is meant to give parents total control over their child’s education.

“The intent of 1591 is to give parents the choice and let the market work,” Lucas said. “…I want to get this conversation started.”

A hearing for the House bill has not been scheduled in the House Education Committee, led by Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis.

Education savings accounts are slowly gaining attention across the U.S.

Similar programs have passed state legislatures or are already operating in Tennessee, Florida, Arizona, Mississippi and Nevada. Advocates have called education savings account programs the purest form of school choice.

But critics of the savings accounts say they could divert even more money away from public schools and come with few regulations to protect against fraud and ensure families are spending the money according to the law.