v(ouch)!

Douglas County voucher program unconstitutional, Supreme Court rules

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.

The Douglas County School District may not provide its families vouchers to send their students to private schools, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled Monday morning.

In its decision, the state’s highest court effectively shut down the suburban school district’s choice program.

Douglas County school officials are expected to have a press conference this afternoon to discuss the ruling. It’s unclear whether the school district will attempt to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. (See updated from press conference here.)

In the 4-3 opinion, written by Chief Justice Nancy E. Rice, the court said the Choice Scholarship Program, as the district called it, was unconstitutional because it sent taxpayer dollars to religious institutions.

“[T]he Colorado Constitution prohibits school districts from aiding religious schools,” the chief justice wrote in her conclusion. “The CSP has created financial partnerships between the District and religious schools and, in so doing, has facilitated students attending such schools. This constitutes aid to religious institutions as contemplated by section 7. Therefore, we hold that the CSP violates section 7.”

Section 7 refers to a portion of the state’s constitution that flatly prohibits any state aid to religious institutions.

In oral arguments last year, lawyers for the Douglas County School District argued that parents, not the school district, chose where to use the vouchers. In their opinion, the district did not endorse religious schools, but parents.

A majority of the court disagreed.

“It is true that the CSP does not only partner with religious schools; several Private School Partners are non-religious,” Rice wrote. “The fact remains, however, that the CSP awards public money to students who may then use that money to pay for a religious education. In so doing, the CSP aids religious institutions. Thus, even ignoring the pragmatic realities that scholarship recipients face—such as the trial court’s finding that ‘virtually all high school students’ can only use their scholarships to attend religious schools—the CSP violates the clear constitutional command of section 7.”

But in a dissenting opinion, Justice Allison Eid said the court’s interpretation of Section 7 went too far.

“This breathtakingly broad interpretation would invalidate not only the Choice Scholarship Program, but numerous other state programs that provide funds to students and their parents who in turn decide to use the funds to attend religious schools in Colorado,” Eid wrote. “The plurality’s interpretation barring indirect funding is so broad that it would invalidate the use of public funds to build roads, bridges, and sidewalks adjacent to such schools, as the schools, in the words of the plurality, ‘rely on’ state-paid infrastructure to operate their institutions.”

The ruling means that Colorado tax dollars will stay where they belong in public schools, said one of the plaintiffs in a statement emailed shortly after the decision was made public.

“The DCSD voucher program took taxpayer funds, intended for public education, and used that money to pay for private school education for a few select students,” said Cindy Barnard, President of Taxpayers for Public Education, one of the plaintiffs in the case. “The decision means that money set aside for public education in Colorado can only be used the way it was intended to be used — for the betterment of education in Colorado public schools.”

Education analyst Ben DeGrow at the Independence Institute, a libertarian think-tank and supporter of school choice, said he he believed the court came to the wrong conclusion.

“It’s a disappointment that the Colorado Supreme Court did not uphold opportunity and choice for families in Douglas County,” he said.

The voucher program was unanimously passed by the Douglas County school board in 2011. It would have allowed up to 500 Douglas County students, who live south of Denver, 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. The school district approved 23 of those schools.

Of the 23 schools, 14 were located outside Douglas County, one of the wealthiest counties in Colorado, 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.

In 2004 the state Supreme Court halted a statewide voucher program that would have provided similar scholarships to low income families.

Capitol Editor Todd Engdahl contributed to this report. 

Two for one

DSST doesn’t want to open a new school in Aurora. The charter network wants to open two.

PHOTO: Andy Cross/Denver Post
Sixth-graders at DSST: College View Middle School in class in 2014.

DSST, Denver’s largest and fastest growing charter school network, wants to open two new schools by 2021 that would serve nearly 2,000 students — in Aurora.

That’s according to a formal proposal DSST submitted to Aurora Public Schools this month. The DSST charter application was the only one the district received by the annual deadline for charter school applications this month.

The application comes with a provision that the schools operate in buildings provided by the suburban school district. Space for charter schools in Aurora has been historically difficult to find, and the district has provided little to no support in helping them locate space — until now.

Superintendent Rico Munn last year offered to build DSST a new building, if the network would pay half. Board members and existing charter school leaders questioned the superintendent on why this deal was offered to one charter school, excluding others. Charter schools are public schools receiving public tax dollars but operated by a board independent from a school district.

The Aurora school board has allowed Munn to continue discussions with DSST, but members cautioned that it did not mean there would be any guarantees and that final approval would wait until DSST went through the district’s charter approval process. Munn has said the deal is in part about connecting with a network that has a record of success on student achievement, as well as a way to offer more choices around science and technology. The Aurora district has been working to improve student performance before potentially facing state sanctions next year.

Munn’s invitation to DSST to help with a building also stirred controversy over the district’s bond request in November as some charter leaders and the union opposed or scaled back support for the measure.

Munn had proposed that the district and DSST split the cost of the new school building. The Aurora tax measure approved by voters in November included $12 million that would cover the district’s share. Leaders of charter schools already in Aurora questioned how fair it was that their funding requests were excluded from the bond proposal, while a Denver charter network would potentially get a new district-owned building.

DSST had responded that it would help with fundraising but wanted the district to take the lead in coming up with the rest of the funding. In Denver, the school district has provided space for the charter network’s schools.

The charter application did not give more information on how the buildings for the two proposed schools would be paid, but did state that the district has committed to providing the facilities.

“DSST is excited and grateful for the initial commitment from Aurora to provide DSST facilities for two 6- 12 campuses,” the application states.

The first school would open in 2019 and the second in 2021. Both would open serving 150 sixth graders, adding one grade level per year until they each served grades sixth through 12th.

In the application, DSST noted they have started outreach efforts in northwest Aurora, where the first school would open. They also cited that DSST schools across Denver already serve about 200 students who live in Aurora and who would like to “attend a DSST in their own communities.”

Some of those students, including one who said her parents driver her half an hour to school each day, attended a school board meeting in Aurora earlier this month to ask the board to consider approving the charter school.

At February’s board meeting, Aurora district officials mentioned to the board in an update about work on bond projects, that DSST had started working with the district on preliminary plans for the new school building in northwest Aurora, so the district doesn’t build something “that won’t fit.”

“We are talking to them,” Amy Spatz, Aurora’s director of construction management and design, told the board. “We’re getting feedback early.”

As far as who would attend the schools, the application proposes that the DSST schools would be open enrollment schools meaning anyone in the district would be able to apply and attend. The school would provide an application form that families would fill out during a three-month window of enrollment. If more students apply than the school has room for, the school would hold a lottery to select the students attending.

Like at other DSST schools, the application states the schools will have a goal of mirroring the overall demographic population of the district, including by enrolling at least 30 percent English language learners and 10 percent of students who are in special education.

Depending upon student and family need, DSST also noted they are interested in exploring the possibility of purchasing bus services from the district for their students.

The application will be reviewed by the district’s new Charter School Advisory Committee, then the District Accountability Committee, before going to the district’s board for a final decision in June.

deal breaker

Some Catholic schools may shun Memphis voucher program over TNReady

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Rep. Harry Brooks, who is sponsoring a bill to pilot school vouchers in Memphis, answers questions Wednesday from Rep. Mike Stewart during a House committee meeting.

Some of the 24 Catholic schools in Memphis might not accept school vouchers if their students have to take Tennessee’s state tests, a lobbyist told lawmakers on Wednesday.

“We’ve heard that to take the state test means to teach the state test, and if that changes our curriculum, I don’t know if we can participate,” said Jennifer Murphy, who represents the Tennessee Catholic Public Policy Commission.

Murphy didn’t specify which schools, but some have said they’re on board with state testing.  Leaders of Jubilee Catholic Schools have told lawmakers that they are willing for their students to take the state’s TNReady assessment if the legislature pilots a voucher program in Memphis.

Jubilee’s participation is critical because its nine schools, which serve mostly low-income Memphis families, are among the city’s only private schools that have expressed interest in the voucher program making its way through the Tennessee legislature. Tuition at many private schools in Memphis is significantly higher than the voucher amount of $7,000 each year, and the bill would not allow schools to charge more than the voucher’s value. 

How to hold private schools accountable if they accept public funds has been central to the voucher debate in Tennessee and nationwide.

Murphy’s comments came during a lengthy debate in the House Government and Operations Committee and appeared to slow the momentum for a voucher bill. The clock ran out Wednesday before members could vote on the measure, and they are scheduled to pick it up again next week.

In the Senate, the proposal is awaiting action by the chamber’s finance committee.

Correction: March 29, 2017: A previous version of this story said that Jubilee Catholic Schools might not participate in a voucher plan if their students have to take state tests. Representatives of Jubilee said Wednesday that the network is open both to accepting vouchers and administering state tests to participating students.