school choice battle

Douglas County School District to appeal voucher case to U.S. Supreme Court

Douglas County school board president Kevin Larsen, left, and board member Craig Richardson. ( Photo by Nicholas Garcia )

Two months after Colorado’s highest court rejected the Douglas County School District’s controversial school voucher program, officials in the wealthy, high-achieving suburban district announced Wednesday they will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case.

The district also gained a key ally in the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, which will be filing its own petition backing the district’s Choice Scholarship Program, district officials said.

The district’s move is not a surprise. District leaders all but promised to take the step after the Colorado Supreme Court held in a 4-3 judgment June 29 that the program violated a state constitutional provision barring spending public money on religious schools.

District officials also followed through on their pledge to enlist elite legal help, announcing their team would be headlined by Paul Clement, a former U.S. solicitor general who has been mentioned as a potential Republican appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The AG’s office signing on is another boost to the district. After the state Supreme Court ruling, Republican AG Cynthia Coffman issued a statement lamenting districts “now have one fewer tool to support parents in choosing the education that best fits their children’s needs.” A spokesman for the AG said the office would not be issuing any statements Wednesday commenting on its involvement in the Dougco case.

“When the Colorado Supreme Court’s opinion was announced in late June, we promised a careful, thorough and rigorous legal analysis to determine our next steps,” school board president Kevin Larsen said in a statement. “Today we announce that we will be seeking U.S. Supreme Court review of our case. To achieve that end, we have retained the very best legal minds in the country to make our argument that the June 29 opinion runs afoul of the United States Constitution.”

Mixed legal results on vouchers

Just about every program nationwide that uses public money to subsidize private education has been tested in court, with mixed results but the majority surviving, analysts say. Framers of the Dougco pilot program modeled it on an Ohio voucher program that weathered a U.S. Supreme Court challenge.

Legal experts disagree on whether the nation’s highest court will take the Douglas County case. Some say it’s unlikely the court would wade into a case brought solely on a state constitutional matter. Others argue the anti-Catholic roots of Colorado’s law – similar to those in more than 35 other states – and other issues make it a strong candidate and could plow new ground beyond traditional arguments over the First Amendment.

The district has signaled it will argue that prejudiced history taints the law enough that it violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. Opponents of the voucher program point to precedent holding that state courts can interpret their own constitutions to recognize broader rights than what might be afforded under the U.S. Constitution.

The involvement of Clement — who as U.S. solicitor general from 2005 to 2008 represented the federal government in U.S. Supreme Court arguments — is another wrinkle.

Larsen said Clement will be supported by a “dream team” of lawyers involved in the state court proceedings and scholars from “the highest ranking law schools in America.”

Alan Chen, a constitutional law expert at the University of Denver’s Strum College of Law, said Wednesday he does not believe the Colorado Attorney General’s Office involvement will factor in whether the court takes the case. While crediting Clement’s stature and experience, Chen said he remains skeptical the court will grant the review because the case is built entirely on state constitutional law.

Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU of Colorado, which represented most of the individual plaintiffs, noted that the Attorney General’s office has been involved from the beginning. The State Board of Education was one of the defendants and was represented by the AG’s office.

Silverstein said he “wants to see what they write and how they frame the issue” in the petition to the Supreme Court before commenting further.

An unorthodox voucher program

The Dougco voucher case has endured a long and bumpy road. The district established the Choice Scholarship Program in 2011 after a conservative takeover of the school board, reasoning that competition can lift all schools even in a district consistently ranked as one of the state’s top academic achievers.

While most voucher programs are restricted to low-income students or those with special needs, Douglas County invited all families to apply — although the program was limited to 500 slots. Sixteen of the 23 participating private schools were religious; 14 were outside the county.

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.
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.

In 2011, the first 304 students were about to enroll when a lawsuit brought it to a halt. Voucher opponents prevailed in Denver District Court. But in 2013, the Colorado Court of Appeals upheld the program’s constitutionality in a 2-1 vote, setting the stage for state Supreme Court arguments.

In the prevailing opinion, Supreme Court Chief Justice Nancy Rice cited Colorado’s “stark constitutional provision” forbidding the use of public money to fund religious schools. Although the money came in the form of financial aid to students, the prohibition is not limited to direct funding, she wrote.

School board member Craig Richardson said in an interview the decision to continue the legal fight is consistent with the district’s “broader strategic vision of freedom.” That, he said, includes empowering parents to choose their children’s schools and extends to the district’s teacher pay-for-performance system.

“The district is proceeding because it’s good for the Douglas County School District to proceed,” Richardson said.

District looking at proceeding with secular schools

He said the district has yet to complete a separate legal review of whether it can move ahead with the voucher program with changes. The district previously floated the possibility of revamping the program as early as this fall, but ran out of time before the school year began.

One question the district is evaluating, Richardson said, is whether moving forward only with secular private schools would meet the legal parameters of the state Supreme Court ruling. Given that most students chose to enroll in religious schools, it’s unclear how much appeal that would hold.

The decision to petition the high court – and assemble the high-powered legal team — also will send legal costs soaring beyond the $1.2 million the district already has reported. District officials say private donations have covered all costs.

“We continue to have as our goal that all legal costs associated with this case will be funded with the generous contributions of private donors who similarly believe in choice and competition in K-12 education and are not affiliated with any religious institutions,” Richardson said. “We strongly believe this is not a cause to which we want to put taxpayer dollars.”

The district faces a deadline at the end of September to ask for a U.S. Supreme Court review. Richardson said the district plans to ask for a month’s extension to file but will move forward even if that is denied.

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.