tough choices

In a blue-collar Denver suburb, school choice is a fact of life

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole McAndrew, left, and his mother Katherine meet with Jennifer Floersch of the Colorado Connections Academy.

ADAMS COUNTY — By the time Katherine McAndrew reaches the last table at the high school fair, her hands are heavy with brochures, data and swag from a number of high schools.

“It’s a little overwhelming,” says McAndrew, a mother with an eighth grade son trying to pick which high school he’ll attend in the Mapleton school district north of Denver.

Cole, a stout young man, wants to be an engineer or an architect. Or a professional football player.

“I’m a lineman,” he says. “Offense. Defense. Put me anywhere.”

But before he can sign with the NFL, Cole and his mother must select which of the six district high schools he’ll attend next fall.

Unlike most school districts in Colorado and across the county, Mapleton does not automatically assign students to schools. District families must choose the best fits for their students, marking down three in order of preference. Other districts — including Denver — promote taking part in school choice but don’t require it.

A decade ago, Mapleton launched its unique choice system as part of a series of reforms aimed at improving student performance in the predominantly blue-collar school district with a growing Latino population. The goal was to make all schools equally rigorous and make sure parents were armed with information to make good choices, while trying to create healthy competition between schools to raise the bar for all.

The results have been up and down. Since the reforms were adopted, Mapleton has been labeled by the state as failing — and then shed that label. Some schools in the district previously on the rise have been flagged for poor performance. Encouragingly, ACT scores have risen dramatically, suggesting that individual students, on average, might be better prepared for college.

Mapleton also has successfully avoided the rancor that can distinguish debates about school choice elsewhere. For Cole McAndrew and the district’s 8,600 students, school choice is simply a way of life.

The genesis of choice

While major urban school districts such as Denver, New York and New Orleans have been nationally recognized for their school choice reform efforts, they’re relatively late to the choice game compared to Mapleton.

In 2001, when Charlotte Ciancio was named Mapleton superintendent, students were either dropping out of high school or leaving the district for other schools at disturbing levels.

“That’s when the board decided the test results we were getting were not acceptable,” she said. “That’s when the board decided our graduation rate wasn’t acceptable.”

Within three years, she and her team, bankrolled by grants from education advocacy groups including the Children’s Campaign, put into motion a plan to bust up the district’s single high school into a cluster of smaller schools with different philosophies. To get students on the path early, some schools start at kindergarten and go through high school.

Today, the district’s offerings include a K-12 International Baccalaureate school; a K-8 expeditionary learning school; an early college school; and a high school focused on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

The district also promoted smaller schools as a tool for fostering better relationships between teachers and students.

“We learned knowing our kids matter,” Ciancio said. “When we know our kids well and when we can engage them in learning, they improve.”

Teachers agree.

“It lets kids have a say in their education,” said Alisa Grimes, a STEM teacher at Academy High School. It makes a difference. The buy-in — you already have it.”

A work in progress

The district’s reforms have not come without challenges and false starts. And results, district leaders and school advocates say, are far from where they need to be.

By 2008, one year after the district had graduated the last class of its comprehensive high school and graduated the first classes of its smaller programs, students were more engaged but not learning at high levels, said Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado.

“The struggle they had at the time was that Mapleton was creating a better learning environment, kids were brought into the schools, but teachers were struggling with high expectations for kids,” said Welner, who conducted an external audit of the district. “The district admitted this.”

In 2011, the district and five of its schools were labeled failing by the state. In 2013, the district made enough progress to jump off the state’s accountability watchlist. But in 2014, four schools that had previously improved were flagged again for poor performance.

Perhaps the district’s greatest accomplishments is its improved composite ACT score. In 2001 it was 14.1. In 2007, it was 16.5. Last year, it was 19.2.

“It’s hard to move a dial on an ACT score,” Ciancio said, adding that during the same time the state’s ACT average has been mostly flat.

By other metrics, Mapleton has turned a corner. The dropout rate is holding steady at 3 percent, slightly above the state’s average. It was 5 percent in 2001. And more students are choosing to enroll in Mapleton schools than leaving — likely due to growth in its online school.

“We’re really proud of our results,” Ciancio said. “They’re not yet where we want them to be. But they’re significantly better than they were.”

Making choice work

Asking families to actively enroll their students in a school instead of a district assigning them to a school has become a staple of urban education reform in the United States.

Academy High School students Josselin Chavez, left, and Gizelle Cruz dissect a cows eye at a high school fair.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Academy High School students Josselin Chavez, left, and Gizelle Cruz dissect a cows eye at a high school fair.

Supporters champion the policy for a variety of reasons. In dire situations, it allows low-income parents to send their students to high-performing schools historically found in middle-class neighborhoods. In the best situation, parents are allowed to find schools that fit their students learning style.

Those who oppose school choice claim it creates a dog-eat-dog competition among schools that often results in students stuck in impoverished and under performing school for one reason or another with fewer resources.

Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a Seattle-based think tank that champions school choice, said Mapleton’s effort to offer students different learning environments is promising on a number of fronts.

“It’s not just good for the students,” Lake said. “It’s good for teachers to know what the school is all about.”

Mapleton also has taken steps to ensure families have equal access to all schools by providing free transportation to students and information about programs and quality to parents, closing poor performing and under-enrolled schools and discouraging unhealthy competition — in the classroom and on the playing field.

All high school students, regardless of what school they attend, play on one team for each prep sport.

“We’d be lying if we said we didn’t look at each other’s ACT scores,” said Justin Thomas, an English teacher at Academy and boys soccer coach. “But it’s friendly competition. We push each other to be better.”

It also appears Mapleton has avoided creating segregated schools, a criticism of school choice playing out in some urban areas.

“We find that if you make sure quality is evenly distributed between schools and you create a lot of good options, folks evenly sort themselves out,” Lake said.

At the Mapleton’s recent “Highway to High School” fair, eighth grader Tate Marshall was sorting through his options. He is leaning toward Academy High because of its technology focus.

His father, Dave Marshall, is anxious. He thinks his son should go to Mapleton Early College when he could have the chance to earn an associate’s degree.

“But it’s up to him,” Dave Marshall said. “It’s his life. He needs to make a choice. … But I’ll help.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Alisa Grimes taught English. She is a science, engineering, math and technology teacher at Academy High School. 

Decisions & Choices

Douglas County voucher supporters encouraged by Supreme Court decision in similar case

James Lyons, representing the Douglas County School District, speaks during oral arguments at the Colorado Supreme Court in the Douglas County vouchers case. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

A significant U.S. Supreme Court ruling Monday on a church-state issue opens a new chapter in a court fight over a Douglas County private school voucher program, with both supporters and opponents finding encouragement in the high court’s decision.

The court ruled that the state of Missouri violated the U.S. Constitution when it barred a church-run preschool from participating in a state program that repaved playgrounds.

While the court’s narrow 7-2 decision fell far short of legalizing private school voucher programs, it still has implications for the Douglas County program, which the state Supreme Court rejected.

Most likely, observers said, the Douglas County case will be kicked back to the Colorado Supreme Court for examination under the precedent the U.S. Supreme Court set with its new ruling. Or the U.S. Supreme Court could hear the case, the preferred outcome of voucher backers who would like to set a more sweeping precedent for their cause.

“This is a huge victory for folks who are believers in religious liberty,” said Ross Izard, a senior education policy analyst at the Independence Institute, a Denver-based free-market think tank. “Unfortunately for those of us who are invested in the school choice movement, it doesn’t accomplish everything we hoped it would.”

The legal fight over vouchers has engulfed the suburban school district south of Denver since 2011. That’s when a new conservative school board established the Choice Scholarship Program.

Unlike other voucher programs, which are designed to provide low-income families with educational alternatives, the Douglas County program was opened to all students in the district with a median household income of $107,650.

Lawyers representing the Douglas County School District and families who participated in the voucher program before it was halted by a lower court said they expect the Supreme Court to decide this week whether they’ll take up the years long debate over the voucher program.

“We’re certainly encouraged,” said William Trachman, general counsel for the Douglas County School District. “The policy reasons that underlie the program are to give students educational choice. That’s what Douglas County cares about.”

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that the Douglas County School District’s voucher program, which would have allowed parents to use taxpayer dollars to send their students to private religious schools, was unconstitutional.

The state’s constitution includes a provision that forbids tax dollars to be used by religious institutions. Colorado is one 38 states that have these so-called Blaine Amendments.

The district, along with three Douglas County families and Colorado’s attorney general, later appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court has held the case for nearly two years as it considered the Missouri case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer.

In that case, Trinity Lutheran sued the state of Missouri after it prohibited the church from participating in a state program that used recycled tires to resurface playgrounds.

The U.S. Supreme Court said the state could not prohibit the church from participating in the program since the benefit of the program — new asphalt for the playground — was secular and did not further the church’s religious mission.

That’s an important distinction opponents to the Douglas County voucher program highlighted in reacting to the decision.

“The majority opinion in Trinity Lutheran explicitly distinguished the facts in that case from cases like ours where government funds run afoul of state anti-establishment clauses because the funds are being used to pay for religious education,” Cindy Barnard, president of Taxpayers for Public Education, a nonprofit that supports traditional public schools, in a statement. Barnard was the original plaintiff in the Douglas County voucher case.

Mark Silverstein, legal director of the Colorado ACLU, one of the organizations that argued against the voucher program, echoed Barnard.

“The Douglas County school district’s voucher program violated the state’s constitution as of yesterday. It violates the state constitution even today,” he said. “This case today is not about using public money for religious indication. And that’s a distinction I believe most of the justices see as important.”

all vouchers all the time

Today in school vouchers: One Supreme Court case and two new studies you should know about

Monday was a busy news day for school vouchers.

First, two big studies on statewide voucher programs in Indiana and Louisiana dropped. The results provide ammunition for both sides on the long-running debate. More on that in moment.

Then, later that morning, the Supreme Court handed down a major decision regarding whether public funds can go to religious institutions. This won’t have immediate implications for voucher programs, but it may down the line.

Here’s what you need to know.

New research on vouchers necessitates more research

First, the new studies. One comes from Indiana, and examines the first four years of the largest voucher program in the country. Chalkbeat obtained the study and planned to publish it, leading to a wider release by the authors.

Soon after, a study on Louisiana’s voucher initiative also came out.

The studies point to similar results: Vouchers have some negative impacts on student achievement in early years, improving over time for those who remain in the program.

In Indiana, students who stayed in private school for four years at first fell behind public school students, but eventually caught up in math and seemed to score higher in English.

In Louisiana, students who took a voucher were basically on par with public school kids in math and language arts after three years, though they lagged behind in social studies. Crucially, when the researchers included a sample of younger students, the results turned decisively negative, suggesting the program was still reducing achievement for many kids.

The studies add to a body of evidence that private school choice programs improve over time and tend look better in reading than in math.

Advocates pounced on the results, prompting dueling statements from the American Federation of Teachers and EdChoice, a pro-voucher group. (EdChoice is a supporter of Chalkbeat.)

In other words: Research can inform — but won’t end — the debate on school choice. Meanwhile, researchers recommend more research.

States might not be able to constitutionally bar vouchers

More news that is in the eye of the beholder: In the case of Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, the nation’s highest court ruled that Missouri could not prohibit a church from participating in a program that provided public resources to refurbish playgrounds.

Why does that matter for school choice? Because Missouri, like many states, has what’s known as a Blaine Amendment in its state constitution, barring religious organizations from getting public money. In some states that has been interpreted to include religious schools participating in a voucher program.

The implications of the decision are not yet clear, though.

Although the court’s ruling was narrow and applied to the specific Missouri program, the logic of the decision suggests that Blaine Amendments may violate the federal constitution — meaning in a future case, the court might say that states can’t stop religious schools from getting money under a voucher program.

On the other hand, nothing in the decision suggests the Supreme Court would or could require any state to adopt a choice program. Moreover, advocates have already created workarounds in the form of tax credit programs that, like vouchers, redirect tax dollars to private, often religious schools — without the money ever entering government coffers.

State courts have generally ruled this approach permissible. In fact, just Monday (yes, more news) a Georgia court rejected a constitutional challenge to the state’s tax credit program. About half of all states already have some form of publicly funded private school choice program.

Once again, individuals and groups on both sides of the issue weighed in — including the U.S. Department of Education.

“This decision marks a great day for the Constitution and sends a clear message that religious discrimination in any form cannot be tolerated in a society that values the First Amendment,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said. “We should all celebrate the fact that programs designed to help students will no longer be discriminated against by the government based solely on religious affiliation.”