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Voucher program would be revived in Douglas County under proposal — minus religious schools

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

The Douglas County School District would take another shot at launching a school voucher program — this time excluding religious schools to abide by a court ruling — under a proposal from a member of the school board’s conservative majority.

In a draft document provided to Chalkbeat, board member Doug Benevento sketches out a proposal to amend the district’s previous voucher program, which the Colorado Supreme Court struck down last June.

Benevento said he has been conferring with board president Meghann Silverthorn and the board attorney on a resolution laying out the amended voucher pilot program. He said he submitted it to Silverthorn for placement on the agenda for Tuesday’s board meeting, which has yet to be finalized.

“This is not the program we wanted to run,” Benevento said. “We did not want to run a program that would force us into a position of making a determination of who is faith-based or not, and be exclusionary based on faith. However, that is the ruling of the Colorado Supreme Court.”

In a 4-3 judgment last June, the state’s highest court held that the district’s Choice Scholarship Program violated a state constitutional provision barring spending public money on religious schools.

District officials petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court and are awaiting word on whether the court will take the case.

The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia complicated matters. If a court short one justice were to hear the case and rule 4-4, it would affirm the state Supreme Court’s decision.

School district officials floated the possibility of a purely secular voucher program last fall. Benevento said Scalia’s death did not play a role in the decision to proceed. He said the district is pressing on with the legal case, and will include language in the amended voucher program that will open it back up to religious schools if the court were to rule in its favor.

Even with religious schools stripped out, any voucher program is certain to be opposed by those against taking taxpayer money out of the public school system to pay for private education.

“This is the very first I have ever heard of anything remotely close to this, so that is a kind of a shock,” said Wendy Vogel, who joined the Douglas County school board after November’s election that saw three challengers unseat conservative incumbents.

“I will say I am against vouchers,” she said. “I always have been against vouchers. But other than that broad statement, I don’t know I could say anything else without seeing what he is presenting.”

Under the amended proposal, the district would develop a process for analyzing the policies, board structures and curriculum of schools that wish to participate and bar those deemed religious as defined in state law, Benevento said.

Of the 23 private schools accepted into the original program, 16 were religious and 14 were outside Douglas County. More than nine in 10 students taking part chose religious schools.

The new plan would abandon another contentious element — establishing a charter school that would have served administrative functions including being the conduit for state per-pupil funding flowing to the voucher program. Benevento said the amended program would be run out of a district office.

He called the charter school discussion a “distraction” — that piece of the program angered many in the charter community — and said it wasn’t necessary for the program to pass legal muster.

As many as 500 students could take part in the new voucher program at any one time, starting as soon as this fall. But it is unclear how many Douglas County families would want to enroll their children in secular private schools, or whether secular private schools in metro Denver have the interest or space to accommodate them.

The school district established its 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.

The novel attempt to bring vouchers to a wealthy district with no shortage of strong district-run and charter schools attracted national notice.

In 2011, the first 304 students were about to enroll when a lawsuit brought it to a halt. So began the legal fight that continues. District officials have said private donations have covered all costs, which last fall stood at about $1.2 million.

Anne Kleinkopf, a board member of Taxpayers for Public Education, an original plaintiff  in the lawsuit against the voucher program, said Thursday she also would need to wait until the full plan is revealed and then review it before commenting.

Given an overview by Chalkbeat, she said: “None of that surprises me.”

The school district could find itself involved in yet more litigation if the amended voucher program gets off the ground and a religious school seeking to take part is turned away.

“Certainly, there is an exclusion of faith-based schools that we would prefer to have included,” Benevento said. “The Colorado Supreme Court didn’t see it that way. If there is some collision between what the Colorado Supreme Court says we are allowed to do and what federal law or previous federal opinions are in this area, that’s possible.”

“Our goal is to provide another option to our parents,” he continued. “But I can’t predict whether there will be additional litigation. I am hopeful to provide the next increment of choice for our parents.”

Here is his draft proposal:

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.