choice battleground

New-look school voucher program approved by divided Douglas County board

The Douglas County boardroom Tuesday in advance of another voucher vote (Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat Colorado).

CASTLE ROCK — Parents of Douglas County public school students would use taxpayer money to send their children to private schools — but not religious ones — under a revised school voucher program approved Tuesday night by a bitterly divided school board.

Limited in scope, the south suburban district’s School Choice Grant Program would be a pilot open to up to 500 students starting this fall.

The Colorado Supreme Court in June rejected the district’s original voucher program, adopted in 2011, as unconstitutional because it included religious schools. Members of the school board’s conservative majority took two paths in response: petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court, and quietly working to revise the program consistent with the state high court ruling.

After a heated debate, the board voted 4-3 to approve a policy revision essentially reviving the voucher program in a new form.

Board member Doug Benevento, who crafted the revision, portrayed it as a modest proposal to gauge interest and determine whether to proceed on a larger scale.

“One side is trying to expand choice for parents and students,” Benevento said, “and the other side is trying to shut it down.”

Three board members who ousted conservative incumbents in November questioned the timing and short notice, and argued that a voucher program robs public schools of dollars and exposes the district to another lawsuit.

“Private school is not a right,” said board member Anne-Marie LeMieux. “It’s a privilege.”

LeMieux called it a “massive overreach,” citing requirements that participating private schools demonstrate they run a “quality educational program,” prove themselves financial stable and provide copies of employment policies.

The school district established its original Choice Scholarship Program five years ago after a conservative takeover of the school board, arguing that competition can lift all schools even in a district consistently ranked as one of the state’s top achievers.

While most voucher programs are restricted to low-income students or those with special needs, Douglas County invited all families to apply, with a limit of 500 slots. Bringing 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. In a 4-3 judgment last June, the state’s highest court held that the 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.

As of last fall, the legal bill had been run up to about $1.2 million, officials said. The costs have been covered in full by private donations, the bulk of it coming from the Denver-based Daniels Fund, the district said.

Among the details of the proposal approved:

  • The voucher program will be run through a district office that would issue checks in students’ names and send them to participating schools. This is a departure from the 2011 voucher program, which called for establishing a charter school that would have served administrative functions.
  • Vouchers would be worth whichever is less — the full freight of tuition or 85 percent of state per pupil revenue. The superintendent would have discretion to provide more.
  • Students in the program would still take state assessments.

The resolution does not spell out how the district would determine whether interested schools meet the “religious” definition. Benevento has said 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.

During public testimony Tuesday, Cindy Barnard of Taxpayers for Public Education, a plaintiff in the lawsuit against Dougco’s original voucher program, said the new plan is not sound.

“Every dollar put into the voucher program is a dollar taken out of the public school system,” she said.

Said county resident Bob Kaser: “This voucher program is an entitlement scheme for high-income families.”

It is unclear how many Douglas County families would want to enroll their children in secular private schools. 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.

Denver Post staff writer John Aguilar contributed information to this report. 

School Choice

One of the top ranked high schools in the state just joined Indianapolis Public Schools

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Herron High School is the latest addition to the IPS innovation network.

One of Indianapolis’ most sought after charter high schools just joined Indianapolis Public Schools — an unusual shift in a relationship that has long been competitive.

The IPS board voted to add Herron High School, a charter school on the northside, to the district portfolio of innovation schools at a meeting Thursday. Board member Elizabeth Gore was the only one to oppose the measure.

The move is the latest example of district collaboration with charter schools, which were seen in the past as rivals for students.

“Way back at the beginning, there was this huge animosity between IPS and charter schools,” said Herron board chair Joanna Taft, who has been involved with the school since it opened in 2006. “It’s really exciting to be able to see the charter schools and public schools start coming together.”

Herron and a second campus expected to open this fall, Riverside High School, are now under the IPS umbrella, but the schools still retain virtually all of their independence. The teachers are employed directly by the charter network and are not part of the IPS union. And unlike most innovation schools, neither campus is in an IPS building.

The deal offers the charter schools an influx of cash and extra control over which neighborhoods they serve. IPS will add well-regarded schools to the list of high schools on its books, and it will get credit for Herron’s test scores and other academic outcomes when the district is assessed by the state.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the district wanted to add Herron to the innovation network so the classical liberal arts curriculum is available to more IPS students.

“The access to the classical model, which currently doesn’t exist in our district and … has a strong track record of success is obviously appealing to us,” Ferebee said. “We want to ensure that we give our students access to this option.”

Both Herron and Riverside are located within the boundaries of IPS, but the schools also draw students from nearby township and suburban communities. About half the students who attend Herron live in IPS boundaries, said Taft.

The school, which regularly ranks among the top Indiana high school, has historically drawn high-achieving students from IPS. But it has faced criticism for having student demographics that don’t mirror the community. Herron enrolls about 35 percent students of color, compared to about 80 percent of IPS students. Additionally, about 32 percent of Herron students are poor enough to get subsidized meals, less than half the rate in IPS.

Because IPS educates so many poor students, it gets more money from the state. Next year, the district is expected to receive a base rate of nearly $7,000 per student from the state, while Herron will receive about $5,500. Under the agreement approved tonight, IPS will give Herron and Riverside $6,000 per student next year.

If the school’s demographics fit the projections from the state, the district would be giving the charter schools more than $475,000 on top of what they would normally get from the state.

Herron leaders are taking steps to increase the number of low-income students they serve, said Taft. In addition to joining the innovation network, Herron will participate in EnrollIndy, a planned unified enrollment system that will allow students to apply to Herron and other charter schools through the same website as IPS schools.

Ferebee also said joining the new enrollment system should help increase the number of low-income students at the schools.

“We have been very intentional with this agreement around ensuring that the student population with these schools mirror as much as possible our IPS population,” said Ferebee.

As innovation network schools, Herron and Riverside will also be able to give students from the surrounding neighborhoods first dibs on seats at the schools, which could increase the number of students who live within IPS boundaries. (With a few exceptions, charter schools are required to admit students by lottery.)

That was one of the most important reasons Herron wanted to join the innovation network, said Taft. Riverside staff have been working closely with neighborhood leaders around the new campus, and they wanted to be able to give local students priority in admission.

That’s an attractive prospect for board member Kelly Bentley, because the nearby students who will get an edge come from within the IPS boundaries.

“I think that Herron is an excellent academic program,” she said. “I’m really excited that our students will have a better chance of getting into that program.”

School choices

School choice supporters downplay new voucher research, saying schools are more than a test score

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

At this week’s gathering of school choice supporters, there was an awkward fact in their midst: A wave of new studies had shown that students receiving a voucher did worse, sometimes much worse, on standardized tests.

That was the inconvenient verdict of studies examining programs in Louisiana, Ohio, Washington, D.C., and in Indianapolis, where the advocates had convened for the annual conference of the American Federation for Children. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the group’s former leader, gave the keynote address.

But many of the school choice proponents, who had long made the case that their favored reform works, had an explanation at the ready.

Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, only alluded to the recent studies. “In spite of a few research projects of a narrowly identified group of students, the simple fact is when you create a marketplace of choices and informed parents … the children do better,” he told the audience.

Other leading supporters emphasized the impact the programs have beyond test scores, as well as the shortcomings of recent studies.

“Some of the data that is really interesting [looks at] not just achievement, but attainment,” Robert Enlow, head of EdChoice, a group that backs vouchers and tax credit programs, told Chalkbeat. “A kid may not be doing as well on a test score as we would like, but they’re graduating at higher rates [and] they’re going into college at higher rates.”

Indeed, older studies show that students in Milwaukee’s voucher program were more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college. Students in D.C.’s initiative also completed high school at a higher rate.

Enlow also pointed to evidence that private school choice can spur improvements in public schools through competition and increase parent satisfaction rates. Sounding a bit like some of his opponents who lead teachers unions, Enlow argued that test scores are a poor measure of educational quality.

“We want a vibrant society of people who know what they’re doing who are productive members of society,” he said. “A single test doesn’t prove jack about that.”

While EdChoice has said that school choice leads to academic gains, the group has also argued, prior to the recent studies, that parents care about more than just test scores when choosing schools. EdChoice opposes requiring students in voucher programs to take state tests at all. Without such data, making comparisons to public schools is more difficult.

Still, Enlow said, “there are some studies showing that private schools need to get better on test scores.”

Supporters also noted that the studies in D.C. and Louisiana were based on just one and two years of data, respectively. Enlow says that is too little information to draw helpful conclusions, a point echoed by Kevin Chavous, a board member at the American Federation for Children and a former D.C. city council member.

“This is after one year in the program,” said Chavous referring to the recent D.C. report, which analyzed three groups of students after a single year of receiving a voucher. “Studies also show … the longer the kids are in these programs, the better they’ll do.”

An overview of past research on school vouchers, including studies in other countries, found that students were neither helped nor harmed after three years, but saw significant test score jumps in the fourth year.

DeVos hasn’t addressed the topic in depth. After her own Department of Education released the report on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, DeVos stated, “The study released today found that D.C. OSP parents overwhelmingly support this program, and that, at the same time, these schools need to improve upon how they serve some of D.C.’s most vulnerable students.”

Chavous argues that giving families choice means allowing them to pick schools based on what is important to them, which may not be test scores. It’s also hypocritical for those who are skeptical of testing to then use test results to criticize voucher programs, he said.

“You can’t have it both ways — you can’t say we have too much high-stakes testing when it comes to public schools and then when it comes to private choice programs, OK, they aren’t passing the test,” he said.

But he acknowledges inconsistency on his own side among those who use test results to claim that public schools are failing.

“We’re all hypocrites on the testing thing,” Chavous said.

This story has been updated to clarify EdChoice’s previous statements on the value of test scores.