Choice and consequences

Could school vouchers come to Colorado under a Trump administration? It’s a long shot.

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

Donald Trump’s selection of conservative Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos to lead the federal education department has spurred plenty of speculation about whether the new administration can make good on a campaign promise to fund a nationwide school voucher program.

DeVos is an adamant supporter of vouchers and has spent her personal wealth to champion advocates of school choice including some in Colorado, such as U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican from Yuma.

Gardner, who supports vouchers, received $5,200 from DeVos during his 2014 Senate run.

Trump’s plan, outlined in one of his few education policy speeches, pledged $20 billion of existing federal dollars to be sent to the states as grants for low-income students to use at private schools.

Details have yet to surface, and likely won’t for several more months. And while it would be a significant uphill battle for that plan to become federal law and an even greater feat for vouchers to become a reality in Colorado, it isn’t totally outside the realm of possibility.

Here’s how a Trump administration bring vouchers to Colorado, a state that has wrestled with the thorny subject for nearly two decades.

First, Congress would have to act.

That’s a big first step, especially since lawmakers in Washington just passed bipartisan legislation that rewrote the nation’s education laws.

“Lawmakers used a lot of time and effort in Congress to write the Every Student Succeeds Act,” said Michelle Exstrom, a program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

She added that many Republican lawmakers walked away happy and are likely to turn their attention to other issues, such as health care reform.

Even if there was interest in passing new legislation that would authorize a federal voucher program, the money would need to come from somewhere. As Education Week pointed out, lawmakers probably won’t be in keen on repurposing any current federal funds spent on education.

But let’s pretend everything goes as planned in Washington. Then what?

For a federal voucher plan to fly in Colorado, it would have to meet at least two basic legal requirements: First, the program would have to be voluntary for local school districts. Second, no state funds could be used to fund vouchers to religious schools (at least for now).

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

Both requirements stem from previous state Supreme Court decisions on vouchers.

The first decision was handed down in 2004 after Republican Gov. Bill Owens and a Republican legislature tried to create what would have been the largest statewide voucher system at the time. The plan would have allowed students in 11 low-performing school districts to use 85 percent of the state’s per pupil funding amount to go to a private school.

The Colorado Supreme Court, however, ruled that the state could not mandate how school districts use the local tax revenue that funds their schools. That, the court said, would violate the state’s constitutionally protected local control of schools. (The state’s per pupil funding amount is made of taxes collected by the state and local counties.)

The second decision comes from a more recent Supreme Court decision about the Douglas County School District’s voucher plan. The Supreme Court ruled the program was unconstitutional. While four justices said the program was unconstitutional, only three said it was violated a part of the constitution that forbids state funds to be used at private religious schools.

Eric Hall, who represented the Douglas County School District, argues that creates some ambiguity about whether Colorado could use state funds to match federal dollars.

“There isn’t a precedential ruling on whether (the constitution) prohibits tax dollars being spent at private religious schools,” he said. “That will have to be ironed out at some point.”

But Mark Silverstein, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said he believes the constitution is clear on the matter.

“I would imagine the state constitution would remain a bar for the state participating in a plan that sends state money to private religious schools,” he said.

The Douglas County School District has appealed the state Supreme Court’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

So let’s say Trump’s plan doesn’t require states to kick in money and that school districts could volunteer for the program. What still has to happen to get vouchers in Colorado?

The state education department likely would be responsible for running the program. But before the department would participate, it would seek input from the State Board of Education, the legislature and the governor, said Patrick Chapman, executive director of federal programs for the department.

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

“We would not move forward with anything that would be illegal or go against their wishes,” Chapman said.

While the governor has never taken a position on vouchers, a split legislature in which Democrats control the House and a state board soon to be controlled by Democrats by one vote does not bode well for voucher supporters.

Rebecca McClellan, a Democrat from Centennial whose recent victory will flip the balance of partisan control on the state board, campaigned on protecting “neighborhood schools” and opposing vouchers.

“I do not favor voucher schemes that drain funding from our public schools and make an already challenging financial picture that much harder,” McClellan said at a candidate forum in Aurora.

Douglas County makes up a small portion of the district McClellan will represent.

Betsy DeVos

‘Receive mode’? The D.C. school DeVos visited responded to her criticism with a withering tweetstorm

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Howard University.

Washington D.C.’s Jefferson Middle School Academy is standing up for its teachers after U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said they are “waiting to be told what they have to do.”

DeVos made the comments in one of her first interviews since being confirmed last week. She said teachers at the school — the first one she visited on the job — were “sincere” but seemed to be in “receive mode,” which she said “is not going to bring success to an individual child.”

The school took to Twitter late Friday to make its case. In 11 messages, the school described several teachers who creating new programs and tailoring their teaching to meet students’ considerable needs.

“JA teachers are not in a ‘receive mode,'” read the final message. “Unless you mean we ‘receive’ students at a 2nd grade level and move them to an 8th grade level.”

The former and current D.C. schools chiefs have also weighed in. Chancellor Antwan Wilson, who accompanied DeVos on her school visit, issued a statement praising the teaching at Jefferson Academy. And his predecessor, Kaya Henderson, tweeted her withering take on DeVos’s comments:

Here’s the full tweetstorm from Jefferson Academy, which D.C. Public Schools considered a “rising school” because of its good -but-not-great test scores.

DeVos later added:

first steps

Secretary Betsy DeVos on first school visit: ‘Teachers are waiting to be told what they have to do’

For someone now running the federal education department, Secretary Betsy DeVos doesn’t have many ideas for how it’s needed.

In one of her first interviews since being confirmed as secretary last week, DeVos said the federal government was right to step in “when we had segregated schools” and to ensure girls’ access to sports teams. But she suggested that those issues have been resolved, narrowing the issues where federal intervention might be appropriate.

From the interview, published Friday by Axios (the new news site created by Politico’s founders):

“I think in some of the areas around protecting students and ensuring safe environments for them, there is a role to play … I mean, when we had segregated schools and when we had a time when, you know, girls weren’t allowed to have the same kind of sports teams — I mean, there have been important inflection points for the federal government to get involved.” But are there any remaining issues like that where the federal government should intervene? “I can’t think of any now,” she replied.

In fact, American schools, by some measures, are more racially segregated now than when the federal government began to play an active role in desegregating them in the 1960s.

Some advocates have called on the U.S. Department of Education to play a stronger role in desegregating schools. DeVos’s comments suggest her worldview is one in which the major fights over civil rights in American education have already been fought and won, and almost all remaining issues can be addressed best by states and local districts.

Meanwhile, in an interview with a conservative news site, DeVos was also quick to offer her ideas about why teachers struggle — and criticize some of the first public school teachers she encountered on the job. (Cue her critics, who are concerned that she does not have any experience as an educator or working in schools.)

Here’s how she described the discussion she had during her one of her first school visits in Washington, D.C.:

I visited a school on Friday and met with some wonderful, genuine, sincere teachers who pour their heart and soul into their classrooms and their students and our conversation was not long enough to draw out of them what is limiting them from being even more success[ful] from what they are currently. But I can tell the attitude is more of a ‘receive mode.’ They’re waiting to be told what they have to do, and that’s not going to bring success to an individual child. You have to have teachers who are empowered to facilitate great teaching.

In the same interview, DeVos signaled interest in a tactic more commonly used by activists than agency leaders.

She was asked,

Have you considered some political theater of your own, like bringing poor and minority kids trapped in failed public schools to Washington so Congress can tell them why they have to stay in failing schools while their kids attend private schools?

She recalled a march in Florida that drew thousands to protest a lawsuit meant to block a voucher program that she supported. “I think that is an idea worthy of consideration,” she said.

Update: Jefferson Academy Middle School, the DeVos made the “receive mode” comments about, hit back on Twitter late Friday — as did the current and former chancellors of the D.C. school systems. Read what they had to say.