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.

you say you want a resolution

Denver school board strikes back at Trump budget, Betsy DeVos’s school choice vision

PHOTO: Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Take that, Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos.

The Denver school board on Thursday approved two resolutions jabbing at President Trump’s first proposed education budget and Education Secretary DeVos’s vision of school reform.

Trump’s budget, the resolution says, would slash funding for a range of programs that help Denver students, including after-school programs, financial aid and Medicaid.

More notable was the DeVos-focused resolution, called “A Resolution in Support of School Choice – Emphasis on Equity and Accountability.”

DeVos started it, essentially, suggested at a Brookings Institution event that the district was not worthy of recognition as a school choice leader because private school vouchers aren’t offered.

The board is trying to draw a stark contrast between DeVos-style reforms and those carried out in Denver Public Schools over the past decade. It reads, in part:

“(T)he Board of Education does not support private school vouchers, which would encourage public education dollars to be spent in private schools that do not serve all students and that are not held to the same standards of transparency and accountability as public schools, but believes instead that public dollars should be used to support and grow public schools, both district-run and charter, that are open to and serve all students.”

Board members were more pointed in their comments during Thursday’s board meeting.

“We are witnessing an assault on public education in this country, both through the budget and the appointment of what I think most of us would agree is the least qualified secretary of education ever appointed to that office,” said board member Mike Johnson.

Board member Happy Haynes said there “have been many who have been trying to associate the work we have done, the careful work that we have done” with the Republican administration.

“We’re not going to quit. We’re not quitters,” Haynes said. “ … It’s the time to double down, and that is what we are doing tonight on this resolution.”

The resolution also amounts to a pre-emptive strike ahead of what should be a contentious school board campaign. Opponents of the incumbent school board members are all but certain to try to link them to DeVos and Trump, not exactly popular figures in heavily Democratic Denver.

van wert alert

Four things to know about Van Wert, the tiny Ohio school district where DeVos and Weingarten will form an uneasy duo

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Carderock Springs Elementary in Bethesda, Maryland in March.

A small city in rural Ohio will host a high-stakes education summit on Thursday when U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visits with the chief of a national teachers union who this week vowed to “educate” her.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten opposed DeVos after President Donald Trump nominated her for education secretary and called it “a sad day for children” when she was confirmed. But the political enemies still agreed to visit schools together once DeVos took office, and Weingarten chose Van Wert as their first stop.

Van Wert’s schools “do project-based learning, have grappled with rural poverty, schools that engage in children’s well-being, and that’s why we wanted her to see it,” Weingarten told Chalkbeat earlier this week, as her union launched a push to get DeVos to redirect federal funds toward public schools.

Here’s what you need to know about why the pair is headed to Van Wert and what they might see there.

  1. It’s in “Trump country.” That’s what Weingarten told Chalkbeat about why she selected the district for the visit, which marks the first in-person interaction between the two education leaders. Van Wert is just a 20 minute drive from Indiana, home of Vice President Mike Pence, and about an hour from Michigan, DeVos’s own home state. Nearly 80 percent of the 13,000 votes cast in the county in November’s election went to Trump, who did well in rural and post-industrial areas with weak economies and mostly white populations. More than 90 percent of Van Wert county residents are white, according to Census data.
  2. It also has a vibrant teachers union. The school choice foundation DeVos ran before becoming secretary was named American Federation for Children in a not-so-subtle critique of the teachers union Weingarten leads. That might not go over well with the 127 members of the AFT’s local chapter, which is led by Jeff Hood, a Van Wert physical education teacher. He told the Toledo Blade that he had asked Weingarten to bring DeVos to town. He told the newspaper: “I thought, ‘Here we go; Mrs. DeVos is now our secretary of education’ and you know the best way for me to join in the conversation is to see how I can personally invite her to come to Van Wert.”
  3. DeVos won’t be able to talk only about school choice. The education secretary made her career lobbying for choice, particularly to allow students to use public money to pay for private schools. Since becoming secretary, she’s pivoted to the topic frequently, praising leaders from Miami, New York, and Chicago for providing access to a range of school and course options. Her focus on choice won’t work in Van Wert, which unlike many urban districts does not have a range of options for families to choose from. The small city has only one elementary, one middle, and one traditional high school — along with a public alternative school for struggling students and a small Catholic elementary school.
  4. But Van Wert is home to one innovative option. At Vantage Career Center, high school juniors and seniors from the local district and a dozen others can learn industrial mechanics, welding, carpentry, and other skills while earning a diploma from their traditional school. According to a 2014 promotional video, the center is a 190,000-square-foot space that voters have helped fund, even during the recession. Forty percent of students who train at the center go on to college, while the majority head straight to jobs or apprenticeships in the community or the military, according to the center.