From the Statehouse

Ritz pushes for 3 percent hike in education budget

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

If Glenda Ritz gets her way, Indiana schools could see a 3 percent increase in their budgets over the next two years and parents could get relief from textbook bills.

The Indiana Department of Education announced Thursday it submitted its two-year budget request to the state, calling for increases to funding for public schools and state funding for textbooks. The legislature will devise a new two-year state budget early next year for 2016 and 2017.

“This investment will strengthen schools throughout Indiana, both rural and urban,” Ritz said in a statement. “This increase will give our schools much needed flexibility in their budgets while they deal with increases in their fixed costs, such as transportation, utilities and technology. I look forward to working with members of the legislature on this vital investment.”

In 2013, Gov. Mike Pence proposed a hike of more than $300 million to fund education, creating all-time high budget of more than $6.5 billion devoted to the K-12 system. His plan was for a 2 percent budget increase in 2014 and a 1 percent bump in 2015.

Ritz also called for state funding to be spent on textbooks and instructional materials. Indiana is one of eight states that requires families to pay for textbook rentals for their children.

“By funding these at the state level, we can guarantee that all districts have equitable resources for texts while also giving parents a much needed financial break,” Ritz said.

A representative from Indiana’s Center for Career Innovation, the education department created and supported by Pence, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Democratic legislators cheered Ritz’s proposal. House Minority Leader Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said Ritz’s calls for a 3 percent budget increase “should be cause for celebration.” Pelath also supported Ritz’s call for state-funding for textbooks.

“After years of seeing previous state school superintendents and administrations place a greater budget priority on vouchers and private schools, we are finally seeing an awareness that something needs to be done to make our public schools whole,” Pelath said in a statement. “State support is the cornerstone of the system that carries a constitutional responsibility to educate all our children, not just a select few, and it is good to see a return to that consideration.”


Charter applications rejected by Memphis school officials — for now

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Shelby County’s school board sent 13 groups back to the drawing board Tuesday after denying their initial bid to open or expand charter schools in Memphis in 2018.

The unanimous vote followed the recommendations of district staff, who raised concerns about the applications ranging from unclear academic plans to missing budget documents to a lack of research-based evidence backing up their work.

Applicants now have 30 days to amend and re-submit their plans for a final board vote during a special meeting August 22. Memphis Academy of Health Sciences rescinded its application to expand grades last week.

Since 2003, Shelby County Schools has grown its charter sector to 45 schools, making the district Tennessee’s largest charter authorizer.

Nationally, the rate of charter school growth is at a four-year low, in part because of a shrinking applicant pool, according to a recent report from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. But Memphis is bucking the trend with a slight increase in applicants this year.

District leaders frequently deny charter applications initially, but it’s unusual to turn down all of them at once.

New to this year’s application process was five consultants from NACSA, which has worked closely with Shelby County Schools to bolster its oversight of the sector.

back to the future

Colorado Supreme Court ordered to reconsider Douglas County school voucher case

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

The Colorado Supreme Court must reconsider its ruling against a private school voucher system created by the Douglas County School District, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Tuesday.

The edict comes a day after the nation’s highest court issued a ruling on a case that touched on similar issues.

At issue is whether Douglas County parents can use tax dollars to send their students to private schools, including religious schools. The Colorado Supreme Court said in 2015 the program violated the state’s constitution.

What connects the Douglas County voucher debate to the just-decided Trinity Lutheran v. Comer case from Missouri is that both states have so-called Blaine Amendments. Such provisions prohibit state tax dollars from aiding religious practices. Nearly 40 states have similar language.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that the state of Missouri violated the U.S. Constitution by prohibiting Trinity Lutheran’s church-run preschool from participating in a state program that repaved playgrounds. The court found that the state must allow churches to participate in state programs when the benefit meets a secular need.

That distinction likely will be the question the Colorado Supreme Court wrestles with when it takes up the issue again.

“The Supreme Court in Trinity Lutheran expressly noted that its opinion does not address religious uses of government funding,” Mark Silverstein, the ACLU of Colorado’s legal director, said in a statement. The ACLU was one of the organizations challenging the voucher program.

“Using public money to teach religious doctrine to primary and secondary students is substantially different than using public money to resurface a playground,” Silverstein said.

The school district said it was encouraged by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision.

“We look forward to the Colorado Supreme Court’s second review and decision on this important matter,” William Trachman, the district’s legal counsel, said in a statement. “As always, the Douglas County School District is dedicated to empowering parents to find the best educational options for their children.”

It’s unclear when the Colorado Supreme Court will take up the Douglas County case. The court has three options: It may revise its earlier opinion, request new arguments from both sides or ask a lower court to reconsider the case.

Given the national implications, it’s unlikely the Colorado justices will have the final say — especially if they again conclude the voucher program violates the state’s constitution. The question could end up being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Douglas County School District launched its voucher program in 2011 after a conservative majority took control of the school board. The district was prepared to hand out more than 300 vouchers to families before a Denver District Court judge blocked the program from starting.