Future of Schools

Dougco considers “voucher charter”

With interest flourishing in the Douglas County voucher pilot, school district officials are working to create the funding mechanism that will allow public dollars to flow through parents to private schools.

Dougco School Board President John Carson explains his support for the voucher pilot at the March 15 board meeting.
Dougco School Board President John Carson explains his support for the voucher pilot at the March 15 school board meeting.

Robert Ross, the district’s attorney, said the creation of a district charter school for voucher students is the most likely of three possible options that have been considered, largely because of the flexibility of the state’s charter laws.

“One of the guiding principles here is that we want to make sure that these students are going to be funded,” Ross said Friday. “In order for that to happen, they have to be public school students.”

Creating a district-run charter school for up to 500 students participating in the pilot this fall would provide a single school number used by the Colorado Department of Education for funding purposes. The state’s per-pupil funding is based on enrollment counts in public schools and programs during a ten-day window each October.

And putting all the voucher students together in one charter school would make it easier to track the attendance and performance of voucher students, who must meet the same attendance and annual testing requirements of other public school students, Ross said.

Students receiving vouchers – or “choice scholarships” – would enroll in the charter but the charter would then contract with participating private schools to provide the students’ educational services. So the charter itself would not provide instruction.

“Really this concept is a combination of using the existing law for contracting educational services and the existing charter school law to accomplish the administrative and accountability pieces for implementing the scholarship program,” Ross said.

Under the pilot approved March 15, 75 percent of a student’s per-pupil funding would follow the student to a participating private school. That’s expected to be $4,575 in 2011-12, with the checks being written by the district to parents, who would then sign them over to the private schools. The remaining 25 percent of per-pupil funding would remain with the district.

Using charter, contract laws in a new way

It’s not unusual for Colorado school districts to contract with other providers for educational services. Denver Public Schools, for example, has contracted for years with a private school, Escuela Tlatelolco. And many districts contract with other providers to serve students with severe disabilities.

But combining the two concepts – creating a charter to essentially contract with others to provide instruction – is different.

“This is unlike any other charter that we’ve been involved in – or, I think, anywhere else in Colorado,” Ross said.

Douglas County officials also have considered keeping voucher students on the books at their home schools or enrolling them all in a single traditional district school. But Ross said the flexibility of the state’s charter laws, which allow for waivers of various statutes, make it the most attractive option for a pilot that needs to be up and running for fall. Charter schools often seek, and obtain, waivers of statutes governing teacher licensure, for example.

“That’s probably the direction we’re going to go,” he said, “and that means there’s a lot of work to be done to get that to happen before the start of school next year.”

Typically, a group wanting to create a charter school must submit a detailed application to the district’s school board, obtain board approval and sign a charter contract. The process can take a year or more.

But with waivers, Ross believes the charter for the voucher pilot could be in place in time.

For example, he said he would expect to seek a waiver of the charter school application since Douglas County board members approved the voucher pilot 7-0 and “it seems kind of silly to apply to ourselves.”

He does expect the Douglas County school board would appoint a charter school board to manage the new charter, including overseeing partnerships with private schools accepting the vouchers.

Asking the state Department of Education for advice

State officials, including Education Commissioner Robert Hammond and a representative from the attorney general’s office, have been advising Douglas County in recent months.

“One of the first things we did once our board of education turned this over to the superintendent … was contact the state Department of Education and start talking about, how could this work under existing law?” Ross said. “We’ve been trying to get the best advice we can and they’ve been helpful in giving us that advice.”

Mark Stevens, spokesman for the Department of Education, confirmed staff members have answered questions but he declined to say whether Hammond or others have endorsed the charter funding mechanism or the voucher pilot.

He said he has not seen a detailed outline of the plan and he did not want to comment on what’s been in the media: “Until we see what they send us – a plan or a note or something – we are not going to be weighing in on the concept.”

Ross said the issue is likely to be back before the district school board within six to eight weeks in the form of a resolution or policy creating the new charter school board. He also expects the district would need to ask the State Board of Education for some waivers of state statute, if the charter funding mechanism is pursued.

“The charter concept seems to be the most attractive to accomplish the funding of the students,” Ross said. “That’s probably the direction we’re going to go.”

Meanwhile, interest in the voucher pilot continues to be strong, said district spokeswoman Michelle Tripp.

In the week since the board approved the plan, an estimated 300 families have contacted the district about possible participation as have some 20 private schools. If more than 500 students want to participate, district officials say a lottery will be held.

“The interest has been robust, to say the least,” Tripp said.

Details of Douglas County’s voucher pilot

Who can participate

  • Students currently attending Douglas County public schools who have been enrolled for no less than one year.
  • Students must live in the Douglas County School District.
  • In the pilot for 2011-12, up to 500 students may participate. A lottery will be held if more than 500 fill out choice scholarship applications.
  • Participating students will be required to take state exams at a time and place designated by the district.

How the money will flow

  • 75 percent of per-pupil funding will follow the student to a participating private school – based on an expected per-pupil amount of $6,100, that’s $4,575 per student.
  • The remaining 25 percent – an estimated $1,525 – will stay with the district.
  • The value of the voucher or scholarship will be $4,575 or the actual cost of tuition, whichever is less.
  • The district will write checks to the parents of participating students and those parents will sign them over to the private schools they’ve chosen.
  • Parents will receive four equal payments annually. Payment could be withheld if the student, parent or private school is in violation of program rules.
  • If 500 students participate, at $6,100 per student, that’s a total of $3.05 million – with $2.28 million going to private schools and $762,500 staying with the district.

How private schools can participate

  • Nonpublic schools located within or outside the boundaries of the Douglas County School District can participate. Kindergarten programs are not included in the pilot.
  • Schools will not be required to change their admissions criteria to participate but they will not be allowed to discriminate on the basis of disability or any other area protected by law.
  • Schools must be willing to offer a waiver of the religious portion of their program to voucher students.
  • Schools must agree to provide attendance data and qualifications of teaching staff to the district.
  • Schools will be expected to “demonstrate that its educational program produces student achievement and growth results … at least as strong as what district neighborhood and charter schools produce,” according to policy on the voucher plan.
  • Schools must demonstrate financial stability, disclosing at least the past three years’ worth of audited financial statements and other financial data.
  • Schools must demonstrate their facilities are up to building codes and that they have a safe school plan as required by law.

How the district will use the money

  • Of the $762,500 possible in the pilot year for the district, $361,199 will be set aside for administrative overhead such as providing staff to monitor attendance and state testing of voucher students. A Choice Scholarship Office will be created to administer the program.
  • The remaining $401,301 will be set aside for “extenuating circumstances,” including assisting a district school adversely impacted by the voucher pilot.

*Source: Board policy outlining the Choice Scholarship Program pilot, district presentations to community.

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.