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.

Making Montssori

A popular new Montessori program in Detroit’s main district may expand into its own separate schools

PHOTO: Nick Hagen

Detroit’s main district is considering expanding its popular Montessori program, including possibly creating free-standing Montessori schools designed to draw students from around the city.

The possible changes could represent a major shift for the two-year-old program, which now operates in 14 classrooms in six schools.

Montessori parents have been on high alert in recent weeks. Told that changes are coming to the program, they’ve been worried that new Montessori schools would mean an end to existing programs.

“My son keeps asking ‘where am I going to school next year?’” parent Maria Koliantz told Chalkbeat last week.

Koliantz, who has two children in the Montessori program at Maybury Elementary School in Southwest Detroit, said a sense of brewing change has been affecting parents and teachers.

“I just keep trying to assure him,” she said of her son. “But … I hate that the uncertainty has affected him.”

But Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says there are no plans to move existing programs. Questioned by Koliantz at a school board community meeting Tuesday night, Vitti assured her the district would only add new programs, not close existing ones.

“We have no intention of discontinuing that program,” he said. “It’s a vehicle to recruit parents to the school system. I don’t think you’re going to see anything but expansion.”

Since his arrival in Detroit last spring, Vitti has talked about the need to give every school in the district a distinct identity, with some schools focusing on math and technology and others perhaps developing a focus on creative writing.

Vitti revealed Tuesday morning that the district is considering eventually creating three arts schools for children who’ve been identified as gifted or talented.

New Montessori schools are also on the table, he said. “The new schools will be announced by the end of March as we work towards ensuring that every school has a identifiable and distinct program to improve performance and enrollment.”

Freestanding Montessori schools could represent a new chapter for a program that was launched in Detroit two years ago as a hybrid system, with Montessori classrooms operating next to traditional classrooms in a handful schools.  

The program, which allows children to learn at their own pace in mixed-age classrooms, started in 2016 with classrooms serving pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students, as well as some students in grades 1-3 at Spain, Maybury and Edison elementary schools. The program more than doubled in size in 2017, adding classrooms in the first three schools and expanding into three more — Chrysler, Palmer Park and Vernor elementary schools.

But while the current structure at the six schools has been popular with some parents, it has also created some difficulties.

The Montessori program is run by a director, Nicola Turner, who hires teachers for the program, oversees their training, and supports them as they implement the Montessori curriculum. But those teachers also work for their school principals — a dynamic that can create complications.

In some schools, there has been tension between parents and teachers affiliated with the Montessori program and those connected to traditional classrooms. Since the Montessori programs tend to have more teachers and fewer students than traditional classrooms, that’s raised issues of fairness and equity.

The current setup has also created challenges aligning the Montessori curriculum with the structure and schedules of a traditional school. In an ideal Montessori classroom, for example, students would have an uninterrupted three-hour block to work on their core lessons, but that isn’t always possible in a school where many factors determine when students can have lunch, go to recess or take art and music classes.

Freestanding Montessori schools could avoid some of those problems — and potentially offer some advantages.

“We could do after-school programs that were Montessori-specific,” said Yolanda King, who has a son in the program at Spain Elementary and a younger child she hopes to enroll next year. Special classes like art, music and gym “could be more aligned to Montessori” in a freestanding school, she said, suggesting “yoga programs and whole food programs.”

Turner, the Montessori program director, declined to comment about the possible changes but an email she sent to parents this month indicates they were fairly divided about the prospect of freestanding schools.

Nearly half — 48 percent — said they preferred keeping Montessori classrooms in their current schools while 37 percent liked the idea of a Montessori school. About 15 percent did not indicate a preference.

Dan Yowell is among parents who’ve raised concerns that freestanding schools might feel removed from the rest of the district.

“We liked the fact that [Montessori] is accessible to people all over the city,” said Yowell, whose son is in the program at Spain.

A freestanding Montessori school “has a feeling that it’s more exclusive,” Yowell said. “I don’t want it to be perceived as something that only certain people can access.”  

Spain, in Detroit’s midtown neighborhood, is one of two schools with Montessori classrooms that has enough space to dramatically expand the program. The other one is the Palmer Park Academy, which is in northwest Detroit.

open questions

Segregation, struggling schools, ‘a larger vision’: What Councilman Mark Treyger is watching as NYC gets a new schools chief

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
City Councilman Mark Treyger is chair of the council's education committee.

As Mayor Bill de Blasio prepares to choose a new leader for the nation’s largest school system, no one is watching that decision more closely than Mark Treyger.

Treyger, a former history teacher who was recently named chairman of the city council’s education committee, will be responsible for holding the new schools chief accountable. In that role, the Brooklyn Democrat plans to support many of the de Blasio initiatives that the next chancellor will carry out — from expanded preschool to more social services in schools.

But Treyger also has some tough questions for the mayor and his yet-to-be-named schools chief. How do they plan to reduce school segregation? What is the mayor’s overarching vision for the school system? And must he choose the chancellor behind closed doors?

“I do believe that the best decisions are the ones where you involve critical stakeholders,” Treyger told Chalkbeat in a recent interview.

Below are some of the education issues that Treyger said he’ll be paying close attention to as de Blasio prepares to hand the reins of the school system over to a new chancellor.

1. What’s the larger vision for the school system?

Free pre-K has been de Blasio’s signature education accomplishment, but he’s also rolled out an assortment of lesser-known initiatives.

Many of them fall under the banner of “Equity and Excellence for All,” including efforts to make Advanced Placement classes available to all high-school students by 2021 and computer-science courses available to all students by 2025. Some critics have pointed out that many of those programs won’t be fully phased in until after de Blasio leaves. Others — including Treyger — wonder what they all add up to.

“It’s been a commendable beginning,” he said. “But I’m looking for a larger vision.”

On a practical level, Treyger also questioned whether the education department has laid the groundwork to roll out some of those initiatives. He said will work to make sure all schools have the infrastructure they need, such as reliable internet service and appropriate technology, to make sure they can offer courses like computer science.

“How can you have a conversation about computers,” he said, “when the lights don’t even work?”

2. Why not make the chancellor search public?

De Blasio has insisted that he won’t “crowdsource” the search for a new schools chief — despite calls for public input from a chorus of parents and experts.

Treyger thinks a compromise is possible: Let the mayor choose chancellor candidates, but then give the city council the power to vet the candidates during public hearings before signing off on the mayor’s pick.

“I believe that we should be open to moving towards a process where the city council has advise-and-consent power,” he said, adding that the legislature should consider altering the mayoral control law next year to give city lawmakers that power.

3. How serious is this administration about tackling school segregation?

School integration was not on de Blasio’s agenda when he came into office.

But after a grassroots movement of parents and educators called on the mayor to address the school system’s severe racial and socioeconomic segregation, he took some small steps in that direction. The education department released a “school diversity” plan last year, and has launched an integration-aimed admissions program at a few dozen schools and in one Manhattan district.

However, Treyger thinks the city can and must do more — including aligning school enrollment, zoning, and housing policies to work towards the same goal of integration.

“If we’re serious about addressing [segregation], we have to know the difference between managing the problem and actually solving it,” he said. “I think that we’ve seen, thus far, more management than actually solving.”

4. What’s next for the Renewal program?

The mayor’s $582 million “Renewal” program for struggling schools is at a crossroads.

De Blasio made a big bet that his administration could quickly rehabilitate 94 low-performing schools by giving them extra social services and academic support. But the program has achieved mixed results, and now the education department is planning to shutter eight Renewal schools next year — part of the largest round of school closures under de Blasio.

Meanwhile, another 21 schools that officials say have made significant progress will slowly transition out of the program.

Treyger’s first oversight hearing as education chairman, set for next week, will focus on the program. He has spent the last few weeks visiting schools in the program and says he wants to understand what the city’s future plans are for supporting those schools. And he wants to be sure that if struggling schools improve enough to leave the program, their extra support won’t suddenly be cut. (The education department has committed to maintaining the full budget allocation they receive through the city’s funding formula and extra social services for the 21 schools that are improving enough to leave the program.)

“We will not be happy,” he said, “if we learn that a school that is improving or turning things around — that its reward is a funding cut.”