Future of Schools

Dougco vouchers moving forward

CASTLE ROCK – It will take a judge or two to settle the legal challenges swirling around Douglas County’s pilot voucher program but Gretchen Immen already has her verdict: “Dream come true.”

Gretchen Immen and son Sam hug Wednesday after learning he's received the last voucher slot.

Wednesday, during a lottery held in a former school here, Immen learned her son Sam was picked for the last available slot – seat no. 25 – for a voucher that will allow him to attend a private school this fall.

“We feel so blessed,” Immen, a Parker resident, said after bursting into a smile and embracing Sam, 15, who hugged her tightly back.

About a dozen parents and students attended the district’s first voucher lottery, held to determine which of 76 applicants would get the last 25 seats – and which would go on a waiting list.

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Dougco’s pilot, the first district-driven voucher program in Colorado, is capped at 500 students for 2011-12. A first round of applications netted nearly that number but some students were found ineligible and others dropped out, leaving 25 spots in a second application round that drew more than 70 families and prompted the lottery.

Families participating in the program will receive four checks during the school year, totaling either the cost of tuition at their chosen private school or 75 percent of state per-pupil funding, whichever is less. That 75 percent figure works out to $4,575.

They’ll sign the checks over to the private schools, which must have signed contracts as “partners” with the Douglas County School District.

At least, that’s how the pilot is set up to work. Two lawsuits filed Tuesday, by legal heavy hitters such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, are seeking to stop the program before a single voucher check is issued.

Vote set Monday on “voucher charter”

Dougco district leaders responded to the lawsuits by vowing that they’ll continue moving forward until a court orders them to stop.

“Voucher charter”

So Wednesday’s lottery continued as planned, and Douglas County school board members are expected Monday to approve a charter application for the Choice Scholarship School – a charter that will serve as the administrative home for voucher students though they’re physically attending private schools.

Part of the Choice Scholarship School resolution that board members will vote on Monday describes the grouping of students in a charter as “the most efficient way of maintaining … the numerous district reporting and financial obligations.”

State Board of Education members are expected in August to consider approval of waivers for the scholarship or voucher school. Robert Ross, the district’s legal counsel, said Tuesday that such waivers are typically sought by Colorado charters and he does not anticipate any problems.

The voucher or scholarship school application does not include names of staff or governing board members. Dougco spokeswoman Michelle Tripp said the district’s school board is expected to discuss those topics Monday but it’s unclear if the names of charter school board members will be released before the board vote.

Legal, administrative issues not on families’ minds

But if lawyers and district staff are occupied with program structure and legal strategy, those details are not on the minds of families such as the Immens.

Gretchen Immen said her husband began researching a private school option for Sam several months ago but their choice – Parker Lutheran High School – was out of financial reach without a voucher.

“Without this type of voucher system, that would not have been possible,” she said.

Sam is slated to be a freshman this fall in a school, Ponderosa High School, that has received the state’s top rating of “performance.” But when he and his mom toured Parker Lutheran on a “visit day,” they were impressed.

“I just think it’s better academic-wise,” Sam said. “It’s a nicer place … and I think I’ll be able to make a lot more friends there.”

Gretchen Immen said the family isn’t Lutheran – that’s not a condition of enrollment – but their values are similar.

“It’s a good fit,” she said, noting Sam’s already applied and been accepted, though they weren’t sure of a voucher slot. “We did it on faith.”

As for concerns that the legal action could halt the pilot, the mom said they’re taking it one step at a time.

“We’re no. 25,” she said. “We could have been 75 or 100. So … so far, so good.”

Reactions to lawsuits filed this week challenging Dougco’s voucher pilot

    • “I am extremely disappointed that liberal activist groups continue to assault education reform in Colorado. The lawsuit against the Douglas County School District is nothing short of an all out attack on our teachers, parents and students by national liberal groups. Colorado families deserve better than to have these national attack dogs waste money that would otherwise go into our classrooms.”

— Colorado Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch.

    • “We believe the interests of students and parents are paramount. We believe the Choice Scholarship Program is a wise use of taxpayer dollars that will also result in a significant return on investment for the District. Great Choice Douglas County, representing many hundreds of parents and citizens in Douglas County, who support school choice, is eager to see the implementation and future expansion of this program.”

— Great Choice Douglas County. See full release.

    • “The lawsuit is disappointing, but really not surprising. Opponents of parental choice and educational freedom have tried this approach many times before. For the sake of the families who will benefit, we hope it fails.”

— Pam Benigno, Independence Institute. See full release.

    • “The Institute for Justice will move to intervene in the coming days on behalf of Douglas County parents and children to defend this choice program from legal attack. IJ has defended school choice programs from legal attack every single day from the time we opened our doors 20 years ago. We know what it takes to make a school choice program constitutional, and there is no question the program passed in Douglas County will pass constitutional muster.”

— Michael Bindas, senior attorney, Institute for Justice. See full release.

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

Indiana’s push to raise teacher pay is creating some unlikely allies

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Middle school math teacher Eliana Moore, left, gives Armando Flynn, 13, some extra attention to help with a lesson in algebra.

It’s not every day that the state’s teachers union, Republican leaders, and education advocacy groups find themselves working toward the same goal. But this year, as Indiana puts teacher pay at the forefront of its legislative priorities, there seems to be an all-hands-on-deck approach to make it happen — and that means some unlikely allies.

During Tuesday’s ceremonial first day of the legislative session, House Speaker Brian Bosma announced in a speech to fellow lawmakers that Republican Reps. Bob Behning and Todd Huston — as well as representatives from the Indiana State Teachers Association, advocacy group Stand for Children, and the educator organization Teach Plus — were working on a plan to ensure teacher raises are part of the state’s next two-year budget.

“The most important profession for the future is those that serve in our classrooms,” Bosma said, adding that although the state has made increases over the past few years in school funding, pay for teachers has not kept pace even as administrative spending has increased.

It’s an unusual partnership because the teachers union has frequently had tension with Republicans who favor school choice and expanding the state’s charter school and private school voucher programs. The union, which staunchly advocates for traditional public schools, has also clashed over charter partnerships with districts, a model that Teach Plus and Stand for Children have supported, even though they aren’t inherently partisan.

Why now? The combination of local districts struggling to hire teachers and keep them in the classroom and a larger national conversation about teacher compensation has put raising teacher pay in the spotlight, both in Indiana and across the country. Last week, teachers in Portage, Indiana, picketed to push for larger raises as they negotiate a new contract.

“It’s been a crisis that’s been coming — we’ve seen it coming … and finally people are starting to connect the dots between compensation and retention,” said Teresa Meredith, president of ISTA, the state’s largest teachers union. “We finally had to take a step back and say, obviously fighting each other is not getting anything done.”

Meredith said state-driven policies that have led to more testing and dialed up the need for schools to compete for students naturally has resulted in increased spending on staff members who aren’t in the classroom. Now, she said, lawmakers are seeing how that’s affecting school budgets, and, in turn, making it difficult to attract and retain teachers.

The desire to figure out ways to keep teachers in the classroom also brought Teach Plus to the table, said Rachel Hathaway, program manager for the national organization’s Indiana arm. Teach Plus helps train teachers to be policy advocates.

“There is a moment happening this year that can bring folks together to really elevate the profession and support teachers to make sure they are able to stay in the classroom,” Hathaway said. Teach Plus has “a history of knowing the importance of teacher recruitment and retention and ensuring we have high-quality teachers in front of our students.”

And it’s that impact at the classroom level, Stand for Children Indiana executive director Justin Ohlemiller said, that speaks to his group’s mission. Stand is an organization that aims to help parents learn how to advocate for their children in schools, but the group has been criticized, such as during the recent Indianapolis Public Schools board election, because they do not have to disclose their spending.

“At the end of the day, data shows one of the most important single factors in children’s education is the educator at the front of the room,” Ohlemiller said.

Indiana’s plans for how to boost teacher salaries are expected to come into sharper focus over the next few weeks. But Bosma cautioned again Tuesday that there might not be much extra money to work with, casting some doubt on the state’s ability to raise pay enough to make a meaningful difference for educators across the state.

“We’re going to have more needs, more critical needs, than we have available dollars,” Bosma said.

Bosma wouldn’t offer details about how much money House Republicans would add for teacher pay, but said after funding obligations to the Department of Child Services, that state would have an optimistic $50 million per year in new revenue for other funding requests. If teacher pay were to receive just a piece of that, it would be far less than the $81 million per year or so that Senate Democrats have called for — which they figure would amount to a 5 percent raise for teachers and counselors over the next two years.

And if curbing teacher shortages is as much of a priority as the state’s majority is now pushing, state Democrat leaders say, Indiana needs to prove that come January by making it a meaningful part of the budget.

“We have the resources,” Sen. Tim Lanane, a Democrat from Anderson, said on Friday when his caucus presented its 2019 priorities. “We can make that sacrifice to make sure our teachers know we respect and appreciate them.”

cry for help

View from the child care trenches: ‘Those of us cleaning the poop are not making it’

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat

At the end of three hours of briefings Monday on advancing care for Illinois’ tiniest residents, an on-the-ground provider’s 3-minute plea shook awake a gathering of the state’s top early childhood leaders and reminded them why they were there.

“We are in a crisis and unable to get help,” said Holtz, who in seven years has cycled through 147 staff members at her two day care centers in south central Effingham.

Turnover in that time among her 35 employees has been enough to staff the two centers more than four times over.

Speaking to the early learning council that directs how the state funds services for children from birth to age 5, Holtz said half of those departing sought better-paying jobs in other fields. Others headed to public school districts that pay better. Some she let go.

“Down here in the trenches, those of us who are cleaning the poop and plunging the toilets — we’re the ones who are not making it,” said Holtz, ticking off how well-intentioned Illinois directives make it tough to run a childcare business. She listed state policies like raising degree requirements for jobs that pay $8.50 to $10.25 an hour in her area, an endless stream of “health and safety” trainings, and lead and radon tests that cost her $1,000 apiece.

In a meeting that focused mainly on future ambitions, Holtz redirected attention to a present hazard: a critical shortage of qualified staffers to work in infant centers, daycare programs, and community-based preschools.  

The issue threatens to undercut any sort of universal pre-K program, which governor-elect J.B. Pritzker pledged to pursue as a candidate.

Preschool expert GG Weisenfeld said Illinois meets many established early learning benchmarks. But the state lags in salary parity. Other shortcomings: a revolving door of the state’s top leadership in early learning and a lack of full-day programs.   

“For preschools housed within public schools, those teachers have salary parity with other teachers,” said Weisenfeld, the lead author of a new state preschool policy scan from the National Institute for Early Education Research. “Unfortunately, when programs are housed in community-based centers, those teachers do not.”

But the state’s powerful Early Learning Council barely touched on that topic at its quarterly meeting Monday.

Holtz, one of only two people to address the council, said she drove several hours from Effingham for her three minutes at the mic. She said she supports the state’s push for better quality, but that effort doesn’t pencil out for her and other caregivers. One state subsidized program for low-income families reimburses her only $23 per day per child. That’s not enough to pay a lead teacher with a bachelor’s degree.

“When we do hire them, they uniformly all leave for better pay and benefits — and less stress. The stress is up there with the reasons for leaving, along with pay.”

As Illinois focuses on raising the quality of early learning throughout the state by requiring bachelor’s degrees for lead teachers in preschools, it faces a conundrum: Teachers with college degrees want to and can earn more than minimum wage elsewhere. (A 2017 state report said the median hourly wage for a licensed childcare center teacher was $12.50. Assistant teachers and infant caregivers generally made less.)

Jill Andrews, another downstate center director who heads up the Southern Illinois Child Care Assistance Task Force and made the trek with Holtz, handed out folders with her own set of recommendations.

Among them: raising state reimbursement rates for publicly funded child care programs, helping child care providers qualify for state health insurance, and offering community college credit as an incentive for workers to pursue training.