Future of Schools

Pro-voucher group joins Dougco fight

DENVER – A national pro-voucher law firm joined the legal battle over Douglas County’s voucher pilot on Tuesday, filing to intervene in two recent lawsuits on behalf of four families who want to use state funding to help send their children to private schools this fall.

Institute for Justice attorney Michael Bindas at Tuesday's press conference in Denver.

“The opponents of choice, who have a political axe to grind, have attempted to make this about religion,” said Michael Bindas, attorney for the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice. “We are confident this program will withstand any scrutiny.”

See video highlights from Tuesday’s press conference.

The Institute, which describes itself as the “nation’s only libertarian public interest law firm,” is a non-profit that has been involved in voucher battles across the country, including defending Colorado’s statewide voucher plan, which was struck down by the state Supreme Court in 2004.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, also based near D.C., and the American Civil Liberties Union – the Institute’s frequent opponents in such court fights – are among the civil rights groups and half a dozen Douglas County parents behind two separate lawsuits filed June 21 in Denver District Court to stop the Dougco pilot.

Both lawsuits name the Douglas County school district, its school board, the Colorado Department of Education and the State Board of Education as defendants; the Institute’s motions to intervene in the two lawsuits, which are expected to be granted, now brings parents into the defendants’ side.

The four families represented by the Institute for Justice:

  • Florence and Derrick Doyle of Parker applied for voucher assistance to send their 14-year-old twins, Alexandra and Donovan, to Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora. An older son, Dominick, attends Regis.
  • Diana and Mark Oakley of Highlands Ranch want to send son Nathaniel, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, to Humanex Academy in Englewood. The Oakley’s two other children have done well in Dougco district schools but they say Nate, 13, has been ruthlessly bullied.
  • Jeanette Strohm-Anderson and Mark Anderson of Larkspur want to send Max, 8, to Woodlands Academy in Castle Rock, where they believe the academically gifted boy would excel in a rigorous curriculum that includes Singapore Math. An older son, Alex, 16, attends Douglas County High School.
  • Geraldine and Timothy Lynott of Parker applied for voucher help to send son Timothy Jr. to Regis Jesuit High School for its small class sizes, college-prep curriculum and religious character; a daughter attends a Dougco public school and Geraldine teaches in the Cherry Creek School District.

Vouchers would help families ‘in the middle’

Derrick Doyle said he and his wife already had decided their twins would follow their older brother to Regis Jesuit High School when they heard about Dougco’s voucher plan.

“But it was going to be a struggle,” he said. “Trying to send three children to private school is almost undoable for an average family.”

Doyle said the couple’s research into private schools showed two extremes – on one end, wealthy families able to write tuition checks for multiple children without blinking and, on the other, generous donors providing scholarships to families with great financial need.

“The middle ground, where we reside, probably where most Douglas County residents reside, you find yourself sort of left out,” he said. “You may not be able to write the check but at the same time, you don’t qualify for tuition assistance. So this voucher system represents … the chance for us to send our children to the school we choose.”

Dougco’s pilot will provide vouchers of up to $4,575 per student annually, or 75 percent of state per-pupil funding in 2011-12. That’s less than half of Regis’ annual tuition, Doyle said.

Similarly, Diana Oakley said the voucher would cover only part of the $17,000 annual tuition at Humanex Academy, a small private school focused on students with special needs.

Oakley’s son Nathaniel, who has a developmental disorder with some traits of autism, has struggled academically and socially in Dougco’s Eagle Ridge Elementary. Court records state he repeated a grade and was bullied, including being assaulted with a pair of nunchucks by another student.

But Diana Oakley said her son blossomed in classroom discussions when he visited Humanex.

“It weighs a lot on me,” she said of the chance a Denver district judge could halt the voucher plan. “I’m really looking forward to having him there.”

Lawyers on both sides ‘confident’ they’re right

Bindas, the Institute’s attorney, said he’s advising parents not to worry about the lawsuits.

“Our advice is to plan on going ahead with your choice of school come the fall because we’re committed to defending the program and have no doubt it will be upheld,” he said.

He described the “critical components” of a constitutional voucher program as one, that it be neutral with regard to religion – allowing participation by religious and non-religious schools. And two, that it’s only as a result of a parent’s “private, independent choice” that money goes to a school, religious or non-religious.

“Every single day since opening our doors twenty years ago, the Institute for Justice has defended school choice programs against legal attacks like this,” Bindas said. “We’re confident that, at the end of the day, choice will prevail and this program will be upheld.”

Gregory M. Lipper, attorney for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, disagreed.

“That’s not what the Colorado constitution says,” he said, noting Binder is relying on a U.S. Supreme Court case, Zelman decided in 2002, while both lawsuits allege violations of the state constitution and state laws. “States are allowed to provide greater protection than the federal constitution does.”

He also said the idea that Dougco parents have “private, independent choice” among private schools is “not accurate” because 14 of the 19 schools approved for the voucher pilot are religious while the other five include a gifted school, a school for students with special needs and two schools that are K-8 only.

“The only choice is to go to a religious school,” Lipper said. “And even if a parent wants to choose a religious school, the religious schools are allowed to discriminate on the basis of religious beliefs, on the basis of disabilities … the notion that there is true parent choice here is really fantasy.

“We are confident we will prevail.”

Video highlights from Tuesday’s press conference

A Douglas County father talks about how the voucher plan will help his family while Institute for Justice attorney Michael Bindas discusses the legal merits of Dougco’s plan and explains how this case differs from Colorado’s 2003 voucher pilot, struck down by the state Supreme Court in 2004.

IPS School Board Race 2018

Indiana teachers union spends big on Indianapolis Public Schools in election

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
IPS board candidate signs

The political arm of Indiana’s largest teachers union is spending big on the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The group donated $68,400 to three candidates vying for seats on the board this November, according to pre-election campaign finance disclosures released Friday.

The three candidates — Susan Collins, Michele Lorbieski, and Taria Slack — have all expressed criticism of the current board and the leadership of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. Although that criticism touches on many issues, one particular bone of contention is the district’s embrace of innovation schools, independent campuses that are run by charter or nonprofit operators but remain under the district’s umbrella. Teachers at those schools are employed by the school operators, so they cannot join the union.

The trio was also endorsed by the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that has received funding from a national teachers union.

It’s not unusual for teachers unions to spend on school board elections. In 2016, the union contributed $15,000 to an unsuccessful at-large candidate for the Indianapolis Public Schools board. But $68,400 dwarfs that contribution. Those disclosures do not capture the full spending on the election. The three candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana — Mary Ann Sullivan, Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, and Evan Hawkins — are likely getting significant unreported benefits.

Stand for Children, which supports innovation schools, typically sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses. But it is not required to disclose all of its political activity because it is an independent expenditure committee, also known as a 501(c)(4), for the tax code section that covers it. The group did not immediately respond to a request for information on how much it is spending on this race.

The candidates’ fundraising varied widely in the reporting period, which covered the period from April 14 to Oct. 12, with Taria Slack bringing in $28,950 and Joanna Krumel raising $200. In recent years, candidates have been raising significantly more money than had been common. But one recent candidate managed to win on a shoestring: Elizabeth Gore won an at-large seat in 2016 after raising about $1,200.

Read more: See candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

One part of Stand for Children’s spending became visible this year when it gave directly to tax campaigns. The group contributed $188,842 to the campaign for two tax referendums to raise money for Indianapolis Public Schools. That includes a $100,000 donation that was announced in August and about $88,842 worth of in-kind contributions such as mailers. The group has a team of campaign workers who have been going door-to-door for months.

The district is seeking to persuade voters to support two tax increases. One would raise $220 million for operating funds, such as teacher salaries, over eight years. A second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements. Donations from Stand for Children largely power the Vote Yes for IPS campaign, which raised a total of $201,717. The Indiana teachers union also contributed $5,000.

Here are the details on how much each candidate has raised and some of the notable contributions:

At large

Incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan, a former Democrat state lawmaker, raised $7,054. Her largest contribution came from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which donated $4,670. She also received $1,000 from Steel House, a metal warehouse run by businessman Reid Litwack. She also received several donations of $250 or less.

Retired Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Susan Collins, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $16,422. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $15,000. She also received several donations of $200 or less.

Ceramics studio owner and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Joanna Krumel raised $200. Her largest contribution, $100, came from James W. Hill.

District 3

Marian University Executive Director of Facilities and Procurement and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Evan Hawkins raised $22,037. His largest contributions from individuals were from businessmen Allan Hubbard, who donated $5,000, and Litwack, who donated $2,500. The Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee contributed $4,670 and web design valued at $330. He also received several donations of $1,000 or less. His donors included IPS board member Venita Moore, retiring IPS board member Kelly Bentley’s campaign, and the CEO of The Mind Trust, Brandon Brown.

Frost Brown Todd trial attorney and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Michele Lorbieski, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $27,345. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $24,900. She also received several contributions of $250 or less.

Pike Township schools Director of Information Services Sherry Shelton raised $1,763, primarily from money she contributed. David Green contributed $116.

District 5

Incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an Indianapolis Public Schools parent, raised $16,006. Her largest contributors include Hubbard, who donated $5,000; the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which gave $4,670 and web design valued at $330; and the MIBOR PAC, which contributed $1,000. She also received several contributions of $500 or less, including from Bentley.

Federal employee and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Taria Slack, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $28,950. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $28,500.

Innovation zone

Two more Denver schools win additional freedom from district rules

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki/Chalkbeat
Alex Magaña, then principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, greeted students as they moved between classes in 2015.

Two more Denver schools this week won more flexibility in how they spend their money and time. The schools will create a new “innovation zone,” bringing the district’s number of quasi-autonomous zones to three.

The Denver school board on Thursday unanimously approved the schools’ application to operate more independently from district rules, starting in January.

The new zone will include Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver and Kepner Beacon Middle School in southwest Denver. The two schools are high-performing by the district’s standards and follow a model that allows students to learn at their own pace.

With just two schools, the zone will be the district’s smallest, though Beacon leaders have signaled their intent to compete to open a third school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood, where the district has said it will need more capacity. The district’s other two innovation zones have four and five schools each.

Schools in zones are still district schools, but they can opt out of paying for certain district services and instead spend that money on things that meet their specific needs, such as additional teachers or aides. Zones can also form nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors that provide academic and operational oversight, and help raise extra dollars to support the schools.

The new zone, called the Beacon Schools Network Innovation Zone, will have a five-member board of directors that includes one current parent, two former parents, and two community members whose professional work is related to education.

The zone will also have a teacher council and a parent council that will provide feedback to its board but whose members won’t be able to vote on decisions.

Some Denver school board members questioned the makeup of the zone’s board.

“I’m wondering about what kinds of steps you’re going to take to ensure there is a greater representation of people who live and reside in southwest Denver,” where Kepner Beacon is located, asked school board member Angela Cobián, who represents the region. She also asked about a greater representation of current parents on the board.

Alex Magaña, who serves as executive principal over the Beacon schools and will lead the new zone, said he expects the board to expand to seven members within a year. He also said the parent council will play a key role even if its members can’t vote.

“The parent council is a strong influence,” he said. “If the parent council is not happy, that’s going to be impacting both of the schools. I don’t want to undersell that.”

Other Denver school board members questioned the zone’s finances and how dependent it would be on fundraising. A district summary of the zone’s application notes that the zone’s budget relies on $1.68 million in foundation revenue over the next 5½ years.

Magaña said the zone would eventually seek to expand to four schools, which would make it more financially stable. As for philanthropic dollars, he said the zone would work to ensure any loss of revenue doesn’t hurt the schools’ unique programs or enrichment.

“I can’t emphasize enough that it won’t impact the schools,” he said.

Ultimately, Denver school board members said they have confidence in the Beacon model and look forward to seeing what its leaders do with their increased autonomy.