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.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.

Future of Schools

IPS students have made their high school choices. Here’s where they want to go.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

High schoolers across Indianapolis Public Schools have made their choices for next year, and some schools are proving far more popular than others.

With all but four high schools set to close, the district is already in the midst of an upheaval. Students’ choices this year could have far-reaching implications for the configuration of the district for years to come.

Shortridge High School had the greatest increase in demand, with more than triple the 400 students enrolled there now listing it as their first choice for next year. George Washington High School, which also enrolls more than 400 students now, is not likely to grow too much. And while Arsenal Technical and Crispus Attucks high schools are both likely to grow by hundreds of students, neither saw interest grow as exponentially as Shortridge.

The final enrollment at each school will determine such critical issues as how many teachers are hired, what courses are available to students, and how much it costs to operate the buildings. Ultimately, students’ choices are likely to shape course offerings over the next several years, district officials said.

The enrollment figures are the result of a district mandate requiring students from across the district to select high schools and magnet programs this fall. More than 90 percent of 8th to 11th grade students have made selections so far. All students will be placed in their top choice program, according to the IPS spokeswoman Carrie Cline Black.

Fewer than 500 IPS students have chosen programs at George Washington so far, according to district data obtained exclusively by Chalkbeat. In contrast, more than 1,300 students have selected Shortridge, which will house the arts magnet program currently at Broad Ripple and the International Baccalaureate Programme. More than 2,300 students have chosen programs at Arsenal Tech (currently the district’s largest high school with 1,826 students) and 1,050 have selected Crispus Attucks (which currently enrolls 695).

The uneven distribution of students did not take  Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration by complete surprise.

At an Indiana State Board of Education meeting on Oct. 4, state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick asked, “What happens if you don’t have a nice, somewhat-even distribution? … What if it’s very out of whack?”

Ferebee said that the district will have room to accommodate students if a school proves especially popular. In the long term, he added, IPS may have to adjust, by replicating  popular programs and discontinuing unpopular ones.

But Ferebee also said the district was hoping to persuade students to take another look at some of the programs that might not be popular at first.

For instance, he said, “We do know it’s going to take some time to educate families on construction and engineering. So we knew out of the gate, not many students may be interested, so it will take some time to build a program.”

Here is a full breakdown of the schools and programs that students chose:

In total 5,142 IPS students chose their preferred programs as part of a broad reconfiguration plan that includes closing nearly half of the seven high school campuses because of low enrollment. The district has not provided projections of how many students would enroll in each high school. But if enrollment doesn’t shift in the coming months, some campuses will be far closer to capacity then others. While the initial deadline for choosing schools and programs has passed, enrollment remains open to any students who have not yet made their selection.

If no other students enrolled in IPS high schools, Shortridge would be nearly 89 percent full. Arsenal Tech and Crispus Attucks would each be over 76 percent full. And George Washington would be about 25 percent full.

At the four remaining high school campuses, the district is aiming to “reinvent” high school by vastly expanding specialized programs in subjects such as business, engineering, and the arts, which students will study alongside their core classwork.

Next year, every student will be enrolled in specialized programs within high schools. District leaders hope that students will choose schools based on their interests, rather than their neighborhood.

Principal Stan Law will take over George Washington next year. In an interview about the school last week, before IPS released student selections numbers, Law said that it was important for students and families to get accurate information so they would select schools based on student career interests rather than neighborhood.

“Everyone has their ideas about things, but only certain people have the accurate information,” he said.

The most popular programs are the health sciences academy at Crispus Attucks and the Career Technology Center at Arsenal Tech, where students can study subjects such as culinary arts, welding and fire rescue. Each attracted more than 900 students. The least popular are the teaching program at Crispus Attucks, chosen by  104 students, and the information technology program at George Washington, chosen by 80.

Despite its apparent unpopularity with IPS students, the information technology program fits in with a state push to prepare students for careers in computer science and related fields. Gov. Eric Holcomb’s legislative agenda calls for requiring high schools to offer computer sciences classes, and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce wants computer science to be a high school graduation requirement.