Future of Schools

Voucher pilot in legal limbo

Some 60 percent of Douglas County’s nearly 500 voucher students chose to stay in private schools after a judge declared the school district’s voucher pilot unconstitutional in August, including the four students whose families are involved in an appeal of that ruling.

A scene from Douglas County's voucher lottery in June. The plan is on hold with an appeals court ruling not likely for several more months.

Another 35 percent returned to Douglas County public schools while much smaller numbers chose other options – 3 percent are attending school in another district and 2 percent began home-schooling.

Dougco’s Choice Scholarship Pilot Program, the state’s first district-run voucher plan, remains in legal limbo, with any decision from the Colorado Court of Appeals not expected before March at the earliest.

Advocates of the pilot, meanwhile, trumpet the Nov. 1 election of three pro-voucher school board candidates as proof of the community’s support for the district effort.

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“I think when you consider the fact that their opponents were very vocal in their opposition to the program, it’s a pretty clear mandate for the program to continue,” school board President John Carson said Monday. “And we continue now to have a 7-0 board in support of it.”

Others disagree. Susan Meek, the district’s former communications director who lost a bid to unseat pro-voucher candidate Craig Richardson, said she had hoped the school board elections would be a referendum on vouchers.

Instead, she said the winning candidates, who ran as a Republican Party-endorsed slate, targeted “union” candidates though the Douglas County teachers union did not make formal endorsements.

“Unfortunately, the pro-voucher candidates chose to run a partisan campaign based on false and misleading statements,” Meek said. “I don’t think we have a clear picture of whether the public supports vouchers or not as these candidates never mentioned the word ‘voucher’ in any of their print materials or in their robocalls.”

Trying to recoup voucher payments

Douglas County school board members approved the voucher pilot 7-0 on March 15, authorizing 75 percent of the district’s per-pupil funding – or $4,575 per voucher – to help up to 500 students attend participating private schools this fall.

Records show $45,750, or about 16 percent of the voucher payments issued by the district, remains outstanding from six private schools.

When Denver District Judge Micheal Martinez ruled Aug. 12 against the plan, Dougco already had issued 248 checks totaling $283,037.50 to the families of voucher students, who in turn signed them over to their chosen private schools.

District leaders are attempting to recoup that money. Records show $45,750, or about 16 percent of the total, remains outstanding from six of the 18 private schools that received checks.

“We’re pretty pleased with the amount of money that’s come back,” said district spokesman Randy Barber. “I think it’s important to note we don’t want to be forceful, we’re trying to be as respectful as possible and allow the amount of time for things to happen. I don’t believe we have any reason to believe we wouldn’t be able to get all that money back.”

Legal schedule
  • Dec. 7 – Record of proceedings in trial court due in Colorado Court of Appeals
  • Forty days later – Opening statement due from the appealing party
  • Thirty date later – Answer statement due
  • Fourteen days later – Reply brief due from appealing party
  • Oral arguments, requests for extension or other issues add time. Start to finish, typical timeline in appellate court is nine months. Notices of appeal were filed Sept. 9.

Valor Christian High School received the most district money, in 62 checks totaling $70,912.50. Regis Jesuit High School was second, with 39 checks totaling $44,606.25. The checks represent what would have been the first of four payments throughout the year. Both Valor and Regis have returned the total amounts they received.

Schools with outstanding balances include Lutheran High School, which has returned none of the 17 checks totaling $19,443.75, and Southeast Christian, which has returned some money but still owes $11,437.50, according to documents provided to Education News Colorado under the state’s open records law.

Under the voucher pilot, the checks are made out to the parents of a voucher student but they’re valid only if signed over to a participating private school screened by the district that has admitted the student. A total of 43 checks are outstanding.

“We think that, in some cases, it may be a situation in which a parent has to say it’s okay for the funds for come back,” Barber said. “Certainly we’re getting closer and closer to it being a family by family situation. We’ll be looking at each family’s story and is there a reason they’re not returning that money.”

Cindra Barnard, a Douglas County parent who was among those suing to stop the voucher program, said she’s concerned about the money yet to be returned to a district facing budget cuts.

“These funds were inappropriately handed to private schools while the program was in litigation,” she said. “Because the funds have been improperly spent, the state of Colorado should ask for the funds back, an additional financial burden to the already strapped district. This loss of funding directly impacts the education of the 60,000 students in Douglas County Schools.”

Characteristics of voucher students

Dougco’s voucher pilot, formally known as the Choice Scholarship Pilot Program, proved popular enough with families that a voucher lottery was held and a waiting list created after an initial 500 slots were filled.

But in July and August, six families declined scholarships and the district opted against moving students from the waiting list in light of a three-day hearing in August on the lawsuits filed by Dougco residents and civil liberties groups seeking to stop the pilot.

Of the 494 students who planned to use vouchers, 298 chose to continue at private schools after the judge halted the pilot and 174 decided to remain in Douglas County public schools. Eight students opted for home-schooling and 14 began attending schools outside of Dougco.

Hover over chart to see numbers and percentages. Story continues after graphic.

The nearly 500 voucher students would have enrolled this year in 70 schools across the county, with no single school having more than 24 students awarded vouchers and most having between five and seven. A handful of schools had 20 or more students awarded vouchers – Academy Charter School, American Academy Charter School, Lone Tree Elementary Magnet School, Ponderosa High School and Rock Canyon High School.

The single grade most impacted by vouchers was those students entering high school this year – 129 ninth-graders were awarded vouchers and 118 of those students decided to stay in their private high school despite the ruling halting the program.

Valor Christian High School is the most popular private school with Dougco voucher students, with 69 enrolled at the school. Regis is second, with 48 voucher students, and Cherry Hills Christian is third, with 41.

Valor Christian High School is the most popular private school with Dougco voucher students, with 69 now enrolled at the school. Regis is second, with 48 voucher students, and Cherry Hills Christian is third, with 41 former Dougco students attending.

Michael Bindas, an attorney who represents three families who have joined the district in seeking to overturn the judge’s ruling, said all four of their voucher students remain in their chosen private schools. One family, Diana and Mark Oakley, were told by their private school not to worry about the portion of tuition that would have been covered by the voucher.

“The school is typical of many schools kind of bending over backwards to help these families who had the rug pulled out from under them at the last minute when the scholarship program was enjoined,” Bindas said.

Despite the judge’s ruling that the pilot violated five provisions of the Colorado Constitution and the state School Finance Act, both Carson and Bindas remain confident the plan will prevail.

“We’ll be arguing how the trial court erred in applying the case law, both binding precedent from the Colorado Supreme Court as well as persuasive authority from the U.S. Supreme Court and other state supreme courts,” Bindas said. “We’re confident the trial court’s attempt to rationalize away that case law will be corrected on appeal.”

See where students awarded vouchers are attending school this year

Use scrolling bar on right to see complete list of schools

See a school-by-school breakdown of students awarded vouchers

Use scrolling bar on right to see complete list of schools

Frequently asked

New Denver teacher contract: We answer the most common questions about the tentative pact

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Students in class at Dora Moore ECE-8 during the second day of the Denver Public Schools teachers strike.

One reason many Denver educators didn’t like the district’s old ProComp pay system was that it was too complicated and unpredictable. Both sides agree that the deal reached early Thursday morning creates a much simpler pay system for teachers.

But educators — and the general public — still have a lot of questions about the tentative ProComp agreement, which still needs to be ratified by union members and the Denver school board. Here we’ve answered some of the most common questions we’ve heard since the end of the strike.

How do I place myself on the salary schedule?

The salary schedule is made up of “steps” and “lanes.” The “steps” represent years of service for which a teacher had a positive evaluation. The “lanes” represent levels of education. The new schedule has 20 steps and seven lanes.

Worked in Denver Public Schools for five years and have a master’s degree? Go to step five and then slide your finger over to the master’s degree lane. That’s your base salary.

Did you have a year when your evaluation wasn’t good? Go back one step. Have an additional 18 credits on top of your master’s degree? Go up one more lane.

Teachers can also go up a lane once they hit the 10-year mark because the district wanted to reward longevity. Other milestones that merit a lane change: earning national board certification or an advanced license, or completing six “professional development unit” training courses.

Still not sure? Denver Public Schools plans to put a salary calculator on its website soon.

What if I have more than 20 years of experience?

If you have 20 or more years of experience, you’re placed at the top of the salary schedule, on step 20. After step 20, you’ll get yearly cost-of-living raises. You’re still eligible to change lanes, but you won’t get any more step raises.

Does the district know everything it needs to know about individual educators to pay them the correct salary?

Denver Public Schools plans to send letters or emails this spring to every teacher and special service provider (nurses, counselors, and others) covered by the contract, laying out where the district believes that employee falls on the schedule based on information they have on file. Educators will have a certain amount of time to correct any wrong information and get on the correct step and lane for the 2019-20 school year.

Under the new salary schedule, it looks like I’ll earn less next year than I do now. Am I taking a pay cut?

No. The agreement includes a “hold harmless” clause that ensures everyone will get a raise next year. Those whose salaries are higher now than they would be under the new schedule will get a cost-of-living raise each year until the salary schedule catches up with them.

How are bonuses and incentives different under the new contract?

The bonuses and incentives are different in three ways: There are fewer of them, the dollar amounts are different, and the dollar amounts won’t change year to year.

This year, there are six bonuses and incentives offered by the district: one for educators who work in Title I schools where 60 percent or more of the student population qualifies for subsidized meals; one for educators who work in hard-to-fill positions; one for educators who work in “hard-to-serve” schools; one for educators who work in one of 30 “highest-priority” schools; one for educators who return year over year to those schools; and one for educators who work in schools deemed top-performing or high-growth, as based on school ratings.

Here’s what’s left in the new contract: Teachers in Title 1 schools and those in hard-to-fill positions, such as secondary math, will get $2,000 a year. Teachers who return year over year to 30 highest-priority schools will get $3,000 a year. Teachers in 10 schools deemed “distinguished” will get $750 a year, with the criteria to be determined by the district and the union.

Why aren’t the district and the union tying bonuses to test scores anymore?

Unions have traditionally been skeptical of paying teachers based on student test scores because the scores are so closely correlated with factors like race and household income. In Denver, these bonuses were also less predictable for teachers because the district often changed the criteria it used to rate schools and award “top-performing” bonuses.

The district also came to see these bonuses as canceling out the effects of bonuses for teachers at high-poverty schools. A teacher could get nearly the same kind of monetary reward by moving to a more affluent school or by staying in one where students face more challenges. The new bonus system provides clearer monetary benefits to working in a high-poverty school.

Why did the union agree to keep the incentive for highest-priority schools, when that had been such a sticking point?

In any negotiation, there’s give and take and a lot of moving pieces. 

Here’s what lead negotiator Rob Gould said to district officials during bargaining: “We are open to the incentive because we know it’s important to you. And we’re willing to entertain your ideas if we can get the base salary schedule that our teachers need. Because if we can get the base salaries we need, we can keep our teachers in Denver.”

This was also an issue that divided teachers, with some teachers at schools that received the highest-priority incentive pushing to keep them.

Did teachers get a better deal out of the strike than the district’s last offer before the strike?

Teachers were getting a raise no matter what. The district was offering an average 10 percent raise before the strike (this included a cost-of-living raise that was agreed to back in 2017). Now teachers will get an average 11.7 percent raise, though individual teachers will see a wide range.

The district is putting the same amount of new money — $23.5 million — into teacher compensation as it was offering before the strike. It can give a larger average raise with that same amount of money because the incentives are smaller than under the previous proposal and because of limits on how teachers can use training to get raises. That gives the district more predictability about how many teachers will get raises each year.

Union leaders call the deal a win. They secured more opportunities for teachers to earn raises and move into higher categories on the salary schedule, including through completing training partially during work hours at no additional cost. And teachers can get to $100,000 in 20 years, rather than the 30 years in the last district proposal.

However, individual teachers aren’t necessarily getting more base pay next year than they would have under the district’s last offer. Early-career teachers without advanced degrees would have earned more in base pay under the district’s last offer. The teachers who do better under the deal reached after the strike are veteran educators with more education.

To take two examples: A second-year educator with a bachelor’s degree and no extra credits or training would have earned $47,550 in base pay under the district’s last offer before the strike but will earn $46,869 under the deal reached this week.

But a 20-year educator who has a master’s degree and an advanced license who has been with the district for 10 years will earn $88,907 in base pay under the new agreement, compared with $87,550 under the district’s last proposal before the strike.

The union fought for this kind of salary schedule in part to address a longstanding complaint that teachers have little reason to stay in a district where base pay levels off.

You can see the salary schedule from the district’s last offer here and the schedule from the tentative agreement here.

Is this deal financially sustainable for the district?

Denver Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Mark Ferrandino says that is the “million-dollar question,” perhaps closer to the “half-billion-dollar question,” since that is roughly how much the district spends on educator compensation.

Ferrandino believes the answer is yes, with the standard caveat that all projections are just that.

What will be cut to pay for this?

The district plans to cut $20 million from administrative costs over the next two years. That includes cutting 150 jobs in the central office and ending all executive bonuses. The bulk of it — $13 million — will go to fund the ProComp agreement.

District officials have not yet said which central office jobs will be cut, though Superintendent Susana Cordova has said cuts will be to “discretionary” departments. Departments that will not be cut include special education, English language acquisition, and transportation, she said.

Teachers will get a raise. What about paraprofessionals, bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers?

These other district employees, much lower paid than teachers, are not covered by the contract that was the subject of the strike. Cordova has said these workers also deserve raises and a portion of administrative cuts will go to pay for them.

But how much of a raise will they get? That will all be worked out over the next few months and include discussions with the unions that represent these employees.

Will striking teachers get back pay?

Not according to district officials. After this story was published Friday, we asked for further clarification on this. We received this statement Saturday morning:

Superintendent Cordova understands that when teachers make the choice to strike, they are doing so to make a statement and bring attention to the importance of the issue at hand. Foregoing pay during the time that a teacher is not working is a challenging decision that no one makes lightly, and consequently, brings with it an impact that is intended to push for change.

DPS did not feel that it would be fair or appropriate to provide back pay to striking teachers when many others — including more than 40 percent of classroom teachers — chose to remain at work this week. However, DPS is working with the DCTA to offer all teachers the opportunity to attend a Saturday session to replace the professional development day that was cancelled in the days leading up to the strike. Any teacher who attends will be paid a day’s salary.

When will the new agreement go into effect? How long will it last?

Assuming both sides ratify it, the new agreement technically (and retroactively) went into effect Jan. 19, the day after the old one expired. But educators won’t start receiving the new salaries, incentives, and bonuses negotiated under it until Aug. 1. The agreement expires Aug. 31, 2022.

Teens Talk Back

‘Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait.’ Teen group says New York City diversity plan doesn’t move fast enough.

PHOTO: Courtesy/Teens Take Charge
Teens Take Charge members at a "virtual" press conference in New York City on Thursday

A teen group representing students from more than 30 New York City high schools sharply criticized a recent report from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group as offering no real solutions for increasing integration in the city’s starkly segregated high schools.

At a virtual press conference on Thursday, broadcast live on Facebook by Teens Take Charge, students expressed support for the report’s broad policy aim of achieving greater integration but also disappointment that the findings offered few specifics for how to reach this goal. The mayor’s Diversity Advisory Group has said a follow-up report will provide more details later this year.

“We have been told to wait, to be patient, that change is coming soon,” said Tiffani Torres, a junior at Pace High School in Manhattan. “Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait any longer.”

Teens Take Charge has long advocated for greater efforts to end segregated enrollment patterns in the city’s high schools. Sokhnadiarra Ndiaye, a junior at Brooklyn College Academy High School, said that students’ expectations of the mayor included his announcing “a comprehensive plan” — even if it took years to realize — “to racially, socioeconomically, and academically integrate high schools before the end of this school year,” she said.

Among Teens Take Charge’s specific recommendations are doing away with academic screens for admission to the city’s high schools, a more transparent process for applying to them, and more resources for low-income schools. Early last year, the group produced an Enrollment Equity Plan for increasing educational opportunities for low-income black and Hispanic students.

And because concrete plans for increasing integration would take time, Ndiaye said the teen organization supports several interim measures as well to address inequities in the school system. These include providing more college and career counseling for junior and seniors at low-income, under-resourced high schools. The teen group would also like to see the city provide vouchers to low-income families to access extra-curricular activities and programs offered by private companies or the ability to participate in such programs at other public schools if theirs don’t offer them. (Some city teens joined a class-action lawsuit against the education department and Public School Athletic League for allegedly denying black and Hispanic students equal opportunity to play on school sports teams, in violation of local human rights law.)

Torres described how Teens Take Charge has had “several meetings and phone conversations with Department of Education officials over the past year,” and schools chancellor Richard Carranza has stated that students have his ear. “We’re listening,” he tweeted in response to a Chalkbeat story with excerpts of the students’ views.

In December, the city’s education department posted a new job listing for a “Student Voice Manager” who would gather students’ thoughts on education policies. But while acknowledging this seat at the table, several students expressed frustration at the slow pace of change.

Bill de Blasio’s office declined to comment about Teens Take Charge’s concerns or their specific recommendations, beyond referencing remarks the mayor already made about the School Diversity Advisory Group report.

Doug Cohen, an education department spokesman, said in a statement, “We’ve taken real steps toward school integration,” pointing to initiatives such as a $2 million diversity grant program for school districts and communities citywide to develop their own local diversity plans, and a program that enables middle-schoolers to visit college campuses. “We know there is more work to do, and we thank Teens Take Charge for its continued advocacy on these issues,” he added.

Students at the group’s event urged swift change. “They know our plan; they have our information,” said Sophie Mode, a sophomore at Brooklyn Millennium. “They need to take action now.”