First Person

Voices: One year since Dougco voucher ruling

Cindy Barnard, a Douglas County parent who became a plaintiff in the lawsuit suspending the district’s voucher pilot, looks back at the year since a judge halted the plan.

August 12, 2011 was a great day for public education. One year has passed since Judge Michael Martinez ruled to halt the Douglas County School District’s voucher program. I thought I’d write a brief history, a summary of Judge Martinez’s ruling, and discuss where we are today in the battle to support public education.

Rob Ross, Dougco's legal counsel, was among those defending the voucher pilot at a press conference the day after two lawsuits were filed to stop it. The suits were later combined.

The district created a “School Choice Task Force.” The first meeting, invitation only, was held in June 2010. Invitees to this private meeting included folks from the Independence Institute. I was invited to the July meeting and, wanting to make sure that neighborhood schools were considered a choice, I joined the neighborhood school subcommittee. I attended subcommittee meetings but was unable to attend the two general meetings held in August and September. Minutes were not taken at any of the general meetings and the public was not invited until the third meeting in August.

The subcommittee on “Option Certificates” presented their work at the October meeting. Before this time, I believed that all committees were simply brainstorming and that committees were comprised of volunteers. That is until Eric Hall, Colorado Springs attorney, presented the Option Certificate Program in board policy format. I began to understand that this subcommittee was not all volunteer or simply brainstorming. Needless to say, I was not the only person working on the Task Force that was shocked at the presentation of the voucher program.

Upon further investigation, it became apparent that the Option Certificate Program was following guidelines and a formula for implementation put forth by the American Legislative Exchange Council, also known as ALEC. A summary of our research of ALEC can be found in our Connecting the Dots document. Clearly, the direction for our once high-performing school district was now being heavily influenced by a powerful outside national organization, not Douglas County citizens.

Taxpayers for Public Education formed very quickly. Our mission: to advocate and support public education. We began speaking in opposition to the program at school board meetings, to friends, family and anyone we met on the street. A frenzy of letter-writing campaigns targeting Douglas County school board members, the Colorado Department of Education, the State Board of Education and to legislators went, for the most part, unanswered.

The Douglas County school board voted to move forward with the Option Certificate Program on March 15, 2011. Upon the advice of the Colorado Department of Education, the program was renamed the “Choice Scholarship Program.”

Taxpayers for Public Education, after working tirelessly within district channels to try to stop the program, filed suit against the Douglas County School District, the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado State Board of Education on June 21, 2011.

A hearing for a preliminary injunction was heard in Denver District Court on August 2-4, 2011. Judge Martinez not only ruled to grant our request for a preliminary injunction, he granted a permanent injunction, thus stopping the illegal voucher program. The judge supported his decision with very extensive findings of fact, all of which are supported by direct citations to documents or testimony. The judge also very carefully analyzed the facts and law of the important legal precedents and either carefully matched them or carefully distinguished them from the district’s voucher program. A summary of the key points in his findings are as follows:

  • The judge ruled in our favor on six different points of law. The court found that the voucher program violates: (1) Art. IX sec 7 of the Colorado Constitution, because the school district can’t give money to aid schools controlled by churches and sectarian institutions; (2) Art. II sec 4 of the Colorado Constitution, violation of “no compelled support” of religious sects clause; (3) Art. X sec 8 of the Colorado Constitution, forbidding religious test for admission to public school, required attendance at religious service at public school, and teaching of religious tenets at public school; (4) Public School Finance Act requirement of “uniform” funding; (5) Art. V sec 34 of Colorado Constitution, forbidding appropriation of educational funds for sectarian institutions; and (6) Art. IX sec 3 of the Colorado Constitution prohibiting public school fund from being used for anything but public schools.
  • The judge also ruled against the two affirmative defenses that the district and the state put forward, ruling that the U.S. Constitution does not prevent a court from enforcing the specific provisions of the Colorado Constitution, and that the other public-private programs that the state kept pointing to were irrelevant to this program.

As expected, in April 2012, the Douglas County school board filed an appeal in hopes of overturning the district court’s decision. Because Judge Martinez originally found in our favor on six different points of law, if any of these legal bases are upheld, the injunction will stand. All of the parties have now submitted briefs to the state Court of Appeals, and we await the appellate court’s notification of a hearing date.

The Douglas County School District is quickly approaching $1 million in legal fees alone for the voucher program. In round numbers, $82,000 was spent to develop the program and, as of July 2012, $828,000 has thus far been spent in defense of the program. And the legal fees will continue to mount.

In addition, the district distributed over $300,000 to private schools in July and August 2011, after the lawsuit had been filed. To date, $25,162 has not been returned to the district by private schools.

Douglas County school board members passed a resolution to establish a legal defense fund simultaneously with their vote to implement the illegal voucher program. Private donations from organizations outside Douglas County have accounted for $805,000 of the $807,446 contributed to the fund. The district’s recently-hired community relations officer, Cinamon Watson, formerly worked for ALEC. The outside influences continue to mount as well.

Not accounting for the district’s own personnel resources that have been involved in the development and defense of the illegal voucher program, the outstanding balance of $127,368 represents local and state tax dollars earmarked for the education of Douglas County public school students.

Our fabulous attorneys with Faegre Baker & Daniels and Alex Halpern have generously donated their time and expertise and have absorbed many of our expenses. However, we do have a significant legal bill to pay in order to continue to fight the illegal voucher program. I thank you in advance for your continued support.

Yes, August 12, 2011 was a great day for public education. And as we pass the anniversary of Judge Martinez’s decision, we at Taxpayers for Public Education are very aware that the privatization of public education is a national issue and an issue we will continue to fight.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.