v(ouch)!

Plaintiffs: Dougco voucher program thwarts constitution

Highlands Ranch High School science teacher Bob MacArthur leads a class discussion in 2014. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia)

Gearing up for a constitutional slug match over the fate of private school vouchers in Colorado, lawyers for Douglas County parents and taxpayers made their first pitch to the Colorado Supreme Court on the 2011 suburban scholarship program.

The voucher plan, which is on hold pending litigation, would allow Douglas County students to use public tax dollars to enroll in private — and often religious — schools would siphon away much-needed revenue from public schools and subsidize religious institutions. In effect, the program is unconstitutional, lawyers argued in a brief filed late Thursday with the Colorado Supreme Court.

The 80-page document, filed on behalf of two groups of plaintiffs, argues why the district-created voucher program, known as the Choice Scholarship Program, should not be permitted to launch.

The Colorado Supreme Court agreed to hear the case earlier this year after a three-member appellate court overturned a lower courts ruling that deemed the program unconstitutional.

The appellate court ruled the plaintiffs, including parents, clergy, and tax payers, did not have legal standing to bring the lawsuit. That decision will be one of six points the Supreme Court will consider in its ruling.

Other questions the Supreme Court will look to answer include whether the program violates Colorado’s Public School Finance Act of 1994 and four different sections of the Colorado Constitution.

“The majority court of appeals opinion that upheld the Program, if allowed to stand, would eviscerate core provisions of the religion and education clauses of the Colorado Constitution, restrict citizens’ ability to enforce the Public School Finance Act, and give school districts around the state carte blanche to implement similar programs, with potentially devastating consequences for the State’s constitutionally mandated public-school system,” the brief says.

The plaintiffs’ brief is one of a few initial steps in what is expected to be a rather long and uncertain process. The Douglas County School District has until Aug. 4 to file its response. A date for oral arguments has not been set. Those arguments may not be heard until next year, according to a spokesman for the the Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The voucher program, which was unanimously passed by the Dougco school board in 2011, would have allowed up to 500 Douglas County students to use 75 percent of the district’s per-pupil funding – or $4,575 at the time – to attend a participating private school approved by the district.

Students would have been able to use those funds to attend private religious schools.

Thirty-four private schools applied to participate in the voucher program. Dougco approved 23 of those schools.

Of the 23 schools, 14 were located outside Douglas County, and 16 taught religious doctrine.

The voucher program was modeled after other programs across the nation that have prevailed in court. It gave students the right to “receive a waiver from any required religious services at the [participating private school],” according to previous court documents filed by the district.

However, lawyers for the plaintiffs argue the waivers weren’t enough to meet constitutional muster.

The Douglas County school board remains confident in its case, a spokeswoman for the district said earlier this week referring to a previously issued statement from board member Craig Richardson.

“The District welcomes the opportunity for the state’s highest court to review a case that presents such important issues for our state and our country,” Richardson said in March. “DCSD is committed to expanding choice for parents and one of the ways is our innovative Choice Scholarship Program. We believe the Court of Appeals will be affirmed and that the parents and children of our District will, someday soon, be afforded more educational choice.”

From the brief

One of the main objections to the voucher program was the inclusion of religious-run institutions. Critics saw this as a violation as of the Colorado’s Constitution as using public dollars for religious activities. While there was a waiver policy for students who might not participate in a particular religion, a lower court agreed the waiver was limited at bets. The brief argues:

The Program purports to afford students the right to “receive a waiver from any required religious services at the Private School Partner,” but the waiver only applies to saying prayers aloud; students can still be compelled to attend religious services. Nor may students opt out of full participation in other religious exercises — such as prayer recitations and scriptural readings — that many of the schools mandate throughout the day. Moreover, most of the schools require students to receive instruction in religious doctrine. Even the District acknowledged that this was “[n]ot much of an opt out.”

During the initial trial, testimony suggested one participating religious school only signed up for the program to beef up its own reserves. Here’s why:

There are no restrictions on how participating schools may spend the public funds they receive through the Program. Schools are free to use the funds for religious instruction, worship services, religious literature, clergy salaries, and construction or maintenance of facilities used for worship and prayer.

One of the more nuanced parts of the Dougco voucher case revolves around a charter school established by the district that students in the program were to enroll in. The charter school had no teachers, curriculum, or walls. Its primary function was to cut voucher checks to parents.

In sum, the Voucher Program rests on the transparent fiction that the Charter School is a “qualified charter school” entitled to claim and spend public funds under the Act. The Court should not sanction such a fiction.

If the Douglas County wants to expand school choice, as it has purported to do, there is a constitutional solution, the brief says:

If the citizens of Colorado want to rewrite the State Constitution to allow public funding of religious schools, they can try to do so at the ballot box. Until then, the language and intent of the Colorado Constitution’s framers must be followed.

The plaintiffs’ brief

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.

breaking

Breaking: Indiana didn’t set aside enough money for schools. Senate leader says a fix is ‘top priority.’

PHOTO: Photo by Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat
Students at Global Prep Academy, a charter school, learn about comparing shapes. All schools could see less funding if lawmakers do not fix the funding shortfall.

State education officials are expecting a shortfall in school funding this year that could be as high as $9 million because state and local officials underestimated Indiana’s student enrollment.

If the legislature does not act to increase funding, districts, charter schools and private schools that receive state vouchers could all get less money than they were promised this year.

Senate President David Long said new legislation to appropriate more money to schools would be proposed, though other lawmakers involved in budget-making were less certain on what a solution would look like this early.

“It’s our top priority, education is, so it’ll have our full focus when we come back in January,” Long said.

But on the upside, he said, public school enrollment increased since last year.

“It’s not a bad problem,” Long said. “We have more kids going into public schools than we did last year, but it’s a challenge for us only in a sense that we need to adjust our numbers.”

A memo from the Indiana Department of Education said the legislature’s budget appropriation was short by less than one-half of 1 percent. When the amount the legislature allocated for school funding does not line up with its funding formula, “the law requires the Department to proportionately reduce the total amount to be distributed to recipients,” the memo said.

It’s not clear how the miscalculation in enrollment numbers occurred, said Rep Tim Brown, a key budget-writer and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. The budget dollars are estimated based on projected school enrollment counts from districts themselves, the education department and the legislative services agency, which helps provide information and data to lawmakers.

Brown urged people to keep the number in perspective, especially since the budget is crafted based on estimates. Brown said this was the first year since he became involved with budget writing in 2013 that projected budget allocations ended up being less than school enrollment, which was calculated based on counts from September Count Day.

“We’re looking at what our options are, but let us keep in mind it is $1.50 out of every $10,000 a school gets,” Brown said, adding that he wasn’t sure this early on how lawmakers would act to make up the shortfall.

But J.T. Coopman, executive director for the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, said even small amounts of money make a difference for cash-strapped schools. Districts have already started making contracts and have obligations to pay for teacher salaries and services at this point. It’s pretty late in the game for this kind of news, he said.

“I did see that it’s less than a half a percent, but for schools that’s a lot of money,” Coopman said. “Can we get this fixed before it becomes a real problem for school districts?”

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who leads a district that is already in deficit, was optimistic. In a statement, he said, “we’re encouraged by the commitment and urgency demonstrated by our legislative leaders.”

Neither Brown nor Long knew how much public school enrollment had increased. The $32 billion two-year budget passed in April increased total dollars for schools by about 3.3 percent from 2017 to 2019, for a total of about $14 billion. Included within that was a 2.5 percent average increase for per-student funding to $6,709 in 2019, up from $6,540 last year.

The news of a funding shortfall comes as the state continues to see declining revenue. The Northwest Indiana Times reports that state revenue is down $136.5 million (2.8 percent) from what lawmakers estimated this past spring for the next two-year budget.

During the annual ceremonial start to the 2018 legislative session today, leaders discussed a need to provide more resources to schools and the state board of education. So far, many of the priorities involving education this year look to address workforce needs and encourage schools to offer more computer science courses.

But House Speaker Brian Bosma also shouted out “innovative” steps made by Indianapolis Public Schools and Fort Wayne Public Schools.

“People are trying something different and they are having great results with it,” Bosma said. “We need to give them more tools, we need to give them more opportunities.”