v(ouch)!

Douglas County voucher program unconstitutional, Supreme Court rules

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

The Douglas County School District may not provide its families vouchers to send their students to private schools, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled Monday morning.

In its decision, the state’s highest court effectively shut down the suburban school district’s choice program.

Douglas County school officials are expected to have a press conference this afternoon to discuss the ruling. It’s unclear whether the school district will attempt to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. (See updated from press conference here.)

In the 4-3 opinion, written by Chief Justice Nancy E. Rice, the court said the Choice Scholarship Program, as the district called it, was unconstitutional because it sent taxpayer dollars to religious institutions.

“[T]he Colorado Constitution prohibits school districts from aiding religious schools,” the chief justice wrote in her conclusion. “The CSP has created financial partnerships between the District and religious schools and, in so doing, has facilitated students attending such schools. This constitutes aid to religious institutions as contemplated by section 7. Therefore, we hold that the CSP violates section 7.”

Section 7 refers to a portion of the state’s constitution that flatly prohibits any state aid to religious institutions.

In oral arguments last year, lawyers for the Douglas County School District argued that parents, not the school district, chose where to use the vouchers. In their opinion, the district did not endorse religious schools, but parents.

A majority of the court disagreed.

“It is true that the CSP does not only partner with religious schools; several Private School Partners are non-religious,” Rice wrote. “The fact remains, however, that the CSP awards public money to students who may then use that money to pay for a religious education. In so doing, the CSP aids religious institutions. Thus, even ignoring the pragmatic realities that scholarship recipients face—such as the trial court’s finding that ‘virtually all high school students’ can only use their scholarships to attend religious schools—the CSP violates the clear constitutional command of section 7.”

But in a dissenting opinion, Justice Allison Eid said the court’s interpretation of Section 7 went too far.

“This breathtakingly broad interpretation would invalidate not only the Choice Scholarship Program, but numerous other state programs that provide funds to students and their parents who in turn decide to use the funds to attend religious schools in Colorado,” Eid wrote. “The plurality’s interpretation barring indirect funding is so broad that it would invalidate the use of public funds to build roads, bridges, and sidewalks adjacent to such schools, as the schools, in the words of the plurality, ‘rely on’ state-paid infrastructure to operate their institutions.”

The ruling means that Colorado tax dollars will stay where they belong in public schools, said one of the plaintiffs in a statement emailed shortly after the decision was made public.

“The DCSD voucher program took taxpayer funds, intended for public education, and used that money to pay for private school education for a few select students,” said Cindy Barnard, President of Taxpayers for Public Education, one of the plaintiffs in the case. “The decision means that money set aside for public education in Colorado can only be used the way it was intended to be used — for the betterment of education in Colorado public schools.”

Education analyst Ben DeGrow at the Independence Institute, a libertarian think-tank and supporter of school choice, said he he believed the court came to the wrong conclusion.

“It’s a disappointment that the Colorado Supreme Court did not uphold opportunity and choice for families in Douglas County,” he said.

The voucher program was unanimously passed by the Douglas County school board in 2011. It would have allowed up to 500 Douglas County students, who live south of Denver, 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. The school district approved 23 of those schools.

Of the 23 schools, 14 were located outside Douglas County, one of the wealthiest counties in Colorado, 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.

In 2004 the state Supreme Court halted a statewide voucher program that would have provided similar scholarships to low income families.

Capitol Editor Todd Engdahl contributed to this report. 

spending squeeze

Facing a state budget crunch, Gov. Cuomo proposes modest 3 percent education boost

Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers his executive budget address.

Facing budget pressure at home and from Washington, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed increasing school aid by 3 percent this year —  far less than what advocates and the state’s education policymakers had sought.

Cuomo put forward a $769 million increase in school aid during his executive budget address on Tuesday, less than half of the $1.6 billion sought by the state’s Board of Regents. In response, the state’s top education officials said they were “concerned,” and suggested that they would press lawmakers to negotiate for more education spending.

The governor’s modest increase in school funding comes amid a projected $4.4 billion state budget deficit, a federal tax overhaul expected to squeeze New York’s tax revenue, and the threat of further federal cuts.

Still, Cuomo, a Democrat who plans to run for reelection this fall and is considering a 2020 presidential bid, defended his spending plan as a boost for schools at a time of fiscal uncertainty.

“We have increased education more than any area in state government,” he said during his speech in Albany. “Period.”

He also floated a plan to have the state approve local districts’ budgets to ensure they are spending enough on high-poverty schools. And he set aside more money for prekindergarten, after-school programs, and “community schools” that provide social services to students and their families.

Now that Cuomo’s proposal is out he must negotiate a final budget for the 2019 fiscal year with lawmakers by April 1. While the Democratic-controlled assembly is likely to push for more school spending, the senate’s Republican leaders are calling for fiscal restraint and tax cuts.

What was the response?

Advocates and policymakers were alarmed by Cuomo’s proposed $769 million education bump — a 3 percent spending increase compared to last year’s 4.4 percent boost.

Last month, a coalition of statewide education organizations estimated that the state would need to increase spending by $1.5 billion just to maintain current education services. The group, which includes state teachers union and groups representing school boards and superintendents, called for a $2 billion increase.

In a statement Tuesday, Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia noted that Cuomo’s proposal was less than half the amount they sought. They promised to work with lawmakers to ensure the final budget amount “will meet the needs of every student throughout our State.”

Anticipating such criticism, Cuomo noted in his speech that he has expanded education spending by nearly 35 percent since taking office. His proposal would bring total school aid to $26.4 billion — the largest portion of the state budget.

Still, that didn’t prevent pushback. A state assemblyman heckled Cuomo as the unveiled his education spending plan, suggesting it was not enough money.

“It’s never enough,” Cuomo shot back.

Will poorer schools get more funding?

Cuomo said he wants to fight “trickle-down education funding” and ensure that poor schools receive their fair share of cash.

To that end, Cuomo wants the state education department and his budget office to review local school district budget plans. The plan is aimed at larger school districts, including New York City, which Cuomo singled out in his speech.

“Right now we have no idea where the money is going,” Cuomo said on Tuesday. “We have a formula. We direct it to the poorer districts. But what did Buffalo do with it? What does New York City do with it?”

It’s unclear how the proposal would impact New York City, which already uses a funding formula designed to send more money to schools with needier students. But some education advocates were intrigued by Cuomo’s idea, which they said could be a way to expose and fight inequities in school funding across the state.

“Right now, school-level expenditure with consistent definitions is really a mystery,” said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of The Education Trust – New York. “It means that a lot of inequity can be swept under the rug.”

Cuomo officials also said that 73.1 percent of funding will be directed to high-needs districts in this year’s budget, which the state said was the highest share ever. Last year, they received 72 percent.

But advocates are more concerned with the state’s “foundation aid” formula, which funnels a greater share of funds to high-needs districts. The formula was created in response to a school funding lawsuit settled more than a decade ago; advocates say schools are still owed billions from the settlement.

Cuomo proposed boosting foundation aid this year by $338 million, a far cry from the $1.25 billion requested by the Board of Regents. Without more foundation aid, some advocates say Cuomo’s promise of greater funding equity rings hollow.

“Equity is you’re actually helping to lift up poor districts so that they can provide an equitable education,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the union-backed Alliance for Quality Education. “Not just that they’re receiving a larger share of a too-small pot.”

What does all of this mean for New York City schools?

New York City is not immune from Albany’s budget crunch.

The total increase proposed for the city — $247 million — falls about $150 million short of the mayor’s projections in November, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office.

It may also be difficult for the city to wrangle funding for big-ticket items. Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to expand his prekindergarten program to 3-year-old students, but he estimates that he will need $700 million from state and federal sources by 2021. (The governor proposed $15 million to expand pre-K seats across the state.)

How about charter schools?

Cuomo would boost spending for charter schools by 3 percent the same rate as for district schools. He also wants to provide more support for schools that rent private space, which is a major financial burden for some schools.

“Once again, Gov. Cuomo demonstrated his unwavering commitment to ensuring every student in our state has access to a great public education,” said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center.

Story booth

With no art teacher, students at this Detroit school say their talents go unnurtured

 

When the eighth-grade students at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit’s west side talk about things their school needs, they point to a classmate named Casey.

“He’s a great artist,” one student said. “He can look at a picture and draw it in like five minutes and it will look exactly the same.”

If Casey attended school in the suburbs, his friends believe, he and other talented students would have an art class where they could nurture their skills.

“They don’t have the time to put in the work with their talent because we don’t have those extra-curricular activities,” another classmate said.

The students at the K-8 school have no art, music or gym teachers — a common problem in a district where resources are thin and where a teacher shortage has made it difficult for schools like this one to find teachers for many subjects, including the arts.

While the Detroit district has committed to expanding arts programs next year, it would need to find enough teachers to fill those positions.

“People out there think we’re not smart and they always criticize us about what we do,” Casey said. “We can always show them how smart we are,” he said, but that requires “getting the type of programming that we’re supposed to.”

Chalkbeat spoke with students at the school as part of a “story booth” series that invites students, teachers and parents to discuss their experiences in Detroit schools.

Watch the full video of the Paul Robeson/Malcolm X students below and please tell us if you know someone who would like their story featured in a future story booth.