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. 

moving on

Teacher pay raises on schedule in Memphis despite possible changes to evaluation scores

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Memphis teachers will start receiving their performance-based salary increases in November, even though evaluation scores could change for at least 587 educators in Shelby County Schools.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson emailed teachers on Tuesday to update them about the status of their paychecks after news emerged last week about scoring errors on state tests for some Tennessee high school students, as well as a data entry error that impacted teacher growth scores known as TVAAS. (Student growth scores figure into evaluations that affect teachers’ employment and salaries.)

Hopson said the district will use current evaluation scores when issuing pay increases in November, which will be retroactive to the first day of school in August. He assured teachers that their salaries will not decrease if their TVAAS ratings go down in the wake of errors by the state’s testing vendor, Questar.

“We stand with our teachers in ensuring that no more state-level scoring irregularities exist,” Hopson wrote. “If further issues are identified regarding your specific TEM score, we will only honor salary adjustments that POSITIVELY affect your pay.”

For the first time, the district is launching a merit pay plan this school year based on teacher evaluation scores. But the news of errors this year at the state level left some teachers wondering how and when possible revisions to their TVAAS score would hit them in the pocketbook.

Hopson said the state and the district have contacted educators who are impacted by the errors. Tuesday is the deadline for finalizing TVAAS scores in order to receive salary increases by November.

“We realize this issue has again shaken your trust in the measurements of our collective success, and for that, we’re deeply saddened. While we are frustrated by the (Tennessee Department of Education’s) error, we respect the state for acknowledging and working to repair the mistake,” Hopson wrote.

Up to 900 teachers statewide may see their growth scores change as a result of data entry errors. That’s about 9 percent of teachers who receive a score under the state’s model to identify a teacher’s impact on student growth. Hopson said 587 of those teachers are in Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest district.

Charter schism

Independent charter schools look to raise their profile, apart from networks and Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: Coalition of Community Charter Schools
Veter education journalist John Merrow moderates a panel at the Independent Charter School Symposium.

Stand-alone charter schools say they’re often overlooked in favor of big-name networks like KIPP — while at the same time being unfairly tied to Betsy DeVos’s agenda.

At a symposium last week, a number of school leaders agreed to try to change that by launching a new national organization dedicated to independent, or “mom-and-pop,” charters.

“When people think of charters, they do not think of us,” said Steve Zimmerman, an organizer of the conference and founder of two independent charter schools.

In a hotel conference room in Queens, leaders from nearly 200 schools across 20 states unanimously called for the group’s creation. They also adopted a progressive manifesto that tried to separate the members from the Trump administration and common criticisms of the charter schools.

It marks yet another fissure in the nation’s charter school movement, which has seen political and philosophical divides open up in the wake of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s appointment.

And while the loose group of independent charters does not yet have a name or a clear funding plan, its leaders believe they can provide a louder, more democratic voice for their concerns than existing charter advocacy groups, which they say are too focused on expanding networks.

“The National Alliance [for Public Charter Schools] truly believes they act in the interest of all charter schools. And to some degree they do,” said Zimmerman, referring to the country’s top national charter advocacy group. “The truth is, though, that they can’t really represent the real interests of independent charter schools because their funders really believe in the network model.”

National Alliance spokeswoman Vanessa Descalzi said the group supports independent charters.

“Advocating for independent, community-based schools is in the National Alliance’s DNA,” she said. “Where folks feel we could do more, we look forward to continued discussion and seeking solutions together.”

A response to testing, and to Trump

Zimmerman is the co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, an organization for independent charters based in New York City that co-sponsored last week’s conference. That symposium, he said, came out of a desire to shift the discussion around measuring schools away from just test scores.

“We felt that there was too much thinking of outcomes as being the bottom line of the enterprise … and that was keeping our schools from being innovative,” he said. “It felt like a zero sum pissing game of comparing test scores all the time.”

When the Trump administration took office, a new set of concerns arose for many leaders of schools like his. In Zimmerman’s telling, there was “too much coziness between major players in the charter world and the incoming administration.”

He declined to offer specifics. But Eva Moskowitz, the head of the Success Academy network in New York, met with Trump soon after he was elected, and the National Alliance initially praised a Trump budget proposal featuring deep cuts to education spending but an increase for charter schools. Both have since distanced themselves further from the administration.

“To have in any way the charter world associated with that felt that it was really going to hurt our message,” Zimmerman said.

A distinct approach to judging charter schools

The manifesto adopted at the conference emphasizes a community-oriented vision for charter schooling — and a response to many common criticisms of charter schools.

Charters should be “laboratories of innovation” that seek to collaborate with districts, it says. Charter schools should serve “students who reflect our communities and neighborhoods, particularly students with the greatest educational needs,” and their leaders should create workplaces that are “collaborative, not adversarial” for teachers.

And while the group calls for schools to be held accountable for results, the mission statement says “real accountability must be rooted in the development of the whole child and the needs of society.” That’s a different emphasis from advocates who promote charter schools because they are more effective, as measured by test score gains.

In some ways that philosophy is more aligned with that of more conservative charter school supporters, including DeVos, who have argued for more innovation and less emphasis on test results.

“Some of these folks really feel like [charter] authorization has gotten too strict and has cut back innovation,” Zimmerman said. “And I believe so too.”

But Zimmerman distanced the group from a free-market approach. He is strongly opposed to private school vouchers, though said that’s not a stance the new organization has codified in its manifesto.

Zimmerman also points to issues with the Trump administration more broadly. The new group’s manifesto offers thinly veiled criticism: “We embrace our diverse communities, which include immigrants, people of color, children with disabilities, the homeless, English language learners, people of all faiths, and the LGBTQ community.”

A spokesperson for DeVos did not respond to a request for comment.

There is evidence that nonprofit charter networks do a slightly better job, on average, boosting test scores than independent charter schools. Those findings may explain, in part, why independent charter school leaders bristle at focusing on those metrics.

Zimmerman offered raised specific concerns about the National Alliance, which is funded by philanthropies including the Arnold, Broad, Gates, and Walton foundations. (Chalkbeat is also supported by the Gates and Walton foundations.) Those funders are focused on the replication of networks with high test scores, making the Alliance limited in its ability to represent independent schools, he said.

Christopher Norwood, who runs Florida’s independent charter school group, agreed that the networks exert outsized influence. He pointed to his state, where a recently passed bill to support the creation of new charters in areas where traditional public schools are struggling was limited to networks already operating at least three schools.

“There’s no charter management association of America because their interests are being promoted through the charter associations,” said Norwood, who along with Zimmerman, emphasized that he is not opposed to networks of charters.

Descalzi disputed that characterization of the Alliance.

“The National Alliance represents all public charter schools — including those which belong to a network or function as independent single sites — and we appreciate when any of our constituents take proactive steps to identify areas of need and provide resources to their communities,” she said.

Challenges await a new national organization

The top challenge for any nonprofit getting started is garnering funding. That will be amplified for the independent charters seeking to offer an alternative to charter school establishment — and the groups that financially supported them.

“It’s a huge hurdle,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said the Walton Family Foundation, one of the charter sector’s largest benefactors turned down requests to sponsor last week’s conference. “They don’t necessarily see how we fit into their strategic vision, but I’m hoping they will,” he said.

Marc Sternberg, the Walton Foundation’s education program director, disputed the idea that the philanthropy is focused on replicating existing schools, saying they support “all types of schools,” including both “proven charter management organizations” and single schools. In the past eight years, nearly half of the schools funded by Walton’s charter start-up grant program were independent charters, according to the foundation.

Norwood says the new group for independent charters will look into funding itself through membership dues and from sponsorships. (The symposium was supported by a number of businesses that work with charters.)

It’s also unclear how much interest there truly is among the diffuse independent charters across the country for an alternative membership group. The conference brought together a few hundred leaders of the many thousands of such schools.

For now, the organization is its infancy, and Zimmerman says the next step will be creating a national advisory committee to craft a strategic plan.

The work is necessary, he said, if independent charters want to sidestep the problems of the broader sector, which has seen its popularity drop.

“They win battles but they’re losing the war, if the war is hearts and minds of people,”  Zimmerman said, referring to existing charter school advocacy groups and their funders. “We really have to separate ourselves from them as a matter of definition.”