school choice battle

Douglas County School District to appeal voucher case to U.S. Supreme Court

Douglas County school board president Kevin Larsen, left, and board member Craig Richardson. ( Photo by Nicholas Garcia )

Two months after Colorado’s highest court rejected the Douglas County School District’s controversial school voucher program, officials in the wealthy, high-achieving suburban district announced Wednesday they will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case.

The district also gained a key ally in the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, which will be filing its own petition backing the district’s Choice Scholarship Program, district officials said.

The district’s move is not a surprise. District leaders all but promised to take the step after the Colorado Supreme Court held in a 4-3 judgment June 29 that the program violated a state constitutional provision barring spending public money on religious schools.

District officials also followed through on their pledge to enlist elite legal help, announcing their team would be headlined by Paul Clement, a former U.S. solicitor general who has been mentioned as a potential Republican appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The AG’s office signing on is another boost to the district. After the state Supreme Court ruling, Republican AG Cynthia Coffman issued a statement lamenting districts “now have one fewer tool to support parents in choosing the education that best fits their children’s needs.” A spokesman for the AG said the office would not be issuing any statements Wednesday commenting on its involvement in the Dougco case.

“When the Colorado Supreme Court’s opinion was announced in late June, we promised a careful, thorough and rigorous legal analysis to determine our next steps,” school board president Kevin Larsen said in a statement. “Today we announce that we will be seeking U.S. Supreme Court review of our case. To achieve that end, we have retained the very best legal minds in the country to make our argument that the June 29 opinion runs afoul of the United States Constitution.”

Mixed legal results on vouchers

Just about every program nationwide that uses public money to subsidize private education has been tested in court, with mixed results but the majority surviving, analysts say. Framers of the Dougco pilot program modeled it on an Ohio voucher program that weathered a U.S. Supreme Court challenge.

Legal experts disagree on whether the nation’s highest court will take the Douglas County case. Some say it’s unlikely the court would wade into a case brought solely on a state constitutional matter. Others argue the anti-Catholic roots of Colorado’s law – similar to those in more than 35 other states – and other issues make it a strong candidate and could plow new ground beyond traditional arguments over the First Amendment.

The district has signaled it will argue that prejudiced history taints the law enough that it violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. Opponents of the voucher program point to precedent holding that state courts can interpret their own constitutions to recognize broader rights than what might be afforded under the U.S. Constitution.

The involvement of Clement — who as U.S. solicitor general from 2005 to 2008 represented the federal government in U.S. Supreme Court arguments — is another wrinkle.

Larsen said Clement will be supported by a “dream team” of lawyers involved in the state court proceedings and scholars from “the highest ranking law schools in America.”

Alan Chen, a constitutional law expert at the University of Denver’s Strum College of Law, said Wednesday he does not believe the Colorado Attorney General’s Office involvement will factor in whether the court takes the case. While crediting Clement’s stature and experience, Chen said he remains skeptical the court will grant the review because the case is built entirely on state constitutional law.

Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU of Colorado, which represented most of the individual plaintiffs, noted that the Attorney General’s office has been involved from the beginning. The State Board of Education was one of the defendants and was represented by the AG’s office.

Silverstein said he “wants to see what they write and how they frame the issue” in the petition to the Supreme Court before commenting further.

An unorthodox voucher program

The Dougco voucher case has endured a long and bumpy road. The district established the Choice Scholarship Program in 2011 after a conservative takeover of the school board, reasoning that competition can lift all schools even in a district consistently ranked as one of the state’s top academic achievers.

While most voucher programs are restricted to low-income students or those with special needs, Douglas County invited all families to apply — although the program was limited to 500 slots. Sixteen of the 23 participating private schools were religious; 14 were outside the county.

Highlands Ranch High School science teacher Bob MacArthur leads a class discussion May 16 on propaganda art. His ninth grade science class was asked to design a propaganda poster in support of an energy source they have been studying.
Highlands Ranch High School science teacher Bob MacArthur leads a class discussion May 16 on propaganda art. His ninth grade science class was asked to design a propaganda poster in support of an energy source they have been studying.

In 2011, the first 304 students were about to enroll when a lawsuit brought it to a halt. Voucher opponents prevailed in Denver District Court. But in 2013, the Colorado Court of Appeals upheld the program’s constitutionality in a 2-1 vote, setting the stage for state Supreme Court arguments.

In the prevailing opinion, Supreme Court Chief Justice Nancy Rice cited Colorado’s “stark constitutional provision” forbidding the use of public money to fund religious schools. Although the money came in the form of financial aid to students, the prohibition is not limited to direct funding, she wrote.

School board member Craig Richardson said in an interview the decision to continue the legal fight is consistent with the district’s “broader strategic vision of freedom.” That, he said, includes empowering parents to choose their children’s schools and extends to the district’s teacher pay-for-performance system.

“The district is proceeding because it’s good for the Douglas County School District to proceed,” Richardson said.

District looking at proceeding with secular schools

He said the district has yet to complete a separate legal review of whether it can move ahead with the voucher program with changes. The district previously floated the possibility of revamping the program as early as this fall, but ran out of time before the school year began.

One question the district is evaluating, Richardson said, is whether moving forward only with secular private schools would meet the legal parameters of the state Supreme Court ruling. Given that most students chose to enroll in religious schools, it’s unclear how much appeal that would hold.

The decision to petition the high court – and assemble the high-powered legal team — also will send legal costs soaring beyond the $1.2 million the district already has reported. District officials say private donations have covered all costs.

“We continue to have as our goal that all legal costs associated with this case will be funded with the generous contributions of private donors who similarly believe in choice and competition in K-12 education and are not affiliated with any religious institutions,” Richardson said. “We strongly believe this is not a cause to which we want to put taxpayer dollars.”

The district faces a deadline at the end of September to ask for a U.S. Supreme Court review. Richardson said the district plans to ask for a month’s extension to file but will move forward even if that is denied.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.