choice battleground

New-look school voucher program approved by divided Douglas County board

The Douglas County boardroom Tuesday in advance of another voucher vote (Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat Colorado).

CASTLE ROCK — Parents of Douglas County public school students would use taxpayer money to send their children to private schools — but not religious ones — under a revised school voucher program approved Tuesday night by a bitterly divided school board.

Limited in scope, the south suburban district’s School Choice Grant Program would be a pilot open to up to 500 students starting this fall.

The Colorado Supreme Court in June rejected the district’s original voucher program, adopted in 2011, as unconstitutional because it included religious schools. Members of the school board’s conservative majority took two paths in response: petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court, and quietly working to revise the program consistent with the state high court ruling.

After a heated debate, the board voted 4-3 to approve a policy revision essentially reviving the voucher program in a new form.

Board member Doug Benevento, who crafted the revision, portrayed it as a modest proposal to gauge interest and determine whether to proceed on a larger scale.

“One side is trying to expand choice for parents and students,” Benevento said, “and the other side is trying to shut it down.”

Three board members who ousted conservative incumbents in November questioned the timing and short notice, and argued that a voucher program robs public schools of dollars and exposes the district to another lawsuit.

“Private school is not a right,” said board member Anne-Marie LeMieux. “It’s a privilege.”

LeMieux called it a “massive overreach,” citing requirements that participating private schools demonstrate they run a “quality educational program,” prove themselves financial stable and provide copies of employment policies.

The school district established its original Choice Scholarship Program five years ago after a conservative takeover of the school board, arguing that competition can lift all schools even in a district consistently ranked as one of the state’s top achievers.

While most voucher programs are restricted to low-income students or those with special needs, Douglas County invited all families to apply, with a limit of 500 slots. Bringing vouchers to a wealthy district with no shortage of strong district-run and charter schools attracted national notice.

In 2011, the first 304 students were about to enroll when a lawsuit brought it to a halt. In a 4-3 judgment last June, the state’s highest court held that the program violated a state constitutional provision barring spending public money on religious schools. District officials petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court and are awaiting word on whether the court will take the case.

As of last fall, the legal bill had been run up to about $1.2 million, officials said. The costs have been covered in full by private donations, the bulk of it coming from the Denver-based Daniels Fund, the district said.

Among the details of the proposal approved:

  • The voucher program will be run through a district office that would issue checks in students’ names and send them to participating schools. This is a departure from the 2011 voucher program, which called for establishing a charter school that would have served administrative functions.
  • Vouchers would be worth whichever is less — the full freight of tuition or 85 percent of state per pupil revenue. The superintendent would have discretion to provide more.
  • Students in the program would still take state assessments.

The resolution does not spell out how the district would determine whether interested schools meet the “religious” definition. Benevento has said the district would develop a process for analyzing the policies, board structures and curriculum of schools that wish to participate and bar those deemed religious as defined in state law.

During public testimony Tuesday, Cindy Barnard of Taxpayers for Public Education, a plaintiff in the lawsuit against Dougco’s original voucher program, said the new plan is not sound.

“Every dollar put into the voucher program is a dollar taken out of the public school system,” she said.

Said county resident Bob Kaser: “This voucher program is an entitlement scheme for high-income families.”

It is unclear how many Douglas County families would want to enroll their children in secular private schools. Of the 23 private schools accepted into the original program, 16 were religious and 14 were outside Douglas County. More than nine in 10 students taking part chose religious schools.

Denver Post staff writer John Aguilar contributed information to this report. 

Not over yet

A firm reprimand — but no penalty yet — for two Tennessee districts that defy deadline to share student data

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

So what will be the consequences for the two Tennessee school districts that missed a state-imposed deadline to share contact information for their students with charter schools? For now, disappointment from the state’s top education official.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen had promised to issue consequences if the two districts, Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools, did not meet the Monday deadline.

But when the end of the day passed — as expected — without any data-sharing, McQueen declined to penalize the districts. Instead, she issued a stern statement.

“We are disappointed that these districts are choosing to withhold information from parents about the options that are available to their students while routinely saying they desire more parental engagement,” she said. “Allowing parents to be informed of their educational options is the epitome of family engagement and should be embraced by every school official.”

McQueen seemed to indicate that firmer consequences could lie ahead. “We must consider all options available in situations where a district actively chooses to ignore the law,” she said in the statement. McQueen told lawmakers in a conference call last month that she was not discussing withholding state funds as a penalty at the time, according to Rep. John Clemmons, who was on the call.

The anticlimactic decision comes after weeks of back-and-forth between the state and its two largest school districts over student contact information — the latest front in the districts’ ongoing enrollment war with charter schools.

Charter schools are pressing the districts to share information about their students, arguing that they need to be able to contact local families to inform them about their school options. District leaders argue that a federal rule about student privacy lets local districts decide who gets that information. (The districts have chosen to distribute student contact information to other entities, including yearbook companies.)

The state’s attorney general sided with charter schools, saying that marketing to families is an acceptable use of student contact information and districts were required to hand it over to charter schools that requested it. Both school boards cite a committee discussion in February when state lawmakers sought to make sure the information could not be used as a “recruiting tool” as evidence that the intent of the law runs counter to the state’s application of it.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

Now, the conflict has potential to head to court. Shelby County Schools already committed last month to writing a letter outlining its arguments to support the Nashville district if it decides to file a lawsuit against the state.

As the deadline drew near, the two school boards teamed up to flesh out their positions and preview what that legal battle might look like. Over the weekend, board chairs Anna Shepherd in Nashville and Chris Caldwell in Memphis penned a letter to USA Today’s Tennessee papers arguing the districts should not be required to hand over student information to a state-run district facing deep financial, operational and academic woes.

They also pointed to a recent $2.2 million settlement between a parents and a Nashville charter network over spam text messages promoting enrollment at its schools as evidence the transaction could lead to invasion of privacy.

Clarification (Sept. 25, 2017): This story has been updated to clarify the source of McQueen’s early comments on penalties she was discussing at the time. 

deja vu

For second straight year, two charter schools denied by Memphis board appeal to the state

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education, listens last May to charter appeals by three operators in Memphis.

For the second year in a row, charter schools seeking to open in Memphis are appealing to the state after being rejected by the local board.

Two proposed all-girls schools, The Academy All Girls Charter School and Rich ED Academy of Leaders, went before the Tennessee Board of Education last week to plead for the right to open. Citing weaknesses in the schools’ planning, the Shelby County Schools board had rejected them, along with nine other charter applicants, last month. It approved three schools, many fewer than in previous years.

After state officials and charter operators complained last year that the Memphis school board didn’t have clear reasons for rejecting schools, the district revamped its charter oversight to make the review process more transparent. Now, five independent evaluators help scrutinize schools’ lengthy applications — a job that until this year had been done by three district officials with many other responsibilities. (The district also doubled the size of its charter schools office.)

The new appeals suggest that at least some charter operators aren’t satisfied by the changes.

District officials said the schools did not have clear goals for their academic programs and relied too heavily on grant funding. The board for Rich Ed Academy of Learners said in its appeal letter the district’s concerns were ambiguous and that the school would provide a unique project-based learning model for girls of color from low-income families.

The other school’s board said in its letter that the district’s decision was not in the best interest of students. A school official declined to elaborate.

The state board blasted Shelby County Schools’ charter revocation and approval processes last year, ultimately approving one appeal. That cleared the way for the first charter school in Memphis overseen by the panel.

The state board will vote on the new appeals at its quarterly meeting Friday, Oct. 20. If the state board approves the appeals, the local board would have 30 days to decide whether to authorize the school or relinquish oversight to the state board.