Riding the Success Express

How limited transportation undermines school choice — even in Denver, where an innovative shuttle system has drawn Betsy DeVos’s praise

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
School officials help students getting off the Success Express buses at University Prep in Denver last week.

Six years after Denver Public Schools created an innovative bus shuttle system to help get students to school, the effort has expanded and evolved but the larger problem it sought to fix remains.

The system, called the Success Express, was introduced in 2011 in northeast Denver with the goal of helping families choose high-quality schools as the district was changing the choice process and overhauling low-performing schools in the far northeast part of the city.

The Denver school district for years has received national praise for simplifying the school choice process, but providing adequate transportation continues to be barrier to real choice. Districts nationally still have looked at the Success Express as a model — one of relatively few examples of an urban district trying to tackle broader transportation challenges.

The 92,000-student district was spotlighted again last week when U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos praised the Success Express in a speech celebrating “out-of-the-box approaches.”

“This transportation is key in order to provide students with access to quality options,” said DeVos, who has championed expanding school choice, including vouchers for private schools.

For a number of reasons — including limited resources, logistical difficulties and the hardships of getting multiple agencies with different goals to agree on a plan — solving the transportation puzzle remains elusive in Denver and other cities.

A research report last month from the nonprofit Urban Institute identified transportation barriers in five cities, including Denver, and called choice an “empty” promise for many families.

While the Success Express has grown, it still only serves a limited part of the city. At the same time, school district and city officials are not on the same page with the region’s transportation agency about a separate proposal to increase transportation for another group of students by providing more public bus passes for high schoolers.

When it launched in the far northeast part of the city, the Success Express provided transportation to 18 area schools — including district-operated schools and charter schools. Today, the shuttle on average takes almost 3,000 students to 35 schools just in that area. The district replicated the model last year with two new routes in west Denver for middle school students.

In all cases, the routes include all school types in the area, including charter schools, district-managed schools and innovation schools, which are district-run but operate with many of the same freedoms as independent, publicly-funded charter schools.

Welcoming a mix of different school governance structures — an approach known as “the portfolio model” — has been a hallmark of Denver Public School reforms over the past decade.

“We’re happy to be part of the larger system,” said David Singer, executive director and founding principal of University Prep charter school, which has two schools on Success Express routes. “It has provided increased choice for families across our community. Our families by and large have had a positive experience.”

Outside the Success Express routes, most charter schools don’t provide transportation, though some off the routes have chosen to purchase bus service from the district.

In other cities, options are far more limited. In Detroit, charter schools that have opened as replacements for district-run schools do not provide transportation. That has left several families traveling dozens of miles to get their kids to the new schools.

There’s little argument about how innovative Denver’s system is. But it has it shortcomings.

For example, families in the zone of a Success Express shuttle can get free transportation to any school in their home region. But if they choose to go to a school outside the shuttle’s reach — one that’s farther and more difficult to get to — they’re on their own.

Some families who are able to drive their kids to school are choosing to skip the Success Express because of the time kids would spend on the bus.

“One parent would say, ‘My student’s on the bus for 45 minutes when I can drive to that school in 10 or 15 minutes,’ but that’s the tradeoff,” said Nicole Portee, the executive director of transportation for DPS. “We’re covering a large geographic area.”

Finding a way to transport every student who chooses to go to a school other than the one in their neighborhood is not likely to ever happen, officials admit.

“From a systems perspective, we don’t have enough resources,” Portee said. “If you imagine a city street that has 10 homes on it and every home has a different school of choice, you would need thousands and thousands of buses.”

Todd Ely, director for the Center for Local Government Research and Training at the University of Colorado Denver, co-wrote a study on the Success Express and has looked at transportation models in other cities and called Denver’s a good idea but only one piece of a hard-to-solve puzzle.

“As far as better systems, I don’t think there is (one),” Ely said. “The more you have kids coming from the same neighborhood, going to different schools, the more expensive and complicated the transportation service needs to be. I don’t think we really have an answer aside from these piecemeal or ad-hoc solutions.”

DPS, in fact, is working with the city and advocacy groups on another initiative that fits that definition: getting more bus passes for high school students.

DPS doesn’t provide yellow bus service for high school students outside of the Success Express regions, but instead gives a bus pass for public transit to high school students attending their neighborhood school if they live more than 3.5 miles away.

The groups working on the plan, including the district officials, acknowledge that the Success Express has not been, and won’t be, a solution for all students city-wide and are looking at other plans that could help.

The district estimates it purchases about 2,500 Regional Transportation District bus passes for high school students monthly. Some schools also use their own budgets to buy bus passes for students who don’t qualify for a district-provided one.

The idea the city of Denver pitched to RTD would allow the district to purchase yearly passes for students instead of monthly passes — at considerable savings — charging the rate given to businesses. That could allow the district to quadruple the number of passes it gives students.

DPS padded its bus pass budget with $400,000 from a tax increase approved by voters in November. Denver city officials said they also would contribute money to pay for the passes.

But according to city officials, RTD officials are not ready to commit, wanting first for a task force that just started meeting this month to complete research on RTD’s many different passes and rates.

City officials say they want to proceed now rather than waiting, saying new data on student bus use could inform the task force’s work.

“We want to be able to remove some barriers, so if a family wants to go take their kid to a school across town because that’s the best fit for their children, we don’t want them to be prohibited,” said Dionne Williams, deputy director of children’s affairs for the city of Denver.

The discussions illustrate how difficult the issue is to solve. In the meantime, transportation remains an important factor for families and students considering schools.

Haydn Roberts, a 17-year-old student at DSST Cole, a charter school in northeast Denver, said that when his family chose to send him to Cole, they had considered East High School and DSST at Stapleton first, but ultimately went with Cole because of transportation concerns.

Taking the bus to East was a direct ride, while taking the bus to the other schools would have meant getting on multiple buses and extending his commute.

“Sitting at the bus stop that long, my family decided that would not be safe for me,” Roberts said.

For the city, transportation is important for school choice, but also for students to get to recreation centers, libraries and other services that are free for students with the My Denver card. It’s also about giving students transportation to summer jobs.

In other cities that have tried to lower transportation barriers, the struggle is often about money. While school districts want to save their money to spend in the classroom, transit agencies can lose millions providing free or reduced cost passes to students.

“Just like any other government agency, we have to be fiscally responsible,” said Nate Currey, a spokesman for RTD. “We get a lot of requests. Anytime we offer a discounted fare, it does cost us money.”

Currey did not have any estimates on potential fiscal impacts from the proposal

“Bottom line is we want to make sure we’re doing the right thing for everybody,” Currey said.

City officials said the conversation isn’t over and that they are now looking into possible alternatives while RTD’s task force finishes its work.

DPS officials said their work improving Success Express and transportation in general is ongoing.

“We have to work within those constraints that will never change,” said Portee, the transportation director. “It doesn’t limit our ability to continue trying to think about how we serve our students.”

Face-to-face

In ‘speed dating’ exercise, Detroiters grill school board candidates about third-grade reading, charter schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Corletta Vaughn, a candidate for Detroit school board, speaks to Detroiters at a forum Thursday evening as Nita Redmond (center) looks on. Vaughn says the district should be open to collaboration with charter schools and suburban districts.

On its face, the public forum Thursday night was about candidates for Detroit school board. In fact, the night belonged to the citizens.

Early in the evening, a tableful of Detroiters — most of them graduates of Detroit public schools, all of them concerned about the future of Michigan’s largest school district — set about deciding what they wanted to ask the candidates during a series of Q&A sessions that CitizenDetroit, which co-sponsored the forum with Chalkbeat, called “speed-dating.”

Shirley Corley, a first-grade reading teacher who retired from the city’s main district, honed in on the state’s “read-or-flunk” law, which could force schools in Detroit to hold back many of their third graders next year if they can’t pass a state reading exam.

“I heard that one on the TV, and I couldn’t believe my ears,” she said.

As a gong sounded, she hurried to shape her outrage into a question: “What are your plans about holding back third-grade readers, and why aren’t they reading better?”

Then Terrell George, one of the candidates for two openings on the school board, sat down across the table. She asked her question.

All across a packed union hall in Detroit’s historic Corktown neighborhood, similar scenes were playing out. Candidates rotated between tables, where they sat face-to-face with roughly 10 Detroit residents armed with prepared questions and many lifetimes-worth of combined experience with the city’s main school district. Every five minutes, someone hit a gong, and candidates got another chance to lay out their vision for the troubled district and impress the voters who will decide their future at the polls in November.

It is Detroit’s first school board election since the board regained control of Michigan’s largest district, which was run for nearly a decade by state-appointed emergency managers. And it marks a crucial milestone in the district turnaround effort led by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, whose reforms have so far enjoyed the board’s support.

(Six of the nine candidates attended the event. Deborah Lemmons and M. Murray [the full name listed on the ballot] didn’t respond to an invitation, according to CitizenDetroit. Britney Sharp said she had a scheduling conflict and was unable to attend.)

From Natalya Henderson, a 2016 graduate of Cass Technical High School, to Reverend David Murray (his legal name), a retired social worker and minister who previously served a long, sometimes controversial stint on the school board, a broad field of candidates are vying to help steer a district through a historic turnaround effort. The winners will help decide what to do about the $500 million cost for urgent school renovations and test scores that are persistently among the worst in the nation.

(Click here to watch the candidates introduce themselves in two-minute videos, and here for short bios.)

candidate statements
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Deborah Hunter-Harvill, the lone incumbent running for school board, makes an opening statement. Candidates made one-minute opening statements, then rotated through a roomful of 130 people answering questions about their plans for the district. From left: Corletta Vaughn, Shannon Smith, Natalya Henderson, Hunter-Harvill.

The low scores are the reason the state’s third-grade reading law, which calls for students reading below grade level to be held back, will disproportionately affect Detroit. But at Table 1, Corley gleaned some hope from George’s answer to her question about the law. He said more attention should be paid to early literacy instruction: “We must start from the beginning in preschool and kindergarten.”

Corley shook her finger in approval: “That’s right.”

On the other side of the table, Viola Goolsby wanted to know how George would respond if the state attempted to close the district’s lowest-performing schools.

“I would be opposed to any school shutting down any school in any district…” George began.

Then the gong sounded. “That was quick,” George said, standing up.

The table had a five-minute break — with roughly 130 people in the room, there were more tables than the six candidates who attended — and then another candidate, Corletta Vaughn, slid into the seat reserved for candidates.

Lewis EL, a realtor who works in Detroit, read a question from the list provided by Chalkbeat and CitizenDetroit, the non-profit that hosted the event: “What are the pros and cons for the district in collaborating with charters and suburban school districts?”

Vaughn’s voice fell: “I firmly believe that the district alone is without resources. We just don’t have it. So I would like to see a collaboration.” She said other districts could help Detroit train its teachers: “I think we have to do a better job in terms of exposing our teachers to better development.”

“Are they not coming with that knowledge already?” Lula Gardfrey asked.

“But I think that we can support them more,” Vaughn replied. “Our students have mental health issues. They have economic issues. Just what the teacher learned in school isn’t going to be enough when that child arrives at 8 a.m. in the morning.”

detroiters
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Shirley Corley and Lula Gardfrey work on the questions they planned to put to candidates for Detroit school board.

When the gong sounded again, Nita Redmond felt torn. She believed Vaughn had good intentions but was suspicious of any collaboration with charter schools.

The rise of charter schools, which enroll about one-third of the city’s 100,000 students, “should have never happened,” she said. “It seems like it has lowered the regular schools.” When another candidate, Shannon Smith, joined the table, Corley got to hear a different take on her question about the third-grade reading law.

“We need to communicate with parents,” Smith said. “There are a lot of parents that aren’t aware. Second, we need to work together with the administrators and the teachers on the curriculum, and figure out which curriculum would best support the students in reading.”

On the opposite side of the hall, another table asked Deborah Hunter-Harvill, the only incumbent in the race, about her plans for improving instruction in the district.

“Because nationally we’re at the bottom in reading and math, I start from the bottom,” she said. One of our policies is that parents attend parent training free to understand what their kids are being taught. All of our parents don’t come, but if you just get 40 in one classroom in one day, they go home and tell other parents.”

Theresa White had a seat right next to Hunter-Harvill, and she liked what she saw. “That has been a culprit, the lack of participation by parents,” she said.

In the next seat over, Rainelle Burton, who attended high school in Detroit and has lived in the city for decades, came to a different conclusion.

“I’m not hearing anything that says, ‘this is inventive and creative,’” she said.

The up-close-and-personal format didn’t make things easy for the candidates.

“It was definitely not comfortable,” Vaughn said, adding that she wished she’d had access to the pre-written questions beforehand.

reverend david murray
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Reverend David Murray, who served on the school board member for 16 years during a period when the district was largely controlled by emergency managers, said those managers were responsible for the district’s decline.

But for voters in the room, the format made things easy. In a straw poll after the event, virtually everyone in attendance said they planned to vote.

“We were able to talk to them one-on-one, it’s not just looking on TV,” Nita Redmond said, adding that she came away with a good idea of who would get her vote (she declined to say who). “We were able to talk to them and evaluate ourselves if this would be the best person to lead my district.”

Surveying the room as the forum wound down, Michelle Broughton was of two minds. She carries with her four generations of experience with the district — she is a computer instructor at Renaissance High School, her father graduated from Chatsey High School, a Detroit Public School, in 1961, her children attended the district, and her grandson is in the eighth grade at McKinsey Elementary — and she said she’d heard a lot of what she called “pie-in-the-sky” ideas at the forum.

No one had offered a solution for the roughly 90 classrooms in the district that were without a teacher on the first day of school — a problem that had affected her family in the past.

“If my child goes to school every day and comes home and says, ‘Grandma, I don’t have a math teacher,’ that child is losing weeks,” she said.

But she said the event gave her a feel for the candidates — and reminded her how many Detroiters share her dream of a thriving school district.

“I’m here because I have hope,” she said. “I see a brighter future, and I hope that I pick somebody who will help.”

Future of Schools

Here’s how new federal rules could impact Indiana’s $14M private school tax credit scholarship program

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at the Oaks Academy in Indianapolis, a private school, play during music practice. The Oaks accepts tax credit scholarships.

Some school choice advocates are uneasy that new federal tax rules could be detrimental to Indiana’s $14 million tax credit scholarship program.

In August, the U.S. Department of the Treasury released rules clarifying new tax law that limited how much state and local taxes an individuals could deduct from their federal taxes. Some fear the changes might discourage donors from contributing to charities like the state’s tax credit scholarship program, in which individuals and businesses can give money to fund students’ private school tuition in exchange for a tax credit from the state.

“Our primary concern is to make sure that the families who are relying on these scholarships, that they can continue to do so,” said Leslie Hiner, vice president of legal affairs for EdChoice, a national school choice advocacy organization based in Indianapolis. “There are a lot of unknowns.”

Jerry Stayton, superintendent of Elkhart Christian School, submitted a public comment about the regulations saying the scholarships are vital to helping private schools stay afloat and give opportunities to low-income families. The tax incentives have “encouraged giving to schools on a scale never before seen.”

“For the federal government to impose a tax on a state tax credit represents a strange and dangerous precedent,” Stayton wrote. “While the federal government is supreme in the United States, its strength is derived from strong, growing, supportive states with great local economies and excellent education.”

There’s optimism, though, that the regulations’ impact could be far more limited in Indiana than in other states,  given how established its scholarship program is, how low income taxes are here, and how many donors are individuals making smaller contributions.

“So far, Indiana is in a better position, I’d say, than some of the high-tax states,” Hiner said. “Nonetheless, that uncertainty is the thing … I have a lot of faith that people in Indiana, and I’m hoping, that any impact in Indiana because of its long history of charitable giving will not be great.”

Below, we break down how this news could impact Indiana’s school choice programs, as well as how the program works and got its start.

First, what are tax credit scholarships?

Indiana’s tax credit scholarship program, which lawmakers passed in 2009, lets taxpayers donate money to nonprofit, state-approved “scholarship granting organizations” in exchange for a 50 percent credit on their state taxes.

Those donations are then distributed to the nonprofits and given out to income-eligible Hoosier families as private school tuition scholarships. To participate, a family of four can’t make more than $92,870 per year.

In 2018-19, the program could distribute as much as $14 million in tax credits, though the amount that can be donated has no cap. Indiana’s tax credit cap has steadily increased up from $2.5 million since 2009.

While the use of vouchers far outstrips the tax credit scholarships, the program is still sizable. It serves 348 private schools across the state. In 2017, the program awarded 9,349 scholarships totaling more than $16 million.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that as of 2017, 17 states had tax credit scholarship programs. The largest one in the country is in Florida, where many corporations participate and the program collects and doles out hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Is the program controversial?

Yes, though it gets far less attention than Indiana’s voucher program, where families use state tax dollars to pay for private school tuition. It also predates vouchers, which weren’t allowed in the state until 2011.

Tax credit scholarship supporters say the donations benefit students in need who otherwise could attend the school of their choice. They also argue the programs can results in savings for states, as the cost for the tax credits is lower than the cost to educate students in public schools.

Critics of the program say it’s just another version of state-subsidized private school, not unlike vouchers. They also point out it is unclear whether these programs allow states to save money — partially because data on where students go to school and how they transfer between public and private schools can be hard to track.

In Indiana, students do not need to have attended a public school before receiving a tax credit scholarship, and the scholarships can pay up to the full tuition amount at their desired school.

What’s the IRS rule change that is causing the concerns?

It comes in response to a part of the 2017 federal tax bill that limited how much state and local taxes someone could deduct from their federal taxes — up to $10,000. Hiner said federal officials proposed the change to allow the government to get more revenue. Giving fewer opportunities for deductions means the government collects more in tax dollars.

In order to get around the $10,000 cap, some high-tax states, such as New York, California, and New Jersey, took advantage of tax credit programs. As a result, the IRS proposed new rules that prohibit the tax credit workaround, and that’s what has school choice supporters up in arms.

“The IRS had a good reason for taking action, but unfortunately in taking action against those bad actors, they swept in thousands of nonprofits across the country,” Hiner said.

How will the rule change affect Indiana?

Advocates hope is that Indiana won’t take as big a hit as other states with higher taxes.

In a press release, the treasury department said most taxpayers will not be affected by the change, with about 1 percent of taxpayers seeing “an effect on tax benefits for donations to school choice tax credit programs.”

It’s really not clear yet if that will come to pass, Hiner said, because taxes won’t be filed until next year. No one can really say now how donors might change their behavior.

The state-approved nonprofit “scholarship granting organizations” that manage private tuition scholarship funds are already fielding questions from donors. Indiana has seven such organizations, six of which are currently granting scholarships.

“The one thing we’re stressing with everyone is to always contact your accountant, financial advisor, or tax preparer to walk through what the impacts could be,” said Betsy Wiley, executive director of the Institute for Quality Education, one of the state’s scholarship granting organizations.

But in Indiana, according to an analysis from CNBC, taxpayers on average don’t claim deductions over $10,000. While the rule change could impact corporations or very large individual donors, most Hoosiers don’t fall in those categories. The vast majority of donors are individuals, and 43 percent of those donations are for less than $1,000, Wiley said.

Wiley hopes the federal government decides to pause implementing these new rules until after taxes for 2018 are filed. This would give donors and nonprofits more time to understand what the effect might be so they can adjust at the state level.

Federal officials are collecting feedback through November, when there will be another hearing on the rules.