Decisions & Choices

Douglas County voucher supporters encouraged by Supreme Court decision in similar case

James Lyons, representing the Douglas County School District, speaks during oral arguments at the Colorado Supreme Court in the Douglas County vouchers case. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

A significant U.S. Supreme Court ruling Monday on a church-state issue opens a new chapter in a court fight over a Douglas County private school voucher program, with both supporters and opponents finding encouragement in the high court’s decision.

The court ruled that the state of Missouri violated the U.S. Constitution when it barred a church-run preschool from participating in a state program that repaved playgrounds.

While the court’s narrow 7-2 decision fell far short of legalizing private school voucher programs, it still has implications for the Douglas County program, which the state Supreme Court rejected.

Most likely, observers said, the Douglas County case will be kicked back to the Colorado Supreme Court for examination under the precedent the U.S. Supreme Court set with its new ruling. Or the U.S. Supreme Court could hear the case, the preferred outcome of voucher backers who would like to set a more sweeping precedent for their cause.

“This is a huge victory for folks who are believers in religious liberty,” said Ross Izard, a senior education policy analyst at the Independence Institute, a Denver-based free-market think tank. “Unfortunately for those of us who are invested in the school choice movement, it doesn’t accomplish everything we hoped it would.”

The legal fight over vouchers has engulfed the suburban school district south of Denver since 2011. That’s when a new conservative school board established the Choice Scholarship Program.

Unlike other voucher programs, which are designed to provide low-income families with educational alternatives, the Douglas County program was opened to all students in the district with a median household income of $107,650.

Lawyers representing the Douglas County School District and families who participated in the voucher program before it was halted by a lower court said they expect the Supreme Court to decide this week whether they’ll take up the years long debate over the voucher program.

“We’re certainly encouraged,” said William Trachman, general counsel for the Douglas County School District. “The policy reasons that underlie the program are to give students educational choice. That’s what Douglas County cares about.”

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that the Douglas County School District’s voucher program, which would have allowed parents to use taxpayer dollars to send their students to private religious schools, was unconstitutional.

The state’s constitution includes a provision that forbids tax dollars to be used by religious institutions. Colorado is one 38 states that have these so-called Blaine Amendments.

The district, along with three Douglas County families and Colorado’s attorney general, later appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court has held the case for nearly two years as it considered the Missouri case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer.

In that case, Trinity Lutheran sued the state of Missouri after it prohibited the church from participating in a state program that used recycled tires to resurface playgrounds.

The U.S. Supreme Court said the state could not prohibit the church from participating in the program since the benefit of the program — new asphalt for the playground — was secular and did not further the church’s religious mission.

That’s an important distinction opponents to the Douglas County voucher program highlighted in reacting to the decision.

“The majority opinion in Trinity Lutheran explicitly distinguished the facts in that case from cases like ours where government funds run afoul of state anti-establishment clauses because the funds are being used to pay for religious education,” Cindy Barnard, president of Taxpayers for Public Education, a nonprofit that supports traditional public schools, in a statement. Barnard was the original plaintiff in the Douglas County voucher case.

Mark Silverstein, legal director of the Colorado ACLU, one of the organizations that argued against the voucher program, echoed Barnard.

“The Douglas County school district’s voucher program violated the state’s constitution as of yesterday. It violates the state constitution even today,” he said. “This case today is not about using public money for religious indication. And that’s a distinction I believe most of the justices see as important.”

Pushback

National head of DFER after Colorado Democrats’ platform vote: ‘We’re not going anywhere’

PHOTO: Newark Trust
DFER President Shavar Jeffries

The national head of Democrats for Education Reform responded to the dramatic rejection of his organization at the Colorado Democratic Party state assembly with a simple message: We’re not going anywhere.

In an email to supporters that he also posted on Medium Thursday, Shavar Jeffries laid out his credentials as a Democrat and said disagreements over education policy should remain a “family fight.”

“We understand that on some issues, some in our party disagree with us,” Jeffries wrote. “We welcome that disagreement, and we welcome the debates that ensue periodically. We stay true to our principles because we believe our vision best reflects the values of the party and the outcomes we seek for young people.

“But we will fight  –  when fights are necessary  –  anchored in the understanding that this is a family fight and thus we will not engage in the politics of personal destruction against those with whom we disagree.”

Jeffries went on to blame the election of President Donald Trump on an unwillingness among Democrats to set aside their differences.

“Trump is president to a large degree because progressives and liberals engaged in a civil war over the 10 percent of policies where we might disagree, as opposed to uniting around the 90 percent where we agree,” Jeffries wrote. “Hillary Clinton was booed at the DNC convention in 2016 by the same forces that still seek to sow division within our party. Our unity is our best weapon against the ongoing assault to our democracy visited upon the country each day by Trump.”

Jennifer Walmer, the head of the Colorado chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, was booed down by delegates at Saturday’s assembly. Those delegates went on to adopt into the official party platform a call for DFER to stop using “Democrats” in its name.

Former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who has the backing of the teachers unions, won 62 percent of the vote at the party assembly. The platform vote happened later in the day, after some of the more than 3,000 delegates had left.

It’s not clear how the platform provision could be enforced. Some members want the party to send a cease-and-desist letter to Democrats for Education Reform, something the Los Angeles Democratic Party tried in 2012, with no apparent effect.

The Colorado vote drew cheers and jeers locally and around the country. In New York City, one blog called it a “ray of sunshine” that could signal cracks in support for reform policies. Meanwhile, conservatives used the vote to cast Democrats as extremists. The editorial board of the Colorado Springs Gazette said it represented “a far-left shift in the Democratic Party.”

Education reform has become an increasingly divisive issue within the Democratic Party. Since the 2016 presidential election, opponents of a suite of reform policies, like charter schools and test-based teacher accountability laws, have increasingly sought to tie Democratic proponents of these policies to the unpopular president and his education secretary.

Jeffries said his organization would not be dissuaded by those tactics.

“If our intra-party opponents would prefer counter-productive family warfare as opposed to unity around shared values, this should be clear too: We stand with the millions of families across our country demanding access to high-quality public schools and the thousands of elected Democrats who fight tirelessly to ensure they get it,” he said. “We are not going anywhere.”

You can read Jeffries’ entire statement here.

get out the vote

Can schools encourage students to be more involved citizens? A new study suggests yes they can.

Democracy Prep charter network superintendent Seth Andrew at a 2012 admissions lottery event.

In a city of roughly 1,800 schools, many have names that have little to do with what students experience.

Not so for Democracy Prep, a network of charter schools that a new study concludes makes students far more likely to vote once they turn 18.

The study, conducted by independent researchers commissioned by Democracy Prep, took advantage of New York City’s charter school admissions rules to examine the impact of applying to, getting accepted to, and enrolling in the network’s schools on later civic participation.

Looking at more than a thousand students who applied between 2007 and 2015 who were old enough to vote in 2016, the researchers found that just being selected in the admissions lottery was correlated with a slight increase in voting rates. Students who were chosen voted 6 percent more often than students who were not.

The impact was much greater on students who were chosen and actually enrolled: They voted 24 percent more often than students who applied but never got a chance to attend.

The findings suggest that Democracy Prep is achieving its explicit goal of promoting civic participation. They also offer one answer to the question of whether charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, undermine democracy.

“Democracy Prep provides a test case of whether charter schools can successfully serve the foundational purpose of public education—preparation for citizenship—even while operating outside the direct control of elected officials,” the researchers write. “With respect to the critical civic participation measures of registration and voting, the answer is yes.”

Seth Andrew, who started the network with a single middle school in Harlem in 2006, said he was pleased by the findings — and unsurprised, because the network has baked civic participation into its culture and academic program. Students must take on a personal “Change the World” project and pass the U.S. citizenship exam to graduate.

“This idea of ‘change the world’ was very central to what we were trying to get our kids prepared and excited to do,” he said.

Creating more engaged citizens takes more than just adding a civics class, said Katie Duffy, the CEO of Democracy Prep. Schools have to make democracy a part of the daily culture, she said.

“The more you talk about the importance of voting, the importance of elections, the importance of advocacy,” she said, “the more it becomes ingrained in our kids.”

The network has also long used Election Day — when district-run schools are often closed so their buildings can be used as polling stations — as a teachable moment.

In 2008, Democracy Prep students spent the day working to get out the vote in their neighborhoods. Four years later, Democracy Prep schools were among the few housed in city space that got special permission to stay open — and the network sent students out to advance the “Vote for Somebody” campaign it had kicked off in a catchy viral video. The next year, students promoted a different message — “I can’t vote but you can” — in an effort to boost the city’s 11 percent primary election voter participation rate.

The network’s influence extends far beyond its students. In 2012, six years into the network’s existence, officials estimated that students had helped 5,000 New Yorkers register to vote. Now, the network runs 22 schools in five states.

Andrew said the study’s findings about the impact of the network — which he left in 2012 to work on other civic engagement initiatives, including at the White House — offer only a start at a time when the United States lags behind other developed countries in voter turnout.

“I was thrilled with the outcome,” said Andrew. “But the as the guy that founded Democracy Prep I feel like there’s a whole lot of room to grow.”