funding choice

Denver-based University Prep charter school network wins federal grant, opening expansion possibilities

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
A student at University Prep Steele Street in Denver smiles at a celebration of the school's test scores in August 2017.

Denver charter school operator University Prep has won a nearly $1.4 million federal grant this year as part of a U.S. Department of Education program that helps bankroll the expansion and replication of successful charter schools.

University Prep, which operates two Denver elementary schools, was the sole Colorado recipient in a series of charter school growth grants announced Thursday.

The education department recommended that University Prep receive a total of $3.7 million through the program, contingent on congressional approval in future years.

With a student population that is overwhelmingly Latino and low-income, University Prep opened its first campus, on Arapahoe Street just north of downtown, in 2010. Last year, its fourth- and fifth-graders outperformed district averages on both the English and math tests.

In 2016, University Prep took on a daunting turnaround effort, taking over failing Pioneer Charter School in northeast Denver. On last spring’s state math tests, University Prep Steele Street students posted the highest growth scores in Colorado.

Earlier this year, University Prep founder David Singer joined three other charter leaders in writing an open letter to Denver Public Schools asking district leaders to let them open more new schools in the coming years to help meet ambitious goals to improve the city’s schools.

The Denver school board last spring signed off on four new University Prep elementary schools. That doesn’t guarantee the schools will open, however. Competition for district real estate is fierce and DPS has seen flat or declining enrollment in some parts of the city.

The grant, however, doesn’t specify where University Prep would expand, leaving open the possibility that it could bring its model to other school districts with a need. The grant program is designed to “expand opportunities for all students, particularly traditionally underserved students.”

Singer said Thursday that University Prep remains committed to Denver, and also would be open to expansion to other communities.

“The grant is an opportunity for us to engage with families and communities in continued turnaround efforts in the Denver metro area,” he said.

Other high-performing college-prep charters that began in Denver have either opened schools in other districts or plan to, including DSST and Rocky Mountain Prep.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is a school choice champion, advocating for an expansion of charter schools and vouchers that allow taxpayer dollars to go toward private school tuition. DeVos has both praised Denver Public Schools for being choice-friendly and criticized the district for not doing enough.

By the numbers

Trump’s proposed education budget: more for school choice, less for teacher training

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

In a similar proposal to last year, the Trump administration said Monday that it wants to spend more federal dollars on a school choice program — which includes private school vouchers — and less on after-school initiatives and teacher training.

Last year, the administration’s budget proposal was largely ignored, and many see this year’s as likely to suffer a similar fate.

The plan doubles down on the administration and its Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s belief that families should be able to use public money set aside for education to attend any school: public, private, charter, or virtual. It also highlights a key tension for DeVos, who praised the budget but has been sharply critical of past federally driven policy changes.

Overall, the administration is hoping to cut about 5 percent of funding — $3.6 billion — from the federal Department of Education. Keep in mind that federal dollars account for only  about 10 percent of the money that public schools receive, though that money disproportionately goes to high-poverty schools. (The budget initially sought even steeper cuts of over $7 billion, about half of which was restored in a quickly released addendum.)

The latest budget request seeks $1 billion to create a new “opportunity grants” program that states could use to help create and expand private school voucher programs. (The phrase “school voucher” does not appear in the proposal or the Department of Education’s fact sheet, perhaps a nod to the relative unpopularity of the term.) Another $500 million — a major increase from last year — would go to expand charter schools and $98 million to magnet schools.

The proposal would hold steady the funding students with disabilities through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

But the request would take the axe to Title II, funding that goes toward teacher training and class-size reductions, and an after-school program known as the 21st Century Community Learning Centers. The administration has argued that both initiatives have proven ineffective. Teacher training advocates in particular have bristled at proposed cuts to Title II.

The budget is likely to get a chilly reception from the public education world, much of which opposes spending cuts and private school vouchers.

Meanwhile, the administration also put out $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, but it doesn’t include any money specifically targeted for school facilities.

school choice word choice

The ‘V’ word: Why school choice advocates avoid the term ‘vouchers’

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students, parents and activists against vouchers fill a committee room at the Tennessee State Capitol.

A new poll by the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children is meant to illustrate Americans’ support for school choice. But it also offers some insight about how advocates choose how to talk about hot-button education issues.

What caught our eye was something buried in the polling memo: Voters said they narrowly opposed school vouchers, 47 to 49 percent, even though similar approaches like “education saving accounts” and “scholarship tax credits” garnered much more support.

These findings help explain why advocates of programs that allow families to use public money to pay private school tuition often avoid the word “voucher.” The website of National School Week, for instance, doesn’t feature the term, referring instead to “opportunity scholarships.” (Notably, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who led AFC before joining the cabinet, herself has been less shy about saying “vouchers.)

The debate on how to brand “school choice” — or to critics, “privatization” — has been long running, and Republican pollsters have advised advocates to avoid the word “voucher.”

This phenomenon may help explain the national rise of tax credit programs, which function like vouchers but usually go by a different name and have a distinct funding source. It also makes it quite difficult to accurately gauge public opinion on the policy, as small tweaks in how a question is worded can lead to very different results.

The recent AFC poll points to substantial support for “school choice,” with 63 percent of respondents supporting that concept. That’s in response to a question with very favorable wording — defining school choice as giving a parent the ability to “send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs.”

Still, support for school choice dropped several percentage points from last year. That’s consistent with a poll from August that found support for charter schools was falling, too.

Showing how wording can matter, a 2017 survey from the American Federation of Teachers asked parents their view of “shifting funding away from regular public schools in order to fund charter schools and private school vouchers.” The vast majority were skeptical.

When school vouchers have been put up for a vote, they’ve almost always lost, including in DeVos’s home state of Michigan. Supporters and critics may get another shot this year in Arizona, where the fate of a recently passed voucher program will be on the ballot in November, barring a successful lawsuit by voucher advocates.