over and out

Douglas County school board ends controversial voucher program

Cindy Barnard, second from left, applauds after the Douglas County school board voted to end the district's voucher program. Barnard is one of the original plaintiffs in the voucher court case. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

CASTLE ROCK — The Douglas County school board voted Monday to end a controversial private-school voucher program and directed the school district to end a long-running legal battle that reached the nation’s highest court.

The board voted 6-0 at a standing-room-only meeting to rescind the program, which was put on a hold in 2011 by a Denver District Court judge before families could use it.

The program was a prime fault line in an election this fall that saw voucher opponents take full control of the board.

“Public funds should not be diverted to private schools, which are not accountable to the public,” said board member Krista Holtzmann.

The Colorado Supreme Court, which earlier this summer was directed by the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit the case, will have the ultimate say in whether the legal challenge will end.

However, the court usually does not consider moot cases, said Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU of Colorado, a plaintiff in the case.

The board’s action is a blow to conservative education reform advocates and voucher supporters in Colorado and across the country. Proponents of vouchers had hoped a victory at the U.S. Supreme Court would set a national precedent.

The legal question at the center of the voucher debate is whether a local school district can send tax dollars to private-religious institutions. A majority of the schools that enrolled in the Douglas County voucher system, known as the Choice Scholarship Program, were religious.

The Colorado Supreme Court in 2015 ruled that the district could not because the state’s constitution forbid it. The U.S. Supreme Court gave voucher supporters renewed hope earlier this year when in a similar case it issued a narrow ruling for a preschool run by a church.

A network of voucher supporters have argued that such constitutional prohibitions, known as Blaine Amendments, are rooted in Catholic bigotry and are outdated.

Americans for Prosperity, a political nonprofit that advocates for free-market policies including private school vouchers, announced Friday it was spending “five-figures” to warn Douglas County parents about the board’s decision to end the program and monitor the board’s action going forward.

“The new school board must put the needs of school children before any political belief,” Jesse Mallory, the group’s Colorado state director, said in a statement. “Ending this program before it even has a chance to succeed and provide real change in our communities would be extremely shortsighted. If the board believes they should deny children more educational opportunities, AFP-Colorado will hold them accountable.”

Opponents of vouchers, who showed up in force Monday night, presented a lengthy lists of claims against private schools and vouchers. Some argued that private schools discriminate against students. Others suggested vouchers were part of a scheme to privatize education.

“What happens to the educational quality of children in the community school where there is less money to work with because of the voucher outflow?” said one speaker, Barbara Gomes Barlow, who has grandchildren in Douglas County schools. “It is diminished. It’s a fiction to believe that vouchers open up choice for all students. They do not.”

Monday’s meeting comes nearly one month after four anti-voucher candidates — Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor and Kevin Leung — resoundingly won seats on the board. Their opponents campaigned to keep the legal fight alive.

“This is what you were elected to do — serve the taxpayers in a public school district,” said Stephanie Van Zante, another county resident who spoke during public comment. “Ending this policy shows that this board has returned its focus to local educational practices and not national politics.”

Leung, who is a plaintiff in the legal case against the voucher program, recused himself from voting on ending the program.

For Cindy Barnard, the original plaintiff in the legal fight, Monday’s decision was six years in the making.

“I’ve been working on this for a long time and I’m very, very happy to hear the district rescind the program,” Barnard said. “Knowing that public school funds will stay in our public schools — it’s a good day.”

Correction: This article has been updated to better reflect how Americans For Prosperity is spending “five-figures” to monitor the Douglas County school board in general. 

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.

Future of Schools

Chicago mayoral hopeful Gery Chico has regrets — and big plans for schools if elected

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Mayoral candidate Gery Chico, former school board president.

Former school board president Gery Chico has said that if elected mayor, he would oversee the largest ever expansion of technical and vocational education at Chicago Public Schools.

That’s a very different approach than the one he presided over during his tenure amid a rush to expand rigorous academic programs like the International Baccalaureate and selective enrollment schools that left a lot of families on the outside looking in, especially in black and Latino communities.

Related: Who’s best for Chicago schools? A Chalkbeat voter guide to the 2019 mayor’s race

“We’re losing people from the city over this issue today,” said Chico, board president from 1995 to 2001. “If an African-American parent doesn’t feel that their child who didn’t get into [selective enrollment high school] Whitney Young is going to be served well by the alternatives — they’re out of here. They leave. They may go to the south suburbs or if the change they seek is more dramatic, they may go to Dallas or Atlanta.”

Chico, who also pledges to open eight new selective enrollment high schools if elected, said he wishes he had anticipated how popular selective enrollment and IB programs were going to be, so that the district could keep up with demand. Just as when Chico ran the school board two decades ago, top academic schools and programs still are disproportionately clustered in wealthier and white neighborhoods, and fewer black and Latino students have access to those schools and programs.

Related: 5 tough questions a new report puts front-and-center for Chicago’s next mayor

Despite some regret and criticism of his tenure at the district from detractors like the Chicago Teacher’s Union, Chico counts balanced budgets, test score gains and scores of opened schools among his accomplishments running the district alongside then-schools chief Paul Vallas, another mayoral contender. After leaving the Chicago Board of Education, Chico went on to serve as board president for the City Colleges of Chicago, and later at the Illinois State Board of Education, experience he says provides him a rare vantage point to steer Chicago schools toward improvements.  

If he emerges from the crowded field of candidates in one of the most competitive mayoral elections in recent memory, he said he’d use his power as mayor to open several new trade schools every year for each year of his first term with the goal of spurring Chicago’s “largest ever” expansion of vocational and technical education. His plan is to repurpose closed schools or build new ones to house the specialized career-focused schools.

Related: In one Chicago neighborhood, three high schools offer dramatically different opportunities

Chico wouldn’t say how much it would cost.

He did say he would pay for the plan with budget savings, public-private partnerships with businesses in the trade industry, and surplus economic development dollars from the city’s tax increment finance program. Like other candidates, he’s said he would press downstate lawmakers in the state capitol to fully fund Chicago schools.

“I’m not going to do 20 in one year,” he said. We’re going to phase it in and ramp it up, whether we’re repurposing buildings, or building new buildings, largely with the money of the trade unions. It doesn’t have to break the bank.”

Related: Chicago’s mayoral candidates differ on how they’d improve outcomes for students of color

But Chico’s vocational plan doesn’t mean he’s abandoning the proliferation of rigorous curricula. He said he would expand IB programs from 50 schools to 150.

“This is not one size fits all. Some people want just neighborhood high schools, some people want IB in that high school, some communities like the South and West Sides are clamoring for a selective-enrollment school,” he said. “You have to follow the communities, listen, and then we’ll figure out the best direction based on that dialogue.”

Chicago’s municipal election is Feb. 26.

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