Implications of voucher ruling not clear

Update – Douglas County school board members did not publicly discuss the voucher pilot at Tuesday’s meeting though they heard public comment from those urging them to appeal the judge’s ruling and from those questioning any further action. Wednesday, district spokesman Randy Barber said decisions on further legal action and the recovery of $300,000 in voucher payments may come by week’s end.

Douglas County school district officials on Monday were still sorting through the implications of a judge’s order Friday putting a halt to their voucher pilot – including whether the district is on the hook for $300,000 already sent out in voucher payments.

Douglas County School Board President John Carson
Douglas County School Board President John Carson made the rounds of radio and news shows Monday discussing the district's plans to appeal. / File photo

Part of the confusion stems from the fact that the parents and civil-liberties groups who filed a lawsuit to stop the pilot sought only a preliminary injunction, which would have suspended the pilot while the legal challenges were resolved.

Denver District Judge Michael Martinez granted the preliminary injunction and went even further, declaring the evidence presented in a three-day hearing warranted the injunction stopping the Choice Scholarship Program be made permanent.

In other words, that’s it, the legal argument is over unless the district decides to appeal. At least that’s how the 68-page ruling is being interpreted.

“We are done unless the district makes a move,” said Cindy Barnard, a Douglas County parent who was one of the plaintiffs and who is president of Taxpayers for Public Education. “The next move is in the district’s hands.”

District spokesman Randy Barber said district officials “were a bit surprised that he went to a permanent injunction” though “we knew it was going to end up in the appeals court eventually.”

Dougco school board members are reviewing their legal options, including whether to work through the state court of appeals or to go straight to the state’s highest court and ask to be heard. They could announce a decision at their first meeting of the new school year, tonight at Mesa Ridge Middle School.

If not, Barber said district leaders hope to make their decision by week’s end.

Unclear if families, private schools must return money

Figuring out what to do about the 500 voucher students, including the 304 already accepted into private schools, as well as the $300,000 that have gone out in voucher payments, may take longer.

In his ruling, Martinez said he was returning the district to the status quo, which he defined as “the absence of the scholarship program.”

But he also noted the plaintiffs “have expressly not asked the court to direct the disenrollment of scholarship recipients already attending private partner schools or the return of funds already expended.”

That sounds as if students already enrolled in private schools can keep the payments – equaling one quarter of the $4,575 total voucher – already made.

But what about students who’ve already started private school, believing the voucher money was on its way? Or families who can’t afford private school without the remaining three voucher payments?

Barber said those are the kinds of questions that kept district phones ringing Monday as voucher families tried to work through their options.

The district’s contract with its private school partners says any voucher payments to the schools are pro-rated, meaning they keep the money only for the period of time a voucher student actually attended. The schools have to repay any remaining balance within 45 days of a student’s decision to leave.

So Dougco officials may easily recoup payments made for students who return to district schools. It’s not clear what the district may do, if anything, to recover the first voucher payments for students who stay with their private schools.

At the injunction hearing, leaders of some private schools testified about the hardship they would endure if the voucher program were stopped.

Kurt Unruh, head of Valor Christian High School in Highlands Ranch, said as many as 40 students were likely to leave without vouchers, which would cost the school $558,000. Valor’s annual tuition is $13,950. Unruh did not return a message seeking comment Monday.

Tuesday, Barber said the district is not likely to seek a clarification of the judge’s ruling, as previously stated, but is consulting with its own lawyers to interpret the different issues.

State uncertain about appeal, will audit Dougco as usual

Janelle Asmus, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Education, said the state will audit the district as usual this spring and, as usual, the district must have spent money in accordance with state law and State Board of Education regulations.

If any problems are found, the district will have the opportunity to fix the problem, she said.

“If (money) was spent outside of the confines of the law, for example, we would give them an opportunity to rectify that problem,” she said.

The CDE, a defendant in the lawsuit, has not decided its next legal steps, including whether it might join Dougco in an appeal.

“That doesn’t stop us from marching forward with our oversight responsibilities,” Asmus said, “and we will conduct our audit as we usually do.”

Dougco leaders established a legal fund when they approved the voucher pilot 7-0 on March 15, acknowledging the program would likely face a court battle. On Monday, Barber said the last available balance for the fund was more than $50,000. He did not know if the Friday ruling had sparked more donations.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs say they’re ready for an appeal.

Mark Silverstein, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, pointed out the judge agreed with the plaintiffs on nearly every legal issue.

“It was a very good day for us and a very good day for the Colorado Constitution,” he said.

National groups – pro, anti-voucher – ready for appeal fight

Alex Luchenister, senior litigation counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, one of the plaintiffs and a frequent party to voucher legal battles across the country, said, “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a decision that found a program violates as many constitutional provisions as this program does.”

Martinez, appointed to the bench by Gov. Bill Owens in 2000

Attorneys for the district and the state repeatedly urged the judge to consider a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling which upheld a Cleveland voucher program that includes religious and non-religious schools.

Martinez, however, said disregarding the more specific religion provisions of the Colorado Constitution would be akin to saying the state’s founders “must have debated, drafted and ratified these provisions without purpose.”

Luchenister said most state constitutions have much stricter limits on public aid to religion than the federal constitution, “at least it is currently interpreted by the Supreme Court.”

“A number of states have struck down voucher programs under their state constitutions, including most recently before Colorado, Arizona in 2009,” he said, referring to a case also cited by Martinez.

And while the U.S. Supreme Court may be the nation’s highest court, he added, “the U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t have any right to interpret state constitutions – each state has its own constitution and each state supreme court has the ultimate authority to interpret their own state constitution.”

Attorneys supporting the voucher pilot, however, are just as adamant that they can win.

“The court’s decision is surprising given existing Colorado and U.S. Supreme Court precedent that would clearly uphold the scholarship program,” said Michael Bindas, with the Institute for Justice, which represented Dougco families receiving vouchers and which also joins voucher legal battles nationwide. “We are confident that the court’s attempt to rationalize away that precedent will be corrected on appeal.”

Barber said district staff members have fielded phone calls questioning the district’s decision to appeal.

“We feel strongly that providing students with choice is the thing that we should do,” he said. “We think that eventually it will stand up in court.”

Voucher pilot, ruling likely to influence November election

Ramifications of the school board’s voucher decisions are likely to reverberate through the November school board elections.

Three of seven school board seats are up for grabs, with two incumbents supporting the pilot – Craig Richardson and Justin Williams – filing paperwork to campaign to keep their seats. Cliff Stahl, the incumbent in the third seat, is not expected to seek re-election.

Williams’ opponent, Susan McMahon, has come out in support of the judge’s ruling, giving voters in northeast Douglas County a clear choice on the issue.

All votes involving the voucher pilot, from approval of the pilot to the creation of a charter school to run it, have been 7-0. McMahon issued a press release Saturday calling the judge’s decision a “win.”

“I fully support options for choice within the public school system and believe we should continue to enhance our system of public, charter, and innovation schools,” she said.  “But I disagree wholeheartedly when it comes to giving our tax dollars away to private schools, many of which are not even in Douglas County.”

Monday, McMahon said she wants to “get back to focusing on our children.”

“I made my decision to run for school board because I choose to represent the needs and the concerns of many people in the community that may feel the board rushed into a policy that the judge said was illegal,” she said. “I want to return the focus on how we meet the needs of all of the children in the community.”

A poll of 500 likely Douglas County voters conducted in April, weeks after the March 15 vote approving the voucher pilot, showed a divided community.

Asked whether they favored or opposed the “private school scholarship program,” 49 percent said they strongly favored or favored the program while 47 percent said they strongly opposed or opposed the program.

The response was less positive, however, when the question involved adding $1 million for the scholarship program to a proposed tax ballot question this fall.

Asked whether they favored or opposed such a question, 52 percent said they strongly opposed or opposed it while 44 percent said they strongly favored or favored it. The poll had a margin of error of 4.38 percent.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.