Future of Schools

Civil liberties groups challenge Dougco voucher ruling

Three civil liberties organizations Thursday asked the Colorado Supreme Court to overturn an appeals court ruling that upheld Douglas County’s Choice Scholarship program, a voucher program that would allow public school students to attend private schools — including those with a religious affiliation.

A scene from Douglas County's voucher lottery in June. The plan is on hold with an appeals court ruling not likely for months.
A scene from Douglas County’s voucher lottery. The plan is on hold with a Colorado Supreme Court hearing not expected any time soon. <em>EdNews</em> file photo

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a petition Thursday with Colorado’s high court, asking it to accept the case and overturn a 2-1 Colorado Court of Appeals ruling that upheld the program by determining it did not violate the state’s Constitution.

The groups say that the voucher plan illegally diverts taxpayer money to religious schools in violation of the Colorado Constitution.

“The Colorado Constitution is very clear on this question: Public funds may not subsidize religious institutions,” said Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United. “We’re urging the Colorado Supreme Court to accept this case and strike down this misguided scheme.”

But Douglas County Board of Education President John Carson said the appeals court ruling was clear in declaring the district’s Choice Scholarship Program constitutional. Furthermore, he said the appeals court rejected all statutory claims made by the plaintiffs.

“The ruling was a huge victory for the students and parents of Douglas County and we are confident that the Court will once again reject the arguments made by the ACLU,” Carson said in a prepared statement. 

Carson defended a parent’s right to choose the best school for their child.

“We know that each student learns differently, and our goal is to provide every parent with the opportunity to choose the best possible educational environment for their child,” Carson said. “Douglas County provides many options for students including the finest neighborhood schools in America, a superb array of charter schools, and a world-class variety of learning opportunities. The Choice Scholarship Program will give our students one more choice to achieve educational success and to prepare for the exciting opportunities that lie ahead in 21st Century.”

The Choice Scholarship Program, initiated as a pilot, offered tuition vouchers worth $4,575 to 500 students to spend at 23 schools that had been vetted by the school district. The program remains on hold pending the Colorado Supreme Court ruling.

“Taxpayers in Colorado should not be compelled to subsidize religious education,” said ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein.

Heather Weaver, staff attorney for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said parents can elect to send their children to religious schools, but not on the public dime.

“We are hopeful that the Colorado Supreme Court will accept this case and vindicate the religious liberty right of taxpayers to ensure that public funds do not support religious institutions,” Weaver said.

lower court struck down the plan, but the Court of Appeals overturned that decision in February in a 2-1 ruling.

The latest lawsuit, LaRue v. Colorado Board of Education, argues that the voucher plan violates the Colorado Constitution’s ban on the use of public funds for religious schools, as well as state laws that require educational funds to pay for public education and remain under government control.

“This case raises issues important to the constitutionally mandated public-education system in Colorado, which is facing serious financial difficulties,” said attorney Matthew Douglas, of the Denver office of the international law firm Arnold & Porter, which  argued the appeal.

“If the Court of Appeals’ decision stands, the result could be widespread public funding of religious education throughout the state, as other school districts would be able to enact voucher programs similar to Douglas County’s. We believe the Colorado Supreme Court should weigh in on this important issue and enforce the Colorado Constitution’s clear prohibition of such funding.”

The plaintiffs are represented by Douglas, Timothy Macdonald and Michelle Albert of Arnold & Porter; Luchenitser and Ayesha Khan of Americans United; Weaver and Daniel Mach of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief; and Silverstein and Sara Rich of the ACLU of Colorado.

Douglas County school board members approved the voucher pilot, which would use public dollars to help send students to private schools, by a 7-0 vote in March 2011. A Denver judge declared the plan unconstitutional in August 2011 and the district filed its notice of appeal with the Colorado Court of Appeals.

In April 2012, opening briefs were filed by the district and the state, its co-defendent in the suit. Taxpayers for Public Education and other plaintiffs then filed their responses.

In February, the Court of Appeals overturned the ruling — continuing one of the most watched court battle over school vouchers in the country.

Under the Choice Scholarship Program, private schools, including private schools that are not located in Douglas County, can apply to participate.

Those private schools must satisfy a variety of eligibility criteria, some of which relate to academic rigor, accreditation, student conduct and financial stability, according to court records. Participating private schools must agree to allow the district to administer assessment tests to students enrolled in the choice scholarship program.

Thirty-four private schools applied to participate in the Choice Scholarship Program for the 2011-2012 school year and the district contracted with 23 of those schools. But the district court ruled halted the program before it began.

Of the 23 schools, 14 are located outside Douglas County, and 16 teach religious tenets or beliefs. Many are funded at least in part by and affiliated with particular religious organizations.  Many of the participating private schools base admissions decisions at least in part on students’ and parents’ religious beliefs and practices. Many also require students to attend religious services.

However, the voucher program – modeled after other programs across the country that have prevailed in court – gives students the right to “receive a waiver from any required religious services at the [participating private school],” according to court documents.

The district would administer the program under the Choice Scholarship Charter School, which would handle monitoring students’ class schedules and attendance at participating private schools. However, the charter school would not “have a building, teachers, or curriculum.”

LaRue vs. Douglas County School District

hurdle cleared

Indiana’s federally required education plan wins approval

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Education
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick greets elementary school students in Decatur Township.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signed off on Indiana’s federally required education plan, ushering in another era of changes — although not exactly major ones — to the state’s public school system.

The U.S Department of Education announced the plan’s approval on Friday. Like other states, Indiana went through an extensive process to craft a blueprint to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was signed into law in 2015.

“Today is a great day for Indiana,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement. “Our ESSA plan reflects the input and perspective of many stakeholders in communities across our state. From the beginning, we set out to build a plan that responded to the needs of Hoosier students. From our clear accountability system to our innovative, locally-driven approach to school improvement, our ESSA plan was designed to support student success.”

The federal government highlighted two aspects of Indiana’s plan. One is a pledge to close achievement gaps separating certain groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, from their peers by 50 percent by 2023.

Another is a staple of other states’ plans, as well: adding new ways for measuring how ready students are for attending college or starting their careers. Indiana education officials and lawmakers have made this a priority over the past several years, culminating in a new set of graduation requirements the Indiana State Board of Education approved late last year.

Under Indiana’s plan, high schoolers’ readiness will be measured not just by tests but also by performance in advanced courses and earning dual credits or industry certifications. Elementary school students will be measured in part by student attendance and growth in student attendance over time. Test scores and test score improvement still play a major role in how all schools are rated using state A-F letter grades.

In all, 35 states’ ESSA plans have won federal approval.

Advocates hope the law will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

Indiana officials struggled to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, such as graduation requirements and diplomas.

Under the state’s ESSA plan, A-F grades would include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and, in the case of chronic absenteeism, attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

Because the Indiana State Board of Education passed its own draft A-F rules earlier this month — rules that deviate from the state ESSA plan — it’s possible Hoosier schools could get two sets of letter grades going forward, muddying the initial intent of the simple A-F grade concept parents and community members are familiar with.

The state board’s A-F changes include other measures, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan. The state board plan also gets rid of the test score improvement measure for high-schoolers.

While that A-F proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

The state can still make changes to its ESSA plan, and the state board’s A-F draft is also expected to see revisions after public comment. But the fact that they conflict now could create difficulties moving forward, and it has led to tension during state board meetings. Already, the state expected schools would see two years of A-F grades in 2018. If both plans move forward as is, that could continue beyond next year.

Read: Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Find more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.

turnaround

Aurora recommends interventions in one elementary school, while another gets more time

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Aurora school district officials on Tuesday will recommend turning over management of some operations at one of their elementary schools to an outside management company.

The school, Lyn Knoll Elementary, is located in northwest Aurora near 2nd Avenue and Peoria Street and serves a high number of students from low-income families, with 4 percent of students identified as homeless. The school was one of three Aurora schools that earned the lowest rating from the state in 2017.

That rating automatically flags the school under a district process for school interventions. The process directs district officials to consider a number of possible improvement plans, including closure or turning the school over to a charter school.

Lyn Knoll has had good rankings in recent years before slipping dramatically in the past year, a change that put it on the turnaround list. The district did not recommend intervening at Paris Elementary, even though that school has been in priority improvement for years and will face state sanctions if it has one more year without improvement.

Annual ratings for Lyn Knoll Elementary

  • 2010: Improvement
  • 2011: Improvement
  • 2012: Performance
  • 2013: Improvement
  • 2014: Priority Improvement
  • 2016: Performance
  • 2017: Turnaround
Colorado Department of Education

The board will discuss the recommendation on Tuesday and vote on the school’s fate next month. In November, four union-backed board members who have been critical of charter schools won a majority role on the district’s school board. This will be their first major decision since taking a seat on the board.

In September, Superintendent Rico Munn had told the school board that among January’s school improvement recommendations, the one for Paris would be “the most high-profile.” A month later the district put out a request for information, seeking ideas to improve Aurora schools.

But in a board presentation released Friday, district officials didn’t give much attention to Paris. Instead, they will let Paris continue its rollout of an innovation plan approved two years ago. Officials have said they are hopeful the school will show improvements.

The recommendation for Lyn Knoll represents more drastic change, and it’s the only one that would require a board vote.

The district recommendation calls for replacing the current principal, drafting a contract for an outside company to help staff with training and instruction, and creating a plan to help recruit more students to the school.

Documents show district officials considered closing Lyn Knoll because it already has low and decreasing enrollment with just 238 current students. Those same documents note that while officials are concerned about the school’s trends, it has not had a long history of low ratings to warrant a closure.

In considering a charter school conversion, documents state that there is already a saturation of charter schools in that part of the city, and the community is interested in “the existence of a neighborhood school.” Two charter networks, however, did indicate interest in managing the school, the documents state.
The district recommendation would also include stripping the school’s current status as a pilot school.

Lyn Knoll and other schools labeled pilot schools in Aurora get some internal district autonomy under a program created more than 10 years ago by district and union officials.

Because Lyn Knoll is a pilot school, a committee that oversees that program also reviewed the school and made its own recommendation, which is different from the district’s.

In their report, committee members explained that while they gave the school low marks, they want the school to maintain pilot status for another year as long as it follows guidance on how to improve.

Among the observations in the committee’s report: The school doesn’t have an intervention program in place for students who need extra help in math, families are not engaged, and there has not been enough training for teachers on the new state standards.

The report also highlights the school’s daily physical education for students and noted that the school’s strength was in the school’s governance model that allowed teachers to feel involved in decision making.

Read the full committee report below.