v(ouch)!

Plaintiffs: Dougco voucher program thwarts constitution

Highlands Ranch High School science teacher Bob MacArthur leads a class discussion in 2014. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia)

Gearing up for a constitutional slug match over the fate of private school vouchers in Colorado, lawyers for Douglas County parents and taxpayers made their first pitch to the Colorado Supreme Court on the 2011 suburban scholarship program.

The voucher plan, which is on hold pending litigation, would allow Douglas County students to use public tax dollars to enroll in private — and often religious — schools would siphon away much-needed revenue from public schools and subsidize religious institutions. In effect, the program is unconstitutional, lawyers argued in a brief filed late Thursday with the Colorado Supreme Court.

The 80-page document, filed on behalf of two groups of plaintiffs, argues why the district-created voucher program, known as the Choice Scholarship Program, should not be permitted to launch.

The Colorado Supreme Court agreed to hear the case earlier this year after a three-member appellate court overturned a lower courts ruling that deemed the program unconstitutional.

The appellate court ruled the plaintiffs, including parents, clergy, and tax payers, did not have legal standing to bring the lawsuit. That decision will be one of six points the Supreme Court will consider in its ruling.

Other questions the Supreme Court will look to answer include whether the program violates Colorado’s Public School Finance Act of 1994 and four different sections of the Colorado Constitution.

“The majority court of appeals opinion that upheld the Program, if allowed to stand, would eviscerate core provisions of the religion and education clauses of the Colorado Constitution, restrict citizens’ ability to enforce the Public School Finance Act, and give school districts around the state carte blanche to implement similar programs, with potentially devastating consequences for the State’s constitutionally mandated public-school system,” the brief says.

The plaintiffs’ brief is one of a few initial steps in what is expected to be a rather long and uncertain process. The Douglas County School District has until Aug. 4 to file its response. A date for oral arguments has not been set. Those arguments may not be heard until next year, according to a spokesman for the the Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The voucher program, which was unanimously passed by the Dougco school board in 2011, would have allowed up to 500 Douglas County students to use 75 percent of the district’s per-pupil funding – or $4,575 at the time – to attend a participating private school approved by the district.

Students would have been able to use those funds to attend private religious schools.

Thirty-four private schools applied to participate in the voucher program. Dougco approved 23 of those schools.

Of the 23 schools, 14 were located outside Douglas County, and 16 taught religious doctrine.

The voucher program was modeled after other programs across the nation that have prevailed in court. It gave students the right to “receive a waiver from any required religious services at the [participating private school],” according to previous court documents filed by the district.

However, lawyers for the plaintiffs argue the waivers weren’t enough to meet constitutional muster.

The Douglas County school board remains confident in its case, a spokeswoman for the district said earlier this week referring to a previously issued statement from board member Craig Richardson.

“The District welcomes the opportunity for the state’s highest court to review a case that presents such important issues for our state and our country,” Richardson said in March. “DCSD is committed to expanding choice for parents and one of the ways is our innovative Choice Scholarship Program. We believe the Court of Appeals will be affirmed and that the parents and children of our District will, someday soon, be afforded more educational choice.”

From the brief

One of the main objections to the voucher program was the inclusion of religious-run institutions. Critics saw this as a violation as of the Colorado’s Constitution as using public dollars for religious activities. While there was a waiver policy for students who might not participate in a particular religion, a lower court agreed the waiver was limited at bets. The brief argues:

The Program purports to afford students the right to “receive a waiver from any required religious services at the Private School Partner,” but the waiver only applies to saying prayers aloud; students can still be compelled to attend religious services. Nor may students opt out of full participation in other religious exercises — such as prayer recitations and scriptural readings — that many of the schools mandate throughout the day. Moreover, most of the schools require students to receive instruction in religious doctrine. Even the District acknowledged that this was “[n]ot much of an opt out.”

During the initial trial, testimony suggested one participating religious school only signed up for the program to beef up its own reserves. Here’s why:

There are no restrictions on how participating schools may spend the public funds they receive through the Program. Schools are free to use the funds for religious instruction, worship services, religious literature, clergy salaries, and construction or maintenance of facilities used for worship and prayer.

One of the more nuanced parts of the Dougco voucher case revolves around a charter school established by the district that students in the program were to enroll in. The charter school had no teachers, curriculum, or walls. Its primary function was to cut voucher checks to parents.

In sum, the Voucher Program rests on the transparent fiction that the Charter School is a “qualified charter school” entitled to claim and spend public funds under the Act. The Court should not sanction such a fiction.

If the Douglas County wants to expand school choice, as it has purported to do, there is a constitutional solution, the brief says:

If the citizens of Colorado want to rewrite the State Constitution to allow public funding of religious schools, they can try to do so at the ballot box. Until then, the language and intent of the Colorado Constitution’s framers must be followed.

The plaintiffs’ brief

showdown

McQueen’s deadline looms for Memphis and Nashville to share student info with charter schools — and no one is budging

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A request for student contact information from Green Dot Public Schools to help with enrollment efforts sparked a fight between the state and Shelby County Schools.

As Tennessee’s two largest school districts fought an order to share student information with charter schools, the state education commissioner set a deadline last week.

Candice McQueen told the superintendents of Shelby County Schools and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools they had to provide the data to charter schools that asked for it by Sept. 25 — or the state would “be forced to consider actions to enforce the law.”

But with just three days until the deadline, neither district has said it will budge. The consequences “will be determined Monday,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on Friday.

McQueen has not offered more information about what those consequences could be, though some lawmakers have worried it could mean funding cuts. There is some precedent for such a move: The Nashville district lost $3.4 million in state funding in 2012 when it refused to approve a controversial charter school, according to The Tennessean.

The clash comes after the Nashville and Memphis districts refused to turn over student contact information to charter networks, who argue that information is vital to their operation. Many Memphis schools, including those in the state-run school district, have been struggling with under-enrollment.

An amendment to an untested U.S. Department of Education rule suggests local districts can withhold information like phone numbers, addresses and email addresses — but a new state law requires Tennessee districts to hand it over to charter schools within 30 days.

The state department of education asked the attorney general’s office to weigh in. Last week, the attorney general said the districts had to turn the information over, but also that districts could take a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents about their right to opt out.

Shelby County Schools posted opt-out forms for parents on its website the next day, and gave parents until Oct. 22 to fill them out. The form allows parents to keep their information from charter schools specifically or from outside entities more broadly, including companies like yearbook providers, for example.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The school boards for the two districts have been in lockstep in defying the state’s order, with the Memphis board even offering to write a legal opinion if Nashville were to go to court over the issue.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said his legal team is still reviewing the attorney general’s opinion.

“We still want to make sure parents know what their options are,” Hopson told Chalkbeat on Tuesday. “When we [McQueen and I] talked, she understood that our opt-out forms were out there.”

Anna Shepherd, board chair for the Nashville district, said the board met with its attorney this week to discuss the issue but took no action.

“We have not had any further conversation with the state concerning the release of data for MNPS students,” Shepherd said by email. “I’m not anticipating any action [before Monday].”

Reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.

what's public?

Private managers of public schools, charter leaders enjoy extra buffer from public-records laws

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Eva Moskowitz, Success Academy Charter Schools CEO.

When Success Academy officials read the news last month that board chair Daniel Loeb had made a racially charged comment about a New York State senator, what did they do next?

Did Success CEO Eva Moskowitz frantically email confidantes about the incident? Did her team craft a new policy on board member conduct?

It turns out, we may never know.

That’s in part because emails sent by Moskowitz and other leaders of New York City’s largest charter network which oversees 46 public schools and 15,500 students are not subject to the same public-records laws as district school officials, such as Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

Moskowitz and officials at other charter school networks are generally exempt from the law because they don’t work for individual schools or city agencies, both of which are required to hand over certain records to members of the public who request them. Instead, they are employed by nonprofit groups called charter management organizations, or CMOs, which aren’t covered by the state records law.

“Success Academy Charter Schools, Inc. (SACS) is a private nonprofit organization that provides services to charter schools, but it is not itself a charter school or a government agency under FOIL,” wrote Success Academy lawyer Robert Dunn in response to an appeal of a Chalkbeat request for Moskowitz’s emails under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, which the network had denied. “Thus, it is not in and of itself subject to FOIL or required to have an appeal process.”

In addition, Success officials said the emails would not need to be released because they qualify as internal communications that are exempt from the public-records law.

The city’s most prominent charter school networks — including KIPP and Uncommon — have similar CMO structures, which appears to shield their leaders from at least some FOIL requests. While “the KIPP NYC public charter schools themselves are subject to the New York Freedom of Information Law,” KIPP spokesperson Steve Mancini said in an email, the “CMOs are not.”

But some government-transparency advocates argue that the law is not so clear cut.

Because CMOs are so heavily involved in the operation of public schools, it could be argued that the vast majority of their records are kept on behalf of public schools and should be public, said Bob Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government and an expert on public-records laws.

Even though nonprofits aren’t covered by FOIL, he said, “Everything you do for an entity that is subject to FOIL — everything you prepare, transmit, and receive — falls within the scope of FOIL.”

Success Academy officials emphasized that the network does not categorically deny public-records requests involving its management organization. For instance, it may hand over CMO records related to the daily operation of its schools, the officials said. The network decides on a case-by-case basis which CMO records are public and which are not, they added.

“We follow the same policies as all other charter management organizations,” said Nicole Sizemore, a Success Academy spokeswoman.

Uncommon Schools spokeswoman Barbara Martinez said that their individual schools are subject to public-records requests and the nonprofit CMO releases budget information on its public tax forms.

“Uncommon Schools is a non-profit organization that follows all local, state and federal laws regarding disclosure,” she said in a statement.

However, because public-records laws mainly apply to government agencies and institutions, it is likely that some important communications related to charter schools — such as charter officials’ emails to real-estate companies, for example and detailed financial records related to their CMOs would be off limits to the public.

The issue of charter management transparency flared up in Connecticut a few years ago.

After the state accused a CMO of nepotism and financial mismanagement of its charter schools, the Hartford Courant requested CMO records under the state’s Freedom of Information law. The CMO refused to hand them over, saying, “We are not a public agency.”

In response, state lawmakers proposed a law to increase CMO transparency and subject them to public-records laws. After charter advocates decried the law as overly broad, lawmakers amended it and the law was passed. (A similar bill was recently introduced in the California legislature but did not pass.)

Similar scandals involving CMOs could happen elsewhere, said Wendy Lecker, an attorney at the Education Law Center. During the debate in Connecticut, she called for making all CMO records public.

“Something done on behalf of a school should be subject to transparency and Freedom of Information laws,” she said. “I don’t see why they’d want to shield the public from that.”

A large number of charter schools are run by charter management organizations. In 2015, about 55 percent of New York City charter schools were managed by CMOs, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

The nonprofits help their schools hire, pay, and train staff; analyze data; and handle advertising and public relations, according to a report by the NAPCS. The report notes that these organizations are distinct from textbook companies or other vendors that schools contract with because CMOs “have considerable influence over the instructional design and operations of their affiliated charter schools.”

The nonprofit structure has enabled networks to open new schools more easily, including ones in multiple districts and states, said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center.

Even if New York’s public-records laws applied to CMOs, that would not guarantee that all their records would be accessible or easy to obtain.

New York City’s education department, for instance, is notorious for dragging its feet on FOIL requests. And some information is also exempt from the public-records law.

For instance, opinions or recommendations from within an agency or from outside consultants are exempt from public disclosure. Success’ lawyer argued that even if the network’s executives were subject to public information requests, Moskowitz’s emails to or about Loeb would fall under this “inter-agency” communication exception.

However, government agencies would still have to supply the requested emails, just with the exempted information redacted, said Allan Blutstein, the public-records advisor for the political opposition research group America Rising. Even redacted emails can provide a wealth of information, Blutstein said, since simply seeing when the emails were sent, who they were sent to, and how many were exchanged provides insights into how the organization responded.

“You may not get his or her personal opinion back and forth, but there’s value in knowing how soon they reacted, how soon they’re responding to other people,” Blutstein said. “You can make these types of inferences and learn a lot.”

In addition, institutions that are subject to FOIL must hand over more detailed budget information than nonprofits typically disclose, Blutstein said. While nonprofits are required to release general information, like how much they spend on supplies or training, public institutions must hand over almost every record, he said.