Vouch for this

In Douglas County voucher case, Supreme Court wonders what defines a public school

James Lyons, representing the Douglas County School District, speaks during oral arguments at the Colorado Supreme Court in the Douglas County vouchers case. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

The Colorado Supreme Court on Wednesday churned through a list of constitutional arguments for and against the Douglas County voucher program — and any one of which could decide the fate of the choice system.

But the case could also be determined on one central question: what constitutes a public education in the 21st century.

The oral arguments centered around whether the program violates the state’s school funding and charter school laws, whether the program is designed to benefit the student or religious institutions, and whether the plaintiffs — a group of parents and taxpayers — have legal standing to challenge the program.

Justices fired questions at lawyers on both sides of the case about the role of the Colorado Department of Education, whether Colorado school districts are required to provide religious programs along with non-religious programs to students, and what role the state plays in public education.

“Is this a paradigm shift?” Chief Justice Nancy Rice asked James Lyons, the lawyer representing Douglas County schools. “Are you saying public education is just a funding mechanism? … Is all education now public [and parents] can just choose?”

“Not exactly,” Lyons answered. But, he continued, public education has undergone radical changes that the framers of the state’s constitution could not have imagined 140 years ago.

Developed after a conservative majority took control of the Douglas County School Districts Board of Education, the voucher program would allow some families in the affluent school district to use public tax dollars to pay for tuition at private schools.

If the state’s highest court agrees with an appeals court that found the voucher system is constitutional, the program, which has been put on hold since 2011, could be operational by the beginning of next school year. And it could open up the possibility that similar programs could launched across the state.

If the court sides with a trial court that found the program unconstitutional, it would be more in line with a 2004 state Supreme Court decision that halted a statewide voucher program that would have provided similar scholarships to low income families. But that case was not mentioned during Wednesday’s hearing.

Arguing for the plaintiffs, Michael McCarthy said the voucher program violated state law because it was dependent upon a charter school, created by the district solely to pass public funds to private and often religious institutions.

“The charter school is a mirage,” McCarthy said. “There are no classrooms. There is no principal. There are no textbooks. It is little more than a false front from an old western movie.”

McCarthy stressed that the program benefited the religious institutions more than the students.

He pointed to testimony from one private religious school operator who testified under oath that the only reason his school participated in the program was to collect the revenue.

But Lyons, arguing on behalf of Douglas County schools, said the charter school was a mechanism used by the district to fulfill state requirements like testing and met the legal definition of a charter school. But he said the district could fulfill those requirements in other ways.

On the question of whether public tax dollars can be used at religious institutions, lawyers for the plaintiffs said the answer is a resounding no.

But lawyers for the school district argued that because the money is given directly to parents and not the private school, the voucher system passes constitutional muster.

Lyons pointed out to the Denver Preschool Program and the Colorado Opportunity Fund as just two examples of programs that collect taxes from residents and distributes the money directly to students or their parents, who then choose which educational institution — religious or not — to give the money to.

“All of those programs would be thrown into jeopardy” if the court permanently disbands the Douglas County voucher program, Lyons said.

Lyons also said that a driving philosophy behind the program is parent choice. Choice, he said, is not only a Colorado value but also fosters competition and better schools.

Before the justices can answer the constitutionality question about the voucher program, they must first decide whether the parent organization the Taxpayers for Public Education that is behind the lawsuit can sue the state to stop the program from launching. 

“What is the injury that allows the citizens to challenge the setting up of this charter school?” Justice Gregory Hobbs asked McCarthy, the lawyer for the Taxpayers for Public Education.

He answered the program would siphon away $3 million from Douglas County schools.

Further, McCarthy argued his parents have the right to challenge the program because it appeared, based on evidence provided at the trial court, that the Colorado Department of Education, the organization tasked with regulating school finance, was working in tandem with Douglas County schools and was therefore not a viable agency to hold the district accountable.

Lyons countered parents only received 75 percent of their individual per pupil funding and that CDE was merely advising Douglas County schools and that the program was halted before the department could throughly vet and regulate the program.

It’s unknown when the court will issue its ruling, but it will likely be next year.

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.