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.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede