Douglas County officials might seek U.S. Supreme Court decision on voucher program

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Second-grader Aaleyah Stone reads aloud to Zoe, a therapy dog who visits Keystone Elementary School with her handler, Pam Westphal.

CASTLE ROCK — Douglas County School District officials said Monday they may seek a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of their voucher program.

That announcement came just hours after the Colorado Supreme Court struck down the program, which was developed in 2011 but never went into effect, in a 4-3 ruling.

Douglas County school board members at a press conference said they believe today’s decision could pave the way for a U.S. Supreme Court challenge over the part of the state constitution that prohibits aid to religious organizations.

“This is a disappointing ruling for the students of Douglas County and all students in Colorado,” said Douglas County Board of Education President Kevin Larsen. “But today’s ruling paves the way for the U.S. Supreme Court to evaluate the constitutionality of Colorado’s Blaine Amendment, which is an ugly part of no fewer than 37 state constitutions.”

The so-called Blaine Amendment is a provision in Colorado’s state constitution that forbids direct government aid to educational institutions that have religious affiliation.

The Colorado Supreme Court in its opinion said because the Douglas County voucher program gave money to religious schools, it violated that constitutional provision and was illegal.

About 30 other state constitutions also have such clauses.

The clauses are named after the Republican U.S. Congressman James G. Blaine, who in 1875 unsuccessfully attempted to pass a federal Constitutional amendment that would prohibit state tax dollars or land to support religious schools. Blaine’s aim for the failed amendment, which spurred dozens of copy-cat initiatives in state legislatures, was to prohibit tax dollars to fund Catholic parochial schools.

Mark Silverstein, legal director of the Colorado ACLU, one of the organizations that argued against the voucher program, said he believes a U.S. Supreme Court hearing is a long shot.

“I’ll be interested to see their brief,” Silverstein said. “I think that the so-called Blaine Amendment argument is a red herring. In the 1870s, it’s true, there was an amount of anti-Catholic basis. But the school board’s argument is that [anti-Catholic bias] explains the presence of Section 7 in the Constitution. And I think that is too much of a stretch.”

Silverstein said the Blaine Amendment argument is nothing new when it comes to vouchers for private or religious schools.

“This argument has been bubbling up over school voucher programs for years,” Silverstein said. “But I don’t know if the U.S. Supreme Court has ever invalidated a state constitutional provision because the drafters were anti-Catholic bigots.”

Silverstein said he believes even if the Section 7 has anti-Catholic roots, it doesn’t detract from the validity of a neutral application to all religious schools today.

“A system of free secular public schools — that’s the principle Article 9 Section 7 embodies,” he said.

But Douglas County Superintendent Liz Fagen, and others, said the Choice Scholarship Program, as it is known, is about providing students with the best education to fit their needs.

“We don’t fear the idea that a student could benefit at another school,” she said Monday when asked why the district, which has the state’s highest accreditation rating from the state, needed to offer an alternative to its schools.

Although he declined to discuss specifics, board member Craig Richardson said the district will also work to modify the voucher program to be in compliance with the state’s Supreme Court ruling as early as this fall.

“We will adopt modifications to our Choice Scholarship Program expeditiously and in compliance with today’s Supreme Court decision,” he said. “We will not wait. We are undaunted.”


‘Genius grant’ writer to Memphis: ‘We’re losing the only gains we’ve made’ against segregation

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Nikole Hannah-Jones, an award-winning New York Times Magazine writer, speaks on school segregation during her first public appearance in Memphis.

Memphis is a “perfectly sad place” to talk about school segregation, a nationally renowned journalist said while visiting the city this week.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, who writes about race and school segregation for the New York Times Magazine, was in Memphis as part of a speaker series sponsored by Center for Southern Literary Arts, Chalkbeat Tennessee and MLK50: Justice in Journalism.

She was among the 24 recent winners of a no-strings-attached prize known as the MacArthur “Genius Award.” (Read more about her work here.)

Her award-winning piece, the “The Resegregation of Jefferson County” was a deeply reported  article on how racially motivated school district secessions are contributing to school segregation in Alabama.

In her talk, Hannah-Jones compared what happened in her article with what happened in Memphis in 2014, when six mostly white municipal districts broke away from the large, predominantly black Shelby County Schools.

Listen to part of Hannah-Jones’s story:

“The resegregation in Jefferson County is exactly what’s happened here,” Hannah-Jones said.

“It’s white communities breaking off from school districts,” she said. “They can wipe their hands of it and say it’s not about race, we just want districts to represent my community. It is about race.”

Hannah-Jones said resegregation is a trend recently documented by national researchers — both in the relatively new trend of district sessessions and in white Americans moving into communities of color but refusing to send their children to neighborhood schools.

Schools were segregated in Tennessee during the first part of the 20th Century. After the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 1954 that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, school districts in Tennessee slowly began to integrate and then stalled. Now, researchers and journalists say segregation is getting worse.

“As the south resegregates, we’re losing the only gains we’ve made,” Hannah-Jones said. “We want to pretend that our decisions aren’t impacting other kids, but they are.… You cannot say you believe in equality and seek to advantage your child every step of the way. ”

Hannah-Jones wrote in 2016 about choosing a school in New York City for her own daughter. She eventually settled on a neighborhood school — one that is majority black and poor. She challenged Memphians, in particular white, middle-class Memphians, to think more equitably about where they send their own children to school.

“White children aren’t hurt at all by going to these schools — their test scores don’t go down,” she said, a statement backed by research. “But look in Detroit, inner-city Memphis, Chicago. No one is coming.”

“The piece I did about my daughter, the reason it had such an impact is that I was honest. It wasn’t an easy choice when I had my own child. Morals and values in abstract are great, but reality is more difficult.”

She began the Tuesday night event with a story about a student she grew close to — and whose story embodies some of the issues of segregation —  before participating in a panel with MLK50 founder Wendi Thomas and Tami Sawyer, a Teach for America director and local activist.

Hannah-Jones said she’s now working on a book about Detroit — specifically looking at how poverty makes educating children “impossible.” (To learn more about schools in Detroit, go here).

In talks

Hopson asks state to let struggling Memphis school remain with local district

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is in talks with state officials about the future of American Way Middle, a struggling Memphis school that the state has identified for conversion to a charter school under Shelby County Schools or takeover by Tennessee's Achievement School District.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is asking Tennessee’s education chief to let Shelby County Schools keep control of American Way Middle School and place the struggling school in its own turnaround program, the Innovation Zone.

And Commissioner Candice McQueen is hinting that she’s willing to talk.

Hopson’s official request came this week despite McQueen’s plan for the Memphis district to convert American Way Middle to a charter school or risk having it placed in the state’s Achievement School District.

“Our Board voted to place American Way in the iZone next year,” Hopson wrote McQueen on Tuesday. “The Board was uncomfortable waiting for an additional year before taking action.”

McQueen wants the school to become a charter school in the fall of 2019 under the state’s new accountability plan. The board voted to place it in the iZone a year earlier than that.

But Hopson said the district’s concerns extend beyond timing.

“During its robust discussion regarding a district-led charter conversion, the Board was particularly concerned because we are unaware of any middle school charter operators who have strong track records of success in the turnaround space,” Hopson wrote. “For these reasons, the Board indicated that it will not approve a district-led charter conversation.

He added: “Given the I-Zone’s progress, we respectfully request that the State allow American Way to remain in the I-Zone for at least 3 years. Notably, one of American Way’s feeder schools is also in the I-Zone.”

McQueen said Friday that her office needs more information about the district’s proposal for American Way Middle before she makes a decision.

“We had a conversation with the district this week to make it clear that simply saying the school will be in the iZone next year does not tell us what the plan for that school is, and we still need more details on what it would look like for the school to be served by the iZone,” McQueen told Chalkbeat through a spokeswoman. “It is also not clear what charter options the district explored.”