v(ouch)!

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.”

choice history

The rise of tax credits: How Arizona created an alternative to school vouchers — and why they’re spreading

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education

With its recent adoption of a tax credit scholarship program, Illinois became the 18th state to adopt an innocuously named — but highly controversial — policy that critics have described as a “backdoor voucher.”

In some sense, the description is apt. But by injecting a middle layer into the government’s support of private school tuition, tax credits help avoid some of the legal and political obstacles that have dogged efforts by advocates, like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, to promote school choice through vouchers.

Perhaps as a result, more students now use tax incentive programs than vouchers to attend private schools in the U.S. A federal tax credit is also seen as the Trump administration’s favored approach for promoting school choice at the federal level, though its immediate progress looks increasingly unlikely.

The 20-year history of this approach offers insights into why it has taken hold: resistance to legal challenge; limited government oversight, appealing to among free-market advocates of school choice; and a more politically palatable branding than vouchers.

This is far better than vouchers — it is easier to pass and easier to uphold,” Trent Franks, a conservative activist and now a U.S. congressman, said in 1999 after Arizona’s state supreme court upheld its tuition tax credit program. “I think this is the direction the country will go in.”

He proved largely right.

The number of students participating in private school choice programs over time, including tax credits (green) and vouchers (orange). (EdChoice)

Arizona’s pioneering approach

The first tax credit program was passed in Arizona in 1997. Arizona’s constitution, like most other states’, bars public dollars from going to religiously affiliated schools. Proponents knew any plan to promote private school choice would likely end up in court.

So they landed upon an ingenious approach that would make the initiative more likely to survive legal challenge. Instead of issuing vouchers for private school tuition — like Milwaukee had done since 1990 — the state would outsource that role to nonprofits. Those groups would get their money from donations, encouraged by generous tax credits.

It worked like this: An individual could donate up to $500 to a nonprofit, then get a tax cut for the exact amount they donated. The nonprofit would take the donated money and use it to offer tuition stipends — essentially vouchers — to families who met certain conditions. That system allows the state to promote the tuition subsidy, losing $500 in revenue for each maxed out donation, without paying for it directly.

Arizona’s program has since grown, and the state has created a number of other tax credit programs. (This approach is distinct from programs that give individual families tax breaks for educational spending on their own children; Illinois has had such an initiative since 2000, while Minnesota has had one since 1955.)

Arizona’s and of Milwaukee’s policies look similar. In both places, students can receive a subsidy to attend a private school, and it comes at the expense of state revenue. But crucially, in Arizona, the government never had the money to begin with.

“The point was in part to ensure that these were not government-run programs,” Lisa Graham Keegan, who was Arizona’s school superintendent when the tax credit program passed, told Chalkbeat. “Those scholarships are completely separate, both for legal reasons and for philosophical reasons.”

Tax credits: the legal survivors

Private school choice across the country have been inundated with legal challenges, but tax credits have proven remarkably resilient.

Although voucher programs have continued to grow and were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002, they have also faced legal challenges in state courts. Colorado’s top court, for example, struck down a voucher program in 2015. (The case is currently being reconsidered in light of a recent Supreme Court decision.)

But tax credits have never ultimately lost in state or federal court, prevailing in Arizona, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, New Hampshire, and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Tax credits “grew up as a result of saying we need a different vehicle than vouchers in states that have legal issues,” said Robert Enlow, the president of EdChoice, an Indianapolis-based group that backs both vouchers and tax credits. (EdChoice is a funder of Chalkbeat.)

Often, cases have been thrown out before substantive arguments can be made, amounting to a win for the programs: Some courts have ruled that private organizations or individuals do not have legal standing to challenge tax credits, since they aren’t government expenditures.

That was the decision in the 2010 Supreme Court case Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn, in which the majority said equating government spending and tax credits was “incorrect.”

“When Arizona taxpayers choose to contribute to [scholarship organizations], they spend their own money, not money the State has collected,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote.

Light regulatory touch proves a blessing and a downside

To Arizona conservatives skeptical of both regulation and the education establishment, the system had an additional benefit.

“The point was in part to ensure that these were not government-run programs,” said Graham Keegan, and additionally that “these don’t become government dollars.”

Nationwide, tax credit scholarship programs appear less regulated than voucher programs, some of which require private school students to take state tests or for schools to undergo financial audits.

Free-market oriented supporters “see ‘neovouchers’ as much less likely to be regulated and have restrictions — the government strings attached — than a traditional voucher law,” said Kevin Welner, a University of Colorado professor who wrote a book on the rise of tax credit programs and is generally critical of them.

A 1998 essay published by the Mackinac Institute, a conservative Michigan think tank, made this case explicitly: “Tuition tax credits also create very different effects than vouchers. … Vouchers are more likely to be viewed as a rationale for regulating the entity that receives the subsidy.”

This has played out in practice. One analysis compared several voucher programs to a number of tax credit programs and found that, in almost all cases, vouchers were more regulated. Most tax credit systems had few, if any, financial reporting or disclosure requirements. (Notably, Florida’s program, the largest in the country, was the most regulated tax credit initiative.)

Many tax credit programs do not require participating students to take state exams, and if they do, the tests are rarely comparable to the assessments taken in public school. This means that while voucher programs have been widely studied, there is little research on the effect of receiving a tax credit scholarship.

Supporters of this approach argue that such requirements discourage private schools from participating.

Limited oversight, however, has proven something of a political liability, insofar as it has allowed for financial malfeasance. National media have drawn attention to how one prominent politician and advocate for Arizona’s program was also able to profit personally from it, for example.

“I think [limited regulation] is a feature that has some bugs,” said Enlow of EdChoice. “We need to have transparency. The programs, like Florida, which are very transparent and very open to data collection, I think are very important.” He declined to name any tax credit programs that, in his view, lacked sufficient transparency.

The use of the tax code has also raised another concern: Under some tax credit systems, “donors” can actually earn a profit by taking advantage of both state and federal tax breaks.

Selling tax credits

How exactly to brand tax credit programs has been the subject of fierce debates. Opponents have called them “neovouchers” and “voucher schemes,” while supporters sometimes portray them as entirely distinct from vouchers.

Tax credits tend to poll better than vouchers, and Welner thinks that may be because it’s less clear to most people what they are.

“People’s eyes get bleary and they tune out when people start talking about tax credits,” he said. “That helps to avoid a situation where they respond to it the same way they respond to a voucher proposal.”

Tax credits are essentially a tax cut, which can be a selling point for some, especially conservatives. Advocates sometimes also downplay the costs of tax credits to the government.

“Is it foregone revenue? Sure, but it doesn’t mean it’s the state’s revenue,” said Enlow.

The distinctions between vouchers and tax credits, though, may ultimately matter less to lawmakers in states where they are being debated. In Illinois, critics connected tax credits to vouchers, and Democrats were largely opposed to the tax credit initiative that ultimately passed.

“In my experience the arguments have been the same whether it’s a tax credit bill or a voucher bill when you’re talking with legislators,” Enlow said. “There’s some nuances, but it’s still the same.”

Incentives

Westminster district will give bonuses if state ratings rise, teachers wonder whether performance pay system is coming

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.

Teachers and employees in Westminster Public Schools will be able to earn a bonus if they help the struggling district improve its state ratings next year.

The district’s school board on Tuesday unanimously approved the $1.7 million plan for the one-year performance stipends, the district’s latest attempt to lift the quality of its schools.

School employees can earn $1,000 if their school meets a district-set score, or up to $2,000 if they reach a more ambitious goal the school sets. District employees, including the superintendent, can earn $1,000 if the district as a whole jumps up a rating next year.

“We recognize that everyone plays a critical role in increasing student achievement and we decided that if a particular school or the district as a whole can reach that next academic accreditation level, the employees directly responsible should be rewarded,” board president Dino Valente said in a statement.

The district is one of five that was flagged by the state for chronic low performance and was put on a state-ordered improvement plan this spring.

District officials have disputed state ratings, claiming the state’s system is not fairly assessing the performance of Westminster schools. Middle school teacher Melissa Duran, who also used to be president of the teacher’s union, drew a connection between that stance and the new stipends, saying any extra pay she gets would be based on one score.

“The district has gone to the state saying, ‘Why are you rating us on these tests, look at all the other things we’re doing’” Duran said. “Well, it’s the same thing for teachers. They’re still basing our effectiveness on a test score.”

Teachers interviewed Thursday said their first thoughts upon learning of the plan was that it sounded like the beginnings of performance pay.

“I already get the point that we are in need of having our test scores come up,” said math teacher Andy Hartman, who is also head of negotiations for the teacher’s union. “Putting this little carrot out there isn’t going to change anything. I personally do not like performance pay. It’s a very slippery slope.”

District leaders say they talked to all district principals after the announcement Wednesday, and heard positive feedback.

“A lot of the teachers think this is a good thing,” said Steve Saunders, the district’s spokesman.

National studies on the effectiveness of performance pay stipends and merit pay have shown mixed results. One recent study from Vanderbilt University concluded that they can be effective, but that the design of the systems makes a difference.

In Denver Public Schools, the district has a performance-pay system to give raises and bonuses to teachers in various situations. Studies of that model have found that some teachers don’t completely understand the system and that it’s not always tied to better student outcomes.

Westminster officials said they have never formally discussed performance pay, and said that these stipends are being funded for one year with an unanticipated IRS refund.

Westminster teachers said they have ideas for other strategies that could make a quick impact, such as higher pay for substitutes so teachers aren’t losing their planning periods filling in for each other when subs are difficult to find.

Waiting on a bonus that might come next year is not providing any new motivation, teachers said.

“It’s a slap in the face,” Duran said. “It’s not like we are not already working hard enough. Personally, I already give 110 percent. I’ve always given 110 percent.”

Last month, the school board also approved a new contract for teachers and staff. Under the new agreement, teachers and staff got a raise of at least 1 percent. They received a similar raise last year.