school choice battle

Douglas County School District to appeal voucher case to U.S. Supreme Court

Douglas County school board president Kevin Larsen, left, and board member Craig Richardson. ( Photo by Nicholas Garcia )

Two months after Colorado’s highest court rejected the Douglas County School District’s controversial school voucher program, officials in the wealthy, high-achieving suburban district announced Wednesday they will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case.

The district also gained a key ally in the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, which will be filing its own petition backing the district’s Choice Scholarship Program, district officials said.

The district’s move is not a surprise. District leaders all but promised to take the step after the Colorado Supreme Court held in a 4-3 judgment June 29 that the program violated a state constitutional provision barring spending public money on religious schools.

District officials also followed through on their pledge to enlist elite legal help, announcing their team would be headlined by Paul Clement, a former U.S. solicitor general who has been mentioned as a potential Republican appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The AG’s office signing on is another boost to the district. After the state Supreme Court ruling, Republican AG Cynthia Coffman issued a statement lamenting districts “now have one fewer tool to support parents in choosing the education that best fits their children’s needs.” A spokesman for the AG said the office would not be issuing any statements Wednesday commenting on its involvement in the Dougco case.

“When the Colorado Supreme Court’s opinion was announced in late June, we promised a careful, thorough and rigorous legal analysis to determine our next steps,” school board president Kevin Larsen said in a statement. “Today we announce that we will be seeking U.S. Supreme Court review of our case. To achieve that end, we have retained the very best legal minds in the country to make our argument that the June 29 opinion runs afoul of the United States Constitution.”

Mixed legal results on vouchers

Just about every program nationwide that uses public money to subsidize private education has been tested in court, with mixed results but the majority surviving, analysts say. Framers of the Dougco pilot program modeled it on an Ohio voucher program that weathered a U.S. Supreme Court challenge.

Legal experts disagree on whether the nation’s highest court will take the Douglas County case. Some say it’s unlikely the court would wade into a case brought solely on a state constitutional matter. Others argue the anti-Catholic roots of Colorado’s law – similar to those in more than 35 other states – and other issues make it a strong candidate and could plow new ground beyond traditional arguments over the First Amendment.

The district has signaled it will argue that prejudiced history taints the law enough that it violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. Opponents of the voucher program point to precedent holding that state courts can interpret their own constitutions to recognize broader rights than what might be afforded under the U.S. Constitution.

The involvement of Clement — who as U.S. solicitor general from 2005 to 2008 represented the federal government in U.S. Supreme Court arguments — is another wrinkle.

Larsen said Clement will be supported by a “dream team” of lawyers involved in the state court proceedings and scholars from “the highest ranking law schools in America.”

Alan Chen, a constitutional law expert at the University of Denver’s Strum College of Law, said Wednesday he does not believe the Colorado Attorney General’s Office involvement will factor in whether the court takes the case. While crediting Clement’s stature and experience, Chen said he remains skeptical the court will grant the review because the case is built entirely on state constitutional law.

Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU of Colorado, which represented most of the individual plaintiffs, noted that the Attorney General’s office has been involved from the beginning. The State Board of Education was one of the defendants and was represented by the AG’s office.

Silverstein said he “wants to see what they write and how they frame the issue” in the petition to the Supreme Court before commenting further.

An unorthodox voucher program

The Dougco voucher case has endured a long and bumpy road. The district established the Choice Scholarship Program in 2011 after a conservative takeover of the school board, reasoning that competition can lift all schools even in a district consistently ranked as one of the state’s top academic achievers.

While most voucher programs are restricted to low-income students or those with special needs, Douglas County invited all families to apply — although the program was limited to 500 slots. Sixteen of the 23 participating private schools were religious; 14 were outside the county.

Highlands Ranch High School science teacher Bob MacArthur leads a class discussion May 16 on propaganda art. His ninth grade science class was asked to design a propaganda poster in support of an energy source they have been studying.
Highlands Ranch High School science teacher Bob MacArthur leads a class discussion May 16 on propaganda art. His ninth grade science class was asked to design a propaganda poster in support of an energy source they have been studying.

In 2011, the first 304 students were about to enroll when a lawsuit brought it to a halt. Voucher opponents prevailed in Denver District Court. But in 2013, the Colorado Court of Appeals upheld the program’s constitutionality in a 2-1 vote, setting the stage for state Supreme Court arguments.

In the prevailing opinion, Supreme Court Chief Justice Nancy Rice cited Colorado’s “stark constitutional provision” forbidding the use of public money to fund religious schools. Although the money came in the form of financial aid to students, the prohibition is not limited to direct funding, she wrote.

School board member Craig Richardson said in an interview the decision to continue the legal fight is consistent with the district’s “broader strategic vision of freedom.” That, he said, includes empowering parents to choose their children’s schools and extends to the district’s teacher pay-for-performance system.

“The district is proceeding because it’s good for the Douglas County School District to proceed,” Richardson said.

District looking at proceeding with secular schools

He said the district has yet to complete a separate legal review of whether it can move ahead with the voucher program with changes. The district previously floated the possibility of revamping the program as early as this fall, but ran out of time before the school year began.

One question the district is evaluating, Richardson said, is whether moving forward only with secular private schools would meet the legal parameters of the state Supreme Court ruling. Given that most students chose to enroll in religious schools, it’s unclear how much appeal that would hold.

The decision to petition the high court – and assemble the high-powered legal team — also will send legal costs soaring beyond the $1.2 million the district already has reported. District officials say private donations have covered all costs.

“We continue to have as our goal that all legal costs associated with this case will be funded with the generous contributions of private donors who similarly believe in choice and competition in K-12 education and are not affiliated with any religious institutions,” Richardson said. “We strongly believe this is not a cause to which we want to put taxpayer dollars.”

The district faces a deadline at the end of September to ask for a U.S. Supreme Court review. Richardson said the district plans to ask for a month’s extension to file but will move forward even if that is denied.

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