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Voucher program would be revived in Douglas County under proposal — minus religious schools

Douglas County parents protest the district's voucher program in 2010 (Denver Post photo)

The Douglas County School District would take another shot at launching a school voucher program — this time excluding religious schools to abide by a court ruling — under a proposal from a member of the school board’s conservative majority.

In a draft document provided to Chalkbeat, board member Doug Benevento sketches out a proposal to amend the district’s previous voucher program, which the Colorado Supreme Court struck down last June.

Benevento said he has been conferring with board president Meghann Silverthorn and the board attorney on a resolution laying out the amended voucher pilot program. He said he submitted it to Silverthorn for placement on the agenda for Tuesday’s board meeting, which has yet to be finalized.

“This is not the program we wanted to run,” Benevento said. “We did not want to run a program that would force us into a position of making a determination of who is faith-based or not, and be exclusionary based on faith. However, that is the ruling of the Colorado Supreme Court.”

In a 4-3 judgment last June, the state’s highest court held that the district’s Choice Scholarship Program violated a state constitutional provision barring spending public money on religious schools.

District officials petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court and are awaiting word on whether the court will take the case.

The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia complicated matters. If a court short one justice were to hear the case and rule 4-4, it would affirm the state Supreme Court’s decision.

School district officials floated the possibility of a purely secular voucher program last fall. Benevento said Scalia’s death did not play a role in the decision to proceed. He said the district is pressing on with the legal case, and will include language in the amended voucher program that will open it back up to religious schools if the court were to rule in its favor.

Even with religious schools stripped out, any voucher program is certain to be opposed by those against taking taxpayer money out of the public school system to pay for private education.

“This is the very first I have ever heard of anything remotely close to this, so that is a kind of a shock,” said Wendy Vogel, who joined the Douglas County school board after November’s election that saw three challengers unseat conservative incumbents.

“I will say I am against vouchers,” she said. “I always have been against vouchers. But other than that broad statement, I don’t know I could say anything else without seeing what he is presenting.”

Under the amended proposal, the district would develop a process for analyzing the policies, board structures and curriculum of schools that wish to participate and bar those deemed religious as defined in state law, Benevento said.

Of the 23 private schools accepted into the original program, 16 were religious and 14 were outside Douglas County. More than nine in 10 students taking part chose religious schools.

The new plan would abandon another contentious element — establishing a charter school that would have served administrative functions including being the conduit for state per-pupil funding flowing to the voucher program. Benevento said the amended program would be run out of a district office.

He called the charter school discussion a “distraction” — that piece of the program angered many in the charter community — and said it wasn’t necessary for the program to pass legal muster.

As many as 500 students could take part in the new voucher program at any one time, starting as soon as this fall. But it is unclear how many Douglas County families would want to enroll their children in secular private schools, or whether secular private schools in metro Denver have the interest or space to accommodate them.

The school district established its 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.

The novel attempt to bring vouchers to a wealthy district with no shortage of strong district-run and charter schools attracted national notice.

In 2011, the first 304 students were about to enroll when a lawsuit brought it to a halt. So began the legal fight that continues. District officials have said private donations have covered all costs, which last fall stood at about $1.2 million.

Anne Kleinkopf, a board member of Taxpayers for Public Education, an original plaintiff  in the lawsuit against the voucher program, said Thursday she also would need to wait until the full plan is revealed and then review it before commenting.

Given an overview by Chalkbeat, she said: “None of that surprises me.”

The school district could find itself involved in yet more litigation if the amended voucher program gets off the ground and a religious school seeking to take part is turned away.

“Certainly, there is an exclusion of faith-based schools that we would prefer to have included,” Benevento said. “The Colorado Supreme Court didn’t see it that way. If there is some collision between what the Colorado Supreme Court says we are allowed to do and what federal law or previous federal opinions are in this area, that’s possible.”

“Our goal is to provide another option to our parents,” he continued. “But I can’t predict whether there will be additional litigation. I am hopeful to provide the next increment of choice for our parents.”

Here is his draft proposal:


‘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.”