choice battleground

New-look school voucher program approved by divided Douglas County board

The Douglas County boardroom Tuesday in advance of another voucher vote (Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat Colorado).

CASTLE ROCK — Parents of Douglas County public school students would use taxpayer money to send their children to private schools — but not religious ones — under a revised school voucher program approved Tuesday night by a bitterly divided school board.

Limited in scope, the south suburban district’s School Choice Grant Program would be a pilot open to up to 500 students starting this fall.

The Colorado Supreme Court in June rejected the district’s original voucher program, adopted in 2011, as unconstitutional because it included religious schools. Members of the school board’s conservative majority took two paths in response: petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court, and quietly working to revise the program consistent with the state high court ruling.

After a heated debate, the board voted 4-3 to approve a policy revision essentially reviving the voucher program in a new form.

Board member Doug Benevento, who crafted the revision, portrayed it as a modest proposal to gauge interest and determine whether to proceed on a larger scale.

“One side is trying to expand choice for parents and students,” Benevento said, “and the other side is trying to shut it down.”

Three board members who ousted conservative incumbents in November questioned the timing and short notice, and argued that a voucher program robs public schools of dollars and exposes the district to another lawsuit.

“Private school is not a right,” said board member Anne-Marie LeMieux. “It’s a privilege.”

LeMieux called it a “massive overreach,” citing requirements that participating private schools demonstrate they run a “quality educational program,” prove themselves financial stable and provide copies of employment policies.

The school district established its original Choice Scholarship Program five years ago after a conservative takeover of the school board, arguing that competition can lift all schools even in a district consistently ranked as one of the state’s top achievers.

While most voucher programs are restricted to low-income students or those with special needs, Douglas County invited all families to apply, with a limit of 500 slots. Bringing 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. In a 4-3 judgment last June, the state’s highest court held that the 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.

As of last fall, the legal bill had been run up to about $1.2 million, officials said. The costs have been covered in full by private donations, the bulk of it coming from the Denver-based Daniels Fund, the district said.

Among the details of the proposal approved:

  • The voucher program will be run through a district office that would issue checks in students’ names and send them to participating schools. This is a departure from the 2011 voucher program, which called for establishing a charter school that would have served administrative functions.
  • Vouchers would be worth whichever is less — the full freight of tuition or 85 percent of state per pupil revenue. The superintendent would have discretion to provide more.
  • Students in the program would still take state assessments.

The resolution does not spell out how the district would determine whether interested schools meet the “religious” definition. Benevento has said 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.

During public testimony Tuesday, Cindy Barnard of Taxpayers for Public Education, a plaintiff in the lawsuit against Dougco’s original voucher program, said the new plan is not sound.

“Every dollar put into the voucher program is a dollar taken out of the public school system,” she said.

Said county resident Bob Kaser: “This voucher program is an entitlement scheme for high-income families.”

It is unclear how many Douglas County families would want to enroll their children in secular private schools. 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.

Denver Post staff writer John Aguilar contributed information to this report. 

Future of Schools

Indiana lawmakers are bringing back a plan to expand takeover for Gary and Muncie schools

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

It’s official: Lawmakers are planning to re-introduce a controversial plan to expand state takeover of the Gary and Muncie school districts when they come back May 14 for a one-day special session.

Indiana Republican leaders said they believe the plan, which would give control of Muncie schools to Ball State University and strip power from the Gary school board, creates opportunities for both districts to get on the right track after years of poor decision-making around finances.

“Two state entities year after year ignored requests from the legislature to get their fiscal health in order,” said Senate President David Long. “We understand there’s going to be some politics associated with it.”

But Indiana Democrats strongly oppose the takeovers, and House Minority Leader Terry Goodin, a Democrat from Austin, said bringing back the “heinous” takeover plan is too complicated to be dealt with in one day. Democrats had cheered when the bill unceremoniously died last month after lawmakers ran out of time during the regular session and lambasted Republican for calling for an extension to revisit it.

“This is not a thing that can be idly approved without full consideration,” Goodin said. “Because you are talking about the latest step to take the education of our children out of the hands of local school boards and parents and placing it under the control of Big Brother.”

But lawmakers’ push to expand district takeovers come as the state’s education officials are stepping back from taking control of individual schools. In this case, as with last year’s unprecedented bill that took over Gary schools, finances appear to be the driving motivation behind lawmakers’ actions, not academics. Typically, state takeover of schools has come as a consequence for years of failing state letter grades.

Gary schools have struggled for decades to deal with declining enrollment, poor financial management and poor academic performance. Although the Muncie district hasn’t seen the same kind of academic problems, it has been sharply criticized for mishandling a $10 million bond issue.

“All I had to hear is that a $10 million capital bond was used for operating expenses,” House Speaker Brian Bosma said, since those funds are intended to make improvements to buildings. “Fiscal irresponsibility is paramount, but also fiscal irresponsibility translates to educational irresponsibility as well.”

Bosma said that Ball State and Gary officials were on board with resurrecting House Bill 1315. Another part of the bill would develop an early warning system to identify districts in financial trouble.

The provisions in the bill would only apply to public school districts, but other types of schools, including online charter schools and private schools accepting taxpayer-funded vouchers, have had recent financial situations that have raised serious questions and even led to closure.

Bosma said those schools have their own fiscal accountability systems in place, but recent attempts to close gaps in state charter law and have private schools with voucher students submit annual reports to the state have gone mostly nowhere.

Both Bosma and Long said their plan to reconsider five bills during the special session, including House Bill 1315, had passed muster withGov. Eric Holcomb. But district takeover was not mentioned in Friday’s statement from Holcomb, nor did he say it was one of the urgent issues lawmakers should take up when he spoke to reporters in mid-March.

Instead, he reiterated his support for getting a $12 million loan from the state’s Common School Fund for Muncie schools and directing $10 million over the next two years to the state’s Secured School Fund. The money would allow districts to request dollars for new and improved school safety equipment and building improvements.

match day

On high school match day, two-thirds of Newark eighth graders want magnet schools — but far fewer will get them

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Keyon Lambert waited a long time for April 20th to arrive — the day when he and hundreds of other Newark students are discovering which high schools they’ve been matched with.

Long before this day, Keyon, an eighth-grader at Brick Avon Academy in the South Ward, spent hours poring over the test scores, class offerings, and graduation rates of the city’s high schools. As he awaited the results this week, he explained why he had invested so much time and thought into his application.

“If I went to a bad high school and got distracted — time flies by,” he said. “Senior year, I [might not] even know what I want to be, what college I want to go to. I probably miss out on a whole bunch of stuff. I’d probably be a dope by then.”

“But if I go to a good school,” he added, “I’ll be able to get my education and focus on the other things. Nothing, basically, will distract me.”

Newark students can apply to as many as eight high schools — traditional, magnet, or charter — through the district’s universal online application, and to the county-run vocational schools through a separate application. While the city has long offered competitive magnet schools alongside its traditional “comprehensive” high schools, the online system has made it easier for students to apply to multiple schools.

Still, each student only gets one match. And, as Keyon understood, some options are better than others. That leads many students to compete for the limited seats at the most selective schools, whose enrollments often do not match the overall demographic makeup of the district — a trend the school board has been probing.

Chalkbeat spoke to more than a dozen eighth-graders this week as high-school match day approached to understand their decisions. We’ll be checking back with some of them after they receive their matches Friday.

“There’s going to be a lot of tears,” said Jahida Gilbert, another Brick Avon eighth-grader, earlier this week.

The district’s six magnet high schools, which admit students based on their academic records or artistic talent, are by far the most popular option — and the most exclusive. Last year, more than two-thirds of incoming ninth-graders ranked a magnet school first on their applications, according to a new report on the city’s enrollment system. But just 31 percent of students across all grades who rank magnets first are actually admitted, and only 24 percent of Newark high schoolers wind up attending one of the coveted schools.

At the other end of the spectrum are the district’s eight comprehensive high schools. Unlike magnets, they cannot weed out students with low scores or poor attendance — they must admit anyone they have room for, or use a random lottery if they are oversubscribed. Partly as a result, they tend to serve far more students with disabilities, have many more students who are chronically absent, and post much lower test scores.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Brianna Padilla and Ahad Hall, eighth-graders at Hawthorne Avenue School.

About 10 percent of Newark students opt into one of the four technical-vocational schools run by Essex County, where they can join peers from other towns and study trades ranging from culinary arts to engineering while also earning a high-school diploma. Like the magnets, the “vo-tech” schools screen applicants. They look at students’ grades, test scores, disciplinary and attendance records, and the results of an entrance essay and interview.

Keyon ruled out the comprehensive high schools. But he did go for an interview at a vocational school, where the interviewer tried to assess Keyon’s personality by asking whether he’d rather be a lion or a bear. “I picked a lion because you could set a good example for others,” he explained.

He also explored a third category — charter high schools. Publicly funded but independently operated, those schools cannot screen applicants. However, several are affiliated with lower-grade charter schools that act as feeder schools, leaving few spots for other incoming ninth-graders. The charter high school Keyon applied to, Great Oaks Legacy, which includes pre-kindergarten to 12th-grade, reported having no available seats for students entering ninth-grade last year.

During his search, Keyon consulted his parents, who told him: “Be mature and pick the wise decision,” he said. Finally, he decided to apply to the vocational school (Essex County Newark Tech), along with two magnet schools (Science Park and American History) and two charter schools (KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy, in addition to Great Oaks Legacy).

Noon on April 20 was this year’s appointed hour, when families could start viewing their children’s matches — for elementary as well as high schools — on the enrollment website. The district also sends letters to students’ homes and gives copies to schools to hand out. Last school year, 41 percent of incoming ninth-graders were matched to their first choice, while 70 percent got one of their top three picks.

Brick Avon’s principal, Charity Haygood, said students shouldn’t despair if they don’t get into one of the most competitive schools. Some high-achieving students flourish at the city’s comprehensive schools, which also boast impressive sports teams and arts programs.

Still, Haygood is troubled by the knowledge that some of her students will be shut out of the selective schools where they applied. She hates to think that a less-than-stellar report card one year or a poor showing on the state tests — perhaps because of an upheaval at home — can determine the course of a student’s high-school career, and maybe well beyond that.

“The idea that we — at the age of 12 or 13 — tell a child their destiny. How dare we?” she said. “That’s devastating.”

Out of about 14,400 students who attended a public high school in Newark this school year, 45 percent go to one of the district’s traditional high schools and 24 percent attend a magnet school. Another 21 percent are enrolled in one of the city’s seven charter schools with high-school grades.

While each high school has its strengths and weaknesses, academic performance varies sharply across sectors, with the magnet sector on average outscoring the charter sector on state exams — and both sectors outperforming the comprehensive schools. One factor that impacts their performance is the share of students with disabilities they serve.

Among comprehensive high schools, 22 percent of incoming ninth-graders require special-education services, compared to 13 percent in magnet schools and 15 percent in charter schools, according to the new report on the city’s enrollment system by the Center for Public Research and Leadership at Columbia University and MarGrady Research.

One exception is People’s Preparatory Charter School, where 33 percent of ninth-graders have disabilities, according to founder and co-director Jessica Rooney.

“Our whole job is to make sure that we’re decreasing or eliminating barriers to a high-quality education,” she said.

Haneefah Webster with her daughter, Samiyah, an eighth-grader at George Washington Carver School.

To help families sort through all the options each year, the district publishes a 115-page guidebook, hosts two school fairs each year, and created an informational video on the website where families can apply to most district or charter schools using a single application. (The vo-tech schools use a separate system.)

Students also lean heavily on their teachers and guidance counselors to make sense of all the options. At Sussex Avenue Renew School in the Central Ward, seventh-grade teacher Amanda Grossi prints out the guidebook and goes through it page-by-page with students, helping them interpret the schools’ academic data and acceptance rates. She brings in former students to talk about the process and where they landed, and hosts a family night where parents can fill out the application.

While Grossi tries to help students make informed decisions, she worries about hardworking but middling students who fall into the “big divide” between magnet and comprehensive schools — and who, for all the dizzying options, have limited choices.

“There’s really no in-between,” she said.

For many parents, the solution is to push their children toward the magnets. Haneefah Webster encouraged her daughter, Samiyah, an eighth-grader at George Washington Carver School, to apply to Bard Early College High School, a magnet where students can earn two-year college degrees by graduation.

When she was her daughter’s age, Webster attended one of Newark’s traditional high schools, where she said she was a “math genius” and a “super honor roll student.” But when she entered a public college to study accounting, she soon found huge gaps in the math education she’d received. Before long, she switched her major to literature.

“That’s why I picked Bard” for Samiyah, she said. “So when she gets to college, she won’t have that struggle.”

Below are some of the eighth-graders we spoke with:

Valencia McDonald
Age: 13
Current school: Sussex Avenue Renew
Top choice: Bard Early College High School (magnet school)
Advice to next year’s eighth-graders: “Go to a school that you like, especially if they have a club day you want to go to — so you can enjoy your time there, and also learn.”

Jahida Gilbert
Age: 14
Current school: Brick Avon Academy
Top choice: Science Park High School (magnet school)
Advice: “Go beyond where you want to go — not what level your teachers say you’re at. [But] also, don’t choose too high, to where all the ones you choose you don’t get accepted so then you have to wait until they put you in one. Be reasonable with your grades — but try to go big too.”

Brianna Padilla
Age: 13
Current school: Hawthorne Avenue
Top choice: Essex County Newark Tech (vocational-technical school)
Advice: “Don’t let no one doubt you, whatever high school you want to go to. If you feel you want to go there, then go there.”

Jordan King
Age: 15
Current school: Hawthorne Avenue
Top choice: Science Park High School (magnet)
Observation: “The one thing I hate is the waiting part. Life is all about waiting.”