back in court

Lawsuit from conservative group challenges Douglas County voucher program barring religious schools

PHOTO: John Leyba/The Denver Post
Douglas County school officials last year after the state Supreme Court rejected their voucher program.

A conservative legal group representing three Douglas County families filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday challenging a recently revamped school district voucher program that excludes religious schools.

The Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice is the same group that helped lead the defense of the original voucher program, which was open to faith-based schools.

The Colorado Supreme Court found that initiative to be unconstitutional, and the district’s attempt to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case is in limbo.

In March, a divided Douglas County school board approved a new-look pilot voucher program that members of the board’s conservative majority say meets the criteria of the state high court decision.

The affluent south suburban district’s School Choice Grant Program would be open to up to 500 students starting this fall. It’s unclear what kind of interest the program will generate, since the overwhelming majority of students who sought vouchers through the original program sought to enroll in religious schools that may no longer participate.

The new lawsuit gives fodder for critics who suggested the school board majority’s motivation in crafting the new program was to invite a lawsuit that might result in a more favorable legal outcome — or at least a shot at one.

The families named as plaintiffs in the new lawsuit want to send their children to Valor Christian High School in Highlands Ranch. Two of the three families have older children who were set to enroll at Valor in 2011 under the original voucher program but couldn’t because of a court injunction, said Michael Bindas, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice.

“With this lawsuit, we hope to ensure that Douglas County’s School Choice Grant Program is open to all students, regardless of whether they wish to attend a religious or nonreligious school,” Bindas said in a statement. “Parents know better than anyone which school will work best for their child, and they should not be denied the choice of that school simply because it is religious.”

The complaint argues that the revamped voucher program “violates parents’ fundamental liberty to direct the education and upbringing of their children—a right protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It also violates the governmental neutrality toward religion demanded by the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Paula Hans, a district spokeswoman, said the program was written to meet the state constitutional limitations as outlined by the Colorado Supreme Court in its ruling. Though it is seeking to reverse that decision, the district “still seeks to maximize the ability of families to match their students with the best educational environment to meet their unique needs,” she said.

Bindas, however, criticized school district officials for excluding religious schools in the new program.

“I am disturbed by it and wish they had not adopted a program that engages in the very type of discrimination they’re making an issue of in the (U.S.) Supreme Court,” he said. “I don’t know what their motivations were … We are on record as saying this was a bad idea, and they should have waited for what happens in the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Board member Doug Benevento, who crafted the revised voucher program, responded that Bindas “has the benefit of sitting 2,000 miles away in a Washington D.C. think tank, and telling people to wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to get their kids the education they think their children need.” The board, he said, adopted a program allowed under the state Supreme Court decision.

“We were going to take the ground that was given to us,” he said.


moving on up

Jeffco on track to move most of next year’s sixth-graders into middle school buildings

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Jeffco Public Schools is moving forward with plans to put the majority of its sixth-graders in middle schools instead of elementary schools starting next fall, a shift district officials say will both better utilize building space and ease what can be a rough transition for kids.

The change, announced more than a year ago, will bring the state’s second largest school district into alignment with how most Colorado districts split up elementary and middle school.

Jeffco will continue to operate models that break that mold, including longstanding K-8 schools and a newer experiment with 7th through 12th grade schools officials say has shown promise.

Some critics continue to voice concerns about the plan, including questioning the cost and comparing that to what they say will result in a questionable benefit for students’ educations. District officials, however, say parents are getting their questions answered and educators are hearing fewer concerns than before.

The issue has come up at forums for school board candidates running this fall, and Jeffco staff last week at a regular board meeting updated the school board.

Marcia Anker, who started in July as the district’s sixth grade transition coordinator, said that some Jeffco schools individually started asking to make the change more than 10 years ago. Some individual middle schools had already been allowed to start enrolling sixth graders.

District officials say they estimate 3,355 students due to be sixth graders next year will be attending a middle school in 2018-19 instead of staying in an elementary school.

Many of the players involved in the initial discussions to move sixth grade out of elementary schools aren’t in the district anymore, including former superintendent Dan McMinimee.

Current district leaders say it was a conversation that began with district officials who oversee use of buildings, but that the decision wasn’t driven by building concerns.

Still, building use is a factor. Tim Reed, executive director of Jeffco facilities said middle school buildings in Jeffco were designed to hold three grade levels and have been underutilized.

“I think the conversation has always been about what’s best for students,” Reed said. “There was a recognition that there was significant underutilization in our middle school buildings. This was a way to accomplish two things including to better utilize middle schools.”

National research on middle school grade configurations has not been keen on sixth through eighth grade models. One study comparing students in sixth through eighth grade schools to students in schools that are K-8 schools found that student test scores weren’t different, but found more negative perceptions among students in traditional middle schools.

Jeffco board members and staff who have touted the benefits that sixth graders will see in a middle school point out that students will get a chance to start exploring their career interests with elective classes and have more time to develop relationships with staff in the middle schools.

Karen Quanbeck, interim chief school effectiveness officer and a previous middle school principal in the district, said at last week’s board meeting that two years with students is not enough.

“It seems like you’re welcoming them and in the blink of an eye you’re sending them off to high school,” Quanbeck said.

But some schools will need to continue with the seventh and eighth grade model for at least one more year. Because the empty middle school seats aren’t evenly spread throughout the district, some schools will require expansions to make room for new sixth graders.

The school board has already approved the funding to build a $10 million addition to Drake Middle School and a $4.5 million addition to Dunstan Middle School to accommodate the changes. Another $2 million in reserves will be used to make minor fixes at five other schools.

Three schools — Ken Caryl, Creighton and Summit Ridge — will delay their transition to the new model because the district estimates it needs to find another $15.5 million to add eight classrooms to each school.

Two years ago, in a bid to help lift student achievement, the district merged some schools to create two seventh-through-12 schools: Alameda and Jefferson junior and senior high schools. Those schools will retain that model.

Principals at those schools say they are seeing small benefits from the change. Though the neighborhoods are traditionally higher in poverty and mobility, Anker said that principals tell her students are staying in the school at a higher rate than before.

Still, Anker said one model is not better than another.

“Matriculation models that offer the fewest transitions are what benefits kids,” Anker said.

While there may be some benefits to having every Jeffco middle school offer the same grades — for instance, so parents choosing different schools across the district have consistency — the cost of doing that would also be prohibitive, Anker said.

“We also value the differences in our communities,” Anker said.

The district in the coming months will need to find a way to fund the remaining middle school expansions. Officials also will help some sought-after schools decide if they will cut down the number of seventh and eighth graders they enroll, or ask for help to build out space as well.

vegetarian options

Want your Brooklyn school to go meatless on Mondays? Here’s your chance.

PHOTO: Helen Richardson, The Denver Post

Goodbye, ground beef and popcorn chicken. Hello, crispy tofu and roasted chickpea tagine.

Starting next spring, 15 Brooklyn schools will begin “meatless Mondays” — an effort to make school lunches and breakfasts a little healthier and friendlier to the environment, officials said Monday.

The city has not yet picked the schools that will participate in the pilot program, and an education spokeswoman said the city will make decisions based on interest and public input. (Whether the city is prepared for a barrage of requests from health-minded Park Slope parents is another matter.)

The announcement comes less than two months after city officials made lunch free for all students regardless of income. Monday’s press conference was held at Brooklyn’s P.S. 1 — one of three district schools that only serves vegetarian fare — and drew Mayor Bill de Blasio, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

“Cutting back a little on meat will help make our city healthier and our planet stronger for generations to come,” de Blasio said in a statement, adding that meat will no longer be served at Gracie Mansion on Mondays.

You can read more about the program here.