Decisions & Choices

Douglas County voucher supporters encouraged by Supreme Court decision in similar case

James Lyons, representing the Douglas County School District, speaks during oral arguments at the Colorado Supreme Court in the Douglas County vouchers case. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

A significant U.S. Supreme Court ruling Monday on a church-state issue opens a new chapter in a court fight over a Douglas County private school voucher program, with both supporters and opponents finding encouragement in the high court’s decision.

The court ruled that the state of Missouri violated the U.S. Constitution when it barred a church-run preschool from participating in a state program that repaved playgrounds.

While the court’s narrow 7-2 decision fell far short of legalizing private school voucher programs, it still has implications for the Douglas County program, which the state Supreme Court rejected.

Most likely, observers said, the Douglas County case will be kicked back to the Colorado Supreme Court for examination under the precedent the U.S. Supreme Court set with its new ruling. Or the U.S. Supreme Court could hear the case, the preferred outcome of voucher backers who would like to set a more sweeping precedent for their cause.

“This is a huge victory for folks who are believers in religious liberty,” said Ross Izard, a senior education policy analyst at the Independence Institute, a Denver-based free-market think tank. “Unfortunately for those of us who are invested in the school choice movement, it doesn’t accomplish everything we hoped it would.”

The legal fight over vouchers has engulfed the suburban school district south of Denver since 2011. That’s when a new conservative school board established the Choice Scholarship Program.

Unlike other voucher programs, which are designed to provide low-income families with educational alternatives, the Douglas County program was opened to all students in the district with a median household income of $107,650.

Lawyers representing the Douglas County School District and families who participated in the voucher program before it was halted by a lower court said they expect the Supreme Court to decide this week whether they’ll take up the years long debate over the voucher program.

“We’re certainly encouraged,” said William Trachman, general counsel for the Douglas County School District. “The policy reasons that underlie the program are to give students educational choice. That’s what Douglas County cares about.”

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that the Douglas County School District’s voucher program, which would have allowed parents to use taxpayer dollars to send their students to private religious schools, was unconstitutional.

The state’s constitution includes a provision that forbids tax dollars to be used by religious institutions. Colorado is one 38 states that have these so-called Blaine Amendments.

The district, along with three Douglas County families and Colorado’s attorney general, later appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court has held the case for nearly two years as it considered the Missouri case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer.

In that case, Trinity Lutheran sued the state of Missouri after it prohibited the church from participating in a state program that used recycled tires to resurface playgrounds.

The U.S. Supreme Court said the state could not prohibit the church from participating in the program since the benefit of the program — new asphalt for the playground — was secular and did not further the church’s religious mission.

That’s an important distinction opponents to the Douglas County voucher program highlighted in reacting to the decision.

“The majority opinion in Trinity Lutheran explicitly distinguished the facts in that case from cases like ours where government funds run afoul of state anti-establishment clauses because the funds are being used to pay for religious education,” Cindy Barnard, president of Taxpayers for Public Education, a nonprofit that supports traditional public schools, in a statement. Barnard was the original plaintiff in the Douglas County voucher case.

Mark Silverstein, legal director of the Colorado ACLU, one of the organizations that argued against the voucher program, echoed Barnard.

“The Douglas County school district’s voucher program violated the state’s constitution as of yesterday. It violates the state constitution even today,” he said. “This case today is not about using public money for religious indication. And that’s a distinction I believe most of the justices see as important.”

Accountable

New York is about to release a new list of struggling schools. Here’s what you should know.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School.

New York officials are gearing up to announce which schools are low-performing enough to need intervention from the state — the first time schools will be identified under a sweeping new accountability system.

Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, signed in 2015 by President Barack Obama, states got more leeway to figure out which schools are underperforming and how to support those that don’t measure up and even have some say in what metrics should go into that determination.

Now, after years of planning and incorporating feedback from educators, parents, and policy experts, state officials are finally about to say which schools are considered struggling under the new framework. A school’s standing with the state can have big implications: It can steer parents toward some schools or away from others and can result in more stringent oversight by the state and escalating consequences for schools — theoretically including closure, although this threat has seldom materialized — if they don’t show eventual improvement.

The state’s new approach is designed to emphasize criteria beyond test scores and graduation rates, factors that were weighted heavily under No Child Left Behind, the 2002 law that previously governed school ratings nationwide. Although those measures will still predominate, New York is now free to elevate several other metrics to capture a more nuanced portrait of schools.

New jargon will replace labels that once defined levels of performance — such as “priority” or “focus” schools. (New York City at one point assigned letter grades to individual schools, but the state never embraced such report cards, which it will continue to avoid.)

As the state is set to release the new ratings, here’s what you should know about the new system, the new terminology for schools that measure up or don’t, and how it could affect schools in the city and across the state.

How will schools now qualify as struggling?

One of the biggest changes is a greater emphasis on student growth. Under the old framework, the state focused primarily on absolute thresholds on state exams — such as whether a student was proficient in reading by the fourth grade.

Schools will now receive separate ratings for growth and proficiency on a 1-4 scale; if their combined rating on those measures is still considered a “1” — an indication the school is among the bottom 10 percent statewide — the school can be designated as needing extra intervention. (In addition to reading and math, science exams will now be included in the overall proficiency rating.)

The emphasis on growth is designed to encourage schools to consider the needs of all students — not just those on the cusp of proficiency, whom some schools used to concentrate on under the old system in hopes of inching these students over the proficiency threshold.

Schools will also get more credit for making progress even if students remain below the proficiency cutoff for multiple years, a recognition that students who start off substantially behind aren’t realistically going to hit targets immediately but should show continued improvement.

Depending on how schools perform on those academic measures, other new metrics will also kick in, such as how much academic progress schools are producing among English learners and rates of chronic absenteeism, defined as the share of a school’s students who miss 10 percent or more of the academic year; in time, New York also intends to factor in student suspensions.

For high schools, getting students to graduate is still the major benchmark. But state officials are placing less emphasis on the four-year graduation rate and will be looking instead at whether 67 percent of students graduate between four and six years. This threshold is significantly below the current citywide average. Schools that still can’t clear this relatively low bar will automatically face state oversight, which has raised concerns among alternative schools that serve students who are unlikely to graduate on time (though individual schools may appeal).

The state will also look at how prepared students are for college or career once they graduate, including how many earn an advanced diploma, career certificates, or take accelerated coursework.

What are the consequences of not measuring up?

State officials say that the new framework is meant to move away from severe consequences to support.

“This is not about naming and shaming schools,” said Ira Shwartz, an associate commissioner at the state’s education department.

As a result, ESSA is is introducing all new terminology, without the punitive connotations of the past, for the four new broad bands of school performance. At the bottom, representing schools that will receive the most oversight from the state, are Comprehensive Support and Improvement Schools, followed by those needing Targeted Support and Improvement.

Schools in these bottom two tiers will be required to submit self-assessments that explain the ways their schools are falling short and craft a plan, including “evidence-based” approaches — such as “looping,”  the practice of having the same teachers stay with a cohort of students for multiple years, state officials said — and additional teacher training. Schools in the bottom-most tier must also set aside at least $2,000, a fund that students and families can vote on how to use in a process known as “participatory budgeting.”

If these interventions don’t lead to progress, schools then have to submit more detailed information to the state and may receive help from outside organizations. After three years of insufficient progress, schools already in the bottom tier can end up in a separate, existing program known as Receivership. It gives districts more latitude to restructure schools by making staff changes that may involve sidestepping union rules, the only scenario under the state’s new framework that calls for potential personnel changes. And two years after that, schools that continue to miss their goals could face takeover or closure.

Schools in the “targeted” support category, or second-lowest rung, will face less direct oversight from the state and will be identified primarily on whether a specific subgroup of students — such as different racial groups, students with disabilities or English learners — are particularly low-performing. The idea is to coax schools to reduce the performance disparities that can exist between subsets of students. Local districts will primarily oversee the improvement plans of these schools (instead of the state). This year, only schools identified under the old accountability system are eligible for “targeted” support, state officials said, though schools across the state will be eligible next year.

Will any schools actually face severe consequences for not meeting New York’s ESSA goals?

Probably not.

Even under the old, more stringent system, officials were reluctant to pursue overhauls of specific schools. The state’s education department has steadily reduced the number of schools in the current Receivership program, for instance, and has moved to close just one school in New York City in recent years. 

Without big consequences will schools have an incentive to work to improve?

Some of the plan’s supporters insist yes, saying ESSA will nudge schools to pay attention to a wider range of factors, such as chronic absenteeism and student growth, that can have an impact on student performance, increasing the chances they will be addressed.

Ian Rosenblum, the executive director of the advocacy organization Education Trust-NY, who has followed the development of the new accountability system closely, thinks schools will respond. “When the state says that it is going to hold schools accountable for student achievement plus other important outcomes like college and career readiness and reducing suspensions and chronic absenteeism, it sends a powerful and valuable message about where schools and districts should focus their energy,” he said.

But given the new system’s complexity and unfamiliarity — all the new jargon and strategies educators must grapple with after more than a dozen years of No Child Left Behind, which was also greeted with optimism — it’s not clear if school leaders have an appetite for this new matrix of assessments. Also unclear: how long it might realistically take before schools can pinpoint and execute interventions that can help move the needle.

Al Marlin, a spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association, said in an emailed statement that “while the process for making these determinations is complex, it may need to be so in order to account for the broad variety of local circumstances and student needs in schools around New York.”

State officials plan to create a dashboard that summarizes a school’s benchmarks so parents understand how their school stacks up, but it is not clear when that will be publicly released.

What about schools that decide to boycott state exams?

It’s possible that schools where more than 5 percent of students sit out state exams over multiple years will eventually have to come up with a plan to boost test participation. But officials said there are no other consequences for high opt-out rates, and they would likely have little impact in New York City, where relatively few students boycott the tests.

six months in

As Newark superintendent makes whirlwind changes, some residents seek ‘clarity’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León has made a flurry of policy changes since starting in July. But some observers still aren't clear about his overall vision.

A whirlwind of activity. A legion of initiatives. A blitz of meetings. Pick your metaphor — Superintendent Roger León has been busy.

In his first six months as Newark schools chief, León has overhauled the district’s central office; launched a wide-ranging assortment of programs involving high schools, testing, technology, and more; and offered a litany of wildly ambitious promises, including a vow to make Newark “the highest-performing school district in the country.”

León’s maximalist approach has thrilled many residents who find it invigorating to hear a Newark native present a vision of greatness for a school system that, until February, spent two decades under state control. In recent years, the 36,000-student district has attracted national notoriety mainly for its struggles and the pitched battles that erupted when outside reformers tried to reshape the city’s schools.

But León’s jam-packed agenda and sweeping promises have also raised concerns, even among those rooting for him to succeed — an unease that León may be hoping to address Wednesday evening at a community forum on the district’s future.

Observers have privately asked how the new leader’s disparate initiatives fit together, and whether he can pull them all off simultaneously. Occasionally, their frustration has bubbled to the surface, as when some board members refused to approve some of León’s requests until they knew more about his plans or when Mayor Ras Baraka urged León to make those plans public.

Even the name of León’s elaborate strategy — “NPS Clarity 2020” — has baffled some people, who are unsure when it starts and what it entails. They are hoping the forum will address some of those concerns.

As a former Newark Public Schools educator and administrator, León brings a wealth of experience and institutional knowledge to the job, said Antoinette Baskerville Richardson, the mayor’s chief education officer. While León obviously “has a big vision,” she added, it is imperative that he share detailed plans with the public — especially after 22 years of state control, when officials had license to make wholesale changes without locals’ consent.

“I think a lot of stakeholders are looking for more clarity — and it’s up to the superintendent to bring that,” she said. “Folks are looking for substantive plans.”

After a quarter-century working in the district, León started July 1 with strong convictions about what approaches work in schools — and which don’t. But as he’s rushed to reverse policies he considers ineffective and enact alternatives, schools and partner groups have often had to scramble to keep up.

In June, he tried to oust top district officials before informing the school board, which then rejected some of the staffing changes. In September, he axed a program that extended the hours of struggling schools — resulting in scheduling changes just days before classes began. Last month, he cast doubt on a program that brought extra services to several South Ward schools, leaving the schools and their partner organizations uncertain about its future.

At the same time, he has undertaken several efforts of his own. While most new superintendents are eager to start making their mark, León’s aggressive timeline and ambitious agenda have run up against roadblocks.

He is planning a redesign of the city’s high schools, including changes to the admissions process for magnet schools and new career-themed academies inside the traditional schools. However, the new magnet admissions test was recently postponed, and the district has not formally announced the themes and partners of the new academies. Meanwhile, the enrollment period for next school year is already underway.

León has also promised to tackle one of the district’s most dire and long-standing challenges — absenteeism. One in three Newark students missed the equivalent of a month or more of school days last year, qualifying them as “chronically absent.” The crux of León’s plan for getting students to school is to rehire attendance counselors who were laid off by his predecessor. However, labor rules have complicated the rehiring process, leaving many of the counselor positions unfilled five months into the school year.

Other new superintendents might be content with these already ambitious goals: revamping the district’s high schools and combating severe absenteeism. But León has not stopped there. He has personally reviewed student transcripts and conducted teacher trainings; negotiated changes to the city’s enrollment system with charter-school leaders; and ordered comprehensive audits of the district’s teaching materials and facilities.

León has described different parts of his agenda to different audiences at meetings large and small with parents, district employees, students, union leaders, and local philanthropies. However, members of the public who aren’t invited to all of these gatherings and can’t make the public school-board meetings may have a limited view of León’s entire agenda. His administration seldom holds press conferences or posts summaries of his initiatives on the district website, and reporters’ questions often go unanswered. (A spokeswoman did not respond to questions for this story.)

Deborah Smith-Gregory, president of the Newark NAACP and a former district teacher, said she is eager to learn how León will incorporate all of the feedback he has received into a clear plan with measurable goals.

“He’s doing a lot of outreach,” she said. “But after you get all of those opinions, how do you prioritize what you’re going to pay attention to and implement something that can be measured?”

León may begin to answer that question at the forum Wednesday evening at Central High School. A public notice for the event says it will include a discussion of “goals and timelines” for Clarity 2020, along with a 10-year district roadmap León is crafting and various policy reviews he is conducting.

The event will also kick off a series public meetings intended to gather input for a new three-year strategic plan for the district, according to the notice. León’s predecessor, Christopher Cerf, organized a similar planning process in 2016 to create the district’s current strategic plan.

Whether Wednesday’s forum will leave the public with a clearer sense of León’s overarching vision remains to be seen. But some of the superintendent’s most ardent supporters say they already know enough.

“He’s planning to turn this into the most successful district in the state,” said Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon. “What’s obtuse about that?”