over and out

Douglas County school board ends controversial voucher program

Cindy Barnard, second from left, applauds after the Douglas County school board voted to end the district's voucher program. Barnard is one of the original plaintiffs in the voucher court case. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

CASTLE ROCK — The Douglas County school board voted Monday to end a controversial private-school voucher program and directed the school district to end a long-running legal battle that reached the nation’s highest court.

The board voted 6-0 at a standing-room-only meeting to rescind the program, which was put on a hold in 2011 by a Denver District Court judge before families could use it.

The program was a prime fault line in an election this fall that saw voucher opponents take full control of the board.

“Public funds should not be diverted to private schools, which are not accountable to the public,” said board member Krista Holtzmann.

The Colorado Supreme Court, which earlier this summer was directed by the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit the case, will have the ultimate say in whether the legal challenge will end.

However, the court usually does not consider moot cases, said Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU of Colorado, a plaintiff in the case.

The board’s action is a blow to conservative education reform advocates and voucher supporters in Colorado and across the country. Proponents of vouchers had hoped a victory at the U.S. Supreme Court would set a national precedent.

The legal question at the center of the voucher debate is whether a local school district can send tax dollars to private-religious institutions. A majority of the schools that enrolled in the Douglas County voucher system, known as the Choice Scholarship Program, were religious.

The Colorado Supreme Court in 2015 ruled that the district could not because the state’s constitution forbid it. The U.S. Supreme Court gave voucher supporters renewed hope earlier this year when in a similar case it issued a narrow ruling for a preschool run by a church.

A network of voucher supporters have argued that such constitutional prohibitions, known as Blaine Amendments, are rooted in Catholic bigotry and are outdated.

Americans for Prosperity, a political nonprofit that advocates for free-market policies including private school vouchers, announced Friday it was spending “five-figures” to warn Douglas County parents about the board’s decision to end the program and monitor the board’s action going forward.

“The new school board must put the needs of school children before any political belief,” Jesse Mallory, the group’s Colorado state director, said in a statement. “Ending this program before it even has a chance to succeed and provide real change in our communities would be extremely shortsighted. If the board believes they should deny children more educational opportunities, AFP-Colorado will hold them accountable.”

Opponents of vouchers, who showed up in force Monday night, presented a lengthy lists of claims against private schools and vouchers. Some argued that private schools discriminate against students. Others suggested vouchers were part of a scheme to privatize education.

“What happens to the educational quality of children in the community school where there is less money to work with because of the voucher outflow?” said one speaker, Barbara Gomes Barlow, who has grandchildren in Douglas County schools. “It is diminished. It’s a fiction to believe that vouchers open up choice for all students. They do not.”

Monday’s meeting comes nearly one month after four anti-voucher candidates — Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor and Kevin Leung — resoundingly won seats on the board. Their opponents campaigned to keep the legal fight alive.

“This is what you were elected to do — serve the taxpayers in a public school district,” said Stephanie Van Zante, another county resident who spoke during public comment. “Ending this policy shows that this board has returned its focus to local educational practices and not national politics.”

Leung, who is a plaintiff in the legal case against the voucher program, recused himself from voting on ending the program.

For Cindy Barnard, the original plaintiff in the legal fight, Monday’s decision was six years in the making.

“I’ve been working on this for a long time and I’m very, very happy to hear the district rescind the program,” Barnard said. “Knowing that public school funds will stay in our public schools — it’s a good day.”

Correction: This article has been updated to better reflect how Americans For Prosperity is spending “five-figures” to monitor the Douglas County school board in general. 

Education Inequalities

Is Michigan ready for a ‘grand bargain’ to improve its struggling education system?

PHOTO: Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat
Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of the Grand Rapids school district, speaks during a panel discussion that also featured, from left, Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and former U.S. Education Secretary John King.

A new political dynamic in Lansing has put Michigan in a position to potentially see the kind of education transformation that helped catapult Massachusetts to its status as the top-performing state in the nation, says a former U.S. Secretary of Education.

That bit of optimism from John King, who served as education secretary from 2016 to 2017 and is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, came after nearly three hours of sobering discussion during an event Wednesday about the need to address inequities in education in Michigan.

Several times, King used the term “grand bargain” to describe what Michigan needs. It’s a term many Detroiters will remember from the Detroit bankruptcy and the deal that was a key part of getting the city out of bankruptcy.

As it relates to education, the term “grand bargain” has been used to refer to the bipartisan agreement struck more than two decades ago in Massachusetts that had broad buy-in from business and education groups, teachers, and parents, to improve academic achievement. The gist: The state invested more money in schools. In return, standards and accountability were increased.

King said Michigan is poised to reach the same consensus and invest more money in education, in particular investing money more equitably so the highest-need students are getting the most funding. He said there needs to be a thoughtful approach to accountability, as well as more investments in teacher preparation and support.

He sees it happening because of new leadership at the state level, including Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and new Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

“This is a moment where the new leadership in Lansing could come together … and it could be truly transformative.”

The event Wednesday, which took place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was organized by the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education advocacy and research organization. The topic was inequities in education and the need to provide equitable opportunities for children regardless on where they live.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the organization, said Michigan ranks 43rd out of 47 states for the funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts.

“Students and families pay the price for this under-investment,” Arellano said.

She said the experiences of states like Massachusetts that have seen striking improvement provide hope for Michigan because they show transformation can happen over five to 10 years.

Michigan has been falling behind other states in performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam that tests a representative sample of students in each state. The state’s performance, in fact, has shown little to no improvement over the last decade.

“We rise and we fall together. In Michigan’s case, we’re falling together,” Arellano said.

The audience at the event’s two panel discussions also heard from speakers such as Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit school district. He said that often, when K-12 educators talk about the need for more resources, “you see the rolling eyes of lawmakers.”

But, Vitti said, “It takes funding to educate children. And it takes more funding to educate children who enter … with more challenges.”

Panelists agreed that Michigan is at a pivotal moment because of its new leadership. And they came up with solutions they think will make a difference.

Melody Arabo, outreach specialist at EdReports.org and former Michigan Teacher of the Year, said the state needs to address a lack of resources for educators. She said that in a classroom of 30 students, a teacher can have some reading at the kindergarten level and others “who can read better than I can.”

The materials that teachers have “are not meeting those needs. Teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week going online looking for resources.”

David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy, said Michigan should look at what successful states have done and adopt best practices. Just as important, he said:“Stick with it. Don’t change it every year.”

For King, the solution to improving schools is simple and starts at a young age.

“If Michigan is going to improve, it will need a surge in high quality early learning that prepares every child for kindergarten or beyond,” King said.

 

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.