Future of Schools

Dougco vouchers moving forward

CASTLE ROCK – It will take a judge or two to settle the legal challenges swirling around Douglas County’s pilot voucher program but Gretchen Immen already has her verdict: “Dream come true.”

Gretchen Immen and son Sam hug Wednesday after learning he's received the last voucher slot.

Wednesday, during a lottery held in a former school here, Immen learned her son Sam was picked for the last available slot – seat no. 25 – for a voucher that will allow him to attend a private school this fall.

“We feel so blessed,” Immen, a Parker resident, said after bursting into a smile and embracing Sam, 15, who hugged her tightly back.

About a dozen parents and students attended the district’s first voucher lottery, held to determine which of 76 applicants would get the last 25 seats – and which would go on a waiting list.

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Dougco’s pilot, the first district-driven voucher program in Colorado, is capped at 500 students for 2011-12. A first round of applications netted nearly that number but some students were found ineligible and others dropped out, leaving 25 spots in a second application round that drew more than 70 families and prompted the lottery.

Families participating in the program will receive four checks during the school year, totaling either the cost of tuition at their chosen private school or 75 percent of state per-pupil funding, whichever is less. That 75 percent figure works out to $4,575.

They’ll sign the checks over to the private schools, which must have signed contracts as “partners” with the Douglas County School District.

At least, that’s how the pilot is set up to work. Two lawsuits filed Tuesday, by legal heavy hitters such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, are seeking to stop the program before a single voucher check is issued.

Vote set Monday on “voucher charter”

Dougco district leaders responded to the lawsuits by vowing that they’ll continue moving forward until a court orders them to stop.

“Voucher charter”

So Wednesday’s lottery continued as planned, and Douglas County school board members are expected Monday to approve a charter application for the Choice Scholarship School – a charter that will serve as the administrative home for voucher students though they’re physically attending private schools.

Part of the Choice Scholarship School resolution that board members will vote on Monday describes the grouping of students in a charter as “the most efficient way of maintaining … the numerous district reporting and financial obligations.”

State Board of Education members are expected in August to consider approval of waivers for the scholarship or voucher school. Robert Ross, the district’s legal counsel, said Tuesday that such waivers are typically sought by Colorado charters and he does not anticipate any problems.

The voucher or scholarship school application does not include names of staff or governing board members. Dougco spokeswoman Michelle Tripp said the district’s school board is expected to discuss those topics Monday but it’s unclear if the names of charter school board members will be released before the board vote.

Legal, administrative issues not on families’ minds

But if lawyers and district staff are occupied with program structure and legal strategy, those details are not on the minds of families such as the Immens.

Gretchen Immen said her husband began researching a private school option for Sam several months ago but their choice – Parker Lutheran High School – was out of financial reach without a voucher.

“Without this type of voucher system, that would not have been possible,” she said.

Sam is slated to be a freshman this fall in a school, Ponderosa High School, that has received the state’s top rating of “performance.” But when he and his mom toured Parker Lutheran on a “visit day,” they were impressed.

“I just think it’s better academic-wise,” Sam said. “It’s a nicer place … and I think I’ll be able to make a lot more friends there.”

Gretchen Immen said the family isn’t Lutheran – that’s not a condition of enrollment – but their values are similar.

“It’s a good fit,” she said, noting Sam’s already applied and been accepted, though they weren’t sure of a voucher slot. “We did it on faith.”

As for concerns that the legal action could halt the pilot, the mom said they’re taking it one step at a time.

“We’re no. 25,” she said. “We could have been 75 or 100. So … so far, so good.”

Reactions to lawsuits filed this week challenging Dougco’s voucher pilot

    • “I am extremely disappointed that liberal activist groups continue to assault education reform in Colorado. The lawsuit against the Douglas County School District is nothing short of an all out attack on our teachers, parents and students by national liberal groups. Colorado families deserve better than to have these national attack dogs waste money that would otherwise go into our classrooms.”

— Colorado Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch.

    • “We believe the interests of students and parents are paramount. We believe the Choice Scholarship Program is a wise use of taxpayer dollars that will also result in a significant return on investment for the District. Great Choice Douglas County, representing many hundreds of parents and citizens in Douglas County, who support school choice, is eager to see the implementation and future expansion of this program.”

— Great Choice Douglas County. See full release.

    • “The lawsuit is disappointing, but really not surprising. Opponents of parental choice and educational freedom have tried this approach many times before. For the sake of the families who will benefit, we hope it fails.”

— Pam Benigno, Independence Institute. See full release.

    • “The Institute for Justice will move to intervene in the coming days on behalf of Douglas County parents and children to defend this choice program from legal attack. IJ has defended school choice programs from legal attack every single day from the time we opened our doors 20 years ago. We know what it takes to make a school choice program constitutional, and there is no question the program passed in Douglas County will pass constitutional muster.”

— Michael Bindas, senior attorney, Institute for Justice. See full release.

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised more than $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Other groups such as Americans For Prosperity work outside the reporting requirements altogether by spending money on “social welfare issues,” rather than candidates. The conservative political nonprofit, which champions charter schools and other school reforms, pledged to spend more than six-figures for “a sweeping outreach effort to parents” to promote school choice policies in Douglas County. The fight over charter schools and vouchers, which use tax dollars to send students to private schools, has been a key debate in school board races there.

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

Another union-funded group, called Brighter Futures for Denver, has spent all of its money on consultant services for one Denver candidate: Jennifer Bacon, who’s running in a three-person race in northeast Denver’s District 4. The Denver teachers union, which contributed $114,000 to the committee, has endorsed Bacon. The statewide teachers union also contributed money.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, the incumbent running in District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $625,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a slate of candidates that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more information about Americans for Prosperity’s Douglas County plans. 

what is a good school?

New York policymakers are taking a closer look at how they evaluate charter schools

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Erica Murphy, school director of Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in New York, oversees students in a fourth-grade English class.

New York is rethinking how it judges whether charter schools are successful and deserve to remain open — a discussion that comes as some top education policymakers have asked tough questions about the privately managed schools.

The state education department currently decides which of the more than 70 charter schools it oversees can stay open based largely on their test scores and graduation rates, though other factors like family involvement and financial management are also reviewed. A set of changes now being considered could add additional performance measures, such as the share of students who are chronically absent and student survey results.

Policymakers also discussed whether to change how they calculate charter-school student enrollment and retention.

The move — which got its first public discussion Monday during a Board of Regents meeting and is expected to become a formal proposal in December — would bring charter schools in line with a shift underway in how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the board has moved away from using test scores as the main metric for evaluating schools and will begin to track absences and eventually suspensions.

Since the state’s current system for evaluating charter schools was last revised in 2015, the board has added several new members and elected a new leader, Betty Rosa. Several members at a previous board meeting questioned the enrollment practices at a charter school in Brooklyn.

At Monday’s meeting, some suggested the schools attain high test scores partly by serving fewer high-needs students — and that the system for evaluating charters should take this into account.  

For instance, Regent Kathleen Cashin implied at Monday’s meeting that some charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students. Their motivation, she said, “is not pedagogic, I’ll tell you that.” She suggested that, in addition to tracking how well charter schools retain students, the state should survey parents who leave those schools to find out why.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Rosa suggested Monday that it’s unfair to compare charter schools that serve few high-needs students to traditional schools.

Charter schools receive autonomy from many rules, but in return they agree to meet certain performance targets — or risk closure if they do not. The state judges charters based on a variety of metrics, everything from their enrollment figures to how they respond to parent concerns. However, test scores and graduation rates are “the most important factor when determining to renew or revoke a school’s charter,” according to state documents.

Even if the state adds new measures that move beyond test scores, those will still hold the most weight, according to state officials.

The state is also considering whether to change how it measures charter schools’ enrollment and retention targets. Currently, schools must set targets for students with disabilities, English learners, and those eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch. If they fail to meet those targets, they must show they are making yearly progress towards meeting that goal.

During the state’s presentation, officials also floated the idea of a “fiscal dashboard,” which would display charter schools’ financial information. They also said they may compare charter high school graduation rates and Regents exam scores with those of the districts where they’re located, instead of using only the state average or their targets as a comparison point.