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have argued that such constitutional prohibitions, known as Blaine Amendments, are rooted in Catholic bigotry and are outdated.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. 

join us

Chalkbeat’s 2018 summer interns were awesome. Get to know them, then apply to join us in 2019.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Chalkbeat's 2018 summer interns, L-R: Rebecca Griesbach, Shelby Mullis, Elaine Chen, Savannah Robinson, Amanda Zhou

As colder temperatures set in, summer has started to feel like a distant memory. Fortunately for us at Chalkbeat, we have warm memories of last summer’s awesome interns — and are already starting to get excited for the new colleagues that next summer will bring.

Could you be one of them? We’ve just opened applications for our 2019 internship program. We’re looking for student journalists who are talented, enterprising, and curious about education equity issues to join our local teams for 10 weeks of paid reporting experience.

Find more details and apply here.

There’s no better way to explain what our internships are about than to showcase our most recent crop of interns, their work, and the lessons they learned. Without further ado:

Elaine Chen, Chicago

Elaine, a junior studying political science at the University of Chicago, was inspired to apply for Chalkbeat’s first Chicago internship by a classmate who worked for Chalkbeat in Indiana in 2017. She has covered public policy issues for South Side Weekly, mentored Chicago public school student journalists, and worked for a university education research organization translating research findings for a broader audience.

Read these stories: Elaine drew attention to two big challenges: free, high-quality summer programs failing to fill their rosters with students, and getting parents who want to join their schools’ powerful school leadership councils trained to participate. She also helped explain the education implications of one of the summer’s biggest surprises: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision not to run for reelection.

Why Chalkbeat: “The education editor at a magazine that I wrote for interned at Chalkbeat last summer and she recommended that I apply. I was writing longer enterprise articles at the time and wanted to get more daily news experience, and the Chalkbeat internship seemed like a great opportunity to do both.”

A favorite memory: “Some of the best moments of the internship were the listening tours that the bureau held all over the city. The bureau was just starting to publish, and it was so exciting to see Cassie and Adeshina establish relationships with community members and build up the bureau to be responsive to its local audiences.”

Advice to future Chalkbeat interns: “Be proactive — keep pitching stories or different ways to report on stories, and also ask to work with other reporters on stories. The Chalkbeat internship does give the intern a lot of autonomy to do so.”

Rebecca Griesbach, Tennessee

A junior at the University of Alabama, Rebecca has been passionate about covering education equity issues ever since taking photographs depicting race relations at her Tuscaloosa, Alabama, high school to assist Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 2014 “Segregation Now” report. Now studying journalism and African American studies, Rebecca has researched schools in Sweden, written for her college newspaper, and contributed to the OpenElections data journalism project.

Read these stories: Rebecca added Memphis teachers to the national conversation about low pay by looking at the classroom projects they’re asking donors to fund. She brought new guidelines for science instruction to life by visiting science classrooms. And after helping to organize Chalkbeat’s school board candidate forum, she compiled takeaways for Memphis education voters.

A lesson learned: “News doesn’t mean much when it’s not accessible to everyone. Building context, knowing how to do explanatory journalism well, and really listening to and engaging with the community are among the skills I learned at Chalkbeat and will spend a lifetime trying to improve.”

Advice to future Chalkbeat interns: “Really get to know the city you’re in for as long as you’re there. Chalkbeat is all about community, and being centered in the place you’re writing about will help you report with more authority and ease.”

A tweet from her last day: “As a product of a segregated public school system, I’m constantly thinking of ways that we can do better. For me, that’s always included dogged (local) reporting that calls out inequity and highlights those most affected. So grateful @Chalkbeat took a chance on me this summer.”

Shelby Mullis, Indiana

A senior at Franklin College, Shelby came to Chalkbeat having already covered Indiana public affairs for The Statehouse File, WFYI, and The Republic (Columbus, Indiana). Her internship was a partnership between Chalkbeat and the Indianapolis Press Club Foundation.

Read these stories: Shelby profiled a slew of local educators, including the music teacher at a school for recent immigrants. She was on hand for the final graduation of a once-venerable high school closing because of low enrollment. And she revealed that Indianapolis teachers were rejecting an offer of low-cost housing because of delays and red tape.

Why Chalkbeat: “I found out about Chalkbeat through my professor my freshman year of college. I’ve always been interested in education, and Chalkbeat offered the best of both worlds: the opportunity to combine education matters with journalism.”

A top memory: “The 10 weeks I spent at Chalkbeat were wonderful, but the most memorable day would have to be my last, simply because I realized just how special the Chalkbeat team is. It’s safe to say I cried on my way home that afternoon.”

Advice to future Chalkbeat interns: “If I could offer one piece of advice to future Chalkbeat interns, it’d be this: Remember that you’re here to grow and to learn. Give every assignment your best effort, and remember to have fun in the process!”

Savannah Robinson, New York

Savannah came to Chalkbeat from the University of Southern California, where she’s a senior studying journalism and human rights. She had previously worked with the Student Press Law Center and on university initiatives aimed at supporting first-generation college students. During her summer at Chalkbeat, Savannah also participated in the Emma L. Bowen Foundation for Minority Interests in Media fellowship program for students of color.

Read these stories: Savannah gathered reactions from students at one of New York’s most selective high schools about a proposed change to how students are admitted, then visited a middle school in a low-income neighborhood to understand how the change might affect its students. She also shared a firsthand look at what city teachers are doing to create culturally relevant lessons — an effort that could be a model for what more educators will be asked to do.

A favorite memory: “Seeing the impact that the stories Chalkbeat produced had nationally! The story about Hunter College that Monica Disare reported was incredible, not just because of the amount of in-depth reporting that she did for it or the sources she managed to get, but because of how many people after her story was published began sharing their own similar experiences with Hunter on social media and calling for a change.”

Advice to future Chalkbeat interns: “Ask as many questions as possible! There’s so much policy and so many players to wrap your head around in a short amount of time, and you’ll be working alongside reporters and producers who are education experts. Use them as resources and ask them questions to learn the landscape! Also, contact sources once in a while just to talk to them. They may just have a story for you that wasn’t on your radar.”

Amanda Zhou, National

Amanda is a senior at Dartmouth College, where she supervises 30 student reporters as managing editor of The Dartmouth daily newspaper. A social sciences and public policy major, Amanda had previously worked at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and as an on-campus EMT.

Read these stories: Amanda profiled 2016-teacher-of-the-year-turned-candidate Jahana Hayes, and got inside the classroom of the latest winner, too. Amanda rounded up new research about teacher evaluations, longer school days, advanced coursework, and more. She also contributed to a team project illuminating more than $300 million in opaque education giving by Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropy.

A favorite memory: “Listening to the New York and National reporters discuss their reporting and complain about sources who won’t respond to them.”

Top lessons learned: “Education reporting is a very local topic and reporting on research takes a lot of skill.”

Advice to future Chalkbeat interns: “Don’t be afraid to meet and talk to your editor (and other bureau editors) frequently! They want you to succeed.”


What our local education reporters learned when we collaborated with ProPublica to look at equity data

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote/Chalkbeat

It’s a sad, familiar story: Across the country, students continue to have access to vastly different educational opportunities depending on where they live and the color of their skin.

Yet even as the Trump administration curtails programs that help low-income people and people of color, local educators and policymakers are in many cases working to make education more equitable.

That’s what Chalkbeat reporters concluded as a result of our new collaboration with ProPublica. The nonprofit investigative news organization took data from the U.S. Department of Education to build a interactive database that highlights school-level racial disparities in enrollment, discipline, access to Advanced Placement courses, gifted and talented programs, and more.

The database, part of a project called called Miseducation, renders complex data in a transparent and cohesive way, allowing users to compare districts and schools easily. We used the database as a springboard to do what Chalkbeat does best — tell the stories of educational inequity in the communities we cover and call home.

Our stories showcase both the discouraging statistics that describe our communities now, and news about initiatives meant to yield different data points in the future.

We learned that while just one in 10 Detroit students has access to Advanced Placement courses in high school, the district is putting in place a thoughtful plan to get more students enrolled. We learned that Indianapolis schools, where white students are far more likely than black students to be enrolled in gifted programs, recently started assessing all students for giftedness — a best practice that the district is doing not once in students’ careers but twice.

And we learned that in Chicago, three schools in one diverse neighborhood have vastly different access to AP courses. But that doesn’t tell the whole story — some students would rather attend a culinary program — and principals and a newly hired district chief equity officer are grappling with tough questions about what opportunity looks like.

We also found that even as families, educators, and policymakers have their eyes firmly on equity, the path ahead is likely to remain steep.

Unusually high shares of new teachers mean schools in Colorado and Tennessee that serve poor students are perpetually starting from scratch. New York City schools are making a huge investment in counseling services, but it’s unclear whether it will be enough for those most in need.

And murkiness in the very tracking of student data could make it hard to see whether efforts to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline in places such as Newark are paying off.

Data sheds light on how students are not being given equitable opportunities in schools. It can drive people to act.

These stories, from seven places, help drive that point home.