Future of Schools

Dougco approves voucher pilot 7-0

CASTLE ROCK — Douglas County school board members voted 7-0 Tuesday to launch Colorado’s first district-run voucher pilot, using state per-pupil funding to help up to 500 students attend private schools this fall.

A voucher opponent complains board members ignored the voices of dissenters.
A voucher opponent complains board members ignored the voices of dissenters.

They also voted to create a legal fund that will accept donations to defray the expenses of any court challenges.

“We’re not afraid of competition in Douglas County,” school board President John Carson said before casting his ‘yes’ vote in front of a standing-room-only crowd.

About 30 parents and community members addressed the board before its vote, with slightly more than half speaking in opposition.

“Your legacy will be destroying public education in Douglas County,” said Delana Maynes, with the opposition group Taxpayers for Public Education.

But Pam Mazanec, with Great Choice Douglas County, which supports the pilot, urged approval of the plan, called the Choice Scholarship Program.

“There’s nothing to fear here,” she said. “Choice is good, more choice is even better.”

Possibility of legal action

In the pilot, 75 percent of state per-pupil funding – or $4,575 – will follow participating Douglas County students to their private schools of choice in 2011-12.

Participating private schools must meet eligibility requirements, including monitoring attendance and giving state exams to voucher students.

Douglas County residents have been debating the plan since board members began public discussion of the possibility of vouchers in November.

Several opponents said they feared the outcome of Tuesday’s vote was a foregone conclusion from a recently-elected and conservative board majority.

“It was not surprising,” Sue Zloth said after the vote. “It was very, very disappointing.”

But Zloth, with Taxpayers for Public Education, believes lawsuits are sure to follow and could halt the pilot. That’s what happened with a statewide voucher pilot approved by lawmakers in 2003.

“Our group feels it is unfortunate the school district will be spending money, time and energy to defend lawsuits,” she said.

No organization has yet stepped forward with a court action. Mike Wetzel with the Colorado Education Association, which played a key role in the legal fight against the state plan, cited the union’s role in that court battle in a statement on Tuesday.

But he stopped short of saying the union would intervene in Douglas County, which is affiliated with a different national teachers union.

“It’s bad policy to use their public funds to support private institutions that won’t be held accountable to those taxpayers,” he said.

Eric Hall, an attorney who advised the Dougco board on its voucher pilot, has said what stopped the statewide plan doesn’t apply in the district pilot.

With the state voucher plan, the state Supreme Court ruled it usurped the local control of school boards. In Dougco, the board is driving the plan.

Reactions, recall, next steps

One speaker on Tuesday, Jonathan Tee with the Alliance for Choice in Education, said the group is launching a fund to raise money to help low-income Dougco families fill the monetary gap between the voucher and tuition. Some private schools charge far more for tuition than the voucher amount.

A voucher supporter believes a private school might better help her autistic child.
A voucher supporter believes a private school might better help her autistic child.

ACE, which Littleton oilman and voucher proponent Alex Cranberg helped found, is active in Denver, awarding scholarships to poor families so their children can attend private schools. In Dougco, Tee said the group will help students who qualify for federal lunch assistance.

At least one school board member cited the ACE fund in comments before casting a ‘yes’ vote.

Members of the Douglas County teachers union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, did not address the board Tuesday and have said little publicly in the months leading up to the board vote.

“We applaud the district and teachers for working collaboratively … to ensure money will not leave a budget with scarce resources, holds all participating schools accountable and provides an equal opportunity for all our students,” teachers union President Brenda Smith said in a written statement. “We will continue to monitor its implementation.”

Tuesday’s vote did prompt one group, however, to speak up. Sarah Mann, chair of the Douglas County Democratic Party, said the voucher pilot “is not about schools or Douglas County families. It’s about politics.”

“In the weeks ahead, we could see a recall election, but more importantly, there are three school board seats up for re-election this November,” Mann said. “If you’re tired of politics as usual, do what you can to change it.”

Dougco school board members did not mention politics as each read a prepared statement before casting their votes. They repeated their beliefs that the pilot will save the district money, encourage healthy competition and vest school choice where it belongs – with families.

“The system isn’t broken but we want to make it better,” Carson said of the high-performing district. “It’s time for more choice, competition and innovation in our public education system.”

Video highlights of Tuesday’s public comment session on vouchers

Details of Douglas County’s voucher proposal

Who could participate

  • Students currently attending Douglas County public schools who have been enrolled for no less than one year.
  • Students must live in the Douglas County School District.
  • In the proposed pilot for 2011-12, up to 500 students may participate. A lottery would be held if more than 500 fill out choice scholarship applications.
  • Participating students would be required to take state exams at a time and place designated by the district.

How the money would flow

  • 75 percent of per-pupil funding would follow the student to a participating private school – based on an expected per-pupil amount of $6,100, that’s $4,575 per student.
  • The remaining 25 percent – an estimated $1,525 – would stay with the district.
  • The value of the voucher or scholarship would be $4,575 or the actual cost of tuition, whichever is less.
  • The district would write checks to the parents of participating students and those parents would sign them over to the private schools they’ve chosen.
  • Parents would receive four equal payments annually. Payment could be withheld if the student, parent or private school is in violation of program rules.
  • If 500 students participate, at $6,100 per student, that’s a total of $3.05 million – with $2.28 million going to private schools and $762,500 staying with the district.

How private schools could participate

  • Nonpublic schools located within or outside the boundaries of the Douglas County School District could participate. Kindergarten programs are not included in the pilot.
  • Schools would not be required to change their admissions criteria to participate but they would not be allowed to discriminate on the basis of disability or any other area protected by law.
  • Schools must be willing to provide the option of a waiver to voucher students for the religious portion of their program.
  • Schools must agree to provide attendance data and qualifications of teaching staff to the district.
  • Schools would be expected to “demonstrate over time that its educational program produces student achievement and growth results … at least as strong as what district neighborhood and charter schools produce,” according to draft policy on the voucher plan.
  • Schools must demonstrate financial stability, disclosing at least the past three years’ worth of audited financial statements and other financial data.
  • Schools must demonstrate their facilities are up to building codes and that they have a safe school plan as required by law.

How the district would use the money

  • Of the $762,500 possible in the pilot year for the district, $361,199 would be set aside for administrative overhead such as providing staff to monitor attendance and state testing of voucher students. A Choice Scholarship Office would be created to administer the program.
  • The remaining $401,301 would be set aside for “extenuating circumstances,” including assisting a district school adversely impacted by the voucher pilot.

*Source: Board policy outlining the Choice Scholarship Program pilot.

hurdle cleared

Indiana’s federally required education plan wins approval

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Education
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick greets elementary school students in Decatur Township.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signed off on Indiana’s federally required education plan, ushering in another era of changes — although not exactly major ones — to the state’s public school system.

The U.S Department of Education announced the plan’s approval on Friday. Like other states, Indiana went through an extensive process to craft a blueprint to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was signed into law in 2015.

“Today is a great day for Indiana,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement. “Our ESSA plan reflects the input and perspective of many stakeholders in communities across our state. From the beginning, we set out to build a plan that responded to the needs of Hoosier students. From our clear accountability system to our innovative, locally-driven approach to school improvement, our ESSA plan was designed to support student success.”

The federal government highlighted two aspects of Indiana’s plan. One is a pledge to close achievement gaps separating certain groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, from their peers by 50 percent by 2023.

Another is a staple of other states’ plans, as well: adding new ways for measuring how ready students are for attending college or starting their careers. Indiana education officials and lawmakers have made this a priority over the past several years, culminating in a new set of graduation requirements the Indiana State Board of Education approved late last year.

Under Indiana’s plan, high schoolers’ readiness will be measured not just by tests but also by performance in advanced courses and earning dual credits or industry certifications. Elementary school students will be measured in part by student attendance and growth in student attendance over time. Test scores and test score improvement still play a major role in how all schools are rated using state A-F letter grades.

In all, 35 states’ ESSA plans have won federal approval.

Advocates hope the law will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

Indiana officials struggled to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, such as graduation requirements and diplomas.

Under the state’s ESSA plan, A-F grades would include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and, in the case of chronic absenteeism, attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

Because the Indiana State Board of Education passed its own draft A-F rules earlier this month — rules that deviate from the state ESSA plan — it’s possible Hoosier schools could get two sets of letter grades going forward, muddying the initial intent of the simple A-F grade concept parents and community members are familiar with.

The state board’s A-F changes include other measures, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan. The state board plan also gets rid of the test score improvement measure for high-schoolers.

While that A-F proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

The state can still make changes to its ESSA plan, and the state board’s A-F draft is also expected to see revisions after public comment. But the fact that they conflict now could create difficulties moving forward, and it has led to tension during state board meetings. Already, the state expected schools would see two years of A-F grades in 2018. If both plans move forward as is, that could continue beyond next year.

Read: Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Find more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.

turnaround

Aurora recommends interventions in one elementary school, while another gets more time

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Aurora school district officials on Tuesday will recommend turning over management of some operations at one of their elementary schools to an outside management company.

The school, Lyn Knoll Elementary, is located in northwest Aurora near 2nd Avenue and Peoria Street and serves a high number of students from low-income families, with 4 percent of students identified as homeless. The school was one of three Aurora schools that earned the lowest rating from the state in 2017.

That rating automatically flags the school under a district process for school interventions. The process directs district officials to consider a number of possible improvement plans, including closure or turning the school over to a charter school.

Lyn Knoll has had good rankings in recent years before slipping dramatically in the past year, a change that put it on the turnaround list. The district did not recommend intervening at Paris Elementary, even though that school has been in priority improvement for years and will face state sanctions if it has one more year without improvement.

Annual ratings for Lyn Knoll Elementary

  • 2010: Improvement
  • 2011: Improvement
  • 2012: Performance
  • 2013: Improvement
  • 2014: Priority Improvement
  • 2016: Performance
  • 2017: Turnaround
Colorado Department of Education

The board will discuss the recommendation on Tuesday and vote on the school’s fate next month. In November, four union-backed board members who have been critical of charter schools won a majority role on the district’s school board. This will be their first major decision since taking a seat on the board.

In September, Superintendent Rico Munn had told the school board that among January’s school improvement recommendations, the one for Paris would be “the most high-profile.” A month later the district put out a request for information, seeking ideas to improve Aurora schools.

But in a board presentation released Friday, district officials didn’t give much attention to Paris. Instead, they will let Paris continue its rollout of an innovation plan approved two years ago. Officials have said they are hopeful the school will show improvements.

The recommendation for Lyn Knoll represents more drastic change, and it’s the only one that would require a board vote.

The district recommendation calls for replacing the current principal, drafting a contract for an outside company to help staff with training and instruction, and creating a plan to help recruit more students to the school.

Documents show district officials considered closing Lyn Knoll because it already has low and decreasing enrollment with just 238 current students. Those same documents note that while officials are concerned about the school’s trends, it has not had a long history of low ratings to warrant a closure.

In considering a charter school conversion, documents state that there is already a saturation of charter schools in that part of the city, and the community is interested in “the existence of a neighborhood school.” Two charter networks, however, did indicate interest in managing the school, the documents state.
The district recommendation would also include stripping the school’s current status as a pilot school.

Lyn Knoll and other schools labeled pilot schools in Aurora get some internal district autonomy under a program created more than 10 years ago by district and union officials.

Because Lyn Knoll is a pilot school, a committee that oversees that program also reviewed the school and made its own recommendation, which is different from the district’s.

In their report, committee members explained that while they gave the school low marks, they want the school to maintain pilot status for another year as long as it follows guidance on how to improve.

Among the observations in the committee’s report: The school doesn’t have an intervention program in place for students who need extra help in math, families are not engaged, and there has not been enough training for teachers on the new state standards.

The report also highlights the school’s daily physical education for students and noted that the school’s strength was in the school’s governance model that allowed teachers to feel involved in decision making.

Read the full committee report below.