Future of Schools

Voucher pilot in legal limbo

Some 60 percent of Douglas County’s nearly 500 voucher students chose to stay in private schools after a judge declared the school district’s voucher pilot unconstitutional in August, including the four students whose families are involved in an appeal of that ruling.

A scene from Douglas County's voucher lottery in June. The plan is on hold with an appeals court ruling not likely for several more months.

Another 35 percent returned to Douglas County public schools while much smaller numbers chose other options – 3 percent are attending school in another district and 2 percent began home-schooling.

Dougco’s Choice Scholarship Pilot Program, the state’s first district-run voucher plan, remains in legal limbo, with any decision from the Colorado Court of Appeals not expected before March at the earliest.

Advocates of the pilot, meanwhile, trumpet the Nov. 1 election of three pro-voucher school board candidates as proof of the community’s support for the district effort.

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“I think when you consider the fact that their opponents were very vocal in their opposition to the program, it’s a pretty clear mandate for the program to continue,” school board President John Carson said Monday. “And we continue now to have a 7-0 board in support of it.”

Others disagree. Susan Meek, the district’s former communications director who lost a bid to unseat pro-voucher candidate Craig Richardson, said she had hoped the school board elections would be a referendum on vouchers.

Instead, she said the winning candidates, who ran as a Republican Party-endorsed slate, targeted “union” candidates though the Douglas County teachers union did not make formal endorsements.

“Unfortunately, the pro-voucher candidates chose to run a partisan campaign based on false and misleading statements,” Meek said. “I don’t think we have a clear picture of whether the public supports vouchers or not as these candidates never mentioned the word ‘voucher’ in any of their print materials or in their robocalls.”

Trying to recoup voucher payments

Douglas County school board members approved the voucher pilot 7-0 on March 15, authorizing 75 percent of the district’s per-pupil funding – or $4,575 per voucher – to help up to 500 students attend participating private schools this fall.

Records show $45,750, or about 16 percent of the voucher payments issued by the district, remains outstanding from six private schools.

When Denver District Judge Micheal Martinez ruled Aug. 12 against the plan, Dougco already had issued 248 checks totaling $283,037.50 to the families of voucher students, who in turn signed them over to their chosen private schools.

District leaders are attempting to recoup that money. Records show $45,750, or about 16 percent of the total, remains outstanding from six of the 18 private schools that received checks.

“We’re pretty pleased with the amount of money that’s come back,” said district spokesman Randy Barber. “I think it’s important to note we don’t want to be forceful, we’re trying to be as respectful as possible and allow the amount of time for things to happen. I don’t believe we have any reason to believe we wouldn’t be able to get all that money back.”

Legal schedule
  • Dec. 7 – Record of proceedings in trial court due in Colorado Court of Appeals
  • Forty days later – Opening statement due from the appealing party
  • Thirty date later – Answer statement due
  • Fourteen days later – Reply brief due from appealing party
  • Oral arguments, requests for extension or other issues add time. Start to finish, typical timeline in appellate court is nine months. Notices of appeal were filed Sept. 9.

Valor Christian High School received the most district money, in 62 checks totaling $70,912.50. Regis Jesuit High School was second, with 39 checks totaling $44,606.25. The checks represent what would have been the first of four payments throughout the year. Both Valor and Regis have returned the total amounts they received.

Schools with outstanding balances include Lutheran High School, which has returned none of the 17 checks totaling $19,443.75, and Southeast Christian, which has returned some money but still owes $11,437.50, according to documents provided to Education News Colorado under the state’s open records law.

Under the voucher pilot, the checks are made out to the parents of a voucher student but they’re valid only if signed over to a participating private school screened by the district that has admitted the student. A total of 43 checks are outstanding.

“We think that, in some cases, it may be a situation in which a parent has to say it’s okay for the funds for come back,” Barber said. “Certainly we’re getting closer and closer to it being a family by family situation. We’ll be looking at each family’s story and is there a reason they’re not returning that money.”

Cindra Barnard, a Douglas County parent who was among those suing to stop the voucher program, said she’s concerned about the money yet to be returned to a district facing budget cuts.

“These funds were inappropriately handed to private schools while the program was in litigation,” she said. “Because the funds have been improperly spent, the state of Colorado should ask for the funds back, an additional financial burden to the already strapped district. This loss of funding directly impacts the education of the 60,000 students in Douglas County Schools.”

Characteristics of voucher students

Dougco’s voucher pilot, formally known as the Choice Scholarship Pilot Program, proved popular enough with families that a voucher lottery was held and a waiting list created after an initial 500 slots were filled.

But in July and August, six families declined scholarships and the district opted against moving students from the waiting list in light of a three-day hearing in August on the lawsuits filed by Dougco residents and civil liberties groups seeking to stop the pilot.

Of the 494 students who planned to use vouchers, 298 chose to continue at private schools after the judge halted the pilot and 174 decided to remain in Douglas County public schools. Eight students opted for home-schooling and 14 began attending schools outside of Dougco.

Hover over chart to see numbers and percentages. Story continues after graphic.

The nearly 500 voucher students would have enrolled this year in 70 schools across the county, with no single school having more than 24 students awarded vouchers and most having between five and seven. A handful of schools had 20 or more students awarded vouchers – Academy Charter School, American Academy Charter School, Lone Tree Elementary Magnet School, Ponderosa High School and Rock Canyon High School.

The single grade most impacted by vouchers was those students entering high school this year – 129 ninth-graders were awarded vouchers and 118 of those students decided to stay in their private high school despite the ruling halting the program.

Valor Christian High School is the most popular private school with Dougco voucher students, with 69 enrolled at the school. Regis is second, with 48 voucher students, and Cherry Hills Christian is third, with 41.

Valor Christian High School is the most popular private school with Dougco voucher students, with 69 now enrolled at the school. Regis is second, with 48 voucher students, and Cherry Hills Christian is third, with 41 former Dougco students attending.

Michael Bindas, an attorney who represents three families who have joined the district in seeking to overturn the judge’s ruling, said all four of their voucher students remain in their chosen private schools. One family, Diana and Mark Oakley, were told by their private school not to worry about the portion of tuition that would have been covered by the voucher.

“The school is typical of many schools kind of bending over backwards to help these families who had the rug pulled out from under them at the last minute when the scholarship program was enjoined,” Bindas said.

Despite the judge’s ruling that the pilot violated five provisions of the Colorado Constitution and the state School Finance Act, both Carson and Bindas remain confident the plan will prevail.

“We’ll be arguing how the trial court erred in applying the case law, both binding precedent from the Colorado Supreme Court as well as persuasive authority from the U.S. Supreme Court and other state supreme courts,” Bindas said. “We’re confident the trial court’s attempt to rationalize away that case law will be corrected on appeal.”

See where students awarded vouchers are attending school this year

Use scrolling bar on right to see complete list of schools

See a school-by-school breakdown of students awarded vouchers

Use scrolling bar on right to see complete list of schools

How I Lead

Meditation and Mindfulness: How a Harlem principal solves conflict in her community

Dawn DeCosta, the principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Dawn DeCosta, Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School’s principal of seven years, never pictured herself leading a school. Originally a fine arts major and art teacher, she was inspired to be a community leader when she took a summer leadership course at Columbia University’s Teacher College. The program helped her widen her impact to outside the classroom by teaching her how to find personal self awareness and mindfulness. For the past four years she has taught the students, teachers, and parents in her school’s community how to solve conflict constructively through the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s RULER program — a social-emotional learning program that brings together many of the tools that she learned at Columbia. While describing these new practices and techniques, DeCosta reflected on the specific impact they have had on her community.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What is the Yale RULER program?

It’s more of a process, not a script or curriculum. An approach that has these four anchors: the mood meter, the charter, the meta-moment, and the blueprint. We use the mood meter to describe feelings, because a lot of times we’ll just hear “I feel happy” or “I feel sad.” You want them to be able to better pinpoint how they feel, and the mood meter is a square with these quadrants that are different colors and show how much energy a student has at a given moment and how pleasant they’re feeling. The charter is an agreement to the class. It replaces “don’t hit, don’t kick” with “how do we want to feel, what are we going to do to feel that way, what will we do if we have a conflict.” The meta-moment are six steps on how to deal with a stressful situation, and the blueprint is a plan to serve a longer-term conflict between two people- to solve an ongoing conflict that we need a plan for, that’s not just in the moment. We integrate all four components throughout the day, throughout the week, throughout the year.

What changes did you make to it to make it work for your community, and what are the specific strategies you use?

We do it with teachers, students, staff, and supplement it with a culturally relevant approach. We have 100 percent black and brown children, so this means using culturally relevant texts, since we want students learning about leaders and artists who look like them. We want them to see models of excellence in themselves and see success too in themselves in order to combat some of the negative images they see in the media or even in their neighborhoods. This is a beautiful place but there’s also a lot going on in terms of poverty and violence, which have an impact on their lives, how they feel, how they live, how they see things. We’ve incorporated meditation, mindfulness, brain breaks, yoga, and arts into our curriculum. We’ve put all the different pieces together to tap into what makes kids want to go to school and makes them love to be here. We want to use these in every grade, so that we give students a common language and kids can move from one grade to the next easily. Student ownership is a big piece, because what happens when the teachers aren’t there? Do you know how to use this in less structured environments, at home with your siblings at home?

How do you make sure vulnerable students are getting emotional support and give time for that reflection and self growth but also provide a rigorous education that meets your school’s standards?

The work that we are doing is ensuring that the kids have academic improvement and success. Because they feel cared for and comfortable, ultimately students feel successful, and when you feel successful you will apply yourself more. Right now, learning is rigorous. It’s not what it was 10 years ago. So we ask kids to think very deeply to be critical thinkers. The text that they have to read is more rigorous, ones that require problem solving (and) for kids to think for themselves. And so that by itself is taxing. And that kind of work can be really stressful. A lot of the work we’ve done is around test anxiety. We want kids to know that this is just a piece of information, you need to know where you’re doing well, where you’re struggling so that they can address areas of challenge with a little more positivity. But we see the effects of it in our academic performance.

How have you measured the success of the program?

When I first became principal it wasn’t like we were having emergencies necessarily, but we were putting out a lot of fires. Kids were just coming in with issues, getting into fights, things like that. We also wanted to bring in more of the parents, because there were some that we wanted to be more engaged. We have seen an increase in test scores, but I use personal growth stories as my data–that’s how I know that this works. When I have those success stories, when I see students that really needed it, use it and feel a change, that is the data. We didn’t actually see real, big changes until last year, when we were three years into using this new style of learning. There’s always work to be done, it’s an ongoing thing.

In your own words, what is emotional intelligence and why is it important to have?

To me, it means that you are aware of what you may be feeling at a certain moment and of how your feelings impact interactions with others. It’s about how self aware you are, how are you thinking about what you’re going to say or do before you do it, and about how you show compassion for others who are also thinking and feeling just like you. It’s about how you listen to others, how you see and recognize what others are giving you, and how you support others. We’ve been told that all we can do is control ourselves, and that we’re not responsible for other people. But I think through emotional intelligence, we are responsible for how we make people feel.

In what ways do you help take this learning outside of the classroom?

We send home activities for students to do with their families, for over vacation. It will be like, “check in with your family members on their moods for the week and on how everybody is feeling this week,” or “what was one time when you and your parents had a conflict and what did you do well or not do well.” We keep finding the means to engage the parents at home with it by having them come in and do stress relief workshops. I have students ask, “Can I have a mood meter for my mom? I think it will help her because she feels really stressed.” So that home/school piece is a really important part of what makes everything successful. We’re all supporting the kids, we’re raising them together.

In what other ways, do you help the parents learn as well, and what does that look like?

We trained a group of parent leaders in RULER, who helped us train other parents. Parents like hearing from other parents, so we wanted to make sure that it was presented to them as something they could relate to. I think that sometimes as educators we are guilty of using a lot of acronyms and indigestible words when we’re talking to families, and what we’ve decided to do is breaking it down to talking about how do they deal with stress. Kind of how we brought it to the parents is that we brought to the kids strategies on how to deal with stress. We did some yoga with them, breathing techniques, and then we just started talking to them about what kinds of emotion they go through in a day. They talk about getting kids ready, making trains, dealing with family members, and really getting out what they were dealing with as parents–all that stuff that nobody really asked them about before. Honestly, they were the most receptive group. I think talking to each other, in a place where we’re all supporting each other, creates that space that we need.

Describe a specific instance or an anecdote that you think is reflective of the changes that have happened since you have implemented these new practices. How did you see the impact?

A boy came to us in the second grade, and he had been on a safety transfer, which means that he had been in a situation that may not be safe for a child. They’re either in violent conflict with others, or they’re being bullied, or something’s happening where they need to be removed from where they are. At first we had a lot of emotional difficulties and poor relationships with his teachers, and even though he was only six or seven he had been suspended several times. His family had also shut down from the school connection because since they were constantly hearing negative information. The principal basically said “Look, there’s nothing you can do with him. It’s just too much, he’s violent, he bites, it’s just too much.” But he came to the school, and just through engaging him through some of the new practices he was able to self regulate. It impacted his focus and changed his ability to relate to others. The changes didn’t make him perfect or change who he is, but it gave him some tools to be successful and work with others. Once he had love and compassion and felt accepted in our community, all of those behaviors just disappeared. His family became more supportive and trusting and he graduated last year.

Regents retreat

Regents use annual retreat to take stock of changes in testing, charter schools and more

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York State’s top education policymakers took a whirlwind tour Monday of their own accomplishments this year, kicking off a two-day retreat full of presentations and updates.

The briefings, conducted by top education department officials, served as a distillation of some top policy goals among the Board of Regents: rolling back graduation requirements, creating new graduation pathways, cutting back on state testing, and even rethinking how the board evaluates the charter schools it oversees.

Monday’s discussions largely tread on familiar territory, but here are three of the key issues they discussed.


New York State continues to be a hotbed of controversy surrounding testing, with roughly one in five students opting out of the 3-8 math and reading exams in recent years (the number is far smaller in New York City).

In response to concerns about the length of the exams, the Regents reduced the number of testing days for each exam from three to two — a change that went into effect this year. Education officials touted those changes Monday while stressing that they have gone out of their way to involve educators in the process of crafting exam questions.

“One of the things I believe is a major adjustment in New York is the extent to which teachers across New York are involved,” state education MaryEllen Elia told the board, noting that 75 percent of the test questions are released to the public. “We have to constantly be asking ourselves what can we do better.”

Still, some Regents continued to express concerns about the exams, including whether they are fair to English learners, and whether the tests themselves help perpetuate disparities.

“What research is used about what’s developmentally appropriate?” Regent Judith Johnson asked. “Is it possible to have a test question that is culturally neutral?”

Charter schools

The Regents are currently discussing changes to the way they evaluate the charter schools they oversee, including taking a deeper look at suspension rates compared to traditional district schools, and tracking why students leave.

“There are charter chains that might have 25 percent of the students when they first started and they’re claiming great growth,” Regent Kathleen Cashin said during Monday’s discussion, adding that questions about why students leave shouldn’t be “buried.”

The discussion highlights a tension in the board’s discussion of the publicly funded, privately managed schools. On the one hand, board members are often quite critical — worrying some within the charter sector. But on the other hand, they have still approved large batches of new charters, including at their most recent meeting.

And the debate will continue in the fall: The Regents are expected to consider a proposal for changing the way charter schools are evaluated at their September meeting.

Students with disabilities

The board also heard from state officials about efforts to improve access to programs for students with disabilities, including those in preschool.

As Chalkbeat has previously reported, there is a shortage of seats for preschool special education students — with students often languishing at home without education services, a problem that advocates say has only gotten worse. Part of the issue, officials say, is they don’t have a way of quickly tracking supply and demand for those programs, which are often provided by private organizations.

Instead, state officials rely on phone calls and informal surveys, which can make it difficult for officials to quickly respond to shortages. Now, state officials are in the process of implementing a new data system for tracking students and open seats.

“We need to move from our current reactive system,” Christopher Suriano, an assistant commissioner of special education told the board. “We have to start reacting proactively to make sure we have capacity.”

Grab bag

  • The Regents spent some time talking about how to measure “civic readiness” which will be a component of how schools are judged under the state’s ESSA plan.
  • New data released by state officials shows that at least 500 students with disabilities graduated this year as part of a new policy that lets superintendents review their performance in lieu of passing all of the Regents exams. Though officials cautioned that the data are preliminary, and the number is likely to increase, that’s up from 315 students during the previous year.