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

Academic Accountability

Coming soon: Not one, but two ratings for every Chicago school

Starting this month, Chicago schools will have to juggle two ratings — one from the school district, and another from the state.

The Illinois State Board of Education is scheduled to release on October 31 its annual report cards for schools across the state. This year, for the first time, each school will receive one of four quality stamps from the state: an “exemplary” or “commendable” rating signal the school is meeting standards while an “underperforming” or “lowest performing” designation could trigger intervention, according to state board of education spokeswoman Jackie Matthews.

A federal accountability law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, requires these new ratings.

To complicate matters, the city and state ratings are each based on different underlying metrics and even a different set of standardized tests. The state ratings, for example, are based on a modified version of the PARCC assessment, while Chicago ratings are based largely on the NWEA. The new state ratings, like those the school district issues, can be given out without observers ever having visited a classroom, which is why critics argue that the approach lacks the qualitative metrics necessary to assess the learning, teaching, and leadership at individual schools.

Patricia Brekke, principal at Back of the Yards College Preparatory High School, said she’s still waiting to see how the ratings will be used, “and how that matters for us,” but that parents at her school aren’t necessarily focused on what the state says.

“What our parents usually want to know is what [Chicago Public Schools] says about us, and how we’re doing in comparison to other schools nearby that their children are interested in,” she said.

Educators at Chicago Public Schools understand the power of school quality ratings.  The district already has its own five-tiered rating system: Level 1+ and Level 1 designate the highest performing schools, Level 2+ and Level 2 describe for average and below average performing schools, respectively, and Level 3, the lowest performance rating, is for schools in need of “intensive intervention.” The ratings help parents decide where to enroll their children, and are supposed to signal to the district that the school needs more support. But the ratings are also the source of angst — used to justify replacing school leaders, closing schools, or opening new schools in neighborhoods where options are deemed inadequate.

In contrast, the state’s school quality designations actually target underperforming and lowest-performing schools with additional federal funding and support with the goal of improving student outcomes. Matthews said schools will work with “school support managers” from the state to do a self-inquiry and identify areas for improvement. She described Chicago’s school quality rating system as “a local dashboard that they have developed to communicate with their communities.”

Staff from the Illinois State Board of Education will be traveling around the state next week to meet with district leaders and principals to discuss the new accountability system, including the ratings. They’ll be in Bloomington, Marion, O’Fallon, Chicago, and Melrose Park. The Chicago meeting is Wednesday, Oct. 24, at 5 p.m. at Chicago Public Schools headquarters.

Rae Clementz, director of assessment and accountability at the state board said that a second set of ratings reveals “that there are multiple valid ways to look at school quality and success; it’s a richer picture.”

Under auspices of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the state school report cards released at the end of the month for elementary schools are 75 percent based on academics, including English language arts and math test scores, English learner progress as measured by the ACCESS test, and academic growth. The other 25 percent reflects the school climate and success, such as attendance and chronic absenteeism.

Other measures are slated to be phased in over the next several years, including academic indicators like science proficiency and school quality indicators, such as school climate surveys of staff, students and parents

High school designations take a similar approach with English and math test scores but will take into account graduation rates, instead of academic growth, and also includes the percentage of  9th graders on track to graduate — that is freshmen who earn 10 semester credits, and no more than one semester F in a core course.

Critics of Chicago’s school rating system argue that the ratings correlate more with socioeconomic status and race than they do school quality, and say little about what’s happening in classrooms and how kids are learning. Chicago does try to mitigate these issues with a greater emphasis on growth in test scores rather than absolute attainment, school climate surveys, and including academic growth by priority groups, like African-American, Latino, ELL, and students in special education.

Cory Koedel, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Missouri, said that many rating systems basically capture poverty status with a focus on how high or low students score on tests. Chicago’s approach is fairer than that of many other school systems.

“What I like about this is it does seem to have a high weight on growth and lower weight on attainment levels,” he said.

Morgan Polikoff, a professor at University of Southern California’s school of education, said that Chicago’s emphasis on student growth is a good thing “if the purpose of the system is to identify schools doing a good job educating kids.”

Chicago weights 50 percent of the rating on growth, but he’s seen 35 to as low as 15 percent at other districts. But he said the school district’s reliance on the NWEA test rather than the PARCC test used in the state school ratings was atypical.

“It’s not a state test, and though they say it aligns with standards, I know from talking to educators that a lot of them feel the tests are not well aligned with what they are supposed to be teaching,” he said. “It’s just a little odd to me they would have state assessment data, which is what they are held accountable for with the state, but use the other data.”

He’s skeptical about school systems relying too heavily on standardized test scores, whether the SAT, PARCC or NWEA, because “You worry that now you’re just turning the curriculum to test prep, and that’s an incentive you don’t want to create for educators.”

He said the high school measures in particular include a wide array of measures, including measures that follow students into college, “so I love that.”

“I really like the idea of broadening the set of indicators on which we evaluate schools and encouraging schools to really pay attention to how well they prepare students for what comes next,” he said.

Future of Schools

Eve Ewing explains why some communities just can’t get over school closings

If Chicago schools are so bad, why do people fight to keep them from closing?

Eve Ewing’s new book “Ghosts in the Schoolyard” explores that question. In doing so, she touches a wound still festering in Chicago communities five years after the massive 2013 school closings, which she calls a case study on the powerful role race and racism play in policy decisions.

“Like an electric current running through water, race has a way of filling space even as it remains invisible,” writes Ewing, an acclaimed sociologist and poet born in Chicago, and a rising cultural and intellectual force in the city.

“Ghosts,” scheduled to publish Oct. 22, is her second book, following a 2017 poetry collection.  A former Chicago Public Schools student and teacher, she dives into transcripts of public hearings where communities fought for their schools, explores the fraught relationship between black neighborhoods like Bronzeville and district leaders throughout history, and considers the emotional toll of losing a school. She also draws connections between school policy decisions past and present, Chicago’s long legacy of segregation, and the rapid gentrification reshaping the city today.

When Ewing started writing the book, she felt sad — about the loss of a school in which she had taught and about the children, community members, parents, and teachers who felt disempowered by the process.

“I’m still sad, but now with the distance of time and as we look at the city now and so many things we’re going through, it’s clear to me that the school closings were one very large piece of a much bigger pattern,” she said. “Now, I’m worried for the future of our city, which really feels like it’s at a crossroads about what it’s going to be, and if it’s going to be a place that’s habitable for poor people, if it’s going to be a place that’s habitable for black people, and for other people of color. I think the school closings played a huge part in the answer to those questions potentially being no.”

Chalkbeat Chicago interviewed Ewing about her book, the public discourse around “bad schools,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s political legacy, and more.

When you talk about school closings being part of this much bigger pattern, what specifically are you referring to?

A pattern of erosion of the institutions, services and resources that make a place a suitable home for vulnerable people. That includes mental health care, that includes a police force that doesn’t kill people with impunity, that includes a transportation system that is fair and affordable and equitable, that includes good jobs for people and training for those people to be qualified for those jobs. And that includes affordable housing. As I try to make clear in the book, there’s an intimate relationship between schools and housing.

Your book is titled “Ghosts In the School Yard.” What ghosts?

I think the title has multiple meanings. One, it’s referring to the many people whose experiences, specifically in Bronzeville and across the South Side and across Chicago, people who are no longer with us but whose struggles and experiences presage what we saw in 2013. It’s also referring to the ghosts of prior schools.

I sort of started thinking of the schools themselves as these entities that are no longer with us. Another thing is ghosts in terms of skeletons in the closet — the shadows and phantoms of the ugly parts of our history that we need to acknowledge to move forward with any kind of honesty.

You really dive into this idea of institutional mourning. Why was it important for you to address that, and how did you go about it?

Institutional mourning is the idea that people mourn institutions the way they also mourn people. The lost institution can be the church burned down in a fire, or the barber shop in your community where everybody used to gather that’s now replaced by an office building. Anywhere people gather that has social meaning. I argue this phenomenon is relevant especially in communities that are very vulnerable, where people often have a higher reliance on shared institutions because they have fewer individual resources. For example, some former residents are still mourning the demolition of public housing projects in Bronzeville, and that mourning is especially painful because these are often people without access to private property or home ownership.

I set out to interview people who had been directly impacted by school closings. I already had  hypothesized there was this relationship between race and racism and school closings. But in the public discourse there was this debate: Was it racist, was it not racist? I wanted to understand how the people who were most impacted understood that. I wanted to hear if they said, my school was closed because of racism or because we couldn’t cut it academically, or because our building was empty and we had too much space.

What I heard was just how often the metaphor of death and images of death was recurring in their responses. The way they used this intensely intimate and emotional language to talk about their own reaction to that perceived death is something that happened over and over, but was also a close fit with my own experiences as a teacher processing the school closures. So I said I’m making a name for it.

You also pay special attention to the nature of black grieving in describing how communities mourned their schools. Why?

The last several years have forced all of us to think about black grief, and for black people to experience tremendous ways of grieving, as we always have throughout the history of this country, but in a way that has been very visible and very consuming.

And black death has been thrust upon us in these newly hyper visible ways. I’m talking to you in the wave of the Jason Van Dyke verdict. In order for us to get to that verdict, many black people were subjected over and over again to the trauma of seeing this child (Laquan McDonald)  brutally shot in the street over and over and over.

I decided it was important to think of the ways that black people mourn in public, whether that means the mothers of children who have been killed grieving on the television camera, or people who have lost someone putting up a vigil with teddy bears and candles and flowers, or whether that means airbrushing their relative’s name on a shirt. All of these are forms of public grieving and shared communal grieving, so it only made more sense for me to understand that and link it in to this idea of institutional mourning.

Eve Ewing

You talk a lot in this book about the language of failure, the discourse about so-called bad schools. How does that language set the stage for decision-making at CPS?

Language is everything. Since the origin of public schooling in this country there’s never been anything that’s an objective measure of school quality, because communities have always had divergent definitions of what they want their schools to do. As long as you have that, you’ll always have differing definitions of school quality. If you go to a school that’s super elite but all the black kids get suspended or tracked into lower-level classes or traumatized by racist things their teachers say, that to me isn’t a good school, even though on paper to many people it may be a good school.

When we start having conversations about failures and goodness, we have to be really analytical about what we’re using to define those things. What’s emerged across the country is so many schools have been deemed failures in ways that don’t account for the lived reality of the challenges they face. Some of these schools are the only places where kids are getting fed every day or where someone makes sure they have a warm coat or tells them they love them and they’re special, even as those schools “fail” to raise that child’s test score.

I think it’s fair to talk about the idea of failure, but we also need to talk about moral failure. I think in Chicago there are at least as many moral failures of political leadership, and of the people that are supposed to be running our schools as there are “school failures.” We talk a lot about one and not the other.

You also mention this language of growth, of change, that’s in a statement like “Building a New Chicago,” one of the slogans that started appearing on construction signs when Mayor Rahm Emanuel was elected. How does that connect with the school closings?

When we talk about growth it’s always a question of growth for who and at what costs. As we know, black Chicago is shrinking. It’s really hard to hear about growth when the city has lost so many black residents.

In school closings, the district cites enrollment declines and how much it costs to educate students and operate schools. How do you respond to that idea?

The argument about scale and educating fewer kids, I think is a complicated one because as of now there has not been any analysis showing we saved money from this. (A report by the University of Chicago Consortium said the district can’t point to any savings, yet). Unless I missed it, there has not actually been a final assessment on the part of CPS of how much money this cost and if we indeed saved any money.

Aside from that, this question of efficiency and how many kids you can fit in a building and how much it costs, those questions only seem to come up when it has to do with poor kids. If you send your kids to private school or any kind of elite school, small class sizes are touted as being beneficial. It’s only when you’re talking about poor black kids the question becomes how many can we jam into a building and if it’s not efficient we need to close it.

Eve Ewing
PHOTO: Hayveyah McGowan
An illustration of poet and scholar Eve Ewing.

Can the school district afford a policy that doesn’t close schools?

It’s not that school closings are always bad, that’s not the argument of the book. The question is:  Is it possible for us to do this in a way that is humane, that is caring, that provides full acknowledgment of the emotional aftermath it presents for people, and is it possible to do it in a way that includes the people most affected at the table with something to say about their own lives and own conditions?

The problem is at this point there’s such a long history of mistrust that even if we have to close schools tomorrow and CPS comes up with a process that was amazingly transparent and participatory, people would still not trust the district! There’s a long hard road that has to be walked in this city to rebuild trust in all these institutions. The question is are people in power willing to walk it with us.

What would a school closing process look like that wasn’t racist?

To answer that question you would need to begin by asking it of the people in the school you would want to close. Parents, teachers, students, community members. I’m talking about truly asking questions of what people need, being willing to listen even if it’s something you don’t want to hear, and being willing to take that wisdom and those needs into account.

When we look back at Rahm Emanuel’s political legacy in Chicago, where will the school closings fit in?

I think that his political career did and has done a great deal of harm in many areas of the city. The school closings are a very large tip of a very large iceberg. I think for a lot of people it was a very definitive moment. He did something that Mayor [Richard] Daley, his predecessor, had already done, but had done it more slowly over time in a way that didn’t galvanize people’s reactions in the same way. The school closures were loud, they were visible, they were hurtful, and we are still feeling the aftereffects. I think for a lot of people that will be the definitive decision of his mayoral run.

Eve Ewing
Eve Ewing reading from her first book, a collection of poetry titled “Electric Arches.”