Future of Schools

Advisory group questions ‘voucher charter’

CASTLE ROCK – Five parents who serve on Douglas County’s district accountability committee asked lots of questions Tuesday about the voucher charter school slated to open this fall.

Kevin Leung, a member of Douglas County's district accountability committee, at Tuesday's meeting.
Kevin Leung, a member of Douglas County's district accountability committe, questioned staff about the Choice Scholarship School.
The charter school will serve as the administrative home of the 500 students awarded vouchers – worth $4,575 in state and local tax dollars – to private schools in Colorado’s first district-driven voucher pilot.

But the students won’t actually attend classes in a charter school – instead, they’ll be enrolling in the 19 or more “private school partners” approved by the district to accept vouchers in 2011-12.

“As far as we know, nothing like this has been done anywhere,” Robert Ross, the district’s legal counsel, said Tuesday in response to questions. “There is not a pattern for this, we’re creating it.”

District leaders say they’re creating the Choice Scholarship School because it is the most efficient way of tracking the achievement, attendance and funding for students enrolled in the voucher pilot.

Questioning the legality of admissions policies

The idea of using the state’s Charter Schools Act to further a voucher program clearly sparked concern for some members of the district accountability committee.

Learn more

Kevin Leung, a committee member who also is a plaintiff in one of two lawsuits filed to stop the voucher pilot, repeatedly cited sections of the law in questioning district staff.

For example, Leung pointed out that state law prohibits a charter from discriminating against students on the basis of religion and the need for special education services.

But 15 of the 19 approved “private school partners” to date are religious and many weigh a student and parent’s religious affiliation in their admissions policies. Some schools state they’re not a good fit for students with disabilities.

For example, Southeast Christian School in Parker “reserves the right to deny admission to any student whose needs we cannot meet or who compromises the expressed mission, goals, purpose, safety or philosophy of Christian education,” its application states.

And Valor Christian High School in Highlands Ranch, in its application, notes ““We do not have a special education program or resource program at Valor as our admissions standards preclude having a population with significant need.”

So, Leung asked Ross, how is the Choice Scholarship School a legal charter?

Ross said that the charter school itself doesn’t prohibit student participation based on religion or other factors. The few criteria to be part of the pilot include living in Douglas County and prior enrollment for at least a year in a Douglas County school.

Once a student is selected for the pilot, he said, it’s up to the families to decide which private school is a good fit: “The remainder is parental choice.”

Choice Scholarship School still needs state approval

By law, district accountability committee members are charged with reviewing all charter applications and making recommendations for approval.

But their input is advisory and school board members, who vote on the applications, have the final say.

In the case of the Choice Scholarship School, Dougco board members already approved it last month – on the condition that the committee review the application and provide input to the board within 48 hours of its meeting.

If the committee opts not to provide input, the application is deemed approved without condition. If input is provided, the board then has the opportunity to address it.

Kevin Larsen, the committee chair, said its recommendations will be sent to the school board by week’s end and then made public. School board members meet Tuesday.

The Choice Scholarship School is still subject to approval by the State Board of Education, which is expected to consider the application at its August meeting.

Ross said district leaders have met with Colorado Department of Education staff about the creation of a charter and “got favorable reviews from them.”

About 25 people attended the district accountability committee meeting and seven made public comments, with speakers for and against the voucher pilot.

At one point, Becky Barnes of Castle Rock, who supports the pilot, stood and asked whether Leung should review the charter application as a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the pilot.

Leung responded that some committee members were discussing running for the school board with the county Republican Party, which backed several pro-voucher board members in the last election.

“This will be a collaborative process,” Larsen, the committee chair, said. “We’ll figure out how to do that.”

Idea pitch

Despite concerns, Jeffco school board agrees to spend $1 million to start funding school innovations

Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jeffco Public Schools work on their assigned iPads during a class project. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Jeffco school employees can apply for a piece of a $1 million fund that will pay for an innovative idea for improving education in the district.

The school board for Jeffco Public Schools on Thursday approved shifting $1 million from the district’s rainy day fund to an innovation pool that will be used to provide grants to launch the new ideas.

The district will be open for applications as soon as Friday.

The board had reservations about the plan, which was proposed by the new schools superintendent, Jason Glass, in November, as part of a discussion about ways to encourage innovation and choice in the district. The board was concerned about how quickly the process was set to start, whether there was better use of the money, and how they might play a role in the process.

Glass conceded that the idea was an experiment and that pushing ahead so quickly might create some initial problems.

“This effort is going to be imperfect because it’s the first time that we’ve done it and we don’t really know how it’s going to turn out,” Glass said. “There are going to be problems and there are going to be things we learn from this. It’s sort of a micro experiment. We’re going to learn a lot about how to do this.”

During the November discussion, Glass had suggested one use for the innovation money: a new arts school to open in the fall to attract students to the district. He said that the money could also be used to help start up other choice schools. School board members balked, saying they were concerned that a new arts school would compete with existing arts programs in Jeffco schools. The board, which is supported by the teachers union, has been reluctant to open additional choice schools in the district, instead throwing most of their support behind the district-run schools.

Board members also expressed concerns about what they said was a rushed process for starting the fund.

The plan calls for teachers, school leaders and other district employees to apply for the money by pitching their idea and explaining its benefit to education in the district. A committee will then consider the proposals and recommend those that should be funded out of the $1 million.

Board members said they felt it was too soon to start the application process on Friday. They also questioned why the money could not also help existing district programs.

“I think a great deal of innovation is happening,” said board member Amanda Stevens.

Some board members also suggested that one of them should serve on the committee, at least to monitor the process. But Glass was adamant.

“Do you want me to run the district and be the superintendent or not?” Glass asked the board. “I can set this up and execute it, but what you’re talking about is really stepping over into management, so I caution you about that.”

Glass later said he might be open to finding another way for board members to be involved as observers, but the board president, Ron Mitchell, said he would rather have the superintendent provide thorough reports about the process. The discussion is expected to resume at a later time.

Stevens said many of the board’s questions about details and the kind of ideas that will come forth will, presumably, be answered as the process unfolds.

“Trying is the only way we get any of that information,” Stevens said.

Future of Schools

Indiana’s graduation rate has barely changed in 6 years while most of the nation is on the rise

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum
Mbeomo Msambilwa walks down the hallway at the newcomer school

Indiana has failed to significantly increase the number of students who finish high school even as it leads the nation in embracing school choice policies that have been praised by some education advocates across the nation.

From 2007 to 2011, Indiana’s graduation rate steadily climbed from 78 percent to 87 percent. But since 2011, it has risen just one-tenth of one percentage point. Data released by the state this week showed 87 percent of students graduated in 2017, down slightly from 89 percent in 2016.

That’s a sharp contrast with trends across the country. The most recent national graduation rate was lower than Indiana’s, but it increased by about 5 percentage points between 2011 and 2016. The rate is calculated by dividing the number of students who graduate after four years by the number in a high school cohort.

While Hoosier graduation rates have remained stagnant over the past six years, state education policy has been in upheaval.

Since 2011, Indiana policymakers have limited the power of teachers unions, changed how teachers are evaluated, created an A-F grading system for schools and began taking control of schools with poor performance. They vastly expanded the state’s charter school system and established a statewide program where some students could get public money to pay for private school tuition.

Although politicians at the time did not promise that these changes would guarantee widespread higher academic performance, it was part of their arguments in advancing the new policies. But graduation rates have barely budged.

“We recognize there is still work to be done, and will continue to partner with local districts to ensure every student graduates prepared for life beyond high school,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement.

The picture is more positive in Marion County, with notable gains in some schools and districts. Wayne Township’s Ben Davis University High School graduated 100 percent of its seniors, the highest in Marion County.

At the district level, Franklin Township had the highest graduation rate (97 percent). Beech Grove Schools, which enrolls just over 3,000 students, made the biggest jump of any district in the county, increasing 8 percentage points to 95 percent.

Indianapolis Public Schools also made gains in graduation rates for the second year in a row. Eighty-three percent of students graduated, up 6 percentage points from 2016. The improvement significantly narrowed the gap between the district and the state average. The increase this year is especially notable because there was also a decline in the number of graduates who earned diplomas without passing state tests. Indiana requires students to pass state tests to graduate unless they can get a waiver by meeting other criteria.

The district has made increasing the number of students who graduate a priority in recent years, including by hiring high school graduation coaches who are tasked with helping students get to the finish line.

In IPS, most of the gains were at schools slated to close at the end of this year. The only campus with a substantially higher graduation rate that will remain open is Arsenal Technical High School. The district’s highest graduation rate was at Broad Ripple High School (98 percent), which will close.

Across the state, Asian (88 percent) and white (89 percent) students, and students who do not come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (95 percent) have the highest graduation rates. Black students and kids with special needs had graduation rates below 80 percent.

The biggest change was among students who are learning English as a new language. They had a graduation rate of 61 percent, down 14 percentage points from last year.