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.

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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.”

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised nearly $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent running in northeast Denver’s District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Jennifer Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $300,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a slate of candidates that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

what is a good school?

New York policymakers are taking a closer look at how they evaluate charter schools

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Erica Murphy, school director of Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in New York, oversees students in a fourth-grade English class.

New York is rethinking how it judges whether charter schools are successful and deserve to remain open — a discussion that comes as some top education policymakers have asked tough questions about the privately managed schools.

The state education department currently decides which of the more than 70 charter schools it oversees can stay open based largely based on their test scores and graduation rates, though other factors like family involvement and financial management are also reviewed. A set of changes now being considered could add additional performance measures, such as the share of students who are chronically absent and student survey results.

Policymakers also discussed whether to change how they calculate charter-school student enrollment and retention.

The move — which got its first public discussion Monday during a Board of Regents meeting and is expected to become a formal proposal in December — would bring charter schools in line with a shift underway in how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the board has moved away from using test scores as the main metric for evaluating schools and will begin to track absences and eventually suspensions.

Since state’s current system for evaluating charter schools was last revised in 2015, the board has added several new members and elected a new leader, Betty Rosa. Several members at a previous board meeting questioned the enrollment practices at a charter school in Brooklyn.

At Monday’s meeting, some suggested the schools attain high test scores partly by serving fewer high-needs students — and that the system for evaluating charters should take this into account.  

For instance, Regent Kathleen Cashin implied at Monday’s meeting that some charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students. Their motivation, she said, “is not pedagogic, I’ll tell you that.” She suggested that, in addition to tracking how well charter schools retain students, the state should survey parents who leave those schools to find out why.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Rosa suggested Monday that it’s unfair to compare charter schools that serve few high-needs students to traditional schools.

Charter schools receive autonomy from many rules, but in return they agree to meet certain performance targets — or risk closure if they do not. The state judges charters based on a variety of metrics, everything from their enrollment figures to how they respond to parent concerns. However, test scores and graduation rates are “the most important factor when determining to renew or revoke a school’s charter,” according to state documents.

Even if the state adds new measures that move beyond test scores, those will still hold the most weight, according to state officials.

The state is also considering whether to change how it measures charter schools’ enrollment and retention targets. Currently, schools must set targets for students with disabilities, English learners, and those eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch. If they fail to meet those targets, they must show they are making yearly progress towards meeting that goal.

During the state’s presentation, officials also floated the idea of a “fiscal dashboard,” which would display charter schools’ financial information. They also said they may compare charter high school graduation rates and Regents exam scores with those of the districts where they’re located, instead of using only the state average or their targets as a comparison point.