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Voucher program would be revived in Douglas County under proposal — minus religious schools

Douglas County parents protest the district's voucher program in 2010 (Denver Post photo)

The Douglas County School District would take another shot at launching a school voucher program — this time excluding religious schools to abide by a court ruling — under a proposal from a member of the school board’s conservative majority.

In a draft document provided to Chalkbeat, board member Doug Benevento sketches out a proposal to amend the district’s previous voucher program, which the Colorado Supreme Court struck down last June.

Benevento said he has been conferring with board president Meghann Silverthorn and the board attorney on a resolution laying out the amended voucher pilot program. He said he submitted it to Silverthorn for placement on the agenda for Tuesday’s board meeting, which has yet to be finalized.

“This is not the program we wanted to run,” Benevento said. “We did not want to run a program that would force us into a position of making a determination of who is faith-based or not, and be exclusionary based on faith. However, that is the ruling of the Colorado Supreme Court.”

In a 4-3 judgment last June, the state’s highest court held that the district’s Choice Scholarship Program violated a state constitutional provision barring spending public money on religious schools.

District officials petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court and are awaiting word on whether the court will take the case.

The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia complicated matters. If a court short one justice were to hear the case and rule 4-4, it would affirm the state Supreme Court’s decision.

School district officials floated the possibility of a purely secular voucher program last fall. Benevento said Scalia’s death did not play a role in the decision to proceed. He said the district is pressing on with the legal case, and will include language in the amended voucher program that will open it back up to religious schools if the court were to rule in its favor.

Even with religious schools stripped out, any voucher program is certain to be opposed by those against taking taxpayer money out of the public school system to pay for private education.

“This is the very first I have ever heard of anything remotely close to this, so that is a kind of a shock,” said Wendy Vogel, who joined the Douglas County school board after November’s election that saw three challengers unseat conservative incumbents.

“I will say I am against vouchers,” she said. “I always have been against vouchers. But other than that broad statement, I don’t know I could say anything else without seeing what he is presenting.”

Under the amended proposal, the district would develop a process for analyzing the policies, board structures and curriculum of schools that wish to participate and bar those deemed religious as defined in state law, Benevento said.

Of the 23 private schools accepted into the original program, 16 were religious and 14 were outside Douglas County. More than nine in 10 students taking part chose religious schools.

The new plan would abandon another contentious element — establishing a charter school that would have served administrative functions including being the conduit for state per-pupil funding flowing to the voucher program. Benevento said the amended program would be run out of a district office.

He called the charter school discussion a “distraction” — that piece of the program angered many in the charter community — and said it wasn’t necessary for the program to pass legal muster.

As many as 500 students could take part in the new voucher program at any one time, starting as soon as this fall. But it is unclear how many Douglas County families would want to enroll their children in secular private schools, or whether secular private schools in metro Denver have the interest or space to accommodate them.

The school district established its Choice Scholarship Program in 2011 after a conservative takeover of the school board, reasoning that competition can lift all schools even in a district consistently ranked as one of the state’s top academic achievers.

While most voucher programs are restricted to low-income students or those with special needs, Douglas County invited all families to apply — although the program was limited to 500 slots.

The novel attempt to bring vouchers to a wealthy district with no shortage of strong district-run and charter schools attracted national notice.

In 2011, the first 304 students were about to enroll when a lawsuit brought it to a halt. So began the legal fight that continues. District officials have said private donations have covered all costs, which last fall stood at about $1.2 million.

Anne Kleinkopf, a board member of Taxpayers for Public Education, an original plaintiff  in the lawsuit against the voucher program, said Thursday she also would need to wait until the full plan is revealed and then review it before commenting.

Given an overview by Chalkbeat, she said: “None of that surprises me.”

The school district could find itself involved in yet more litigation if the amended voucher program gets off the ground and a religious school seeking to take part is turned away.

“Certainly, there is an exclusion of faith-based schools that we would prefer to have included,” Benevento said. “The Colorado Supreme Court didn’t see it that way. If there is some collision between what the Colorado Supreme Court says we are allowed to do and what federal law or previous federal opinions are in this area, that’s possible.”

“Our goal is to provide another option to our parents,” he continued. “But I can’t predict whether there will be additional litigation. I am hopeful to provide the next increment of choice for our parents.”

Here is his draft proposal:

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.