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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:

Why not Michigan?

As Michigan’s poorest 4-year-olds wait for classroom seats, free pre-K for all kids seems elusive

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
All New York City four year-olds — including these kids who attend school is in the city's education department headquarters — are guaranteed a spot in a city-funded pre-K. In Michigan, far fewer students have access to free preschool.

Michigan is the home to America’s most famous study on the benefits of early childhood education.

But when it comes to providing free prekindergarten for all children, other states and cities are leading the way.

Vermont, Florida, Washington, and the District of Columbia have public programs for all 4-year-olds, regardless of income. Seven more states have greatly expanded their pre-K programs, too, including Wisconsin, where free voluntary pre-K is in the state’s 1848 constitution.

But not Michigan. Not yet, at least.

The pioneering Perry Preschool Study began in Ypsilanti in 1962 and followed 123 study participants starting at age 3 through the age of 40. Among the study’s  findings: Those who went to pre-K were more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to repeat grades. They were also less likely to use drugs or commit crimes.

As they grew older, they were more likely to be employed and to have stable homes, savings accounts, significantly higher incomes, and report good relations with their families.

Skills such as cooperative play lay the groundwork for children to get along with others. In addition, learning to use fine motor skills and mastering shapes, colors, numbers, and the alphabet, contribute to future growth.

Further research has underscored the worth of pre-K, making it a rare realm of bipartisan support. In fact, funding for early childhood education has risen under the past three governors.

“I’ve been around long enough to see Democrats and Republicans in office, and early childhood education continues to be on the radar as a positive,” said Lena Montgomery, director of the Wayne County branch of the Great Start Readiness Program, a state funded initiative for 4-year-olds from low-income families.

But even though the governor’s own 21st Century Education Commission recommended that Michigan expand pre-K with $390 million in new investment, he chose instead to further study the impact of Great Start. In his most recent budget, he allocated $300,000 to do that research, and kept spending for Great Start flat at $245.6 million.

Momentum toward providing publicly funded pre-K, often called universal preschool, has been slowed by cost, teacher shortages, and family resistance, advocates say. They also note that there is no incentive for different institutions to pool their money to pay for a more comprehensive pre-K program in the state.  

Other states and cities have navigated similar challenges. But Michigan families face a patchwork of options. They may keep young children at home, pay for private childcare or pre-K, or, if they meet income or disability requirements, they can enroll them in Great Start or federally funded Head Start. Both are designed to support vulnerable children, including families with low-incomes.

But there aren’t enough seats, even for every child in need. Great Start’s Montgomery said she has 27 programs with qualified families on wait lists. It’s common, she said, for policymakers to say they support children. But some families are still falling into the gaps because more money is needed, she said.

About 133,000 Michigan children are not enrolled in any early childhood program.

Half of Wayne County’s 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in various pre-K programs, said Iheoma Iruka of Highscope, though she added that “we can’t vouch for the quality of these programs.”

The education plan of Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic nominee for governor, advocates for a universal program that expands Great Start until all 4-year-olds are eligible, similar to what the 21st Century Education Commission recommended. It would be paid for, according to her campaign staff, with anticipated increases in the School Aid Fund, which is mostly made up of sales, income, and property taxes. It would also use tax revenue from, among other things, the marijuana ballot initiative that’s expected to pass in November. Tax hikes shouldn’t be necessary, her staff said.

Bill Schuette, the Republican nominee, has an education plan that emphasizes third-grade literacy over pre-K. It mentions need-based transportation scholarships for preschoolers, and he said in a recent interview that universal pre-K was an option that he’d consider.

Hope Starts Here, the $50 million initiative created by the Kellogg and Kresge foundations to improve Detroit’s early childhood systems, has a number of suggestions to pay for universal pre-K. Among them: a dedicated tax proposal, a local sales tax on alcohol, coordinated philanthropic and corporate giving, and leveraging all federal grant money.

States and cities around the nation have experimented with other strategies. Georgia tied pre-K funding to the state lottery. New York City’s new universal program for all 3- and 4-year-olds comes from a mix of city, state and federal funding. Oklahoma, a pioneer in the field, discovered that school districts with half-day kindergartens were receiving state money meant for full-day programs. Lawmakers reformed the state aid formula so that those resources went into pre-K. (The districts had been spending the extra money on sports.)

Others have expanded access by combining different sources of money. North Carolina integrated pre-K with its K-12 schools and contributed part of the Title 1 money that’s allocated to school districts. Chicago is moving toward universal pre-K with a mix of state and district budget increases, and block grants. Washington, D.C. blends Head Start and local funding into its education formula.

A pilot model for blended funding in Michigan can be found in Flint, where the state’s only Educare program is based on the grounds of a former elementary school. The national Educare Early Learning Network draws from multiple revenue sources, including federal, state, and philanthropic dollars.

But regardless of where the money is coming from, opportunities to expand pre-K programs may be missed because of the statewide teacher shortage. In addition,  salaries are not as high as they are in K-12 schools. The median salary for Head Start teachers is $27,613, and for lead Great Start teachers, $37,440, according to a statewide advocacy organization.

To recruit and retain more teachers at all levels, including pre-K,  a new public-private initiative called Teach 313 launched in Detroit in August. Other places facing shortages or high turnover for its preschool teachers have turned to Teach for America to fill gaps, or provided scholarships for early childhood educators to obtain degrees that would raise their wages.

But before Michigan can explore other strategies and expand into universal pre-K, it needs to make the program it already has available to more families.

If you ask Montgomery from Great Start about her wish list, it begins with providing pre-K to all the children who are sitting on waitlists.

“It would be wonderful to to say to parents, ‘We have a spot for your child,’” Montgomery said. “ ‘You don’t have to wait for someone to drop out or leave.’ It would be wonderful to say to the people who want to run programs, or to expand their programs in their communities, ‘We have the funds for you set up and run a high quality program.’ ”

enrollment

Who’s in and who’s not? Chicago board to announce new boundaries for popular Taft High

PHOTO: Tim Boyle / Getty Images
Taft High School is one of Chicago Public Schools' most overenrolled campuses. In 2019, it will spin off its freshman class to a separate campus.

The Chicago school board will announce much-anticipated new attendance boundaries on Tuesday for one of its most crowded schools, William Howard Taft High School on the Northwest side.

Starting next school year, Taft will spin off one grade level to a new campus, the Taft Freshman Academy, which is expected to enroll 1,000 freshman. Chicago Public Schools will give those living within the new attendance area priority in enrollment.

“I look forward to what CPS has to say about the new campus,” Taft Principal Mark Grishaber told Chalkbeat Chicago. “This is good for every kid on the Northwest side.”

A community meeting on the new boundaries will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Wilbur Wright College, 4300 N. Narragansett Ave.

At its regular monthly meeting at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, the board will discuss the Taft boundaries and also what to do about its underrolled schools, which are primarily neighborhood schools.  A state law signed in August requires Chicago to make a plan for intervening in schools that do not have enough students.

The Chicago school district faces a critical decline in enrollment, but still plans to invest $1 billion to shore up existing schools and build new ones.