Future of Schools

Voucher vote expected Tuesday

Douglas County school board members appear poised next week to approve the state’s first district-driven voucher program, which would launch this fall with up to 500 students.

Douglas County School Board President John Carson
Douglas County School Board President John Carson listened to public comment Wednesday.

District staff recommended approval of the voucher pilot Wednesday, winning unanimous praise from board members and paving the way for a March 15 vote.

The plan would provide Dougco families with $4,575 per student next school year – or 75 percent of the total per-pupil funding allocated by the state – to pay toward tuition at participating private schools.

At the same special meeting, board members approved a resolution directing district staff to explore asking voters for a tax increase in November.

The combination of the two issues – increasing choice and raising taxes – is no coincidence, one board member said.

“The juxtaposition of these two thoughts is not arbitrary at all,” board member Craig Richardson told the audience, then looked at staff.

“I think it would suggest, if the board were to go forward with both concepts, not only do we believe in choice and competition but we believe in you – we believe this district, going into that competition, is worth investing in and it will do well.”

Could vouchers foil tax increase?

Most seats were taken in the boardroom at district headquarters in Castle Rock but only a handful of people addressed the board, having been told walking in that public comment was limited to the budget.

Next steps
  • A vote on vouchers is expected at the board’s 5 p.m. meeting March 15 at 620 Wilcox St., Castle Rock.

Learn more

Some connected the dots to vouchers anyway.

Anne Kleinkopf, the mother of two Douglas County graduates, said she was happy to hear the board was considering a tax request.

But she said it would be “disastrous” to ask for more money “when we are in the process of giving public dollars to private schools in contravention of Colorado state law.”

Leigh Shuster, who has twins in a district elementary school, said some might see the tax question as a referendum on vouchers.

“I believe many voters will lash out come election time … if they believe their tax dollars are financing private school tuition,” she said.

The voucher proposal recommended by staff is little different than what was discussed during three community meetings in February. Of the seven board members, only one, Cliff Stahl, asked any questions Wednesday.

Afterward, Stahl said he was “about 80 percent” in favor of the pilot, though he wanted more details on how the district would hold private schools accountable.

Questions on admissions, accountability

Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen said the district will track the academic growth of voucher students, who will be required to take state tests, to ensure the trend is positive.

In addition, she said, “We would do an annual financial review (of the private schools), an annual parent satisfaction review and an annual student achievement and growth review – by student, by school and by the entire program.”

Dougco Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Dougco Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen responded Wednesday to questions.

Stahl also asked whether private schools participating in the pilot would have to change their admissions criteria.

“What we are saying to the private school partners is they do not have to change their admissions criteria and their admissions process,” said Robert Ross, the district’s attorney.

“For the purposes of accepting students, they can’t discriminate on an area that would be prohibited by law. Except for the religious schools, if they currently use religion as criteria for admission, they don’t have to change that.”

Board President John Carson repeated his conviction that the voucher proposal “contrary to what some people seem to believe, will actually improve the financial situation of the school district.”

He said the proposal is part of Douglas County’s push to innovate in the face of fiscal constraints. Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed $332 million cut in K-12 funding for 2011-12 means a loss of $465 per pupil for the district.

We’re “not going to sit here like lemmings” and do nothing, Carson said.

“I don’t have fears for our system. I think our system will compete very well,” he said. “I am excited about these changes.”

Details of Douglas County’s voucher proposal

Who could participate

  • Students currently attending Douglas County public schools who have been enrolled for no less than one year.
  • Students must live in the Douglas County School District.
  • In the proposed pilot for 2011-12, up to 500 students may participate. A lottery would be held if more than 500 fill out choice scholarship applications.
  • Participating students would be required to take state exams at a time and place designated by the district.

How the money would flow

  • 75 percent of per-pupil funding would follow the student to a participating private school – based on an expected per-pupil amount of $6,100, that’s $4,575 per student.
  • The remaining 25 percent – an estimated $1,525 – would stay with the district.
  • The value of the voucher or scholarship would be $4,575 or the actual cost of tuition, whichever is less.
  • The district would write checks to the parents of participating students and those parents would sign them over to the private schools they’ve chosen.
  • Parents would receive four equal payments annually. Payment could be withheld if the student, parent or private school is in violation of program rules.
  • If 500 students participate, at $6,100 per student, that’s a total of $3.05 million – with $2.28 million going to private schools and $762,500 staying with the district.

How private schools could participate

  • Nonpublic schools located within or outside the boundaries of the Douglas County School District could participate. Kindergarten programs are not included in the pilot.
  • Schools would not be required to change their admissions criteria to participate but they would not be allowed to discriminate on the basis of disability or any other area protected by law.
  • Schools must be willing to provide the option of a waiver to voucher students for the religious portion of their program.
  • Schools must agree to provide attendance data and qualifications of teaching staff to the district.
  • Schools would be expected to “demonstrate over time that its educational program produces student achievement and growth results … at least as strong as what district neighborhood and charter schools produce,” according to draft policy on the voucher plan.
  • Schools must demonstrate financial stability, disclosing at least the past three years’ worth of audited financial statements and other financial data.
  • Schools must demonstrate their facilities are up to building codes and that they have a safe school plan as required by law.

How the district would use the money

  • Of the $762,500 possible in the pilot year for the district, $361,199 would be set aside for administrative overhead such as providing staff to monitor attendance and state testing of voucher students. A Choice Scholarship Office would be created to administer the program.
  • The remaining $401,301 would be set aside for “extenuating circumstances,” including assisting a district school adversely impacted by the voucher pilot.

*Source: Draft board policy outlining the Choice Scholarship Program pilot. A final draft is expected to be posted Monday before the March 15 vote.

awards season

For the first time in two decades, New York’s Teacher of the Year hails from New York City — and West Africa

PHOTO: New York State Education Department
Bronx International High School teacher Alhassan Susso, center, is New York State's 2019 Teacher of the Year.

An immigrant from West Africa who teaches social studies to immigrant students in the Bronx is New York State’s newest Teacher of the Year.

Alhassan Susso, who works at International Community High School in Mott Haven, received the award Tuesday, becoming the first New York City teacher to do so since 1998.

As the state’s Teacher of the Year, Susso will travel the state to work with local educators — and will represent New York in the national competition at a time when federal authorities are aggressively seeking to limit immigration.

A decorated teacher with significant vision impairment since childhood, Susso came to New York from Gambia at 16 and had a rocky experience at his upstate high school, which he chronicled in an autobiography he published in 2016. Assuming that he would struggle academically because he was an immigrant, even though English is the official language of Gambia, his teachers assigned him to a remedial reading class. There, he found a compassionate teacher who was attentive to the diverse needs of her students, who came from all over the world.

Now, Susso is playing that role at his school. International Community High School, part of the Internationals Network for new immigrants, has a special program for students who did not receive a formal education before coming to the United States.

“Alhassan Susso exemplifies the dedication and passion of our 79,000 New York City teachers,” city Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement. “Using the obstacles he’s overcome and lessons he’s learned in his own life, Alhassan has changed the trajectory of students’ lives and helped them pursue their dreams.”

New York City teachers make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s teaching force but have won the Teacher of the Year honor only six times since 1965, the last in 1998. This year’s winner had a strong chance of ending the two-decade shutout: Two of the three finalists teach in the Bronx. In addition to Susso, Frederick Douglass Academy III chemistry teacher William Green was up for the award.

regents roundup

Regents support a new way of evaluating charter schools and soften penalties for schools with high opt-out rates

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York’s top education policymakers tentatively approved new rules Monday on two hot-button issues: the penalties for districts and schools where many students opt out of state tests — and how nearly 100 charter schools across the state will be evaluated.

Here’s what you need to know about the new policies that the state’s Board of Regents set in motion.

Potential penalties for high opt-out rates were softened

After criticism from activists and parents within the opt-out movement and pushback from the state teachers union, the Regents walked back some of the consequences schools and districts can face when students refuse to take state exams.

Among the most significant changes, which state officials first floated last week, is that districts with high opt-out rates will not be required to use a portion of their federal funding to increase their testing rates.

“I do not ever want to be the person who takes money away from children,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.

The regulations are part of the state’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and stem from a federal mandate that 95 percent of students take the state’s annual reading and math exams.

The Regents tweaked other rules requiring schools to create improvement plans if they fall below the 95 percent threshold. Schools with average or higher test scores will not have to come up with those plans.

Still, some parents who support the opt-out movement and who attended Monday’s meeting said the changes don’t go far enough and that schools with lower test scores should also be exempt from coming up with plans to boost participation rates.

“There’s still so much left to be addressed,” said Kemala Karmen, a New York City public school parent who attended the meeting.

The new regulations will likely not have a major effect in New York City, where opt-out rates have remained relatively low. Although New York State has been the epicenter of the test-boycott movement — with roughly one in five students refusing to take the tests, according to the most recent data — less than 4 percent of the city’s students declined to take them.

The Regents unanimously approved the changes, although their vote is technically preliminary. The tweaks will still be subject to a 30-day public comment period and will likely be brought to a final vote in December.

New criteria for evaluating charter schools

The Regents also narrowly approved a new framework for evaluating the roughly 100 charter schools that the board oversees across the state, 63 of which are in New York City.

The new framework is meant to bring charter schools in line with how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the Regents have moved away from emphasizing test scores as the key indicator of a school’s success.

In keeping with that shift, the new charter framework will require schools to have policies covering chronic absenteeism, out-of-school suspension rates, and other measures of school culture to help decide whether they are successful enough to remain open.

And while the new framework does not spell out specific rates of chronic absenteeism a school must fall below, for example, it does explicitly add those policies to the mix of factors the Regents consider. (Officials said that test scores and graduation rates would still remain among the most important factors in evaluating charter schools.)

At Monday’s meeting, discussion of the charter framework prompted broad complaints about the charter sector from some Regents. The state’s framework for evaluating charters was last updated in 2015; the board has added several new members and a new chancellor since then.

The current board has repeatedly sent mixed messages about the sector, approving large batches of new charters while also rejecting others and raising questions about whether the schools serve a fair share of high-need students.

“We’re giving money away from our public schools to charters,” Regent Kathy Cashin said, emphasizing that she believes the state should more deeply probe when students leave charter schools and survey families to find out why.

Charters receive some freedom from rules governing most district-run schools, but in exchange the schools are expected to meet certain performance benchmarks or else face closure.

State officials said the new framework does not include new standards for how New York judges enrollment and retention. Under the current rules, schools must enroll a similar number of students with disabilities, English learners, and low-income students as other nearby district schools. If they don’t, they must show that they’re making progress toward that goal.

Ultimately, the new framework was approved eight to five in a preliminary vote and will be brought back to the full board for approval on Tuesday.