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.

temporary reprieve

Parents score a temporary victory in slowing the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Protesters gathered at the education department's headquarters to protest a recent set of closure plans.

A judge blocked the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school Thursday — at least for now.

Three families from P.S. 25/the Eubie Blake School filed a lawsuit in March backed by the public interest group Advocates for Justice, arguing the city’s decision to close the school was illegal because the local elected parent council was not consulted.

Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Katherine Levine did not make a final ruling Thursday about whether the closure plan violated the law. But she issued a temporary order to keep the school open while the case moves forward.

It was not immediately clear when the case will be resolved or even if the school will remain open next year. “We are reviewing the stay and will determine an appropriate course of action once the judge makes a final decision on the case,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement.

The education department said the school has hemorrhaged students in recent years and is simply too small to be viable: P.S. 25 currently enrolls just 94 students in grades K-5.

“Because of extremely low enrollment, the school lacks the necessary resources to meet the needs of students,” Holness wrote. The city’s Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide oversight board that must sign off on all school closures, voted in February to close the school.

But the school’s supporters point out that despite low test scores in the past, P.S. 25 now ranks among the city’s top elementary schools, meaning that its closure would force students into lower-performing schools elsewhere.

“Why close a school that’s doing so well?” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and one of the lawsuit’s supporters. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The lawsuit hinges on a state law that gives local education councils the authority to approve any changes to school zones. Since P.S. 25 is the only zoned elementary school for a swath of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the department’s plans would leave some families with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating them, forcing students to attend other district schools or enter the admissions lottery for charter schools.

That amounts to “effectively attempting to change zoning lines” and “unlawfully usurping” the local education council’s authority to determine those zones, according to the lawsuit.

But even if the education department loses the lawsuit, the school’s fate would still be uncertain. The closure plan would theoretically be subject to a vote from the local education council, whose president supports shuttering the school.

Still, Haimson hopes the lawsuit ultimately persuades the education department to back away from closing the school in the long run.

“My goal would be to get the chancellor to change his mind,” Haimson said. “I don’t think the future is preordained.”

Future of Schools

Four school leaders hope to bring innovative ideas to Indianapolis education

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Brandon Brown introduces four new innovation school fellows.

Hoping to jumpstart innovation in Indianapolis education, four experienced educators will spend a year or more developing new models for schools.

The educators were chosen from among 39 applicants for fellowships from the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports district-charter partnerships. This is the fifth round of innovation fellowships, which give leaders one to two years to prepare to launch or takeover schools in Indianapolis Public Schools.

The fellowship includes an annual salary of about $100,000, benefits, and support for creating new schools, such as visits to other schools, training, and legal assistance. The package for each fellow is worth approximately $200,000 per year.

The city has 16 innovation schools, and they enroll about 20 percent of the students in Indianapolis Public Schools. They are under the umbrella of the district, but they are managed by outside charter operators or nonprofits, and most of the teachers are not employed by the district nor do they belong to the teachers union. The Mind Trust has been instrumental in the creation of innovation schools, and the vast majority of the schools were founded with support from the nonprofit.

The innovation fellowship winners include two people from Indianapolis and two recruits from other cities. But in a sign that the nonprofit’s leaders have become more cautious in their choices, all four have years of experience in education.

Brandon Brown, CEO of the Mind Trust, said that’s by design. About four early innovation fellows never ended up opening innovation schools. But all of the recent winners have either opened schools or are on track to open them, he said.

Candidates are much more likely to be successful, he said, if they have the entrepreneurial spirit to create their own nonprofits and win community support — and have experience in education.

“There’s this notion that if you’re a great entrepreneur, you don’t have to have the unique skill set to know education and [yet] you can go operate a school,” Brown said. “We’ve learned that that’s a very rare thing to see.”

While the winners have all worked in established schools, however, Brown said they are trying new models.

Tihesha Henderson, principal of School 99, won a fellowship to develop a school designed to meet the social and emotional needs of students. She will take a yearlong leave from her current job and hopes to return and transform School 99 into an innovation school.

Henderson envisions a school that adjusts to meet student needs, whether through therapy, small classes, or classroom redesign. School 99 already has significant flexibility, but as an innovation school, Henderson would be able to change the school calendar and set teacher pay, she said.

“We don’t have to be the status quo,” she said. “We can branch out and do some things differently, but it all comes back to — are we meeting out kids needs?”

The other fellows are Alicia Hervey, dean of student development for Christel House Academies; Kim Neal, managing director of secondary education for the charter school network KIPP DC; and Brandy Williams, an expert in special education from New Orleans.

Although innovation schools are considered part of Indianapolis Public Schools, they also often have charters through the office of Mayor Joe Hogsett. The collaborative nature of the schools was on display at the announcement Thursday, where Hogsett, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, and Brown all spoke.

The innovation schools, said Ferebee, are part of a broader district strategy to give principals more flexibility to run their schools.

“We hire great leaders, get out of their way and give them the space and agility to make decisions about academics [and] operations to better serve our students and our families,” he said.

The city’s reputation in the education community is helping it attract educators from across the country, said Hogsett.

“They know our city is one where they can make a difference,” he said. “Indianapolis welcomes their passion with open arms.”