Saturday, June 25, 2011

ACLU sues over Douglas County school vouchers

The Colorado ACLU and two other civil liberties groups filed suit Tuesday challenging the Douglas County School District's voucher plan, which would allow students to attend private schools with public money.

Mark Silverstein, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said the group also intends "as soon as possible" to ask the court for an injunction to stop voucher payments from going to private schools.

"We all support the right of parents to send their children to private schools," Silverstein said at a news conference Tuesday. "The issue is they cannot do so with taxpayers' money."

Thirty miles away, Douglas County School District officials and board members held a news conference of their own, defending the groundbreaking program they say provides opportunities and choices for all students. "It is unfortunate that we have to spend time and resources defending what is in the best interest of our students," said District Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen. "But we are prepared to do that."

Indeed, when it unanimously approved the voucher plan in March, the school board directed district staff to prepare financially to defend the program in court.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, as well as the national and state organizations of the American Civil Liberties Union, filed the suit in Denver District Court on behalf of plaintiffs including the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, a rabbi, a United Church of Christ pastor, Douglas County's library district director, and a handful of Douglas County parents and activists.

They contend the district's "Pilot Choice Scholarship Plan" violates the state constitution by allowing public funds to be channeled to religious schools.

The district expects to raise money to assist in its legal defense. "I am confident in our democratic process and that we will prevail over this lawsuit," school board president John Carson said.

District's approach

The district will have powerful organizations of its own backing it in court. "Within the next few days, the Institute for Justice will move to intervene in the case," said Michael Bindas, senior attorney for the Arlington, Va.-based group.

Douglas County's program is similar to others that have survived court challenges, Bindas said. The Douglas County School District's will as well, he contends, because it is neutral on religion and leaves the choice of school up to parents.

The voucher plan was approved by the Douglas County school board in March after months of debate that revealed deep fissures among parents in one of the state's most successful, and its wealthiest, school district.

The plan allows up to 500 students who are currently enrolled in one of the district's public schools to apply to attend a private school.

The district will give the participating students 75 percent of the funding it receives from the state for each student, or about $4,575, to attend a private school. The other 25 percent will stay with the school district. Students who receive vouchers from the district must take CSAP exams.

The district, like most others in the state, faced massive budget cuts this year, and district leaders touted the voucher plan as a financial boon.

The district opened the program to more than 100 schools in and near Douglas County. Of those, 33 applied to participate. As of Tuesday, 19 schools had received district approval to participate. Of those, 15 are religious in nature.

Under the terms of the agreement between the district and the participating schools, any student who attends a parochial school must be allowed to opt out of any religious education offered there.

According to the district, 497 students have qualified to receive vouchers — which the district calls scholarships — for for the 2011-12 school year.

The voucher amount would cover tuition at few of the district-approved private schools.

At Aspen Academy, one of the four non-religious schools, tuition is $11,957 annually for grades five through eight. Aspen Academy has accepted several Douglas County students, a school official told The Denver Post in April.

Earlier law struck down

Seven years ago, the Colorado Supreme Court struck down a voucher program created by the state legislature in 2003. That law would have provided students from failing schools statewide $4,500 toward tuition at the private school of their choice. That program directed local school boards to allocate the money to private and religious schools to cover the vouchers.

The court ruled the law improperly stripped local school districts of authority.

This time, the ACLU will focus on the religious nature of many of Douglas County's partner schools.

In addition, Silverstein targeted what he called "accounting shenanigans," in which the district will count the 500 students who receive vouchers as public school students for state funding purposes, when in fact those students will be attending private schools.

In addition to the district, the lawsuit names as defendants the Colorado Department of Education, which allocates public money to school districts based on the census of students enrolled in each district, and the state Board of Education.


'Learning Challenge' is Just More Federal Waste in the Making

Though the U.S. Department of Education rolled out its "Early Learning Challenge" on May 25, it's not too early to predict failure -- likely little or no boost for tots working on their ABCs, and surely a waste of $500 million extracted from taxpayers.

The program, part of the next phase of President Barack Obama's Race to the Top plan, works like its progenitor: To win some of this kickback of federal taxpayer money, states promise great deeds from early education and childcare programs (pre-K to third grade).

Any state doing so, however, invites the feds to point a knife at their back. The federal government will decide what programs and means of administering them merit these taxpayer dollars -- and has the power to take them away, just as the Obama administration is threatening to zero out Medicaid payments to Indiana because of the state's refusal to continue funding Planned Parenthood.

In addition, the feds' track record in this area is poor, to say the least. The federal government has bungled this crusade for decades, spending $167 billion (in 2009 dollars) since 1965 on Head Start (the central federal program for this age group) to widespread acknowledgement -- from the department's own studies, no less -- it has no effect on children beyond first grade. None.

The Department of Education assures us the same people who oversee Head Start will decide which states win Early Learning grants, which is roughly equivalent to having Charlie Sheen decide who should date your daughter.

Those Head Start officials will exert outsized influence on state proposals and the legislative changes states make to boost them. In the last round of Race to the Top, 42 states and the District of Columbia adopted "Common Core" curriculum standards, for example, because the administration made it clear states that did not would be docked on their Race to the Top applications. Several of these states, like Massachusetts, had previously boasted higher standards than the Common Core.

Iowa spent $70 million last year on its early childhood education programs - the cost began at $15 million in 2007. Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, is trying to voucherize the program because, like other states, Iowa is overspending on education and the recession has hit property values so hard the state isn't taking in close to enough money to pay for it all.

Not only does this suggest that whatever new programs states start with Early Learning money, costs will grow and overwhelm state budgets (as is the general tendency with government programs), it also indicates bottom-up efforts work much better than the top-down plans likely to come from this "challenge."

The most important and dangerous consequence of the Early Leaning Challenge and Race to the Top in general is how they train states to look to Washington, D.C., for education directives. As teachers' unions everywhere have taught us, centralizing control away from families is the best way to kill creativity, waste money, stunt local and national economies, and dispirit everyone involved. Creating a frenzy in one, federally directed avenue will just stampede states over a cliff.


British Universities must tell students which subjects are best to study

Universities will be ordered to publish secret data on the A-level subjects most likely to win places on degree courses, under a radical shake-up of higher education. For the first time, admissions tutors will be required to tell pupils which options to choose in the sixth form to maximise their chances of getting into the most selective universities.

It follows concern that tens of thousands of candidates from state comprehensives are effectively barred from elite institutions by being pushed into taking “soft” A-levels, while middle-class pupils at grammar and independent schools receive better advice from teachers and parents.

The move is likely to lead to a drop in the number of teenagers studying subjects such as media studies, art and design, dance and photography – often secretly blacklisted by top universities – in favour of tougher options such as English, maths, history, geography and the sciences.

The reforms will be outlined in a long-awaited higher education White Paper to be published next week. The document will map out a wide-ranging programme of reforms for English universities to coincide with the substantial increase in student tuition fees next year. In a key change, it will propose scrapping existing admission quotas in favour of a more market-based approach.

David Willetts, the Universities Minister, is also keen to increase the amount of information available to prospective students in an attempt to ensure they receive value for money. He wants each university to draw up “student charters” – written guarantees on issues such as the number of lectures they will receive, support and feedback from tutors, graduate job prospects, standards of accommodation and academic and sporting facilities.

In another development, every university will be required to publish detailed information outlining the A-level courses students should take to secure places. Data will eventually be uploaded to the Government’s Unistats website, designed to help students apply to university. Other reforms include:

* Allowing top universities to admit as many bright students – those gaining at least two As and a B at A-level – as they want, to promote competition between institutions;

* Relaxing controls on the number of students taking degree courses at former polytechnics and further education colleges that charge less than £6,000, to keep the student loans bill down;

* Placing around eight per cent of remaining government-funded places in a central pool and allocating them in an “auction” to institutions with the lowest fees;

* Giving private education providers more incentives to run degree courses officially accredited by the Government, increasing diversity in the sector.

Earlier this year, the Russell Group, which represents leading institutions such as Oxford, Cambridge and University College London, published lists of A-level subjects favoured by admissions tutors. Mr Willetts wants this data to be released more widely by every selective university.

Figures released this week showed that comprehensive school pupils were significantly more likely to take soft A-level courses than peers in private and grammar schools.

Sir Steve Smith, the vice-chancellor of Exeter University and president of Universities UK, said: “We can’t have students from poor backgrounds taking the wrong courses, but universities have not always been explicit enough in outlining which courses they accept and which they don’t. “As it currently stands, the students with access to the best information and guidance are naturally those from the better-off backgrounds.”


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