Policy Shift

Tennessee’s next Governor, Bill Lee, is an unabashed voucher supporter.

As the General Assembly prepares to return in January, it will be important for policymakers to focus on what gets results instead of what the new Governor thinks is the cool new thing for Tennessee schools.

Derek Black, who teaches law at the University of South Carolina and focuses on education policy issues, points out some flaws in arguments in favor of “school choice” in a recent column in Salon.

His argument is essentially that a lack of accountability in many choice programs combined with the financial strain they put on traditional K-12 schools has a devastating impact and must be re-examined:

The current debate over school funding must move beyond teacher salaries and whether the books in public schools are tattered. Those conversations ignore the systematic policies that disadvantage public schools. Increasing public school teachers’ salaries alone won’t fix the problem. The public school teaching force has already shrunk. Class sizes have already risen. And the rules that advantage charter and private schools remain firmly in place.

Long-term solutions require a reexamination of these preferences. As a state constitutional matter, the law requires that states make public education their first priority. It is not enough to make education one of several competing priorities. And as a practical matter, states cannot continue to ask public schools to work with whatever is left over and then criticize them for doing a poor job. This cycle creates a circular justification for dismantling public education when states should be repairing it.

Black’s analysis is especially relevant in a state that consistently brings up the rear in investment in education and also continues to lag behind in overall student achievement.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

Perspective: Dean and Lee on Charters and Vouchers

Retired educator Dr. Bill Smith offers some perspective on charters and vouchers as they relate to the Tennessee Governor’s race in a column he wrote for the Johnson City Press.

Here’s a bit of what he had to say:

When I read “Profit before Kids,” I wondered if our next governor will look closely at the Tennessee Virtual Academy in Union County, a charter that is operated by K12 Inc. If our state’s lawmakers are genuinely opposed to taxpayer dollars being funneled to for-profit educational entities, the findings reported in “Profit before Kids” should raise some concerns.

It’s no secret that non-profit charter schools often divert money intended for children’s instruction to other priorities. For example, many charters compensate their “CEOs” two to three times the salaries of principals who perform the same functions in regular public schools. Vision Academy in Nashville pays its two top executives (a married couple) a combined $562,000, while reportedly charging students for textbooks. (Imagine the outcry if a local public school engaged in such financial behavior.)

A Call to Action:

In this time of hyper-partisanship and extreme contentiousness over issues such as immigration and tax policy, the dangers of school choice are not going to attract the attention of most citizens until Democrats stand forcefully united against it. If they don’t, I’m afraid we will wake up one day and realize that what David Faris called the Republicans’ “slow-moving hostile takeover” of our educational system has been accomplished.

With one week to go before Election Day, this column is worth a read.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

A Basic Human Right

A free public education should be viewed as a basic human right, according to a Texas pastor visiting cities across Tennessee to urge clergy to support public schools.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press has this story:

Pastors for Texas Children gained national attention after it began to lobby against efforts to use taxpayer money to send students to charter and private schools.

The group, an independent ministry and outreach group that comprises nearly 2,000 pastors and church leaders from across Texas, gained even more attention when it was criticized by Texas politicians with strong ties to the Koch brothers, according to The Washington Post.

A Call to Action

Johnson, described on the Pastors for Texas Children website as an advocate, said religious leaders need to reaffirm and reestablish that a free, public education is a basic human right.

“We have a debate today about whether or not children today deserve an equal education,” he said. “We all know the ills of public education and some [people’s] attempts to privatize it. It’s time for the church to get back together with the schools.”

Tennessee’s Constitution says the General Assembly shall provide for a system of free public schools.

In spite of this promise, legislators in recent years have repeatedly attempted to pass legislation that would divert public money to private schools. Currently, gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee is making vouchers a key element of his education agenda.

Pastors for Tennessee Children Launching

Johnson is traveling across the state, encouraging pastors to join the new arm of the coalition, Pastors for Tennessee Children.

Jeanette Omarkhail, president of the Hamilton County Education Association, first met Johnson at a conference in Minnesota and said his message was one she wanted to bring to Hamilton County.

“Educators need you. They need your support, your encouragement. The students need you,” Omarkhail told the religious leaders gathered in the church’s meeting hall Tuesday. “At those school boards, the school board members need to see you. Those leaders have been saying up at the dais, ‘We need more people of faith involved in our schools, but they’re not here.’ We can go there.”

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

Vouchers Gone Wrong

While significant evidence suggests that even with proper implementation, vouchers don’t improve student performance (and sometimes, make it worse), a cautionary tale out of Florida raises even greater concerns. What if a voucher program goes horribly, terribly wrong?

This question seems especially relevant given gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee’s backing of vouchers.

Here’s what the Orlanda Sentinel had to say about a range of problems in that state’s voucher program:

In its “Schools Without Rules” series, Sentinel reporters found voucher (or “scholarship”) schools faking safety reports, hiring felons, hiring high-school dropouts as teachers and operating in second-rate strip malls. They discovered curricula full of falsehoods and subpar lesson plans.

If you confront defenders of this system, be they legislators or school operators, many start mumbling about the virtue of “choice”— as if funding a hot mess of a school is a swell thing, as long parents choose that mess.

Horse hockey. I choose accountability. And transparency. And standards.

I’ve written before about the mess made of schools (and of children’s lives) when voucher schemes go awry:

South Florida Prep received significant funds from the Florida Department of Education under the McKay program. Here’s how that school was run:

Two hundred students were crammed into ever-changing school locations, including a dingy strip-mall space above a liquor store and down the hall from an Asian massage parlor. Eventually, fire marshals and sheriffs condemned the “campus” as unfit for habitation, pushing the student body into transience in church foyers and public parks.

“We had no materials,” says Nicolas Norris, who taught music despite the lack of a single instrument. “There were no teacher edition books. There was no curriculum.”

That’s just one example, of course. The Sentinel series exposes significant problems across a variety of schools. Among the problems were schools closing with little notice, evictions, and teachers without credentials.

Those supporting a voucher-backing candidate for Governor should be very aware of what that policy could mean for Tennessee’s families.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

 

Bill and Betsy: A Tennessee School Voucher Story

While Bill Lee is avoiding talking directly to Tennessee’s education leaders about his plans to use public money to pay for private school tuition by way of voucher schemes, his track record on the issue is clear. Bill Lee supports school vouchers.

Not only did he write an op-ed in 2016 encouraging support for voucher legislation, but he also has consistently supported the Tennessee Federation for Children financially.

The Tennessee Federation for Children is our state’s affiliate of the American Federation for Children, a political organization funded in large part by Betsy DeVos and her family. The mission of TFC is clear: Divert public money to private schools.

Since 2012, DeVos has provided just under $100,000 to the Tennessee organization. She’s been joined by some key local donors, including Lee Beaman and Bill Lee. Yes, since 2012, Bill Lee has given $11,000 to the Tennessee Federation for Children, the state’s leading political organization supporting school vouchers.

Here’s how Chalkbeat reported on the TFC when DeVos was nominated to be Secretary of Education:

This election cycle alone, advocacy groups founded and led by DeVos helped to oust at least one outspoken voucher opponent — and elect two new supporters — in Tennessee’s House of Representatives, the key arena for the state’s voucher debate.

From the helm of groups including the American Federation for Children and the Alliance for School Choice, DeVos, a staunch Republican, has contributed millions of dollars nationally to state legislative candidates in favor of vouchers and against those who do not, regardless of political party.

In Tennessee, most of that work has been done through the state’s affiliate of the American Federation for Children, which launched in 2012. The group has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, reaching more than $600,000 for races in 2014. This year, organizers spent at least $169,777 on House races.

The Tennessee affiliate is currently led by Shaka Mitchell, who previously attempted (unsuccessfully) to expand the Rocketship charter school experiment in Nashville.

Let’s be clear: Bill Lee has written about his support of school vouchers. He’s indicated support of legislation that would silence school boards on the issue. He’s given thousands of dollars to an organization dedicated to enacting vouchers and electing voucher supporters.

While Bill Lee won’t talk to educators about his plans, his record speaks loud and clear.

 

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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Bill Lee Skips TOSS

Every year, the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (TOSS) holds a conference in Gatlinburg. The event is an opportunity for the state’s education leaders to come together, receive training, and learn from each other. Historically, during gubernatorial election years, the event has also featured the major party candidates for Governor outlining their education views and taking questions.

Not this year. Democratic candidate Karl Dean did attend the conference and gave a presentation on his agenda for public education in Tennessee.

However, Republican candidate Bill Lee did not attend. It’s true that Bill Lee has some education policy views that might not be welcomed by professional educators, but he certainly should take advantage of the opportunity to explain his vision in front of a nonpartisan group of state education leaders.

Back in 2016, Bill Lee wrote on op-ed supporting that year’s version of an education voucher scheme — one of many that have failed in the legislature in recent years. He’s also expressed support for legislation that would prevent school boards from actively lobbying against vouchers. During this year’s campaign, Lee has also indicated he would support a “voucher-like” program to use public funds to pay for private school tuition.

Lee’s support for vouchers is problematic not just because it represents a shift in taxpayer dollars away from public schools but also because recent evidence suggests vouchers don’t get results:

Recent evidence tells us that’s not the case. In fact, studies of voucher programs in D.C., Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio indicate students lose ground academically when accepting a voucher and attending a private school.

Writers Mary Dynarski and Austin Nichols say this about the studies:

Four recent rigorous studies—in the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio—used different research designs and reached the same result: on average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students that do not attend private schools. The Louisiana and Indiana studies offer some hints that negative effects may diminish over time. Whether effects ever will become positive is unclear.

Lee has also expressed support for arming teachers, the Tennessean reports:

With school safety at the forefront of a national debate, Williamson County businessman Bill Lee said Monday he supports arming some teachers as a “cost-effective” way to increase security.

 

It seems likely the state’s school system leaders would like further information on Lee’s plans for schools, but Lee was unwilling to attend their annual gathering and provide that information.

Why won’t Bill Lee talk directly to those most likely to be impacted by his policies — or seek input from school system leaders on how a voucher scheme or armed teachers would work in practice? Moreover, why wouldn’t Bill Lee want educators to be able to clearly compare his views to those of Karl Dean’s?

If Bill Lee believes he’s the best candidate on education, he should be willing to stand in front of educators and make that case.

 

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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Lightning Can Strike at Any Time

One of Tennessee’s top advocates of using public money to fund private schools through unproven voucher schemes issued a bit of a warning for defenders of public schools recently. After offering up a number of excuses about why voucher legislation has failed in recent legislative sessions, Tommy Schultz of the ironically named American Federation for Children said:

“We understand,” Schultz said, “that lightning can strike at any time.”

The comment was in reference to a surprise voucher win through a wolf in sheep’s clothing tactic in Illinois last year. As Chalkbeat noted:

But he pointed out that school choice legislation can move forward under surprising circumstances — such as in Illinois last year where a legislature dominated by Democrats created a massive tax-credit scholarship program.

While pro-schools lawmakers and advocates should certainly remain vigilant, it does appear that voucher legislation won’t advance during the 2018 legislative session.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

2018 Legislative Preview

The Tennessee General Assembly is back in session today. Here’s an overview of some education topics that are likely to be considered this year. Of course, more issues always arise, but these issues will most certainly be given attention.

Testing

Senator Bill Ketron has indicated he’s proposing legislation that will place a moratorium on any new testing until the current TNReady tests are successfully administered. Initially, it sounded like his proposal would stop all testing, but Ketron has since clarified that to indicate he wants to see the current test done right before any new tests are added.

Representative Jeremy Faison has proposed separating TNReady test scores from student grades and teacher evaluations. There have been significant problems with getting scores back in a reliable way in order to include them in student grades. Additionally, the apples to oranges comparison of TNReady to the old TCAP tests renders any teacher growth scores essentially meaningless.

Representative Matthew Hill has proposed shifting high school testing from TNReady to the ACT suite of assessments. Hill says there’s too much emphasis on testing and too many hours spent away from instruction.

Combined, these initiatives represent a shift in attitude about TNReady and testing in general that could lead to some changes in how tests impact students and teachers. Decoupling tests from student grades and teacher evaluations would likely have the effect of reducing the influence they have over instructional time.

RTI

Response to Intervention and Instruction (RTI2) has been a state mandate for several years now, but state funding to carry out the program’s demands has not been provided. This has led to some creative (and not terribly effective) implementation strategies. Districts are responding to the mandate to the best of their abilities, but due to lack of financial support, this doesn’t always lead to the best outcome for students.

In her budget presentation to Governor Haslam, Commissioner Candice McQueen indicated she’d propose dedicated funding for RTI in a BEP update. It was not immediately clear how much funding or how it would be integrated into the school funding formula. Rep. Joe Pitts offered a possible option last year, but his proposal was not embraced by the Administration.

It’s encouraging to see this item being discussed. Many districts have used the state’s salary increase funding for teachers to hire RTI teachers — which means lower or no raises for teachers across a district. Providing dedicated RTI funding would allow districts to use state salary funds to boost pay across the board, and that’s good news in a state that pays teachers 30% less than similarly educated professionals.

Teacher Pay

Following up on the RTI discussion as it relates to overall teacher pay, Governor Haslam has proposed and the General Assembly has approved BEP salary fund increases of 4% per year over the past three years. Because of issues like RTI and the general inadequacy of the BEP, teachers haven’t always seen 4% raises. The average, in fact, has been just under 2% per year. Still, Governor Haslam gets some credit for maintaining investment in teacher compensation. Some speculate he’ll go a step further in his last year in office, adding 5% to teacher compensation through the BEP. If this is coupled with a significant investment in RTI, it could mean the largest raise teachers have seen in years. The cost of making this investment would be around $125 million. With revenue continuing to outpace projections, this level of investment is both possible and wise. Tennessee still has a long way to go in terms of improving teacher compensation and support, but these two steps would signal a positive trend.

Vouchers

Both the House and Senate sponsors of voucher legislation have indicated they will not pursue the idea this year. In fact, both have said they want to focus on finding ways to invest in teacher pay and RTI, signaling a level of agreement with Governor Haslam. Last year marked the fifth consecutive year vouchers were defeated. It seems, for now at least, that advocates of using public tax dollars for private schools will wait to fight another day.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

Dead Already?

Is voucher legislation dead before the 2018 legislative session even starts?

Chalkbeat is reporting that the Senate sponsor of voucher legislation won’t bring the bill up for consideration in 2018:

Sen. Brian Kelsey said Monday that he won’t ask a Senate committee to take up his bill — which would pilot a program in Memphis — when the legislature reconvenes its two-year session in January.

Kelsey’s retreat calls into question the future of the voucher legislation in Tennessee, home to a perennial tug-of-war over whether to allow parents to use public money to pay for private school tuition. It also comes as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has focused national attention on the policy.

The early setback for vouchers could mean the legislation won’t advance for a fifth consecutive year.

Polling has shown Tennesseans reject the idea of spending public money on private schools. Additionally, a number of lobbyists ended contracts with pro-voucher groups after the issue failed last session.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

Bill Lee wants to Raise Your Taxes and Silence Your School Board

Ok, gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee didn’t actually say he wants to raise your taxes, though the policy proposal he’s put forward would likely result in local property tax increases. He did, however, suggest silencing school boards by way of curbing their ability to be represented in public policy debate in Nashville.

Erik Schelzig of the Associated Press reports:

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee said he supports spending more public money on private school tuition around Tennessee, and that restrictions should be placed on lobbying by government entities that oppose school vouchers.

I wrote previously about how Lee has been a staunch advocate of using public money for private schools by way of vouchers. I also noted that the most recent evidence indicates he’s wrong when he asserts that vouchers will improve education outcomes for Tennessee students.

The proposal to silence local school boards because they oppose school vouchers is not a new one. In fact, legislation to that effect was previously proposed by Lee’s Williamson County neighbor, Jeremy Durham. Here’s more on that effort:

Joey Garrison has the story about some legislators who wish that local school boards didn’t hire lobbyists to represent their interests before the legislature.

To that end, they’ve filed legislation that would allow County Commissions to revise a School Board’s budget as it relates to lobbying expenses (HB 229/SB 2525).

Many school boards in the state are members of the Tennessee School Boards Association, which hires a lobbyist to represent the interests of school boards at the General Assembly. Additionally, some local boards hire contract firms and/or in-house government relations specialists to monitor state policy.

Of course, many County Commissioners are members of the Tennessee County Commissioners Organization, which employs a lobbyist to represent the interests of County Commissions at the General Assembly.  And many local government bodies also contract for or hire government relations specialists.

The attempt at silencing voices opposed to school vouchers ultimately failed to advance. Lee’s embrace of the failed Durham proposal may be of note to school board and county commission members considering his campaign.

As it relates to taxes, Lee’s support for a broad voucher program would likely result in a tax increase of some form. I wrote last year about the cost of a “voucher school district” and noted that if a statewide proposal took hold, it would be rather costly:

Nearly 15,000 students who never attended public school suddenly receiving vouchers would mean a state cost of $98 million. That’s $98 million in new money. Of course, those funds would either be new money (which is not currently contemplated) or would take from the state’s BEP allocations in the districts where the students receive the vouchers.

Let’s look at Davidson County as an example. If three percent of the student population there took vouchers, and half of those were students who had never attended a public school, the loss to the district would be a minimum of $8.4 million.

Additionally, analysis by the County Commissioners Association (a group Lee would seem to want silenced as their positions don’t match his advocacy) shows that local property taxes would almost certainly go up as a result of a comprehensive statewide voucher program.

As TREE noted:

The property tax increases to offset vouchers seen on the spreadsheet is not something any county commissioner wants to pass on to property owners. Lauderdale County loses the most with an 84.23 cent increase per year. Davidson is looking at a 30.36 cent increase.

Even if you look at what’s happening in Indiana as an example, you’d see increases along the lines of 28 cents in Lauderdale County and around 10 cents in Davidson. Alternatively, Lee could look to state revenue to offset the increased costs of a voucher program.

So, in Bill Lee, Tennesseans have a candidate for Governor who has expressed unqualified support for a voucher program that has failed in Indiana, Ohio, and Louisiana and that will almost certainly increase state and local costs. Additionally, he wants to be sure local elected officials can’t bring a strong voice of opposition to this proposal.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport