Mary Holden Takes the Hill

Former educator and current blogger Mary Holden tells the tale of her “Day on the Hill” in Nashville. Definitely worth a read. Here’s some of what she had to say about her experience advocating for public education at the Tennessee General Assembly:

There are many things that bother me about voucher legislation. But here are the two biggies:

  1. Vouchers haven’t worked anywhere they’ve been implemented. The evidence is clear. See also herehere, and here.
  2. Look who opposes vouchers: Teachers! You know, those people who actually do the work of educating our children! They know a thing or two about what is needed in public education, and we should be listening to them! (I should know…. I was a teacher, in case you didn’t know!)

But seriously, if the people we trust to educate our children believe vouchers would be harmful to our schools AND if there is plenty of evidence showing that vouchers aren’t successful, then why???? Why do they keep getting proposed?

Read more about Mary’s visit to our legislators and her encounter with state Senator Steve Dickerson.

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


 

Sumner School Board Takes a Stand Against Vouchers

The Sumner County School Board tonight unanimously voted in favor of a resolution opposing school vouchers in Tennessee. The move comes as legislative debate over vouchers is heating up.

One member of Sumner County’s legislative delegation, state Senator Ferrell Haile, is a co-sponsor of the “Opportunity Scholarship” program targeted at Memphis.

Here’s the resolution:

WHEREAS, the Sumner County Board of Education is responsible for providing a local system of public education; and

WHEREAS, the Tennessee General Assembly in the 2017 legislative session will entertain legislation that would create a voucher program allowing students to use public education funds to pay for private school tuition; and

WHEREAS, more than 50 years have passed since private school vouchers were first proposed, and during that time proponents have spent millions of dollars attempting to convince the public and lawmakers of the concept’s efficacy, and yet, five decades later, vouchers still remain controversial, unproven, and unpopular; and

WHEREAS, the Constitution of the State of Tennessee requires that the Tennessee General Assembly “provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools”, with no mention of the maintenance or support of private schools; and

WHEREAS, the State of Tennessee, through work of the Tennessee General Assembly, the Tennessee Department of Education, the State Board of Education and local school boards, has established nationally recognized standards and measures for accountability in public education; and

WHEREAS, vouchers eliminate public accountability by channeling tax dollars into private schools that do not face state-approved academic standards, do not make budgets public, do not adhere to open meetings and records laws, do not publicly report on student achievement, and do not face the public accountability requirements contained in major federal laws, including special education; and

WHEREAS, vouchers have not been effective at improving student achievement or closing the achievement gap, with the most credible research finding little or no difference in voucher and public school students’ performance; and

WHEREAS, vouchers leave many students behind, including those with the greatest needs, because vouchers channel tax dollars into private schools that are not required to accept all students, nor offer the special services they may need; and

WHEREAS, vouchers give choices to private schools, not students and parents, since private schools decide if they want to accept vouchers, how many and which students they want to admit, and the potentially arbitrary reasons for which they might later dismiss a student; and

WHEREAS, many proponents argue these programs will increase options, when in fact several options currently exist within public school systems; and

WHEREAS, voucher programs divert critical dollars and commitment from public schools to pay private school tuition for a few students, including many who already attend private schools; and

WHEREAS, vouchers are an inefficient use of tax payer money because they compel taxpayers to support two school systems: one public and one private, the latter of which is not accountable to all the taxpayers supporting it; and

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that the Sumner County Board of Education opposes any expansion of the special education voucher program as well as any new legislation that would divert money intended for public education to private schools.

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


 

What Do the Facts Say?

The facts tells us that school vouchers don’t work — they are expensive and can actually have a negative impact on student achievement.

But, that didn’t matter last night as a subcommittee of lawmakers advanced a voucher bill proponents claim will only impact a small group of students.

Grace Tatter at Chalkbeat reports:

… Tennessee lawmakers insisted Tuesday that the state can succeed where others have failed, and easily advanced a proposal that would start a five-year pilot program in Memphis.

The voice vote came after members of a House education subcommittee heard voucher opponents cite recent research showing that vouchers in other states have led to worse academic outcomes for students. But again and again, lawmakers said that Tennessee could be different.

Perennial voucher advocate John DeBerry of Memphis said that voucher opponents shouldn’t worry — the program will be small, and schools won’t lose that much money.

Tatter notes that he:

… projected that few students would actually opt to participate, meaning public schools would not lose as much funding as its leaders fear. “A lot of folks are not going to put in the time, the effort,” DeBerry said, “but for the handful of parents that do, why not give them that right?”

Let’s examine that a little more closely. DeBerry is acknowledging that public schools will lose money under the plan he supports. He’s willing to take money from a school system that finally appears to be turning around in order to help what he describes as a small group of students. Oh, and the evidence says the vouchers won’t actually help those students and may well harm them.

Now, let’s compare DeBerry’s remarks to what former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels said when he started a voucher program in his state:

Back in 2011, Daniels spoke to a conservative think tank a few months after he signed the program into law. At that speech, he said he didn’t expect this to become a big problem.

“It is not likely to be a very large phenomenon in Indiana,” he said “I think it will be exercised by a meaningful but not an enormous number of our students.”

There are other similarities between Indiana’s voucher experience and the Tennessee proposal. Back in 2011, the program in Indiana was capped at 7500 students. The proposal advanced last night would initially provide vouchers for up to 5000 students.

That Indiana program was expanded rapidly, and now it serves more than 30,000 students.

If you think lawmakers won’t move to quickly expand vouchers in Tennessee once the door is opened, you are wrong. At the end of the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers narrowly approved an IEA voucher bill. This bill was targeted at students with a specific list of special needs. Now, Senator Dolores Gresham is advancing legislation that would expand that program to include students who have never attended a public school. The program is in the first year of operation, there’s no data on student results, and yet voucher proponents are already seeking to expand.

Last night, facts didn’t matter. A majority on subcommittee ignored research and suggested Tennessee could be different. The track record in other states tells a different story.

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


 

 

 

The Voucher School District

This week, Education Committees in the House and Senate will consider a number of bills creating school vouchers in Tennessee. Proponents are pushing the bills even as growing evidence suggests vouchers fail kids.

So, what would happen if Tennessee started a voucher program, even a small-scale one, this year?

One state with a record on this is Indiana. Vouchers started there back in 2011 in a relatively small program with fairly strict eligibility requirements. At the time the vouchers were created, then-Governor Mitch Daniels said:

Back in 2011, Daniels spoke to a conservative think tank a few months after he signed the program into law. At that speech, he said he didn’t expect this to become a big problem.

“It is not likely to be a very large phenomenon in Indiana,” he said “I think it will be exercised by a meaningful but not an enormous number of our students.”

Initially, vouchers were only to serve some 7500 students.

Fast forward five years, and the program has expanded exponentially, serving more than 30,000 students — 3 percent of the state’s student population.

The qualifications have changed, too. Now, a student doesn’t even have to have attended a public school to qualify for a voucher. Reports suggest this provision means Indiana is spending some $54 million supporting private schools — money that would not have been spent without the voucher program:

A report on the program released by the Department of Education shows the program costs $54 million.

“If the idea behind a voucher program is we’re going to have the money follow the student, if the student didn’t start in a public school, the money isn’t following them from a public school, it’s just appearing from another budget,” [Researcher Molly] Stewart said. “And we’re not exactly sure where that’s coming from.”

Vouchers, then, create $54 million in new expenditures — an education funding deficit — in Indiana.

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To put that state’s program growth into perspective, 3 percent of Tennessee’s student population would be 29,936. The Tennessee voucher district would be the 8th largest district in the state, just larger than Sumner County and slightly smaller than Montgomery County. And, if our experience is at all like Indiana’s, about half of those students will never have attended a public school.

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.

This means local governments would be stuck picking up the tab to support private schools. The alternative would be a dedicated state fund to support the voucher school district. That’s a total cost of around $200 million, half of that new money.

Should taxpayers be asked to invest $100 million in a program that gets negative results? Studies in Indiana, Ohio, and Louisiana all indicate that vouchers have a negative impact on student academic outcomes.

Kevin Carey noted recently that even a study by the Fordham Institute showed negative results for vouchers:

In June, a third voucher study was released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank and proponent of school choice. The study, which was financed by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation, focused on a large voucher program in Ohio. “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools,” the researchers found. Once again, results were worse in math.

This week, we may hear that any new voucher program will start small and will only serve a fraction of our state’s students. Even if that’s true, the cost to taxpayers at the state and local level will be significant. Then, there’s the fact that studies are emerging showing vouchers just don’t work. Why spend more to get less?

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


 

Voucher Wars

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Every single year, in a legislature that meets in Nashville, one issue rises from the ashes again and again. That issue: Vouchers.

This year, there are multiple school voucher proposals and just about all of them will be up for consideration in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday.

Here’s a rundown of the bills and what they would do:

SB161/HB126 – Senator Brian Kelsey/Rep. Harry Brooks

This bill would create a pilot voucher program in Shelby County. Voucher advocates have been pushing some version of a statewide voucher program for the past four years. So far, they haven’t been successful. Now, they are trying to limit the plan to Shelby County to start in hopes they can garner additional votes.

SB380/HB336 — Sen. Todd Gardenhire/Rep. Bill Dunn

This is the voucher bill that has failed the past four years. It would allow students from districts with at least one “priority school” to apply for a voucher.

SB573/HB715 — Sen. Dolores Gresham/Rep. Debra Moody

This bill would expand eligibility to the failing IEA voucher program. Despite claims of widespread demand for this program, so far, only 39 students have taken these vouchers.

SB987/HB1109 — Sen. Kelsey/Rep. John DeBerry

This bill would also change (expand) eligibility for the IEA vouchers. It would allow students who had not previously attended public schools to obtain this voucher.

SB395/HB460 – Gresham/Rep. Roger Kane

This is an Education Savings Account (ESA) bill with no eligibility restrictions. This bill would allow the parents of any student to convert their BEP funding into a debit card or have the money wired into a checking account to use for approved education expenses.

Here’s the deal: Vouchers don’t work. The recent evidence is clear. Here’s what I wrote last week after reading recent research on the issue:

Some state policymakers (State Rep. Bill Dunn, State Senator Brian Kelsey, Governor Bill Haslam) are asking taxpayers to invest in a voucher scheme. These advocates suggest that a voucher program can provide a path to better outcomes for students. However, the results of statewide programs in three different studies indicate just the opposite: Vouchers offer a path to dismal achievement.

Tennessee lawmakers should take a look at the evidence. Vouchers just don’t work. In fact, they harm the very students voucher advocates claim to want to help. Instead of funding voucher schemes we know don’t get results, the state should focus on funding existing programs that will enhance education for all students.

Despite overwhelming evidence that vouchers fail, expect the voucher wars to wage just as hot this session — and next week.

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


 

The Verdict on Vouchers

As the Tennessee General Assembly considers vouchers as part of the education agenda this year, it is important to look at the evidence. That is, do vouchers work? Do voucher programs lead to improved student outcomes. Until now, most research has been mixed, with some suggesting modest gains for students, while some studies showed no significant improvement. These studies focused on older, typically smaller programs.

Now, however, there is data on some statewide voucher efforts. That data suggests, quite strongly, that vouchers don’t work. In fact, the studies indicate vouchers actually cause student achievement to decline.

Kevin Carey writes in the New York Times:

The first results came in late 2015. Researchers examined an Indiana voucher program that had quickly grown to serve tens of thousands of students under Mike Pence, then the state’s governor. “In mathematics,” they found, “voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement.” They also saw no improvement in reading.

The next results came a few months later, in February, when researchers published a major study of Louisiana’s voucher program. Students in the program were predominantly black and from low-income families, and they came from public schools that had received poor ratings from the state department of education, based on test scores. For private schools receiving more applicants than they could enroll, the law required that they admit students via lottery, which allowed the researchers to compare lottery winners with those who stayed in public school.

They found large negative results in both reading and math. Public elementary school students who started at the 50th percentile in math and then used a voucher to transfer to a private school dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year. Results were somewhat better in the second year, but were still well below the starting point.

In June, a third voucher study was released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank and proponent of school choice. The study, which was financed by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation, focused on a large voucher program in Ohio. “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools,” the researchers found. Once again, results were worse in math.

Voucher studies of statewide programs in Ohio, Louisiana, and Indiana all suggest that not only do vouchers not improve student achievement, they in fact cause student performance to decline.

Some state policymakers (State Rep. Bill Dunn, State Senator Brian Kelsey, Governor Bill Haslam) are asking taxpayers to invest in a voucher scheme. These advocates suggest that a voucher program can provide a path to better outcomes for students. However, the results of statewide programs in three different studies indicate just the opposite: Vouchers offer a path to dismal achievement.

Tennessee lawmakers should take a look at the evidence. Vouchers just don’t work. In fact, they harm the very students voucher advocates claim to want to help. Instead of funding voucher schemes we know don’t get results, the state should focus on funding existing programs that will enhance education for all students.

MORE on vouchers:

Vouchers the wrong choice for Tennessee

What Tennessee Can Learn from Louisiana on Vouchers

Fitzhugh on Vouchers

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


 

Farmer Takes on Vouchers

Anne-Marie Farmer, writing over at the League of Women Voters blog, takes on the perennial issue of vouchers. Here’s some of what she has to say:

No matter what initial limitations are placed on a voucher scheme, no matter how much it is couched in flowery language about opportunity and scholarship, the bottom line remains the same. Vouchers have been proven time and time again to be a failure at raising student achievement, and to reduce the resources available to our public schools that serve the most vulnerable children. Vouchers shift scarce public money away from school systems that are required and committed to serve every child to private schools that retain the right to pick and choose which students they prefer to educate. They represent an abandonment of public education and of the ideal that school should be open to all children.

READ MORE about why the LWV opposes vouchers.

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


 

 

Polling: Tennesseans Oppose Vouchers

As I mentioned last week, the issue of school vouchers will again be a hot topic at the Tennessee General Assembly. Today, the Tennessee Education Association is out with polling suggesting Tennessee residents oppose vouchers.

Here’s the press release:

Tennesseans strongly reject private school vouchers, according to the largest and most comprehensive polling data on the subject. TEA extensively surveyed rural, urban and suburban voters in all three Grand Divisions of the state, with an oversample of highly-likely Republican primary voters. The polls were conducted May through October of 2016.

Of the 6,510 respondents, 59.5 percent rejected private school vouchers, 29 percent approved. The two-to-one negative opinion was consistent across geographic and demographic groups. The polling margin of error is +/- 4 percent.

“I’ve rarely seen such a strong negative opinion. It is clear Tennesseans do not like or want school vouchers,” said Jim Wrye, TEA Government Relations manager. “We are a conservative state that values our local traditions and institutions. Vouchers are a radical idea that attack and weaken the foundation of our communities — our public schools.”

During the 2016 primary and general elections, TEA conducted numerous polls in districts to help defend legislators from attacks by pro-voucher groups and determine where new attacks could happen. Polling was conducted by a respected Republican firm used by Tennessee GOP entities and candidates.

While TEA’s polling asked basic national and local “horse-race” questions and demographic information, the polling also asked a voucher question about using taxpayer funds for private school tuition. The simple and accurate question was asked in every poll commissioned by TEA and now provides the best voter opinion data on vouchers.

“It was important to keep the question simple, and to stay away from leading or flowery language seen in other polling and surveys,” said Wrye. “Vouchers use public school funding for private school tuition. It was important to ask voters in the most simple and accurate way whether they support such a thing. Overwhelmingly, they do not.”

Rejection of vouchers was remarkably consistent across the state. Rural voters tended to be more against vouchers (64.17 percent no, 24.54 percent yes; 2,995 voters) than urban and suburban (54.01 percent no, 34.43 percent yes; 3,536 voters). No area or legislative district saw vouchers receive more support than opposition.

“I strongly encourage any legislator to vote their district and listen to folks back home. There are a lot of special interest lobbyists and money floating around the capitol, pushing things that are not of Tennessee’s great traditions and values,” said Wrye. “No matter the special interest threats or demands, you can be sure voting with your folks back home is always good politics.”

When it comes to vouchers, it is not what voters want in any district.

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


 

2017 Education Issues Outlook

The 2017 session of the Tennessee General Assembly is underway and as always, education is a hot issue on the Hill. The bill filing deadline was yesterday and some familiar issues are back again. Namely, vouchers.

While the voucher fight may be the biggest education showdown this session, issues ranging from the scope of the state’s Achievement School District to a “Teacher Bill of Rights” and of course, funding, will also be debated.

Here’s a rundown of the big issues for this session:

Vouchers

Senator Brian Kelsey of Shelby County is pushing a voucher plan that is essentially a pilot program that would apply to Shelby County only. Voucher advocates have failed to gain passage of a plan with statewide application over the past four legislative sessions. The idea behind this plan seems to be to limit it to Shelby County in order to mitigate opposition from lawmakers who fear a voucher scheme may negatively impact school systems in their own districts.

In addition to Kelsey’s limited plan, Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville is back with the “traditional” voucher bill he’s run year after year. This plan has essentially the same requirements as Kelsey’s plan, but would be available to students across the state. It’s not clear which of these two plans has the best chance of passage. I suspect both will be set in motion, and as time wears on, one will emerge as most likely to be adopted. Voucher advocates are likely emboldened by the election of Donald Trump and the subsequent appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education.

Of course, Tennessee already has one type of voucher. The legislature adopted an Individual Education Account voucher program designed for students with special needs back in 2015. That proposal goes into effect this year. Chalkbeat reported that only 130 families applied. That’s pretty low, considering some 20,000 students meet the eligibility requirements.

Achievement School District

Two years ago, I wrote about how the ASD’s mission creep was hampering any potential effectiveness it might have. Now, it seems that even the ASD’s leadership agrees that pulling back and refocusing is necessary. Grace Tatter of Chalkbeat reports:

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would stop the Achievement School District from starting new charter schools, rather than just overhauling existing schools that are struggling.

Rep. David Hawk of Greeneville filed the bill last week at the request of the State Department of Education. In addition to curbing new starts, the legislation proposes changing the rules so that the ASD no longer can take over struggling schools unilaterally. Instead, the state would give local districts time and resources to turn around their lowest-performing schools.

Tatter notes that the Tennessee Department of Education and the ASD’s leadership support the bill. This is likely welcome news for those who have raised concerns over the ASD’s performance and approach.

Teacher Bill of Rights

Senator Mark Green of Clarksville has introduced what he’s calling a “Teacher Bill of Rights.” The bill outlines what Green sees as some basic protections for teachers. If adopted, his proposal would have the effect of changing the way the state evaluates teachers. Among the rights enumerated in SB 14 is the right to “be evaluated by a professional with the same subject matter expertise,” and the right to “be evaluated based only on students a teacher has taught.”

While both of these may seem like common sense, they are not current practice in Tennessee’s public schools. Many teachers are evaluated by building leaders and others who lack subject matter expertise. Further, teachers who do not generate their own student growth scores (those who don’t teach in tested subjects) are evaluated in part on school-wide scores or other metrics of student performance — meaning they receive an evaluation score based in part on students they’ve never taught.

Green’s Teacher Bill of Rights will almost certainly face opposition from the Department of Education.

Funding

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Governor Bill Haslam is proposing spending over $200 million in new money on schools. Around $60 million of that is for BEP growth. $100 million will provide districts with funds for teacher compensation. And, there’s $22 million for English Language Learners as well as $15 million for Career and Technical Education.

These are all good things and important investments for our schools. In fact, the BEP Review Committee — the state body tasked with reviewing school funding and evaluating the formula’s effectiveness, identified teacher pay and funds for English Language Learners as top priorities.

Here’s the full list of priorities identified by the BEP Review Committee for this year:

1. Sustained commitment to teacher compensation

2. English Language Learner funding (to bring ratios closer to the level called for in the BEP Enhancement Act of 2016)

3. Funding the number of guidance counselors at a level closer to national best practices

4. Funding Response to Instruction and Intervention positions

5. Sustained technology funding

Haslam’s budget proposal makes an effort to address 1 and 2. However, there’s no additional money to improve the guidance counselor ratio, no funds for the unfunded mandate of RTI and no additional money for technology.

Oh, and then there’s the persistent under-funding of schools as a result of a BEP formula that no longer works. In fact, the Comptroller’s Office says we are under-funding schools by at least $400 million. Haslam’s budget does not address the funding ratios that create this inadequacy.

Then, of course, improving the ratios does nothing on its own to achieve a long-standing BEP Review Committee goal: Providing districts with teacher compensation that more closely matches the actual cost of hiring a teacher. The projected cost of this, according to the 2014 BEP Review Committee Report, is around $500 million.

The good news is we have the money available to begin addressing the ratio deficit. The General Assembly could redirect some of our state’s surplus dollars toward improving the BEP ratios and start eating into that $400 million deficit. Doing so would return money to the taxpayers by way of investment in their local schools. It would also help County Commissions avoid raising property taxes.

Stay tuned as the bills start moving next week and beyond. It’s expected this session could last into May, and education will be a flash point throughout over these next few months.

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


 

Let’s Get Ready for Vouchers

It may only be December, but the voucher battle at the General Assembly is already heating up.

There’s the Oak Ridge School Board, passing a resolution opposing the use of public funds for private school vouchers.

Then, there’s a Murfreesboro legislator citing President-elect Donald Trump’s support of vouchers as a reason to move forward on the issue.

To be sure, Trump has selected a free market fundamentalist and voucher advocate, Betsy DeVos, to be the next Secretary of Education.

According to the story in the Oak Ridger on the anti-voucher resolution, Rep. Kent Calfee stands in opposition to vouchers, while other lawmakers from the area are certain the issue will come up, but did not commit on how they would vote. Senators Randy McNally and Ken Yager have both supported voucher legislation in the past.

Meanwhile, in Murfreesboro, Senators Bill Ketron and Jim Tracy both indicated support for vouchers, with Ketron noting Trump’s support of vouchers.

Ketron also noted that he didn’t expect vouchers to impact Murfreesboro or Rutherford County schools.

So, the battle lines are being drawn for the 2017 voucher fight. It is a fight that may well coincide with the confirmation hearings of pro-voucher Secretary of Education candidate Betsy DeVos. If 2017 sees the General Assembly once again reject vouchers, 2018 will likely see Trump’s plan to spend some $20 billion of federal funds to entice states to enact voucher schemes. Those funds just might tempt Tennessee lawmakers.

More on Vouchers:

A Letter of Reservation

Million Dollar Baby

Lessons from Louisiana on Vouchers

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