New Name, Same Game

StudentsFirst, one of the leading proponents of school vouchers in Tennessee, has a new name.

Jason Gonzales reports:

Pro-voucher student choice group StudentsFirst Tennessee has changed its name to TennesseeCAN as part of working as an official member of the 50CAN: The 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now network.

TennesseeCAN will function as a new organization whose legislative agenda, policy priorities, staff and underlying mission remains unchanged, according to a news release from the group.

StudentsFirst has been one of several organizations supporting legislation to create school voucher programs in Tennessee. These so-called “opportunity scholarships” use public money to pay a qualifying student’s private school tuition. Despite millions in spending on campaigns and lobbying, a broad voucher plan has yet to pass the General Assembly.

A very limited voucher plan focused on a narrowly-defined group of special needs students is now in effect in Tennessee.

More on vouchers:

Craig Fitzhugh on Vouchers

Million Dollar Baby

What TN Can Learn from Louisiana on Vouchers

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



TEA on New Voucher Program

The state launched a voucher program this week aimed at students with disabilities.  The IEA voucher program was created legislatively in 2015 and the vouchers are available this year. The Tennessee Education Association (TEA) expressed concerns about the program during the legislative fight and continues to express concerns as the program launches.

Here’s the statement from TEA:

The Tennessee Education Association again expressed concern over the state’s new IEA Voucher program and urged parents to proceed with caution.

“Programs like the one the Tennessee Department of Education is launching today have been subject to fraud and abuse in other states,” said TEA President Barbara Gray. “This is of even greater concern to TEA because this program is targeted toward our most vulnerable children who need strong educational services.”

The new voucher program came about after legislative action in 2015. The program is designated for certain students with disabilities. A similar program in Florida has been subject to millions of dollars in fraud, mostly by way of individuals establishing schools that don’t adequately serve the disability population.

“Parents should proceed with extreme caution. This program will create large financial incentive for vendors to seek this public money, and may attract unscrupulous providers who do not have children’s best interests at heart,” said Gray. “Likewise, we ask that the state exercise strong oversight to ensure children and families are protected.”

One portion of the legislation indicates that when parents accept this voucher, they forfeit certain protections under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA).

“By removing these kids from public school, parents may not understand the huge ramifications of surrendering their child’s rights under IDEA to free, public education. The state of Tennessee also loses a portion of the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal assistance currently educating Tennessee’s children with special needs. This lost federal money will have a ripple effect throughout the state and will harm all special education students, even those who stay in public school,” said the TEA president.

“Every effort must be made to protect children and ensure the viability of programs approved to accept these new vouchers. Fraud in programs like this hurts both taxpayers and those whom the program is intended to serve.”

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



The Hunger Games for Schools

What happens when a large, urban school district expands charters and maximizes “school choice?”

One policy advocate in Detroit described the environment this way:

“I often describe this whole environment as ‘The Hunger Games’ for schools,” said Tonya Allen, president of the Skillman Foundation, which invests $17 million a year to try to improve the lives of Detroit’s poorest children. “You get these kids who are moving three or four times in the elementary school years. I did that, but it was because my mother couldn’t keep her rent together. Here, it’s being incentivized.”

This from a recent story in the New York Times about education in Detroit and the impact of an education environment that places a premium on choice.

The story is worth noting in Tennessee because the National Charter School Conference just left Nashville and because so many education reform advocates in Nashville and at the Tennessee General Assembly are pushing an agenda of “free market education.”

So, what happens when you have virtually unlimited choices?

Michigan leapt at the promise of charter schools 23 years ago, betting big that choice and competition would improve public schools. It got competition, and chaos.

“The point was to raise all schools,” said Scott Romney, a lawyer and board member of New Detroit, a civic group formed after the 1967 race riots here. “Instead, we’ve had a total and complete collapse of education in this city.”

It all started with a focus on bringing a free market approach to public education:

The 1993 state law permitting charter schools was not brought on by academic or financial crisis in Detroit — those would come later — but by a free-market-inclined governor, John Engler. An early warrior against public employee unions, he embraced the idea of creating schools that were publicly financed but independently run to force public schools to innovate.

So, how’s that free market working out?

By 2015, a federal review of a grant application for Michigan charter schools found an “unreasonably high” number of charters among the worst-performing 5 percent of public schools statewide. The number of charters on the list had doubled from 2010 to 2014.

And here’s what the competition among schools for students looks like:

The competition to get students to school on count day — the days in October and February when the head count determines how much money the state sends each school — can resemble a political campaign. Schools buy radio ads and billboards, sponsor count day pizza parties and carnivals. They plant rows of lawn signs along city streets to recruit students, only to have other schools pull those up and stake their own.

Another key policy analyst describes the issues this way:

“People here had so much confidence in choice and choice alone to close the achievement gap,” said Amber Arellano, the executive director of the Education Trust Midwest, which advocates higher academic standards. “Instead, we’re replicating failure.”

Oh, and here’s what happened when city leaders and legislators tried to introduce a level of accountability to rein-in the chaos created by too many operators and a wide open market:

In the waning days of the legislative session, House Republicans offered a deal: $617 million to pay off the debt of the Detroit Public Schools, but no commission. Lawmakers were forced to take it to prevent the city school system from going bankrupt.

Translation: Still no real oversight, still a wide-open, chaotic market for schools.

Often we hear legislators and choice advocates say that the situation in certain urban districts is so bad we may as well try to expand choices and even add vouchers or expand charter options because it can’t get worse.

Guess what? In Detroit, it got worse. A lot worse. As the article notes:

Detroit now has a bigger share of students in charters than any American city except New Orleans, which turned almost all its schools into charters after Hurricane Katrina. But half the charters perform only as well, or worse than, Detroit’s traditional public schools.

Chaos. Uncertainty. Instability. That’s what a free market approach to public education brought Detroit. And, sadly, it also resulted in academic outcomes even worse than those expected in one of the worst public school districts in the country.

Choice advocates would have us believe that having more options will lead to innovation and force the local district to improve or close schools. Instead, in the case of Detroit, it led to chaos. The same fate could be visited upon other large, urban districts who fall into the free market education trap. Another unfortunate lesson from Detroit: Once you open the door, it’s very, very difficult to close.

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


Fitzhugh: Vouchers “Wrong Answer” for Tennessee Schools

State Representative Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley is the Democratic Leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives.

Every one of us learns something new every day.  Whether it is in a classroom, something we read or hear through media, or just a new fact we get from a friend or family member, we are constantly learning new things about our communities, our state and country, and our world.

Being educated doesn’t mean you will always know the answers; it means you have the tools to go and find the answers.  As a young man growing up, there is no way that my friends and I could have imagined the technological advances that we see today.  But my teachers in tiny Ripley, Tennessee worked hard to make sure that we went out into the world prepared to learn throughout our lives, and I know our state is full of dedicated teachers who are continuing in this tradition.

HB 1049, the Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act, is the latest version of the voucher program that we have discussed in the General Assembly.  On Monday, February 8th, members of the Tennessee House of Representatives will vote on whether or not to take money from our already underfunded public schools.  A state that is ranked 47th nationally in school funding cannot take more money from its students.  We must listen to the people of our state and vote no.

Consider this: the Tennessee School Board Association has 141 member boards.  I asked their representative in a committee meeting how many of their school boards are against vouchers.  His answer: 141.  Not one school board in our state is for this program, but the proponents of the bill would have you believe that there is a ground swell for vouchers; there is not.  School board members have some of the closest relationships with their constituents, and they are positively not for vouchers.

Vouchers are not only the wrong answer for Tennessee; they aren’t addressing the true question of why schools and districts are having problems.  Kids who struggle in school are almost always having a deficiency in some areas of their life: they may be hungry, their home life may not be stable, and they may struggle with the hurdle of a learning disability, or simply may need glasses to see the board.  Vouchers do not address these issues.  Changing the location where a child goes during the school day does not change the environment to which they return every night.  We have large-scale issues that must be addressed to improve our schools.  A child that is hungry, tired and not prepared for the school day cannot be a success, no matter where their classroom is.

Voucher programs leave kids behind.  We as a government, and as a society, are tasked with making sure each and every child receives a quality education.  And kids are left behind in two ways: the first is that a child that doesn’t receive a voucher is left to what voucher proponents label a failing school.  Second, the school district loses that portion of the Basic Education Program (BEP) funding that is delineated for each student.  If we are removing money from our schools—to the tune of $130 million under this voucher bill—how will our public schools ever survive?  To take money from our schools is akin to tying a milestone around someone’s neck, tossing them into a lake, and then ask them why they are drowning.

Public schools are the backbone of our society. They are what drive our communities.  Good public school systems attract businesses and homebuyers.  One of the first questions a prospective homeowner will ask—even if they aren’t parents—is the quality of the local schools.  Any fall Tennessee evening you will find thousands of our neighbors at the local high school, cheering on their kids: the future of our state.   Schools make our communities.

I do understand—and agree—that many of our schools and our students are struggling to achieve their goals.  I know that not every school is the best it can be, and that to get all our students scoring were we want them to will be a Sisyphean effort, one that every student, teacher, administrator, parent and officeholder will have to work together to achieve.  This is hard work, but not impossible work.  As I heard a Metro Nashville Public School parent say during a committee meeting on vouchers, his kids didn’t need a voucher: they need a new school building, instead of the portable classrooms they learn in today.

The answer for successful Tennessee schools is this: we have to fully fund our public schools, support our students, teachers and administrators, and realize that we have no greater responsibility as a society than to make sure our children are healthy and educated.  Our future literally depends on it.

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

TC Weber’s Voucher Party

TC Weber has something to say to school voucher proponents.  And it sounds like he wants them to throw a party.

Just look at his opening:

Dear True Believers,

Y’all got to be excited! Here you sit on the cusp of making history in Tennessee, despite a few pesky parents, educators, newspaper columnists, members of the Tennessee County Commissioners Association, school board members, students, and community members, who can’t appreciate all you do, by this time next week, you’ll be celebrating Tennessee joining the forward-thinking states who have provided a pathway out  for all those trapped kids in failing schools. Never mind that vouchers have never worked anywhere else, we all know Tennessee is different. So ignore the haters, this has been a long time coming, and Lord knows, you’ve worked hard for it and deserve it.

He continues in a fashion that would be hilarious if it didn’t contain so many stubborn facts.

Read on>

More on vouchers:

Million Dollar Baby

What TN Can Learn from Louisiana on Vouchers

The Price is Right

Voucher Week

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

Million Dollar Baby

Since 2011 (the 2012 election cycle), two pro-voucher groups (Students First and the American Federation for Children) have given nearly $1 million to Tennessee legislators by way of direct or in-kind contributions, according to reports filed with the Registry of Election Finance.

Two of the biggest recipients?

House Speaker Beth Harwell has received more than $43,000 via donations to either her campaign account or her political action committee (PAC).

Senate Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham has received $28,500 in contributions and support.

See the full list:

Students First-AFC Contributions 2011-present


Corra and Weber Talk Vouchers

Legislation creating a school voucher program in Tennessee has been placed on the floor calendar of the House of Representatives for Monday, February 8th.

As the debate over whether to approve this proposal continues, bloggers Charles Corra and TC Weber weigh-in.

Corra offers two posts (so far), one dealing with the key players and the other beginning a conversation around possible constitutional issues.

Weber offers strong opposition to vouchers and notes:

Instead of adopting any of these ideas that are already proven to help children, we are choosing to adopt, at great expense, a plan that has been shown to hurt children. What a voucher program essentially does is ration high quality public education. Some children, namely those whose parents can navigate the system, will get a life boat to a potentially better situation. But what about those left behind? A vouchers plan does not offer a solution for those children. In fact, as blogger Steven Singer points out, it makes things worse.

More on School Vouchers:

What TN Can Learn from Louisiana on Vouchers

Voucher Week

The Price is Right

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

The Price is Right

When one state legislator decided to support a voucher scheme, he earned a primary opponent. Price Harris of Germantown has pulled papers to challenge Republican Steve McManus over the issue of vouchers.

Grace Tatter reports:

“The voucher bill will take more money out of this school system, and it will make them do more with what little bit that they have, and even less if this bill passes,” Harris said Tuesday after picking up a petition from the Shelby County Board of Elections. A resident of the Memphis area since he was 4, the 49-year-old is the father to a seventh-grader and high school senior who attend Germantown public  schools.

Harris, who already followed anti-voucher as well as anti-testing advocacy groups like “Momma Bears” on Twitter, said he was moved by parents and public school teachers at the rally who insisted that vouchers would harm their fragile school district…

As the voucher legislation (HB 1049) heads for a floor vote, possibly as early as next week, lawmakers like McManus have to be thinking about how the vote could impact their electoral prospects.

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


What TN Can Learn from Louisiana on Vouchers

Tomorrow, the Tennessee General Assembly’s House Finance Committee will listen to debate and possibly vote on HB 1049, legislation that would create a private school voucher program in the state of Tennessee.

Yes, the 22 members of the Finance Committee could send an expensive, unproven voucher scheme to the House Floor for a vote — or, they could reject the plan or delay a vote until later.

The cost of the program at full implementation comes in at $130 million or more. Local school boards would lose funding but still have to maintain facilities and staffing at or near current levels.

This comes at a time when the state is facing a lawsuit calling its funding of public schools inadequate.

It seems that, no matter what you believe about the merits of that lawsuit, it would be wise to wait on starting an expensive new program until the suit is settled. Imagine if the state opens vouchers and then also loses the school funding lawsuit. The money that would then be going to vouchers could be used to boost funding at public schools.

Aside from the funding question, though, it’s important to pay attention to outcomes. As Jon Alfuth noted in an article on the topic last year, so far, there is little to no evidence of a positive impact on student outcomes from a voucher program.

If what we do in education is truly all about the students, then we should adopt policies that have proven positive impacts.

Proponents may argue, though, that vouchers haven’t shown harm and it is possible Tennessee’s program could be the one that finally shows a benefit.

Except, now there’s a study of Louisiana’s voucher program. Instead of showing no impact or a slight positive impact, the study shows actual harms to students participating in the program.

Specifically, the study, released by the National Bureau of Economic Research found:

  • Attendance at a voucher-eligible private school lowers math scores and increases the likelihood of a failing score by 50 percent.
  • Voucher effects for reading, science and social studies were also negative and significant.
  • The negative impacts of vouchers were consistent across income groups, geographic areas, and private school characteristics, and are more significant for younger children.
  • Survey data shows that voucher-eligible private schools experience rapid enrollment declines prior to entering the program, indicating that the vouchers may attract private schools struggling to maintain enrollment.

So, not only are vouchers expensive, they have been shown (in Louisiana at least) to have negative impacts on students.

With little data showing any significant positive gains and new data suggesting possible harms, it is difficult to understand why policymakers would adopt a voucher system in Tennessee.


A group in Nashville speaking out against vouchers: 


nashville vouchers 2016-2




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


TSBA Agenda

The Tennessee General Assembly begins its 2016 session today.

The Tennessee School Boards Association has released an agenda that includes opposition to vouchers and funding of items mentioned in prior BEP Review Committee reports.

Here it is:

TSBA firmly believes in the success of Tennessee’s public schools and the opportunities they have provided and continue to provide to children.  The association acknowledges the challenges that public schools face as well as the need for continued improvement, and its member boards of education are dedicated to reaching the goal of every child achieving his or her highest potential.  We believe we can help accomplish this goal by focusing our legislative efforts on the following areas:
Local Control of Schools   TSBA believes that local boards of education are the best equipped and informed to make decisions to address the needs and challenges of their local schools.  TSBA opposes any efforts to diminish or impede upon this local control.

Maintenance of Effort Penalties   TSBA believes that the responsibility and accountability for funding schools should be connected.  Rather than the state withholding BEP funds if a local budget is not timely adopted, TSBA supports legislative changes to shift the penalty to the funding body whereby the state would withhold local sales tax dollars.

Maintenance of Effort Requirements   TSBA supports legislative efforts to change the local responsibilities of funding bodies to ensure that they provide at least a 3% increase every three years.

Publicly Funded Vouchers   TSBA 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.

Minimum Instructional Time   TSBA supports legislation to provide an option to school districts to meet instructional requirements through a minimum number of instructional days or a minimum number of instructional hours.

Fees for Inspection of Records   TSBA believes that the public’s ability to inspect records must be weighed with the burden on staff to comply with open records requests and supports legislation to allow for reasonable fees when LEAs must create numerous documents and/or expend several man hours in order to comply with a request for inspection.
BEP Recommendations and Priorities   TSBA urges Governor Haslam, the General Assembly, and the Department of Education to continue efforts to fund all of the recommendations and priorities of prior reports of the BEP Review Committee.
The Tennessee School Boards Association will actively support legislation relative to these and other issues as determined by its Resolutions and Position Statements.

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