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

Aspiring Toward Mediocrity

That’s what Senate Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham had to say in terms of Tennessee’s education goals right after praising the state’s recent NAEP results.

Her remarks came at the beginning of a hearing her committee conducted on school choice earlier this week. They can be found just past the two minute mark in this video. 

What’s frustrating is that she then proceeded to spend hours conducting a hearing that was nothing short of a celebration of all the supposed benefits of school voucher schemes.

Here’s a quick summary of some key arguments against vouchers.

The bottom line is they are expensive, can be susceptible to fraud, reduce accountability, and most importantly do not improve student academic outcomes.

While Gresham continues to put forward school vouchers as a solution to at least get Tennessee to mediocrity, the state’s BEP Review Committee is busy telling legislators that all the funding woes of the past have been miraculously cleared up.

After hours of hearings, we are still no closer to a path to that mediocrity to which Gresham hopes our state can achieve. At least we now have a clear understanding of her expectations.

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

 

Schools Can Wait, We Need More Tax Breaks

That seems to be the message from state Senator Brian Kelsey of Memphis, who is suggesting using the state’s revenue surplus to eliminate the Hall Tax on investment income.

Kelsey’s plan would eliminate nearly $200 million a year in revenue. This at a time when school systems are suing the state due to grossly inadequate funding.

The push to provide tax breaks to the investor class comes as revenue is soaring above projections, as Rick Locker notes:

The state ended its fiscal year 2014-15 on June 30 with nearly $606 million more revenue overall than was projected and budgeted for the year, including $553 million more revenue in the government’s general fund than was projected. The general fund pays for most of state government’s non-transportation programs.

In addition to putting a call for tax breaks ahead of the need for improved investment in schools, Kelsey has also been a chief proponent of voucher schemes that would take millions of dollars from local school coffers. Not to mention there is scant evidence an expansive voucher plan like Kelsey’s would actually improve student outcomes.

Kelsey is not the only lawmaker whose priorities don’t include investing surplus dollars into public education. Earlier this year, House Speaker Beth Harwell suggested investing the surplus dollars into roads in order to avoid raising the gas tax.

What the General Assembly needs is a plan that would invest a significant portion of the surplus into schools and save the rest for future investment. Building a long-term, sustainable plan for improving the BEP (the state funding formula for schools) is critical, not just to avoid losing a lawsuit but also to support the excellent schools Tennessee families and communities deserve.

MORE on school funding in Tennessee:

Why is TN 40th?

Why Fix the BEP?

Why is he so angry?

 

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

Leader of Failed KY Voucher Campaign Heads to TN

The Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), a pro-voucher group, has selected Mendell Grinter as its Tennessee State Director.

Grinter will work to revive interest in a statewide school voucher program that has met defeat in three consecutive legislative sessions.

The release announcing Grinter’s selection mentions:

Grinter previously served as the Kentucky State Director for BAEO where he led the creation of BAEO’s first Pastors Coalition. Under his leadership the Coalition led rallies, press conferences, community meetings, and received over 30 media placements.

Yes, the coalition led rallies, held press conferences, and even got in the news. What they didn’t do was generate any significant interest in passing vouchers in Kentucky. That’s right: Grinter led a coalition that didn’t move the needle on vouchers in Kentucky – voucher legislation, even with an interesting twist, failed to pass in Kentucky.

Of course, Kentucky also has no charter schools, so the landscape for advocates of education privatization is bleak there. What Kentucky does have is 20+ years of steady educational progress. And, with no vouchers or charters, Kentucky continues to outperform Tennessee on the NAEP.

Make no mistake, voucher legislation will be a big focus in 2016. And Mendell Grinter’s track record should be of some comfort to those who support public schools and oppose failed voucher schemes.

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

Getting the facts straight on Individualized Education Accounts

This is a guest post by Jonathan Butcher, a Senior Fellow on Education Reform at the Beacon Center of Tennessee. He serves as the Education Director for the Goldwater Institute.

Tennessee lawmakers brought hope to thousands of children with special needs by passing SB27/HB138 and creating Individualized Education Accounts. With an account, the state deposits a child’s portion of the school funding formula into a private bank account that parents use to buy educational products and services for their child. These accounts are already available to students in Arizona, Florida, and Mississippi, and existing research demonstrates that participating families are highly satisfied with the new accounts and children have more access to flexible learning opportunities.

Here are the facts about Tennessee’s new options for children with autism, that may be deaf or blind, or who have other cognitive or physical needs:

1. Quality educational choices. Individualized Education Accounts provide students with special needs the chance to attend a school that specializes in helping children that struggle in a traditional classroom. It also allows their parents to find other services such as personal tutors or educational therapists. While some have labeled these accounts as vouchers, they are different in that they give families access to more educational opportunities than vouchers might.

2. Constitutional. In 2014, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that an account system similar to Tennessee’s was constitutional. The court upheld an opinion from Arizona Appeals Court Judge Jon W. Thompson, in which he wrote, “The specified object of the [accounts] is the beneficiary families, not private or sectarian schools. Parents can use the funds deposited in the [account] to customize an education that meets their children’s unique educational needs.

3. Transparent. The accounts protect against financial fraud and require that parents measure student progress. When families receive an account for their student, the state deposits funds onto the debit card that accompanies the account on a quarterly basis. If the Tennessee Department of Education finds that a parent has intentionally or unintentionally misused the card, the department and state board of education must develop rules to resolve the discrepancy that may include withholding the next quarterly deposit, as is the current practice in Arizona. Parents must also keep receipts proving that their purchases are for qualifying services. Arizona and Florida have developed rules for the accounts in those states. The account handbook for Arizona is available here, and Florida’s handbook is here. In addition, students using an account in Tennessee must take a nationally norm referenced test annually. Parents will have ready access to information about how well their children are learning.

4. Cost savings. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Tennessee taxpayers spend approximately $9,000 per student in traditional schools. However, students using an Individualized Education Account will be funded at $6,500. Beacon Center research finds that each account could save local school districts an average $1,000, even after fixed costs are considered.

Individualized Education Accounts hold tremendous promise for children across Tennessee. Research from Arizona and Florida provides evidence that families take advantage of the option to customize their child’s education and that families are highly satisfied with their accounts. Tennessee families can look forward to the same success for their children.

What Did They Just Do?

The Tennessee General Assembly today passed a bill to create a voucher system for students with IEPs. The plan was limited from its original scope to only apply to the most severe cases.

The vote in the House was particularly close, with 52 representatives voting in favor — 50 are required for passage.

What does the bill do?

If you ask the sponsors (and a number of members did), they really don’t know. Essentially, the legislation (HB138) creates individual education accounts of around $6600 to be provided to the parents or guardians who meet the qualifications in the amendment. They must have an IEP. Around 18,000 students (those with autism, blind or deaf, mental disabilities, and orthopedic disabilities) qualify.

A similar program in Florida, started in 1999, has been expanding rapidly. And, it’s been subject to fraud. When asked about what safeguards Tennessee’s plan will have, the sponsors said that the bill calls on the departments of education and health to qualify vendors. When asked what standards may be used to qualify vendors, the sponsors said they didn’t know.

When asked if the money will be distributed as a debit card or a bank account or a voucher, the sponsors didn’t know.

An important element of the bill is that any parent/guardian who accepts the voucher MUST forfeit their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. That’s a pretty big deal. When asked what rights, exactly, parents would be forfeiting, Rep. Roger Kane, a co-sponsor, said, “They are all listed in the IDEA.”

Indeed they are. And it’s pretty important. The rights include:

The right of parents to receive a complete explanation of all the procedural safeguards available under IDEA and the procedures in the state for presenting complaints

Confidentiality and the right of parents to inspect and review the educational records of their child

The right of parents to participate in meetings related to the identification, evaluation, and placement of their child, and the provision of FAPE (a free appropriate public education) to their child

The right of parents to obtain an independent educational evaluation (IEE) of their child

The right of parents to receive “prior written notice” on matters relating to the identification, evaluation, or placement of their child, and the provision of FAPE to their child

The right of parents to give or deny their consent before the school may take certain action with respect to their child

The right of parents to disagree with decisions made by the school system on those issues

The right of parents and schools to use IDEA’s mechanisms for resolving disputes, including the right to appeal determinations

Depending on the child’s disability and a school system’s ability, the parents may be entitled to provision of services by private providers at school system expense. The advantage being that there is accountability to the LEA for providers offering the services.

So, forfeiting one’s IDEA rights is a big deal. And it could mean kids are not well-served by private providers.

An analysis of similar programs across the country found that none of them were subject to state testing to determine student outcomes and that accountability provisions were weak or non-existent. This analysis also noted that as early as 2003, Florida realized its 4-year-old program was subject to fraud. But this 2011 report highlights significant fraud ongoing in the expanding Florida program.

Just a four years ago, Tennessee authorized the creation of the Tennessee Virtual Academy operated by for-profit provider K-12, Inc. At the time, Senator Andy Berke warned of K-12, Inc.’s problems in operating virtual schools in Arizona. He asked how we could be sure there wouldn’t be fraud in Tennessee’s virtual school operated by K-12. The sponsor, Senator Dolores Gresham, said that the accountability would be built-in by the rules.

Yesterday, after $43 million spent on K-12, Inc. in Tennessee, Senator Gresham led the opposition to a last-ditch effort to keep K-12, Inc. open. To her credit, this was an admission that the experiment she had championed had failed. Gresham correctly noted that the Tennessee Virtual Academy was the worst performing school out of 1700 Tennessee schools.

Here’s the problem: Tennessee taxpayers won’t get their $43 million back. More importantly, the children who were poorly-served by TNVA can’t get their time back. They will return to other education environments behind their peers and possibly unable to complete school.

If the IEP voucher program fails, what will happen in two or three or four years to the children who were in the program? How will we ensure the accountability measures work for this program when they failed miserably for TNVA? And if the argument is that they worked for TNVA because the school is closing now, what happens to those kids who might lose years of their lives to a failed experiment?

What did the Tennessee General Assembly just do?

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