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

Not Dead Yet

Vouchers are still alive in the Tennessee General Assembly and Anne-Marie Farmer of the League of Women Voters explains why they should die — possibly as early as this morning’s meeting of the House Finance, Ways, and Means Subcommittee.

Farmer writes:

Make no mistake, these visions—over a hundred thousand available vouchers with no meaningful standards or oversight, or vouchers available statewide to any and every child—are not outliers. Pervasive availability is the ultimate goal of voucher advocates, and it’s where they hope any voucher law will ultimately take Tennessee, regardless of how limited its scope as currently presented. Voucher proponents will be back again and again to expand any voucher law that passes. This despite the use of private school vouchers for years in other states without any kind of track record of improved educational outcomes. Vouchers will accomplish something—they will provide tax money support to struggling private schools, which will then be free to use public dollars to teach a wide array of political and religious doctrines, and will not have to adhere to the same academic standards that are expected in public schools.

She’s talking about the combination of so-called IEP Vouchers (HB138) and the more traditional and limited voucher proposal (HB1049). Both are set to be considered in committee today.

Farmer lays out a compelling case against adoption of either plan.

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

 

Voucher Week

 

This week is voucher week at the Tennessee General Assembly.

Yes, the voucher legislation has been scheduled for a hearing and vote in the House Finance Subcommittee. Should it pass that hurdle, it will be heard in the full House Finance Committee and then on to the House Floor.

Because the House has passed “Flow Motion” which suspends the normal notice requirements, all of this COULD happen this week.

Of course, the legislation could also fail at the committee level or be amended somewhere along the way.

But, whatever the fate of vouchers in 2015, it will likely be decided this week.

I’ve consistently written about or shared articles about why vouchers should be defeated. Vouchers are bad public policy – they don’t improve student outcomes and they do increase costs to taxpayers.

Here are some highlights of articles urging a rejection of vouchers:

Vouchers can be susceptible to fraud

A voucher program designed for Tennessee students with IEPs has been proposed and is modeled after similar programs in Florida and Arizona. The Florida program has been particularly susceptible to fraud and also keeps expanding, taking more and more public dollars with it to private schools of questionable value.

Read more about the failures of the Florida voucher model.

Vouchers mean big government expansion

Samantha Bates of PET argues that a voucher program would expand the scope and reach of government — purportedly the antithesis of what leading voucher proponents are seeking. She writes:

A voucher program will also inevitably lead to continued growth and power by the Tennessee Department of Education over local education. Vouchers will not eliminate or substantially reduce the state’s role in education, and it will take significant resources to oversee the program. If you like big government, this will increase the size and scope of the Tennessee Department of Education.

For some, vouchers are a means to eliminate public education. Looking at the argument for a moment, do we really want a massive system of government contractors, albeit private schools, approved by the state, who in turn will themselves lobby and demand larger subsidies? Vouchers will also likely drive up the cost for parents in private schools whose children do not use or qualify for vouchers.

Read more about why vouchers won’t work.

Vouchers create accountability problems

The Tennessee School Boards Association makes several points about why vouchers should be opposed. Here are two key points they make:

1. Vouchers use your money to help pay for a student to go to a private school that answers to private administrators and not you the taxpayer.  Public schools must answer to the people and are held accountable for the use of local, state and federal educational tax money.

2. Article XI, Section 12 of the Tennessee Constitution specifically states “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools.”  Nowhere in our constitution is the General Assembly directed to take taxpayer money and use it for a voucher system so parents can use public money to send their children to private schools.

Read more on the TSBA’s opposition to vouchers.

Vouchers increase costs to taxpayers and could result in school closures

Here’s what I wrote about the Fiscal Note on the voucher bill — a Fiscal Note from the fantasyland world of the Friedman Foundation:

This analysis suggests two things: First, that the Fiscal Note assumptions about cost “relief” may be suspect and second, that the only way to gain true cost savings from a voucher program would be through school closures.

That’s right, to get true savings from a voucher program public schools would have to close. If they don’t, the cost shift noted in the fiscal analysis would mean increased costs to districts who then operate with decreased revenue.

Read more about the true cost of a voucher program.

Even some school choice advocates oppose vouchers

Jon Alfuth, publisher of Bluff City Ed and an advocate of school choice, and specifically, of adding more options for students by way of charter schools, says vouchers are the wrong way to go if you want to advance choice in a way that helps kids. He cites data from recent studies of voucher programs to note that they simply don’t improve student outcomes.

In 2010, the Center on Education Policy reviewed 10 years of voucher research and action and found that vouchers had no strong effect on student achievement.  The most positive results come from Milwaukee County’s voucher program, but the effects were small and limited to only a few grades.

Read more about why vouchers are the wrong way to advance a school choice agenda

Finally, voters aren’t all that concerned about school choice.

A recent poll of Tennessee voters found that:

Additionally, the poll, conducted by GBA Strategies, found that voters ranked lack of school choice dead last among issues of concern on education. That’s particularly relevant given the advancing voucher legislation at the General Assembly.

Voters simply aren’t talking about or thinking about vouchers or other methods of expanding school choice.

It’s voucher week, and there are some very solid reasons why Tennessee legislators should be casting votes against vouchers this week. Here’s the bottom line: Vouchers don’t work to improve academic outcomes for students and they do cost taxpayers lots of money. If that’s not enough, legislators can rest assured knowing that voters aren’t beating down the doors begging for vouchers — probably because they haven’t worked elsewhere and there’s no reason to believe they will start working if they hit Tennessee.

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

Voters Want Charter Reforms

 

That’s the message the Metro Nashville Education Association wants to get out as Nashville’s Mayoral candidates head to a forum focused on education this evening.

MNEA pointed to results from a poll of Tennessee voters conducted for the Center for Popular Democracy as evidence that charter reforms are a key education issue warranting attention.

The poll found that charter reforms focused on transparency and accountability received overwhelmingly favorable responses from Tennessee voters.

Additionally, the poll, conducted by GBA Strategies, found that voters ranked lack of school choice dead last among issues of concern on education. That’s particularly relevant given the advancing voucher legislation at the General Assembly.

Here’s the release from MNEA:

Metropolitan Nashville Education Association (MNEA) Leaders say a recent survey of local voters shows that Tennesseans overwhelmingly favor reforms for local charter schools to protect students and taxpayers.
Voters overwhelmingly rejected charter expansion as a priority, the survey found. Instead, voters favored charter reforms to strengthen:
• Transparency and accountability

• Teacher training and qualifications

• Anti-fraud measures

• Equity policies for high-need students
“It’s clear our communities support quality public schools, not an expansion of charter schools,” said MNEA President Stephen Henry. “We need to make sure ALL Nashville schools are held to the same accountability and transparency standards that taxpayers expect.”
The survey also found voters rated the need for more parental involvement and the reduction of excessive student testing as bigger priorities than expanding charters.

Specifically, voters favored by greater than 80% approval reforms that would:

  • provide rigorous, independent audits of charter school finances
  • require charter schools to publish how they spend taxpayer dollars, including all budgets and contracts
  • ensure that teachers in any publicly-funded school meet the same training and qualification requirements

“We need community leaders who will stand up for the strong public schools our kids deserve,” said MNEA Vice President Erick Huth. “This includes our new director of schools and our next mayor.”
The poll was conducted in January among 500 registered voters by GBA Strategies, a research firm based in Washington, D.C. It was funded, in part, by the Center for Popular Democracy, a national organization dedicated to social justice issues.

Here are some of the poll results:

  Total Support %
Transparency & Accountability  
Require state officials to conduct regular audits of charter schools’ finances to detect fraud, waste or abuse of public funds 86
Require companies and organizations that manage charter schools to release to parents and the public how they spend taxpayer money, including their annual budgets and contracts 85
Preventing Harm to Neighborhood Schools  
Before any new charter school is approved, conduct an analysis of the impact the school will have on neighborhood public schools 78
Ensure that neighborhood public schools do not lose funding when new charter schools open in their area 78
Protect Taxpayer funds  
Require charter schools to return taxpayer money to the school district for any student that leaves the charter school to return to a neighborhood public school during the school year 78
Stop the creation of new charter schools if state officials have not shown the ability to prevent fraud and mismanagement 69
Prohibit charter school board members and their immediate families from financially benefiting from their schools 65
Prohibit charter schools from spending taxpayer dollars on advertising or marketing 54
Serving High Need Students  
Require all teachers who work in taxpayer funded schools, including neighborhood public schools and charter schools, to meet the same training and qualification requirements 89
Require charter schools to serve high-need students such as special education students, at the same level as neighborhood public schools 79

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

What Could Go Wrong?

Last week, I wrote about the newest voucher craze sweeping the Tennessee General Assembly — vouchers for kids with IEPs – individualized education plans.

The concept sounds interesting, but as noted in the post, the program lacks accountability. Tennessee’s program is modeled after Florida’s McKay Scholarship, and Sara Mead of Education Sector studied that plan and found it to be seriously lacking.

But, what does that mean? What could go wrong?

Well, everything.

A story in the Miami New Times details a number of problems with the McKay program – the very plan Tennessee is seeking to emulate if the legislation passes here.

Here are some highlights:

South Florida Prep

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.”

Exponential Growth

Once a niche scholarship fund, the McKay program has boomed exponentially in the 12 years since it was introduced under Gov. Jeb Bush, with $148.6 million handed out in the past 12 months, a 38 percent increase from just more than five years ago.

There are 1,013 schools — 65 percent of them religious — collecting McKay vouchers from 22,198 children at an average of $7,144 per year.

Similarly, proponents of the vouchers in Tennessee suggest that plan will be modest, and not widely used. The Florida numbers tell a different — and financially devastating story.

No Accountability

While supporters of the measure in Tennessee claim that accountability measures are included, they were also included in the Florida legislation. Nevertheless, here’s what’s happened there:

According to one former DOE investigator, who claimed his office was stymied by trickle-down gubernatorial politics, the agency failed to uncover “even a significant fraction” of the McKay crime that was occurring.

Administrators who have received funding include criminals convicted of cocaine dealing, kidnapping, witness tampering, and burglary.

Even in investigations where fraud, including forgery and stealing student information to bolster enrollment, is proven, arrests are rare. The thieves are usually allowed to simply repay the stolen loot in installments — or at least promise to — and continue to accept McKay payments.

Opening the Door

Just as in Florida, the Tennessee voucher plan is being pushed as a way to help kids with IEPs access services. But, here’s what has happened:

To be eligible for a McKay voucher in the early days, a student would have had to qualify for an individual education program (IEP) — which encompasses conditions ranging from attention disorders and autism to physical disabilities — and be failing in public schools. The latter requirement was eventually scrapped by legislators. A cap limiting the number of McKay kids per district was also tossed.

Who Will Check?

The proposed Tennessee plan creates “Individual Education Accounts” for parents/guardians of children qualifying for the program — the qualifications being the child has attended at least two semesters of public school in Tennessee and currently has an IEP.

The parent can then use the funds to provide services either through a private school or on their own, by purchasing curriculum or paying for tutoring. Though the bill requires the Department of Education to set up procedures for policing the program, it seems it would be difficult to keep track of the 6000-8000 accounts the plan is estimated to create in the early years. Additionally, of course, the Department would have to track providers of education services and curriculum. How long will it take to discover fraud? And what happens to the students with legitimate needs who are poorly or never served?

As proposed, Tennessee’s program has many similarities to the way the program in Florida began. The only way to prevent such a plan from becoming a disaster in Tennessee, it seems, is to never let it get started.

 

For more on education politics and policy, follow @TNEdReport

 

Vouchers Gone Wild

Vouchers are going wild in the Tennessee General Assembly this week and its not clear where they’ll stop.

First, the Senate Finance Committee tacked on an amendment to the principle voucher vehicle, SB 999.

The amendment adds the words “public or nonpublic school” to the bill.

Here’s what that means: Students could use the so-called Opportunity Scholarship to pay “out of district” tuition to a neighboring school district.

A family lives in Davidson County but wants their child to attend school in Williamson. The language allows them to use the voucher to send their child to school in Williamson if they meet all the other voucher requirements.

This is problematic on several fronts. First, there’s no way for districts to predict how many students will apply for admission from outside their district. This makes planning for growth/space needs difficult.

Next, the voucher amount may or may not equal the actual per pupil dollars spent on the child — creating a financial burden for the receiving district as well as for the district that loses the student. Yes, even if students leave a public school system, fixed costs mean vouchers increase, not decrease expenses.

The amendment will surely require a new Fiscal Note — an analysis of the financial impact of the bill.  And its adoption delayed consideration of the companion bill in the House Education – Administration & Planning Committee.

Following this adventure in vouchers, the Senate Education Committee and a House subcommittee approved a voucher plan that would allow any Tennessee student with an IEP – Individualized Education Plan – to receive vouchers. 120,000 Tennessee students currently meet this definition.

That means that in addition to the 20,000 student cap that is in the first voucher bill, another 120,000 students would be eligible. It’s not hard to imagine an ultimate goal of making vouchers available to every single student in Tennessee.

The idea for the IEP voucher plan is based on a plan promoted by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who saw the program adopted in his state while he was in office.

A report by Sara Mead of Education Sector at American Institutes for Research notes that the Florida program, on which the Tennessee legislation is modeled, is problematic.

Here are some highlights:

McKay students do not have to take the annual state tests administered to public school students, and McKay schools are not required to report any information on student outcomes—which goes against the national trend toward standards and accountability in public education. Thus, it is virtually impossible to say whether special-needs children using McKay vouchers to attend private schools are faring better, worse, or about the same as they had in their old public schools. It is also difficult to determine whether the McKay program is improving existing special-education services, since, unlike public schools, McKay schools are not required to provide these services at all.

Tennessee’s plan would have a similar lack of accountability — which means parents could claim the voucher and then have their child be grossly under-served.

Mead continues:

McKay’s lack of accountability requirements and its minimal quality and service expectations make McKay a seriously flawed program. Under the current structure of the program, taxpayers have almost no knowledge of how their money is being spent, and neither taxpayers nor parents have access to solid information about the performance of different McKay schools. For parents, the stakes are very high, as they are required to give up their due process rights under IDEA if they choose to participate in the McKay program. Parents, taxpayers, and the state’s special-needs children deserve better.

Moving toward a program with zero accountability and unproven results seems a grave disservice to the families of special needs children in Tennessee.

Next week may yield a slow down for these two voucher initiatives. Or, it could be more vouchers gone wild – more tax dollars spent, less accountability.

More on School Vouchers:

Fiscal Note Fantasy

TSBA Talks Vouchers

Why Vouchers Won’t Work

Should Tennesseans Support School Vouchers?

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

 

Why Vouchers Won’t Work

Samantha Bates, Director of Member Services for Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET) offers her take on why vouchers won’t work in Tennessee.

We are living in an age of historic transformation. There is a no doubt that traditional conservative and liberal ideology has undergone a seismic shift. Political labels mean nothing to voters, because it is very obvious that they mean nothing to politicians elected under a political banner of a party. In education the name of the game is race to the top; in politics it is race to the trough.

Calvin Coolidge understood that the power to tax is the power to destroy. He said, “A government which lays taxes on the people not required by urgent public necessity and sound public policy is not a protector of liberty, but an instrument of tyranny.” Government at all levels has created problems and then miraculously been seen as the savior to resolve that issue. We understand, however, that top-down reform rarely reaches the grassroots.

Unless we generate improved capacities in our people, organizations, and communities to see the world differently and to utilize new concepts and methods, we will continue to try to advance ideas and approaches that are increasingly out of date. For example, we have made our system of public education adhere to one set of rules and then handcuffed them. Now we want to allow other approaches to operate under different constructs. Should we not focus on means to free our state and local school districts from onerous rules and regulations and give them greater freedom to operate? Instead of charter schools, for example, what about charter districts in Tennessee. Let’s simply block-grant federal and money to the states or districts.

Education is the process by which we infuse knowledge of our culture and our moral values in our children. However, our schools are being changed from essential community institutions into government agencies. Rather than serving as hubs of civic life, our schools are converting into apparatuses of state and national policy more concerned with economic development than with the diffusion of culture; more concerned with issues associated with international competitiveness than with concern about national character. We have lost our vision because we handcuffed public schools with burdensome rules and regulations and outsourced our policymaking to chambers of commerce and wealthy philanthropists and their well-funded think tanks.

Just as good teachers know when to put aside curriculum to do what is right for children, good leaders will support that effort and good policy will embrace it. The move to shift more state and local dollars to vouchers in Tennessee will not work and will further destroy our public schools. Under a recent proposal the attempt is to target the lowest performing five percent. There will always be a bottom five percent. So, if your school is not on the list, rest assured it will eventually get there. The numbers will expand, and local school systems will be required to absorb the cost to educate the students that remain.

If policymakers want to argue that the latest voucher proposal will promote market-driven competition, they are operating under a false assumption. They will need to come to grips with the fact that, as a whole, Tennessee lacks the necessary infrastructure of quality private schools, and that list is further narrowed with ones that operate at a reasonable tuition rate in line with any proposed voucher. There are some Jewish, Christian, and Muslim schools that may meet the criteria. While the U.S. Constitution is silent on how states fund or provide a quality education, and courts around the nation have upheld that providing money to faith-based schools through vouchers does not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, each community will ultimately debate if this is where they want their tax money to be spent.

It would also stand to reason, if we are concerned about accountability in public schools and with public monies we will need to also need to be concerned with accountability of a voucher school. If the testing and evaluation system are critical for quality in public schools, would they not be as equally critical for private schools? Vouchers could lead private schools to excessive regulation, as well as undermine the quality and independence of private schools. Whoever pays the piper ultimately calls the tune.

A voucher program will also inevitably lead to continued growth and power by the Tennessee Department of Education over local education. Vouchers will not eliminate or substantially reduce the state’s role in education, and it will take significant resources to oversee the program. If you like big government, this will increase the size and scope of the Tennessee Department of Education.

For some, vouchers are a means to eliminate public education. Looking at the argument for a moment, do we really want a massive system of government contractors, albeit private schools, approved by the state, who in turn will themselves lobby and demand larger subsidies? Vouchers will also likely drive up the cost for parents in private schools whose children do not use or qualify for vouchers.

Philosopher George Santayana defined fanaticism as amplifying your efforts when you have forgotten your purpose. While public schools must promote personal development and intellectual growth, education goes beyond preparing students for college or the workforce. We must remind ourselves of the purpose of public education under the Tennessee Constitution: “The state of Tennessee recognizes the inherent value of education and encourages its support. The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools.” Will vouchers, as proposed, meet that standard?

There are many people working hard to strengthen our system of free public schools. We simply believe that local educators, rather than outside influences, are the people who must transform our schools. We have been there. We are teachers, principals, superintendents and boards of education and we do not believe vouchers will work in our state.

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

 

TSBA Talks Vouchers

The Tennessee School Boards Association is out with an op-ed on its opposition to vouchers. Here are four key points taken directly from the piece:

1. Vouchers use your money to help pay for a student to go to a private school that answers to private administrators and not you the taxpayer.  Public schools must answer to the people and are held accountable for the use of local, state and federal educational tax money.

2. Article XI, Section 12 of the Tennessee Constitution specifically states “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools.”  Nowhere in our constitution is the General Assembly directed to take taxpayer money and use it for a voucher system so parents can use public money to send their children to private schools.

3. Private schools are not public institutions, and without proper oversight the “qualifications and standards” for students may fall short of expectations and undermine the fundamental idea of equality in education.  Vouchers require the public to supplement these standards even if they are contrary to state and federal education law.

4. Vouchers force the public to support two drastically different educational systems one over which the public has no oversight.

 

Essentially, the TSBA argument boils down to accountability and accessibility. Private schools simply aren’t (and won’t be) accountable to the taxpayers funding them. And private schools are not accessible to all Tennessee students, even with a voucher program.

It’s also worth noting that a voucher program would drive up the costs of local school districts without a corresponding increase in revenue.

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

 

Fiscal Note Fantasy

The debate over vouchers began this week in the Tennessee House and Senate. A new vehicle for carrying vouchers (HB1049/SB999) is the chosen method for implementing a voucher scheme in Tennessee.

Of particular interest is the Fiscal Note, prepared by the legislature’s new Executive Director of Fiscal Review, who previously worked at the Friedman Foundation — an outfit dedicated to school choice.

The analysis of costs points out a shift of state and local dollars to non-public schools in an amount that goes up to nearly $70 million by FY 18-19 and beyond.

For local education agencies that have schools in the bottom five percent of achievement and are mandated to participate in the statewide scholarship program, the shift of state and required local BEP funding from these local education agencies to the non-public participating schools is estimated as follows: $16,570,000 in FY15-16; $25,473,800 in FY16- 17; $34,815,000 in FY17-18; and an amount exceeding $69,630,000 in FY18-19 and subsequent years.

In an unusual twist, the analysis notes a long-term savings to local governments and LEAs. Specifically:

LEAs with participating students will be relieved of the long-term educational cost burden of educating such students. Using the third year of the statewide program as the baseline, the cost burden relieved in FY17-18 is reasonably estimated to be $24,275,000.  This amount will increase in FY18-19 and each subsequent year. The long-term result of such cost burden relief could be a permissive decrease in local expenditures, a permissive reallocation of local funding, or a permissive cost avoidance of local expenditures. Cost burden relief may also result in a higher per pupil expenditure for students that remain within an LEA school. An LEA’s capacity to make any such permissive choice depends on the number and dispersion of students that participate in the scholarship program.  If the number of participating students is small and widely dispersed across grade levels it is less likely that any such permissive choice could be implemented, but more likely if the number is large and concentrated in just a few grades. 

What is not mentioned is the net loss of $10 million if these assumptions are accurate. That is, the FY17-18 “cost shift” is $34 million and the savings or “relief” is $24 million. In FY18-19 and beyond, the cost shift is nearly $70 million, with no estimate provided for cost relief, though it should “increase.”

First, I’d note this is still a net loss to school systems.

Next, I’d point out that fixed costs would mean the projected relief is more fantasy than reality. This is admitted to some extent when the note says:

If the number of participating students is small and widely dispersed across grade levels it is less likely that any such permissive choice could be implemented, but more likely if the number is large and concentrated in just a few grades. 

Additionally, a recent report on the impact of charter schools on MNPS gets to the same point in terms of students lost versus fixed costs:

“The key question for determining fiscal impacts is whether enrollment reductions allow a district to achieve expenditure reductions commensurate with revenue reductions. Fixed costs are incurred regardless of whether students attend traditional or charter schools. The problem is that some fixed costs, such as building maintenance, computer network infrastructure, and health services do not vary based on enrollment. Therefore, teachers and their salaries are a key cost driver tied to student enrollment … However, it is not always possible to reduce teacher costs proportionate to losses in revenue. For these costs to be reduced significantly, the school would need to close altogether.”

This analysis suggests two things: First, that the Fiscal Note assumptions about cost “relief” may be suspect and second, that the only way to gain true cost savings from a voucher program would be through school closures.

That’s right, to get true savings from a voucher program public schools would have to close. If they don’t, the cost shift noted in the fiscal analysis would mean increased costs to districts who then operate with decreased revenue.

This may be the fantasy of voucher advocates, but it’s a nightmare for public schools and the families they serve.

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