Voucher Debate Heats Up With 800k Ad Buy.

The voucher debate now looks like campaign season with a huge advertising purchase by the American Federation for Children, a DC based education group that promotes vouchers. The Tennessee Journal (not available online) first reported on Friday that the Federation was buying ad spaces.

The Tennessee Federation for Children has been running cable TV ads in Tipton and Rutherford counties, declaring that Reps. Debra Moody (R-Covington) and Dawn White (R-Murfreesboro), both members
of the Education Subcommittee, can make a difference on the issue. The ads do not mention a specific bill.

This weekend, the federation is adding cable and digital ads in the districts of Reps. Mary Littleton (R-Dickson), Pat Marsh (R-Shelbyville), and Ryan Williams (R-Cookeville). Williams is on the Education Committee.

By Friday afternoon, the Associated Press reported an 800k ad buy the group.

An official familiar with the plans tells The Associated Press that the state chapter of the American Federation for Children is spending $800,000 on broadcast television, cable and radio advertising – a vast amount for political advertising or issue advocacy in the state.

Tennessean Reporter Joey Garrison has heard pro vouchers ads since January on 92Q, a radio station located in Nashville.

This isn’t the first time that the American Federation for Children has thrown thousands of dollars into Tennessee. The group spent almost $36,000 to help reelect Representative John Deberry during the last campaign season. We knew this was coming once the Federation hired Chip Saltsman to promote school vouchers in Tennessee. Saltsman is the former chief of staff for US Representative Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN), former chair of the TNGOP, and served as campaign manger for Huckabee’s 2008 presidential run.

The Federation isn’t the only group that is running TV ads. Again from The Tennessee Journal:

Meanwhile, the Beacon Center of Tennessee, formerly the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, has been airing a TV ad on broadcast stations in Nashville and Knoxville promoting “scholarships and choice for K-12 students.” It also doesn’t mention a particular bill.

This comes at a time when some legislators (specifically Sen. Brian Kelsey) want to see a bigger voucher bill than what has been proposed by Gov. Haslam. The Tennessee Education Report will keep you update on any changes to the current voucher bill.

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Why are Teachers So Unhappy?

The results of the Survey of the American Teacher for 2012 are out and guess what?  Teachers aren’t very happy.  Teacher job satisfaction is at an all-time low and has dropped 23 points over the past five years, including a 5-point drop between 2011 and 2012.

Guess what happens to people who aren’t very satisfied with their work?  1) They don’t do it very well and 2) They end up leaving that job and finding something more satisfying.

But why? What might be making teachers so dissatisfied?

Well, the value-proposition for teachers is not a great one, for starters.  Pay is not great and support is not great and so teachers don’t feel good about their relative value.

Specific to Tennessee, a number of “reforms” have taken shape in recent years that no doubt contribute to the unhappiness of the Tennessee teacher.

First, there was the successful effort to end collective bargaining in Tennessee.  This in spite of the fact that no evidence was shown that this would improve student outcomes.  Collective bargaining in Tennessee was mostly about giving teachers a seat at the table when budgets and salaries and resources were discussed.  Rarely did teachers strike and they certainly never held Boards hostage for huge pay increases.  In fact, many local teacher’s associations bargained for textbooks and other resources for students in place of raises for the teachers.  One middle Tennessee district’s teachers offered to forego a raise for the length of a 3-year contract in exchange for keeping the health insurance match intact.  Instead, the teachers saw their portion of health insurance increase and have so far gone without a local raise for six years.  Now, with no seat at the table at all, teachers across Tennessee have even less input into district operations and resources.  And it’s not like Tennessee’s state or local governments are lavishing high pay and impressive resources on teachers.

The same year that collective bargaining ended for Tennessee teachers, the state implemented a new evaluation system.  Policymakers seemed to think it was more important to get the evaluations in place than to get them right.  And there have been changes in the first two years and more changes coming.  Imagine being told by your boss that there are certain standards you have to meet.  Then being told that all of that will now change.  And then change again next year and the year after that.  How secure would you feel about your job?  That’s what Tennessee teachers are facing.

This year, instead of focusing on boosting teacher pay or increasing support through mentoring or coaching programs or adding more resources to schools, legislators are focused on an unproven (and in the case of one Vanderbilt study — proven NOT to work) performance pay schemes.

And the Governor is focused on adding an even less proven and likely expensive voucher scheme to the mix.

This is a state that truly took a step forward with the BEP back in 1992.  Then stopped fully-funding it when it got too expensive about six years later.  Then, Pre-K was expanded.  And the expansion has stopped because finding the money became too difficult.  And possibly because it became trendy to suggest that we could improve our schools without making new investments in the people in them.  Four classes of 4-year-olds have become kindergarteners since the last expansion of Pre-K.  This in a state with one of the lowest rates of college degree attainment.  That’s four years worth of students who are significantly less likely to graduate from high school.  And for those who do, they are far less ready for college than they would have been if they had enjoyed access to the high-quality Pre-K program Tennessee offers a fraction of its families.

The BEP was reformed as BEP 2.0 around 2007.  That reform, too, proved too expensive.  Many districts around our state would have seen significant increases had the new BEP been fully-funded these last few years.  Instead, budget challenges (and unwillingness to raise revenue) at the local level have meant stagnation in teacher pay and a lack of resources for students.

Tennessee’s education policy history is fraught with examples like these.  Well-meaning reforms and investments thwarted when the going gets tough and finding money for schools gets too difficult.

And now, we’re asking more from our teachers than ever before with less pay, no seat at the table, and few resources.  Is it any wonder they are dissatisfied?

 

 

 

 

Tennessee’s Vouchers Bill

As highlighted in Gov. Haslam’s speech last night, he’s putting forward a relatively conservative version of vouchers this year.  The bill itself (HB 0190/SB 0196) was filed yesterday.  It’s being carried in the House by Rep. McCormick and in the Senate by Sen. Norris.  The salient points are as follows:

(1) It’s only for low-income students (family must qualify for free or reduced price lunch to be eligible)

(2) It’s only for students in low-performing schools (must be a bottom 5% school “in overall achievement as determined by the performance standards and other criteria set by the state board”)

(3) It’s only for public school students (sort of — you have to have been in a public school for at least 2 semesters immediately prior to receiving a voucher OR you’re enrolling in a Tennessee school for the first time)

(4) Participation by private schools is voluntary (and they have to agree to take what the state pays and not charge parents anything above that)

(5) Participating private schools will have to give state assessments and turn over certain data on performance of voucher students.

(6) (THIS IS  A BIG ONE) Participating private schools do not have to offer special education services.  They cannot “discriminate against students with special education needs” BUT “as a nonpublic school, a participating school is required to offer only those services it already provides to assist students with special needs. If a scholarship student would have been entitled to receive special education services in the public school the student would otherwise be attending, the parent shall acknowledge in writing, as part of the enrollment process, that the parent agrees to accept only services that are available to the student in the nonpublic school.”

Some general thoughts:

Just as a point of comparison, our charter schools legislation started the exact same way, with regards to the first few requirements.  Originally, charter school enrollment was limited to free and reduced price lunch students who were in “failing” schools.  Over the years, these requirements have been dropped.  Tennessee is now an “open enrollment” charter school state (anyone can go to a charter school), with no caps on the number of charters operating.

If/when the vouchers legislation passes, I expect to see similar broadening in coming years (unless the generally anti-voucher (with the notable exception of Rep. John DeBerry) Democrats stage an amazing electoral comeback).

Other thoughts: The requirement that participating private schools not offer any special education services beyond what they already offer (which, for most private schools (with some exceptions), is very little — most private schools are not equipped/interested in catering to severe special needs students), is a very important point.  Though this provision is in line with the TNGOP’s stance on not forcing private entities to act a certain way (unless you happen to be Vanderbilt University), it’s still feeds the narrative among anti-voucher (and anti-charter) folks that these reforms simply skim the cream off of public school enrollment (“cream” including high-performing students and, more importantly, students with motivated and active parents) and leave behind low-performing students and high-needs special education students.

Much more ink will be spilled about this in the coming weeks and months, so be sure to check back.

Vouchers, Charters, and Triggers — Oh My! A Preview of Education Legislation in the 2013 Tennessee General Assembly

Michelle Rhee seems to have her hands firmly around Tennessee Education policy as this legislative session begins. Rhee’s group, StudentsFirst, contributed more than $200,000 (or was it more?) in state legislative races in 2012 and they’re getting what they paid for. In short, Rhee’s top policy priorities are now the top priorities of the legislature and Governor Haslam. Here’s a rundown of these policies — all very much en vogue among the education reform elite. None particularly useful in moving Tennessee schools forward.

Vouchers

Or, as some like to call them, “Opportunity Scholarships.” After the Governor’s Task Force on Vouchers came up short of clear recommendations for a voucher scheme, Governor Haslam appeared to cool to the idea. He noted instead that legislators may bring forth a plan and he’d work with that. Then, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush came to town in early January and immediately following the Governor’s public event with Bush, Haslam announced he’d be introducing his own version of a voucher scheme. Never mind that the four largest school districts — the ones most likely to be impacted by a voucher plan — have all expressed opposition. And never mind that many private schools have indicated that they won’t accept the vouchers. Haslam has seen the light as shown to him by Bush and Rhee and he’ll now be moving to divert state education dollars to private schools. This in a state that ranks near the bottom in per pupil spending on public education.

Charters

Tennessee already has among the most liberal charter school laws in the country. Any student in any district that has charter schools may attend a charter school. The local school boards do, however, have control over authorizing a charter to operate in their district and control over closing charters if they are failing. All seemed to be going well with charters opening and growing in Memphis and Nashville. And then there was Great Hearts vs. Metro Nashville. While the Metro Nashville School Board approved several new charters in 2012 and has been fairly aggressive about recruiting charter operators to town, the Board rejected the charter application of Arizona-based Great Hearts Academy. They did so over concerns about diversity and legitimate questions over whether the school would truly meet the community’s needs. The State Board of Education over-ruled the Metro Board and directed them to reconsider. A new school board was elected. And the new board ALSO rejected Great Hearts. So, the state department of education, headed-up by Rhee’s ex-husband, Kevin Huffman, hit Metro with a $3.4 million penalty — withholding BEP funds the district was counting on. Now, Great Hearts is lobbying for a state charter authorizer — a state board that would be unelected and unaccountable — to be created. This charter authorizer would allow charter operators to bypass local school boards and be authorized to operate a charter in a district whether or not the locally elected school board wanted it.

Parent Trigger

The “parent trigger” concept is the idea that if a school is failing and 50% +1 of the parents in that school vote to do so, the parents can convert the school to a charter. Those parents may then “run” the school and hire/fire faculty and obtain other budgetary controls. This may sound like a reasonable proposition. However, in practice, it is a disaster. A school in Indiana recently “pulled the trigger” and the parents were stunned to discover the lack of available resources. The parents presented a list of demands including iPads for all students. The Board replied that in order for that demand to be met, a number of faculty would have to be let go. Parent trigger can also be used by sketchy charter operators to gain a foothold into a school. Rhee is of course behind this measure as well.

Each of these efforts appeals to policymakers because none require any new investment in Tennessee schools. The idea is that we already have money out there, and that if we just did these “new, cool things” we’d have better schools. They allow politicians to claim to be pro-education without making the hard decisions that would lead to meaningful new investments in our schools. Moreover, each of these policies has potentially disastrous effects on an already struggling school system. Stay tuned as the 2013 legislative session advances and these policies gain traction.