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

 

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.

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

 

 

Ready to Grade?

Measurement, Inc. has been hired by the State of Tennessee to design new standardized tests to replace TCAP. The new test is to be aligned to Tennessee’s new standards and will include constructed-response questions in addition to multiple choice. This means students will write answers or demonstrate work as part of the test. The idea is to demonstrate understanding of a subject, rather than simply guessing on a multiple choice test. Typically, grading a constructed response test is costly, because evaluators have to read and consider the answers and then rate them based on a rubric. Fortunately for Tennessee taxpayers, Measurement, Inc. has found a way to keep these costs low.

Here’s an ad from Measurement seeking Evaluators/Readers for tests:

Thank you for your interest in employment with Measurement Incorporated. We are a diverse company engaged in educational research, test development, and the scoring of tests administered throughout the world. Our company has grown to be the largest of its kind by providing consistent and reliable results to our clients. We are able to do so through the efforts of a professional and flexible staff, and we welcome your interest in becoming a member. Measurement Incorporated Reader/Evaluator Position Recruiting for projects starting in March of 2015 for both day and evening shift at the Ypsilanti Scoring Center. If you qualify as a reader/evaluator, you will be eligible to work on a number of our projects. Many projects require readers to score essays for content, organization, grammatical convention, and/or the student’s ability to communicate and to respond to a specific directive. Other projects involve scoring test items in reading, math, science, social studies, or other subject areas. The tests you will score come from many different states and from students at all grade levels, elementary through college, depending on the project.

LOCATION Measurement Incorporated Ypsilanti Scoring Center 1057 Emerick Ypsilanti, MI 48198 (734) 544-7686

REQUIREMENTS Bachelor’s degree in any field Ability to perform adequately on a placement assessment Completion of a successful interview Access to a home computer with high speed internet in a secure work area for telecommuters

HOURS Readers are hired on a temporary basis by project but are expected to work five days per week, Monday through Friday. Hours vary by shift. Attendance during training (usually the first few days of a project) is mandatory. PAY The starting pay is $10.70 per hour. After successful completion of three major scoring projects (or a minimum of 450 hours), readers who meet the minimum standards of production, accuracy and attendance will receive an increase to $11.45 per hour.

APPLICATION PROCEDURE To apply, please go to http://www.measurementinc.com/Employment/ and select the Reader/Evaluator position. Select Ypsilanti as your location and click on the “Apply Online” tab. Qualified applicants will be contacted to complete an online placement assessment, schedule an interview, and provide proof of degree. If invited to work on a scoring project, proof of employment eligibility in order to complete a federal I-9 from will be required within three days of employment.

Apparently, scorers at the Nashville scoring center can earn starting pay of $11.20 an hour.

 

Certainly, quality scorers for TNReady can be found for $10.70-$11.20 an hour via ads posted on Craigslist. I’m sure parents in the state are happy to know this may be the pool of scorers determining their child’s test score. And teachers, whose evaluations are based on growth estimates from these tests, are also sure to be encouraged by the validity of results obtained in this fashion. So, if you have a Bachelor’s degree and want to make around $11 an hour on a temporary, contract basis by all means, get in touch with the developers of Tennessee’s new standardized tests. For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

Hungry for BEP Reform

School Boards in Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Memphis have all voted to begin the process of exploring a lawsuit challenging the adequacy of the state’s school funding formula, the BEP.

This challenge is different from the previous Small Schools challenges in two ways. First, it is being initiated by the large school systems, with some support from smaller districts. Second, it’s about adequacy, not equity. That is to say: The point of this potential lawsuit would be to say Tennessee’s school funding formula does not provide enough funding for ALL districts.

Past suits, focused on equity, argued that smaller and poorer districts lost out because the formula didn’t give kids from all districts an equal opportunity. There’s certainly evidence that the BEP is approaching (or already at) unacceptable levels of inequity. One noteworthy example is teacher pay, which shows a disparity of 42% between the top paying and lowest paying districts. The last Small Schools suit found a disparity of 45% unconstitutional. It’s not at all a stretch to suggest that 42% is also unconstitutional or that Tennessee will very soon be at the 45% disparity level.

This time, though, systems are suggesting that overall funding for schools needs to increase — likely to the tune of $500 million or more.

A story from June of last year might explain why. The Chattanooga Times-Free Press reported on changes to rules governing school nutrition, including what can be sold in vending machines at school. Here’s an interesting note from that article:

Before the change to diet sodas, Soddy-Daisy High School’s vending machines would pull in nearly $40,000 a year — money that helped pay the monthly phone bill or purchase copier paper. Now that revenue is down to about $9,000 annually…

…In Hamilton County, the school district funds teaching positions, maintains building and pays utility bills. But for other costs of running a school — including copiers, phone bills and school supplies — the schools have their own budgets, which often don’t come close to covering annual expenses. That’s why money from school fees, vending machines and fundraisers is so important.

Yes, that’s right. Schools are counting on money from selling unhealthy snacks to teenagers to meet their budgets. Existing funds aren’t enough to pay the phone bill or provide adequate school supplies.

The problem with the BEP now goes beyond equity — the inputs simply aren’t adequate to meet the needs of Tennessee’s public schools.

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

 

Of Poverty and Teacher Pay

Recently, I wrote about the correlation between poverty, investment in schools, and student achievement test scores.

To summarize, wealthier districts with lower levels of poverty tended to both invest more in their schools AND get higher scores on achievement tests.

On the flip side, school districts with higher levels of poverty had less money to invest in schools and also saw lower student achievement scores.

Now, I’ve broken down the top and bottom 10 districts from those posts and I’m highlighting their average teacher salaries. Here’s the data:

TOP 10

District                                    2014 Average Teacher Salary

Franklin Special                   $52,080

Rogersville                             $44,906

Newport                                $42,962

Maryville                               $52,076

Oak Ridge                             $54,039

Williamson                           $48,471

Greeneville                          $45,386

Johnson City                       $52,222

Kingsport                             $51,425

Shelby County                   $56,180

Average for Top 10 Districts: $49,974

 

Bottom 10

District                                   2014 Average Salary

Lake Co.                                 $42,547

Union Co.                               $42,027

Madison Co.                          $45,282

Campbell Co.                        $41,563

Haywood Co.                        $43,318

Hardeman Co.                      $43,556

Hancock Co.                          $39,777

Memphis                               $56,000 (Shelby Co. number, as Memphis is now part of SCS)

Fayette Co.                            $41,565

Humboldt                             $42,072

Average for Bottom 10: $43,770

The salary disparity among the top 10 and bottom 10 districts in terms of academic performance is $6204 — or 14.2%.

These numbers roughly correlate with the districts most able to pay and with the greatest investment over the BEP.

It’s important to note that high pay alone does not represent high student achievement. It is also important to note, though, that those districts with the most consistent high performance on student achievement indicators also consistently pay more than districts that are lower-performing.

Wealthier districts invest more funds in their schools, invest more in their teachers, and see better overall outcomes than low-income districts. Teacher pay is a part of that overall equation.

MORE on Teacher Pay:

A 4% Raise for Tennessee Teachers?

Do Your Job, Get Less Money

Pay Teachers More … A Lot More

Why is TN 40th in Teacher Pay?

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

 

Killing K-12, Inc.

I wrote earlier about legislation filed this session that would extend the life of failing Tennessee Virtual Academy (TNVA) operator K-12, Inc.

Now, legislation has been filed that would effectively kill K-12, Inc. in Tennessee.

HB 1331/SB 1363 by Rep. Mike Stewart and Sen. Jeff Yarbro, both of Nashville, would have the effect of ending K-12, Inc.’s reign as an unchecked operator of a failing virtual school.

Here’s the basic language of the bill:

Local Education Agencies – As introduced, prohibits an LEA from contracting for services with a nonprofit or for-profit operator or manager of a virtual school if the contract requires the LEA to pay more per pupil for students in the virtual school than the operator or manager charges individual students for its services. – Amends TCA Title 49, Chapter 16, Part 2.

Union County is the LEA “home” of the Tennessee Virtual Academy, a school that has been among Tennessee’s lowest performing since its opening. K-12, Inc. operates the school and does so at an apparent profit.

Interestingly, in Wednesday’s Senate Education Committee meeting, Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga brought up virtual schools during a presentation on Pre-K that had nothing to do with virtual schools.

Gardenhire repeatedly asked if online instruction, such as that offered through a virtual school, would be the most appropriate option for a student diagnosed with Autism. When the representative from the Tennessee Department of Education said that it would depend on the quality of the virtual program, Gardenhire persisted, accusing the TN DOE of hedging on the issue.

Gardenhire asked if it was appropriate to close a virtual school that might be the only option for an Autistic child.

This line of questioning was interesting not just because it was irrelevant to the topic at hand. It also outlines a likely line of argument proponents of K-12, Inc. such as Gardenhire and Senate Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham will use in defending the school’s continued operation in the state.

To be clear, the legislation filed by Stewart and Yarbro will not close all virtual schools. Districts are free to operate their own virtual schools that comply with the legislative language. The virtual school operated by MNPS would qualify, for example. But, the bill would close the TNVA — an entity that has both drained taxpayer dollars and failed to serve students during its time in operation.

More on K-12, Inc. in Tennessee:

Cash vs. Kids?

K-12, Inc. faces Tennessee Trouble

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

A (Sort of) 4% Raise for Teachers

Governor Bill Haslam delivered his State of the State address tonight and outlined his budget and policy priorities for the coming year.

Among the proposals he outlined was $100 million to provide raises for Tennessee teachers. That equates to enough money to provide all teachers with a 4% raise.

But.

Haslam’s plan doesn’t increase teacher compensation by 4%. Instead, it provides the money to districts and encourages them to use it to reward the “best performers.” Districts could give all teachers 4% or they could provide 6% raises for some teachers and 2% raises for others. Or they could, as they did the last time an increase in salary money was provided, give a smaller raise to more instructional staff. In 2013-14, Haslam provided funds for a 1.5% raise but the average Tennessee teacher saw only .5% — or 1/3 of what was available. Districts used the remaining funds to cover other instructional costs.

Let me be clear: Haslam is to be commended for finding the resources to provide districts with these funds. $100 million for a teacher pay increase is the biggest pot of money for that purpose to be provided in many years.

Additionally, Haslam is dealing with revenue issues by proposing a modernization of the tax code. It’s plan that will introduce fairness and protect small, Tennessee-based businesses.

But it’s not a 4% raise for all teachers. Not yet. And Tennessee teachers are facing growing pay inequity and overall pay that lags the rest of the country.

Adding 4% to all teacher salaries, by, for example, increasing the BEP instructional component, could go a long way toward making Tennessee the fastest-improving state in the nation in teacher pay.

Haslam’s proposal is an important first step down that path. With some help from the General Assembly, Tennessee could make Haslam’s 2013 promise on pay a reality.

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

 

Is THAT even legal?

That’s the question the Tennessee Education Association is asking about the use of value-added data (TVAAS) in teacher evaluations.

The TEA, joining with the National Education Association, has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Tennessee’s use of TVAAS data in teacher evaluations.

According to a press release, TEA is specifically concerned about teachers who receive value-added scores based on students they have never taught. A significant number of Tennessee teachers currently receive a portion of their evaluation score based on TVAAS scores from school-wide or other data, meaning teachers are graded based on students they’ve never taught.

The release states:

More than half of the public school teachers in Tennessee receive evaluations that are based substantially on standardized test scores of students in subjects they do not teach. The lawsuit seeks relief for those teachers from the arbitrary and irrational practice of measuring their effectiveness with statistical estimates based on standardized test scores from students they do not teach and may have never met. 

While Governor Haslam is proposing that the legislature reduce the impact of TVAAS scores on teacher evaluations during the state’s transition to new standardized tests, his proposal does not address the issues of statistical validity with the transition. There is no way to determine how TCAP scores will interface with the scores from a test that has not even been developed yet. To hold teachers accountable for data generated in such an unreliable fashion is not only statistically suspect, it’s disrespectful.

Finally, it’s worth noting that value-added data doesn’t do much in terms of differentiating teacher performance. Of course, even if it did, holding teachers accountable for students they don’t teach defies logic.

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

 

Do Your Job, Get Less Money

Over at Bluff City Ed, there’s an article analyzing the new pay scale for teachers in Shelby County Schools. The scale is weighted toward TVAAS data and the evaluation rubric, which rates teachers on a scale of 1-5, 1 being significantly below expectations and 5 being significantly above. A teacher earning a 3 “meets expectations.” That means they are doing their job and doing it well.

Jon does a nice job of breaking down what it means to “meet expectations.” But, here’s the problem he’s highlighting:  Teachers who meet expectations in the new system would see a reduction in their annual step raise. That’s right: They do their job and meet the district’s performance expectations and yet earn LESS than they would with the current pay system.

Jon puts it this way:

But what the district outlines as meeting expectations exemplifies a hardworking and effective educator who is making real progress with their community, school and students. If a teacher is doing all these things, I believe that they should be in line for a yearly raise, not a cut. At its core, this new merit pay system devalues our teachers who fulfill their professional duties in every conceivable way.

I would add to this argument that to the extent that the new pay scale is based on a flawed TVAAS system which provides minimal differentiation among teachers, it is also flawed. Value-added data does not reveal much about the differences in teacher performance. As such, this data shouldn’t weigh heavily (or at all) in performance pay schemes.

Systems like Shelby County may be better served by a pay scale that starts teachers at a high salary and rewards them well over time. Increasing pay overall creates the type of economic incentives that both attract strong teachers and encourage school systems to develop talent and counsel out low performers.

Shelby County can certainly do more to attract and retain strong teaching talent. But the new pay scale is the wrong way to achieve that goal.

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