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

Trust Us and Stop Complaining

That seems to be the over-arching message from the Tennessee General Assembly as they continue to advance legislation designed to prevent those who disagree with the current “ed reform” agenda from having a strong voice.

The latest example is the so-called Educator Protection Act (HB645/SB604) designed to offer liability insurance to teachers at state expense. But, as Jon Alfuth notes over at Bluff City Ed, it seems the legislation has other implications:

 I can only speculate, but this looks like a quiet effort to continue the drive towards making the TEA irrelevant in the state. Pass this and one of the big draws of union membership, legal protection in the case of a law suit, suddenly becomes less important. The TEA does contend that teachers would still have to rely on them for legal fees according to the link cited above, but teachers wouldn’t need the liability coverage under the TEA any more as the state would provide it. It just removes one additional reason for teachers to join the union.

Weakening TEA and also Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET) weakens the organized opposition to much of what passes as education reform – evaluations based on suspect statistical methods and vouchers, as just two examples.

This effort comes after just last week, an amendment was added to the state budget that was designed to limit local school boards in their efforts to seek more funding from the state.

The General Assembly seems to be sending a clear message to those who disagree with prevailing education policy: Trust us, and stop complaining.

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

 

A Call for Accountability

Tonight’s MNPS Board meeting will include a call for accountability and transparency in the operation and oversight of the district’s charter schools. The call comes just over a week after the Metro Nashville Education Association (MNEA) released poll results they said indicate voters in Tennessee want charter reforms, especially around the issues of financial accountability and operational transparency.

 

In fact, MNEA Vice President Erick Huth is among those slated to speak. Huth’s remarks are expected to be on the Annenberg Institute’s recommendations for effective oversight of charter schools. Some may recall that prior to his selection as Director of Schools for MNPS, Dr. Jesse Register worked at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, which is located at Brown University.

 

The Annenberg standards include:

  • Traditional school districts and charter schools should collaborate to ensure a coordinated approach that serves all children
  • School governance should be representative and transparent
  • Charter schools should ensure equal access to interested students and prohibit practices that discourage enrollment or disproportionately push-out enrolled students
  • Charter school discipline policy should be fair and transparent
  • All students deserve equitable and adequate school facilities.  Districts and charter schools should collaborate to ensure facility arrangements do not disadvantage students in either sector
  • Online charter schools should be better regulated for quality, transparency and the protection of student data
  • Monitoring and oversight of charter schools are critical to protect the public interest; they should be strong and fully state funded

Also speaking on the issue of accountability and transparency is MNEA President Stephen Henry.

In addition to the poll results, two different recent reports indicate that unabated growth of charter schools could carry significant costs to MNPS.

First, a report by MGT of America noted:

“… it is clear that charter schools impose a cost on MNPS – both directly and indirectly.  It is also clear … that the loss of operating funds caused by the transfer of revenue cannot likely be made up through a reduction in capital or facility costs.  Therefore, approving future charter schools does potentially meet the “bar” described in  Tennessee Code Annotated 49-13-108(b) which encourages local boards of education to consider fiscal impact in determining whether new charter schools may be “contrary to the best interest of the pupils, school district or community.”

More recently, the Operational and Performance Audit of MNPS found:

“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.”

Additionally, the Center for Popular Democracy issued a report noting that due to their susceptibility to fraud, charter schools warrant specific oversight.

It’s not clear whether the MNPS Board will move to adopt the Annenberg standards. At this point, it appears to be a discussion item among concerned citizens and community groups who are bringing their request to the Board.

Tonight’s meeting is at 5:00 PM at the Central Office on Bransford Avenue.

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

Money Talks

Funny how a little thing like a BEP lawsuit asking for more than $600 million can cause Governor Haslam to propose adding a little more money to the education pot.

Yes, seven Tennessee school districts are suing over the inadequacy of the state’s education funding. And, just one week after the suit was filed, Governor Haslam suddenly “found” some $30 million to invest in funding an additional month of teacher health insurance. The state currently pays 45% of 10 months of teacher insurance, but teachers are insured for a full 12 months.

The districts are suing based on numbers provided by the BEP Review Committee, the state group tasked with annually reviewing the BEP formula and making recommendations for improvements.

The idea is that the BEP Review Committee will highlight issues that need attention and help the state avoid additional funding lawsuits.

The reality is that the BEP Review Committee reports go ignored by the legislature and most Governors until a lawsuit is filed. Twice since the original “Small Schools” suit that initially brought about the BEP the state has been sued over funding equity. Twice, the state has lost those equity lawsuits.

Governor Haslam’s administration has said that education funding is now a priority — but that wasn’t the case last year and he didn’t seem to be making any real moves this year until a lawsuit was filed.

Only seven districts are party to the current suit while others continue to debate joining in.

In Metro Nashville, some on the Board have openly suggested a more collaborative approach. I would suggest that after giving Bill Haslam four years to get serious about school funding, the time for collaboration is over. Haslam has created a duplicative BEP Task Force that has the stated goal of rearranging the slices of a pie that’s too small.

When asked about the latest threat of a suit before it became a reality, Haslam said he was committed to doing “something” about school funding, but he just didn’t know what yet.

This $30 million is a tiny olive branch, but far from a serious move toward funding schools properly. And, with legislators like House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick saying Tennessee’s schools are currently properly funded, it’s unclear how much support truly improving the funding situation will have. In fact, at today’s legislative hearing on school vouchers, McCormick took a swipe at school boards, suggesting they should focus on educating kids instead of filing lawsuits.

I would also note that for those on the MNPS Board who want to collaborate with Haslam that he has been supportive of voucher schemes that will devastate public schools, especially MNPS. Haslam’s support of dangerous voucher schemes and lack of any serious effort to improve school funding combined with his legislative leaders taking verbal swipes at school boards means he’s deserving of a serious confrontation — not a collaborative spirit.

You don’t wait around for someone who has never shown an interest in making an effort to see if they suddenly will do something good. You don’t take the coin they toss in the way of some insurance money as evidence they are finally serious about giving you what you deserve.

The bottom line is this: The BEP is broken. 

Bill Haslam has made no meaningful effort to fix it. Until a lawsuit was filed, his administration wasn’t even willing to admit there was a problem with funding for teacher insurance.

Tennessee school districts, teachers, and parents should start working together to insist that the legislature and the Governor develop serious, long-term funding solutions for our state’s schools. If the BEP problem is not fixed by legislative action, the legislature and Governor may be forced to fix it by the courts. It’s long past time for the serious work of making the BEP work for all of Tennessee.

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

Validating the Invalid?

The Tennessee House of Representatives passed legislation today (HB 108) that makes changes to current practice in teacher evaluation as Tennessee transitions to its new testing regime, TNReady.

The changes adjust the percentage of a teacher’s evaluation that is dependent on TVAAS scores to 10% next year, 20% the following year, and back to the current 35% by the 2017-18 academic year.

This plan is designed to allow for a transition period to the new TNReady tests which will include constructed-response questions and be aligned to the so-called Tennessee standards which match up with the Common Core State Standards.

Here’s the problem: There is no statistically valid way to predict expected growth on a new test based on the historic results of TCAP. First, the new test has (supposedly) not been fully designed. Second, the test is in a different format. It’s both computer-based and it contains constructed-response questions. That is, students must write-out answers and/or demonstrate their work.

Since Tennessee has never had a test like this, it’s impossible to predict growth at all. Not even with 10% confidence. Not with any confidence. It is the textbook definition of comparing apples to oranges.

Clearly, legislators feel like at the very least, this is an improvement. A reasonable accommodation to teachers as our state makes a transition.

But, how is using 10% of an invalid number a good thing? Should any part of a teacher’s evaluation be made up of a number that reveals nothing at all about that teacher’s performance?

While value-added data alone is a relatively poor predictor of teacher performance, the value-added estimate used next year is especially poor because it is not at all valid.

But, don’t just take my word for it. Researchers studying the validity of value-added measures asked whether value-added gave different results depending on the type of question asked. Particularly relevant now because Tennessee is shifting to a new test with different types of questions.

Here’s what Lockwood and McCaffrey (2007) had to say in the Journal of Educational Measurement:

We find that the variation in estimated effects resulting from the different mathematics achievement measures is large relative to variation resulting from choices about model specification, and that the variation within teachers across achievement measures is larger than the variation across teachers. These results suggest that conclusions about individual teachers’ performance based on value-added models can be sensitive to the ways in which student achievement is measured.
These findings align with similar findings by Martineau (2006) and Schmidt et al (2005)
You get different results depending on the type of question you’re measuring.

The researchers tested various VAM models (including the type used in TVAAS) and found that teacher effect estimates changed significantly based on both what was being measured AND how it was measured. 

And they concluded:

Our results provide a clear example that caution is needed when interpreting estimated teacher effects because there is the potential for teacher performance to depend on the skills that are measured by the achievement tests.

If you measure different skills, you get different results. That decreases (or eliminates) the reliability of those results. TNReady is measuring different skills in a different format than TCAP. It’s BOTH a different type of test AND a test on different standards. Any value-added comparison between the two tests is statistically suspect, at best. In the first year, such a comparison is invalid and unreliable. As more years of data become available, it may be possible to make some correlation between past TCAP results and TNReady scores.

Or, if the state is determined to use growth scores (and wants to use them with accuracy), they will wait several years and build completely new growth models based on TNReady alone. At least three years of data would be needed in order to build such a model.

It seems likely that the Senate will follow the House’s lead on Monday and overwhelmingly support the proposed evaluation changes. But in doing so, they should be asking themselves if it’s really ok to base any part of a teacher’s evaluation on numbers that reliably predict nothing.

More on Value-Added:

Real World Harms of Value-Added Data

Struggles with Value-Added Data

 

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.

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