What Do the Facts Say?

The facts tells us that school vouchers don’t work — they are expensive and can actually have a negative impact on student achievement.

But, that didn’t matter last night as a subcommittee of lawmakers advanced a voucher bill proponents claim will only impact a small group of students.

Grace Tatter at Chalkbeat reports:

… Tennessee lawmakers insisted Tuesday that the state can succeed where others have failed, and easily advanced a proposal that would start a five-year pilot program in Memphis.

The voice vote came after members of a House education subcommittee heard voucher opponents cite recent research showing that vouchers in other states have led to worse academic outcomes for students. But again and again, lawmakers said that Tennessee could be different.

Perennial voucher advocate John DeBerry of Memphis said that voucher opponents shouldn’t worry — the program will be small, and schools won’t lose that much money.

Tatter notes that he:

… projected that few students would actually opt to participate, meaning public schools would not lose as much funding as its leaders fear. “A lot of folks are not going to put in the time, the effort,” DeBerry said, “but for the handful of parents that do, why not give them that right?”

Let’s examine that a little more closely. DeBerry is acknowledging that public schools will lose money under the plan he supports. He’s willing to take money from a school system that finally appears to be turning around in order to help what he describes as a small group of students. Oh, and the evidence says the vouchers won’t actually help those students and may well harm them.

Now, let’s compare DeBerry’s remarks to what former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels said when he started a voucher program in his state:

Back in 2011, Daniels spoke to a conservative think tank a few months after he signed the program into law. At that speech, he said he didn’t expect this to become a big problem.

“It is not likely to be a very large phenomenon in Indiana,” he said “I think it will be exercised by a meaningful but not an enormous number of our students.”

There are other similarities between Indiana’s voucher experience and the Tennessee proposal. Back in 2011, the program in Indiana was capped at 7500 students. The proposal advanced last night would initially provide vouchers for up to 5000 students.

That Indiana program was expanded rapidly, and now it serves more than 30,000 students.

If you think lawmakers won’t move to quickly expand vouchers in Tennessee once the door is opened, you are wrong. At the end of the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers narrowly approved an IEA voucher bill. This bill was targeted at students with a specific list of special needs. Now, Senator Dolores Gresham is advancing legislation that would expand that program to include students who have never attended a public school. The program is in the first year of operation, there’s no data on student results, and yet voucher proponents are already seeking to expand.

Last night, facts didn’t matter. A majority on subcommittee ignored research and suggested Tennessee could be different. The track record in other states tells a different story.

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


 

 

 

The Voucher School District

This week, Education Committees in the House and Senate will consider a number of bills creating school vouchers in Tennessee. Proponents are pushing the bills even as growing evidence suggests vouchers fail kids.

So, what would happen if Tennessee started a voucher program, even a small-scale one, this year?

One state with a record on this is Indiana. Vouchers started there back in 2011 in a relatively small program with fairly strict eligibility requirements. At the time the vouchers were created, then-Governor Mitch Daniels said:

Back in 2011, Daniels spoke to a conservative think tank a few months after he signed the program into law. At that speech, he said he didn’t expect this to become a big problem.

“It is not likely to be a very large phenomenon in Indiana,” he said “I think it will be exercised by a meaningful but not an enormous number of our students.”

Initially, vouchers were only to serve some 7500 students.

Fast forward five years, and the program has expanded exponentially, serving more than 30,000 students — 3 percent of the state’s student population.

The qualifications have changed, too. Now, a student doesn’t even have to have attended a public school to qualify for a voucher. Reports suggest this provision means Indiana is spending some $54 million supporting private schools — money that would not have been spent without the voucher program:

A report on the program released by the Department of Education shows the program costs $54 million.

“If the idea behind a voucher program is we’re going to have the money follow the student, if the student didn’t start in a public school, the money isn’t following them from a public school, it’s just appearing from another budget,” [Researcher Molly] Stewart said. “And we’re not exactly sure where that’s coming from.”

Vouchers, then, create $54 million in new expenditures — an education funding deficit — in Indiana.

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To put that state’s program growth into perspective, 3 percent of Tennessee’s student population would be 29,936. The Tennessee voucher district would be the 8th largest district in the state, just larger than Sumner County and slightly smaller than Montgomery County. And, if our experience is at all like Indiana’s, about half of those students will never have attended a public school.

Nearly 15,000 students who never attended public school suddenly receiving vouchers would mean a state cost of $98 million. That’s $98 million in new money. Of course, those funds would either be new money (which is not currently contemplated) or would take from the state’s BEP allocations in the districts where the students receive the vouchers.

Let’s look at Davidson County as an example. If three percent of the student population there took vouchers, and half of those were students who had never attended a public school, the loss to the district would be a minimum of $8.4 million.

This means local governments would be stuck picking up the tab to support private schools. The alternative would be a dedicated state fund to support the voucher school district. That’s a total cost of around $200 million, half of that new money.

Should taxpayers be asked to invest $100 million in a program that gets negative results? Studies in Indiana, Ohio, and Louisiana all indicate that vouchers have a negative impact on student academic outcomes.

Kevin Carey noted recently that even a study by the Fordham Institute showed negative results for vouchers:

In June, a third voucher study was released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank and proponent of school choice. The study, which was financed by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation, focused on a large voucher program in Ohio. “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools,” the researchers found. Once again, results were worse in math.

This week, we may hear that any new voucher program will start small and will only serve a fraction of our state’s students. Even if that’s true, the cost to taxpayers at the state and local level will be significant. Then, there’s the fact that studies are emerging showing vouchers just don’t work. Why spend more to get less?

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


 

Voucher Wars

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Every single year, in a legislature that meets in Nashville, one issue rises from the ashes again and again. That issue: Vouchers.

This year, there are multiple school voucher proposals and just about all of them will be up for consideration in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday.

Here’s a rundown of the bills and what they would do:

SB161/HB126 – Senator Brian Kelsey/Rep. Harry Brooks

This bill would create a pilot voucher program in Shelby County. Voucher advocates have been pushing some version of a statewide voucher program for the past four years. So far, they haven’t been successful. Now, they are trying to limit the plan to Shelby County to start in hopes they can garner additional votes.

SB380/HB336 — Sen. Todd Gardenhire/Rep. Bill Dunn

This is the voucher bill that has failed the past four years. It would allow students from districts with at least one “priority school” to apply for a voucher.

SB573/HB715 — Sen. Dolores Gresham/Rep. Debra Moody

This bill would expand eligibility to the failing IEA voucher program. Despite claims of widespread demand for this program, so far, only 39 students have taken these vouchers.

SB987/HB1109 — Sen. Kelsey/Rep. John DeBerry

This bill would also change (expand) eligibility for the IEA vouchers. It would allow students who had not previously attended public schools to obtain this voucher.

SB395/HB460 – Gresham/Rep. Roger Kane

This is an Education Savings Account (ESA) bill with no eligibility restrictions. This bill would allow the parents of any student to convert their BEP funding into a debit card or have the money wired into a checking account to use for approved education expenses.

Here’s the deal: Vouchers don’t work. The recent evidence is clear. Here’s what I wrote last week after reading recent research on the issue:

Some state policymakers (State Rep. Bill Dunn, State Senator Brian Kelsey, Governor Bill Haslam) are asking taxpayers to invest in a voucher scheme. These advocates suggest that a voucher program can provide a path to better outcomes for students. However, the results of statewide programs in three different studies indicate just the opposite: Vouchers offer a path to dismal achievement.

Tennessee lawmakers should take a look at the evidence. Vouchers just don’t work. In fact, they harm the very students voucher advocates claim to want to help. Instead of funding voucher schemes we know don’t get results, the state should focus on funding existing programs that will enhance education for all students.

Despite overwhelming evidence that vouchers fail, expect the voucher wars to wage just as hot this session — and next week.

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


 

Mike Stein on the Teachers’ Bill of Rights

Coffee County teacher Mike Stein offers his thoughts on the Teachers’ Bill of Rights (SB14/HB1074) being sponsored at the General Assembly by Mark Green of Clarksville and Jay Reedy of Erin.

Here’s some of what he has to say:

In my view, the most impactful elements of the Teachers’ Bill of Rights are the last four items. Teachers have been saying for decades that we shouldn’t be expected to purchase our own school supplies. No other profession does that. Additionally, it makes much-needed changes to the evaluation system. It is difficult, if not impossible, to argue against the notion that we should be evaluated by other educators with the same expertise. While good teaching is good teaching, there are content-specific strategies that only experts in that subject would truly be able to appreciate fully. Both the Coffee County Education Association and the Tennessee Education Association support this bill.

And here are those four items he references:

This bill further provides that an educator is not: (1) Required to spend the educator’s personal money to appropriately equip a classroom; (2) Evaluated by professionals, under the teacher evaluation advisory committee, without the same subject matter expertise as the educator; (3) Evaluated based on the performance of students whom the educator has never taught; or (4) Relocated to a different school based solely on test scores from state mandated assessments.

The legislation would change the teacher evaluation system by effectively eliminating TVAAS scores from the evaluations of teachers in non-tested subjects — those scores may be replaced by portfolios, an idea the state has rolled out but not funded. Additionally, identifying subject matter specific evaluators could prove difficult, but would likely provide stronger, more relevant evaluations.

Currently, teachers aren’t required to spend their own money on classrooms, but many teachers do because schools too often lack the resources to meet the needs of students. It’s good to see Senator Green and Rep. Reedy drawing attention to the important issue of classroom resources.

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


 

Russo on Tennessee’s Alternative Graduation Facts

Much has been made about a state report seeming to indicate that one third of Tennessee’s high school graduates finished school without meeting state minimum requirements.

The initial release of the report caused alarm, of course. Then, the state walked back the numbers after admitting a data error.

Alexander Russo takes a look at the report and the surrounding news coverage and comes to this conclusion:

The state issued  a bad number without carefully considering its flaws or making them clear to reporters and board members, then belatedly realized its mistake and walked the initial figure back. But news outlets contributed to the problem by rushing to report the initial figure without questioning just how iffy it might be, unintentionally delivering inaccurate information to the public. The end result has been widespread confusion that will take a long time to clear up – if it ever is.

While Russo suggests media outlets should have done a better job of both raising questions and seeking clarifying information, he notes the state bears the brunt of the responsibility:

To be clear, the state department should have checked with the districts before presenting this information to the board and to the public. The state should also have anticipated that the graduation rate number would attract enormous amounts of attention and include additional warnings and caveats about the preliminary nature of the number. The primary responsibility was theirs.

The Tennessee Education Association pointed to the state’s responsibility to release accurate data and noted that the initial claims may have helped advance the arguments of school privatization advocates.

From a TEA press release:

Organizations backing privatization schemes like private school vouchers, rapid charter expansion and high-stakes testing, need people to believe that public schools are failing. Undermining confidence in public schools is an important step to build support for radical and dangerous proposals to destroy public education.

“As a state that consistently ranks at the bottom in student investment, we are consistently in the top 10 for graduation rate because of the commitment of Tennessee educators. Our students and teachers already often have the odds stacked against them, they don’t need damaging misinformation piling anything else on,” [TEA Executive Director] Crowder said.

To be sure, both the initial data release and the subsequent reporting created a sense of alarm in the state’s education policy community. Taking just a few extra steps could have prevented what turned into a rather messy scene.

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


 

 

The Verdict on Vouchers

As the Tennessee General Assembly considers vouchers as part of the education agenda this year, it is important to look at the evidence. That is, do vouchers work? Do voucher programs lead to improved student outcomes. Until now, most research has been mixed, with some suggesting modest gains for students, while some studies showed no significant improvement. These studies focused on older, typically smaller programs.

Now, however, there is data on some statewide voucher efforts. That data suggests, quite strongly, that vouchers don’t work. In fact, the studies indicate vouchers actually cause student achievement to decline.

Kevin Carey writes in the New York Times:

The first results came in late 2015. Researchers examined an Indiana voucher program that had quickly grown to serve tens of thousands of students under Mike Pence, then the state’s governor. “In mathematics,” they found, “voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement.” They also saw no improvement in reading.

The next results came a few months later, in February, when researchers published a major study of Louisiana’s voucher program. Students in the program were predominantly black and from low-income families, and they came from public schools that had received poor ratings from the state department of education, based on test scores. For private schools receiving more applicants than they could enroll, the law required that they admit students via lottery, which allowed the researchers to compare lottery winners with those who stayed in public school.

They found large negative results in both reading and math. Public elementary school students who started at the 50th percentile in math and then used a voucher to transfer to a private school dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year. Results were somewhat better in the second year, but were still well below the starting point.

In June, a third voucher study was released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank and proponent of school choice. The study, which was financed by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation, focused on a large voucher program in Ohio. “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools,” the researchers found. Once again, results were worse in math.

Voucher studies of statewide programs in Ohio, Louisiana, and Indiana all suggest that not only do vouchers not improve student achievement, they in fact cause student performance to decline.

Some state policymakers (State Rep. Bill Dunn, State Senator Brian Kelsey, Governor Bill Haslam) are asking taxpayers to invest in a voucher scheme. These advocates suggest that a voucher program can provide a path to better outcomes for students. However, the results of statewide programs in three different studies indicate just the opposite: Vouchers offer a path to dismal achievement.

Tennessee lawmakers should take a look at the evidence. Vouchers just don’t work. In fact, they harm the very students voucher advocates claim to want to help. Instead of funding voucher schemes we know don’t get results, the state should focus on funding existing programs that will enhance education for all students.

MORE on vouchers:

Vouchers the wrong choice for Tennessee

What Tennessee Can Learn from Louisiana on Vouchers

Fitzhugh on Vouchers

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


 

McQueen’s Non-Response to Intervention

State Representative Joe Pitts of Clarksville has filed a bill (HB501) that would require the state to include funding for three Response to Intervention and Instruction positions for each public school in the BEP formula.

The idea is a sensible one. The state has mandated RTI2 without funding for years now, with a devastating impact on both budgets and services offered. Districts can use the “flexibility” offered by the state to choose which students get services and also use state instructional funds to pay for new RTI teachers, often meaning existing teachers receive smaller salary increases, if any are received at all.

The RTI staffing shortfall is a perfect example of why the BEP formula is inadequate. In fact, the formula is some $400 million short of what current staffing levels suggest is needed.

So, of course, in a year with a nearly $1 billion budget surplus, the state is moving to address the RTI issue as Pitts has suggested, right? Wrong!

Asked in a House education committee hearing today about new funds for RTI, Commissioner Candice McQueen said “not this year.” She did mention that she considered the Read to be Ready initiative (which receives $4.5 million in new funding this year) to be a part of RTI. Other than that, though, there’s no planned money to fund an ongoing, unfunded state mandate.

Here’s the thing: The bill sponsored by Pitts creates three new BEP-funded positions for each public school in the state. The cost of that as a portion of the BEP instructional component is $167 million. The state pays 70% of $44,000 for each instructional position funded through the BEP.

If Pitts’ legislation were adopted, districts would receive a dedicated funding stream for RTI positions. This would allow them to use their base instructional funding to improve the salaries of their existing teachers.

The additional funds would also allow for a more robust implementation of RTI. Districts may be able to expand the number of students receiving services or at least, provide better RTI service to the students in the program.

The Comptroller has identified a funding shortfall in our state’s schools. The issue is related to staffing ratios and state funding. Joe Pitts has a solution that would help address this concern. That solution would cost about 17 percent of the total current budget surplus. Yes, it’s an ongoing commitment, but it’s an expense recent budget cycles indicate our state can absorb.

We have a clearly identified problem. We have a simple, relatively affordable solution. And we have a Commissioner of Education who says, “not this year.”

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


 

2017 Education Issues Outlook

The 2017 session of the Tennessee General Assembly is underway and as always, education is a hot issue on the Hill. The bill filing deadline was yesterday and some familiar issues are back again. Namely, vouchers.

While the voucher fight may be the biggest education showdown this session, issues ranging from the scope of the state’s Achievement School District to a “Teacher Bill of Rights” and of course, funding, will also be debated.

Here’s a rundown of the big issues for this session:

Vouchers

Senator Brian Kelsey of Shelby County is pushing a voucher plan that is essentially a pilot program that would apply to Shelby County only. Voucher advocates have failed to gain passage of a plan with statewide application over the past four legislative sessions. The idea behind this plan seems to be to limit it to Shelby County in order to mitigate opposition from lawmakers who fear a voucher scheme may negatively impact school systems in their own districts.

In addition to Kelsey’s limited plan, Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville is back with the “traditional” voucher bill he’s run year after year. This plan has essentially the same requirements as Kelsey’s plan, but would be available to students across the state. It’s not clear which of these two plans has the best chance of passage. I suspect both will be set in motion, and as time wears on, one will emerge as most likely to be adopted. Voucher advocates are likely emboldened by the election of Donald Trump and the subsequent appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education.

Of course, Tennessee already has one type of voucher. The legislature adopted an Individual Education Account voucher program designed for students with special needs back in 2015. That proposal goes into effect this year. Chalkbeat reported that only 130 families applied. That’s pretty low, considering some 20,000 students meet the eligibility requirements.

Achievement School District

Two years ago, I wrote about how the ASD’s mission creep was hampering any potential effectiveness it might have. Now, it seems that even the ASD’s leadership agrees that pulling back and refocusing is necessary. Grace Tatter of Chalkbeat reports:

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would stop the Achievement School District from starting new charter schools, rather than just overhauling existing schools that are struggling.

Rep. David Hawk of Greeneville filed the bill last week at the request of the State Department of Education. In addition to curbing new starts, the legislation proposes changing the rules so that the ASD no longer can take over struggling schools unilaterally. Instead, the state would give local districts time and resources to turn around their lowest-performing schools.

Tatter notes that the Tennessee Department of Education and the ASD’s leadership support the bill. This is likely welcome news for those who have raised concerns over the ASD’s performance and approach.

Teacher Bill of Rights

Senator Mark Green of Clarksville has introduced what he’s calling a “Teacher Bill of Rights.” The bill outlines what Green sees as some basic protections for teachers. If adopted, his proposal would have the effect of changing the way the state evaluates teachers. Among the rights enumerated in SB 14 is the right to “be evaluated by a professional with the same subject matter expertise,” and the right to “be evaluated based only on students a teacher has taught.”

While both of these may seem like common sense, they are not current practice in Tennessee’s public schools. Many teachers are evaluated by building leaders and others who lack subject matter expertise. Further, teachers who do not generate their own student growth scores (those who don’t teach in tested subjects) are evaluated in part on school-wide scores or other metrics of student performance — meaning they receive an evaluation score based in part on students they’ve never taught.

Green’s Teacher Bill of Rights will almost certainly face opposition from the Department of Education.

Funding

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Governor Bill Haslam is proposing spending over $200 million in new money on schools. Around $60 million of that is for BEP growth. $100 million will provide districts with funds for teacher compensation. And, there’s $22 million for English Language Learners as well as $15 million for Career and Technical Education.

These are all good things and important investments for our schools. In fact, the BEP Review Committee — the state body tasked with reviewing school funding and evaluating the formula’s effectiveness, identified teacher pay and funds for English Language Learners as top priorities.

Here’s the full list of priorities identified by the BEP Review Committee for this year:

1. Sustained commitment to teacher compensation

2. English Language Learner funding (to bring ratios closer to the level called for in the BEP Enhancement Act of 2016)

3. Funding the number of guidance counselors at a level closer to national best practices

4. Funding Response to Instruction and Intervention positions

5. Sustained technology funding

Haslam’s budget proposal makes an effort to address 1 and 2. However, there’s no additional money to improve the guidance counselor ratio, no funds for the unfunded mandate of RTI and no additional money for technology.

Oh, and then there’s the persistent under-funding of schools as a result of a BEP formula that no longer works. In fact, the Comptroller’s Office says we are under-funding schools by at least $400 million. Haslam’s budget does not address the funding ratios that create this inadequacy.

Then, of course, improving the ratios does nothing on its own to achieve a long-standing BEP Review Committee goal: Providing districts with teacher compensation that more closely matches the actual cost of hiring a teacher. The projected cost of this, according to the 2014 BEP Review Committee Report, is around $500 million.

The good news is we have the money available to begin addressing the ratio deficit. The General Assembly could redirect some of our state’s surplus dollars toward improving the BEP ratios and start eating into that $400 million deficit. Doing so would return money to the taxpayers by way of investment in their local schools. It would also help County Commissions avoid raising property taxes.

Stay tuned as the bills start moving next week and beyond. It’s expected this session could last into May, and education will be a flash point throughout over these next few months.

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


 

Corker Statement on DeVos

Despite an outpouring of opposition from parents, teachers, and others across the state, Senator Bob Corker has indicated he will support Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education.

Here’s his statement:

“For decades, Betsy DeVos has passionately and effectively advocated for all children – regardless of gender, race or socioeconomic status – to have access to a quality education,” Corker said in a statement released by his office.

“She believes in empowering parents and has committed to working with states and local school districts. I have known Betsy for many years and am confident that she will do a great job as secretary of education.”

Corker’s statement comes as DeVos’s nomination appears to be in peril, with 50 Senators indicating that will vote against her.

More on DeVos

Tennessee PTA Opposes DeVos

Knox County parents, teachers speak out on DeVos

A Letter of Reservation

A Voucher Vulture at the DOE

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


 

Knox County Approves Resolution Opposing A-F School Grading System

The Knox County School Board tonight approved a resolution urging the state to overturn the A-F school grading system set to go into effect this year.

Knox County joins a growing resistance to the model being proposed by the Tennessee Department of Education.

Here’s the resolution the Knox County School Board adopted:

 

WHEREAS, the Knox County Board of Education is responsible for providing a local system of public education; and

WHEREAS, the State of Tennessee, by March 2016 legislative approval and signature of Governor Bill Haslam of House Bill 155 and Senate Bill 300, has directed the Tennessee Department of Education to develop a grading system for assigning letter grades A through F on the state report cards for Tennessee schools, implementation of which will begin with the 2017-18 school year; and

WHEREAS, after operating under federally-mandated No Child Left Behind guidelines, Tennessee received a waiver of NCLB standards and adopted Race To The Top guidelines, which were subsequently replaced by the new federally-mandated Every Student Succeeds Act in an effort to close achievement gaps for economically disadvantaged students; and

WHEREAS, a rating system utilizing A through F grades for schools, and districts creates a false impression about students, ignores the unique strengths of each school, and unfairly reduces each student’s worth to the school’s assigned grade; and

WHEREAS, at least 16 states have implemented a similar rating system utilizing A through F grades for schools and districts and, to date, there is no definitive research that suggests these ratings have improved student or school performance; and

WHEREAS, the 2016-17 school year is already set to be a transition year for the Tennessee Department of Education to seek input for developing an accountability system for federally mandated ESSA requirements, it is now additionally tasked with developing a letter grading system at the same time;

WHEREAS, we embrace meaningful accountability that informs students, parents, and teachers about the learning needs of each student and each school; and

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED BY THE KNOX COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION AS FOLLOWS: The Knox County Board of Education hereby urges the Tennessee General Assembly to repeal legislation reducing schools to a single letter grade designation and, instead, in the best interest of students and schools, allow schools to publish multiple measures alongside any summative designation, as outlined in the Every Student Succeeds Act Final Regulations, which were not available at the time this legislation was passed. (ESSA, Final Regulations, pg. 101).

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that this new system should reduce the use of high-stakes, standardized tests, encompass multiple assessments, reflect greater validity, and, more accurately reflect what students know and can do in terms of the rigorous standards.

 

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