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


 

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


 

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


 

Much Ado About Nothing?

Representative Bill Dunn of Knoxville has proposed an amendment to the Tennessee Constitution that purports to remove the requirement that the General Assembly adequately fund public schools in the state.

However, an Attorney General’s opinion published on March 29 notes:

“… the proposed amendments to the public schools clause of the Tennessee Constitution do not substantively change that clause.”

The opinion was issued in response to a query from Rep. Dunn regarding the amendatory language and the state constitution’s equal protection clause. Here’s some relevant discussion from the opinion:

The amendatory language proposed in HJR 493, if adopted, would do nothing to change the fact that any legislation enacted in furtherance of the public schools clause must comply with the equal protection guarantees of the Tennessee Constitution.

But the opinion also says:

It is, therefore, redundant to add that the General Assembly “as the elected representatives of the people” shall provide for free public schools.  The General Assembly cannot provide for public schools in any capacity other than as representatives of the people.  Similarly, it is superfluous to add that the General Assembly shall provide for free public schools “in such manner as the General Assembly shall determine.”  It is already implicit in the current version of article XI, § 12, that the General Assembly determines the manner in which to provide for the required system of free public education.

If the new language is “redundant” and does not “substantively” change the Constitution, then it would not prevent local districts currently seeking relief due to alleged inadequate funding from finding that relief through the courts.

But, that’s not what Bill Dunn thinks.

In his advocacy for the amendment, he noted that courts in Kansas and Washington had used clauses similar to Tennessee’s Article XI, Section 12 to require those states to provide additional funding for their public schools.

When the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that schools there required additional funds to meet the state’s Constitutional mandate, the reply went like this:

“A political bullying tactic” and “an assault on Kansas families, taxpayers and elected appropriators” is how the president of the Senate, Susan Wagle, a Republican, responded to that ruling, which was based on requirements in the state Constitution. Mr. Brownback spoke darkly of an “activist Kansas Supreme Court.”

In his remarks, Dunn warned Tennessee lawmakers of future activist courts that may require the General Assembly to actually follow the Tennessee Constitution.

Of course, he also fudged the numbers and claimed that the Small Schools lawsuits and the resulting BEP did little to improve education outcomes in the state.

So, here’s the bottom line: Either the Attorney General is right, and the amendment proposed by HJR 493 does nothing OR, Rep. Bill Dunn is right, and the proposed amendment would prevent the Supreme Court from finding in favor of districts seeking to force the General Assembly to fund a system of free public schools.

Either way, the resolution should be rejected.

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

The Biggest Losers

Grace Tatter over at Chalkbeat has a breakdown of Governor Haslam’s BEP changes. While this year’s budget includes an influx of dollars, it also freezes BEP 2.0.

Tatter explains:

Though the governor’s plan nixes BEP 2.0, it permanently increases the state’s spending on English language learners (funding ELL teachers at a 1:20 student ratio and translators at a 1:200 student ratio), and special education students, technology and teacher pay, especially when it comes to teachers insurance. For years, the state only paid for teachers to have 10 months of health insurance. Last year, the General Assembly mandated that the state provide for 11 months of insurance. Haslam’s proposal this year finally gives teachers’ year-round insurance.

It’s important to note here that districts are already paying for year-round insurance for teachers, now they will receive some funding for it. The state funds teacher insurance at 45% of the projected cost for a district’s BEP-generated teaching positions. Until last year, it funded 45% of this cost for only 10 months, now it will shift to 12 months. It’s also worth noting that every single district in the state hires teachers beyond the BEP-generated number. Typically, around 12-15% more than what the BEP formula generates. Districts cover the full cost of salary and insurance for all teachers hired beyond the BEP number.

If districts only hired the BEP number of teachers, they could reduce local costs, but they’d also likely have some pretty unhappy parents on their hands. So, yes, the Governor’s proposed changes do direct additional funds to districts. But the changes do not address the underlying problem with the BEP. Doing so would cost another $250 to $300 million. That would be the cost of adjusting the ratios by 10-15% for teachers. That’s not to mention nurses, counselors, and other positions. And it doesn’t include capital funding.

The BEP Review Committee has been highlighting these deficiencies for years to no avail.

Additionally, Tatter mentions:

Another carryover from BEP 2.0 is the eventual elimination of a “cost differential factor,” known as CDF, that 16 districts in five counties receive to address a higher cost of living. Reducing the CDF would cut state spending by about $34.7 million. Almost half of that money would have gone to Shelby County Schools and the municipal districts in Shelby County. Other counties that would be impacted are Davidson, Anderson, Williamson and Sullivan.

While BEP 2.0 envisioned elimination of the CDF, it also envisioned the state covering 75% of teacher salaries for BEP-generated teachers. The Haslam changes makes the current 70% permanent.

Here are the districts losing money under the CDF elimination. The CDF is cut in half for the upcoming year and then completely eliminated in 2017-18.

Shelby
             30,873,136
Davidson
             17,570,727
Williamson
             11,073,924
Bartlett
                2,111,966
Collierville
                2,007,525
Germantown
                1,411,972
Franklin SSD
                1,260,978
Arlington
                1,169,503
Millington
                   672,030
Anderson
                   473,867
Oak Ridge
                   320,368
Lakeland
                   243,331
Sullivan
                      78,161
Clinton City
                      72,903
Kingsport
                      54,638
Bristol City
                      30,682
Total
69,425,713

It’s not clear whether these changes will impact the current lawsuits regarding funding adequacy. And the additional funds still don’t address the unfunded RTI mandate.

The ultimate impact of the changes will take a few years to determine. However, without significant structural changes, it is difficult to see this “new BEP” adequately meeting the needs of Tennessee’s schools.

More on the BEP:

Bill Dunn Wrong

They Noticed

Clay County and the Broken BEP

Why is TN 40th?

About BEP 2.0

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

Bill Dunn Wrong

Yesterday, in his advocacy for HJR 493, legislation that would remove the Tennessee Constitution’s requirement that the General Assembly adequately fund schools, State Representative Bill Dunn suggested that increasing funding for schools across the state actually does not improve student outcomes. He cited the initial BEP investment, started in 1992 and said that from beginning to end, the program actually resulted in lower student achievement numbers.

This would be a great way to prove Dunn’s case that the General Assembly need not provide additional funds to schools in order to provide an adequate education.

It’s also not true.

Dunn cited ACT scores from the start of the BEP until 1998 and suggested they’d gone down slightly. What he failed to mention is that between 1995 and 1998, the number of students taking the ACT increased by 25%. That would seem to indicate that Rep. Kevin Dunlap was correct when he suggested that new BEP funds created new opportunities for students in rural districts. As the State of Tennessee noted in the 1998 State Report Card:

The ACT is one of three tests approved by the State Board of Education to fulfill the requirement in state law that all students take an exit exam to receive a full high school diploma. The total number of Tennessee graduates taking the ACT rose 25% during the first three years of this new requirement: from 32,628 in 1995 to 40,782 in 1998. Included among those tested were 14,284 who had not completed a college preparatory course of study. Even with these dramatic increases in the number and percentage of students tested, Tennessee’s students were able to narrow the gap between the state and national composite scores in 1998.

So, more students than ever were taking the ACT and by 1998, the state was turning around an initial decline in scores. That’s a different story than the one Bill Dunn told.

Another way to look at the data is to see what happened on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) during the early BEP years. While reading scores from 1992 are not readily available, math scores are. Here’s the comparison:

4th Grade Math

1992         211

2000        220

8th Grade Math

1992        259

2000       263

These results show statistically significant improvements in math scores over the same time period the General Assembly was significantly improving investment in public schools. That is, what Bill Dunn said yesterday was just plain wrong.

Finally, it’s worth examining the ACT score differences among districts during the early BEP years. An examination of data beginning in 1991 (the year before BEP) and ending in 2001 (so as to provide 10 years of comparable data) indicates that the top scoring districts in the state on the ACT were also among the top spending districts. In fact, over those years, while not technically statistically significant, it can be said with 92% confidence that the difference in ACT scores among the highest- and lowest-performing districts is explained by per pupil expenditures. That is, the higher the spending, the more likely the district is to be among the state’s top performers on the ACT.

Additionally, during this same ten year time period, the gap between the highest and lowest scores among districts is clearly explained by the gap in per pupil expenditures among those districts. You spend more, you get better results. The impetus for all this spending was the new BEP formula that sent more money to all school systems. Those districts already at the top were most able to take advantage and boost ACT scores while those at the bottom saw an increase in the number of students taking the ACT, resulting in the statewide slight ACT decline Dunn references.

Investing in schools matters. Our state’s constitution requires the General Assembly to provide a system of free public schools, including providing adequate funding for those schools. Bill Dunn doesn’t think spending levels matter. The data suggests otherwise.

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