Voucher Expansion

Opponents of Governor Bill Lee’s school voucher scheme have long argued that once the program starts, it will expand significantly and take up ever larger chunks of state education funding. Turns out, the plan hasn’t even been enacted yet and it is already expanding.

Erik Schelzig of the Tennessee Journal reports that the Senate will consider an amendment that would allow the program to grow to 30,000 and will include homeschool students:


Just as in the House bill, the program would be capped at 5,000 students in the first year, followed by increments of 2,500 in the next four years. But while the lower chamber’s bill envisions limiting the pilot program at 15,000, the Senate bill would continue to allow the program to grow by 2,500 students each ensuing year until it reaches an enrollment of 30,000.

At today’s funding levels, that’s a total annual cost of $219 million at full implementation. That’s $219 million NOT available to fill in the gaps of the BEP or raise teacher pay, for example.

Additionally, the Senate envisions removing the requirement that students receiving voucher dollars take at least the math and ELA parts of TNReady. Instead, schools could administer a nationally norm-referenced test of their choosing.

Ironically, education advocates have for years suggested the state allow local school districts the flexibility to choose an alternative test to replace the failed TNReady. Instead, education policy leaders in our state stubbornly hold on to the idea that everything will eventually be “just fine” with testing.

As of this writing, the House version passed another subcommittee on the march toward the House floor. The Senate is scheduled to take up the expanded version this afternoon.

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TN CEC Opposes Vouchers

The Tennessee Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) has announced opposition to school vouchers even as the legislative debate on the issue moves forward. Here’s a general statement from CEC on vouchers and an explanation of the reasons for CEC’s opposition.

CEC opposes school vouchers for children and youth and those with disabilities as being contrary to the best interests of children and youth and their families, the public school system, local communities, and taxpayers. Further, CEC believes that vouchers both contradict and undermine central purposes of civil rights laws designed to protect children and youth with disabilities

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Inconvenient Facts

As Governor Lee’s school voucher proposal begins its legislative journey today, the Tennessee School Boards Association (TSBA) is out with some key facts about the bill as it is currently constructed. These facts expose the plan for what it is: A large scale transfer of public money to fund unaccountable private schools. The plan fails to significantly address fraud and fails to hold schools receiving taxpayer dollars to the same standard as our state’s traditional public schools must meet.

Here’s more from TSBA:

EDUCATION SAVINGS ACCOUNTS (ESA)
This week, the the Administration filed Amendment 005240 to HB939/SB795 by Lamberth/Johnson, a caption bill, which is the Governor’s Education Savings Accounts (ESA) proposal. Click here to view the Amendment. There has been much speculation and reporting over the last several weeks about the details of the bill and we finally have the specific language. Some noteworthy provisions of the ESA bill are as follows:

  • Accountability. The accountability of participating ESA providers was a point of emphasis for many legislators. The Governor’s proposal only requires the ESA student to participate in annually administered TCAP tests for math and English language arts. There is no requirement for standardized or end-of-course testing in science, social studies, the Governor’s civics program, or the ACT, which is required in 11th grade. Public dollars will pay for education that is inconsistent with what the General Assembly has mandated of public schools. Recent emphasis on accountability has made Tennessee one of the fastest improving states in education. This ESA proposal abandons those efforts. 
  • Zoning. An eligible student must be zoned to attend an LEA with 3 or more schools among the bottom 10%. However, there is no requisite time period for the student to have been zoned in that LEA. It appears a student could move to a qualifying LEA and immediately be eligible for the ESA program. 
  • Postsecondary Funding. The bill defines a “legacy student” as a student who had graduated high school and has funds remaining in their ESA account. A legacy student can utilize the remaining funds for approved postsecondary expenses. This may create an unintended incentive for participants to minimize early education costs in order to save the funds for college. 
  • Approved Expenses. Among the approved expenditures for ESA funds are contributions to a § 529 college savings educational investment trust account. However, there is nothing in the bill that requires the student/parent to actually use the fund for college or that prohibits withdrawal from the college savings account. In theory, a parent could apply all ESA funds from K-12 (approximately $100,000) to a § 529 account, then decide not use the funds for college and pocket the money, subject to withdrawal penalties. 
  • Return to the LEA. A participating student may return to the LEA at any time, at which point, the ESA would be closed and any remaining funds returned to the state. However, there is no requirement that any balance remain in the ESA at the time of return. An ESA participant could use all disbursements up to that point (e.g. approved computer hardware or other technological devices) and return to the LEA without penalty, at which point the LEA bears the entire financial burden of educating the child for the remainder of the school year. 
  • Enrollment Limit. Enrollment is capped at 5,000 in the first year, but will triple to 15,000 by the fifth year and grow by 1,000 each year thereafter, assuming sufficient applications are submitted. The Governor plans to budget $25 million in each of the next three years to fund the anticipated first year of implementation in 2021-2022. It is difficult to image how this ESA program with a maximum enrollment could be funded in five years without significantly reducing the funds available for public education. 
  • LEA Reimbursement. The Governor’s proposal was reported to include a reimbursement model to compensate LEAs for loss of funds associated with ESAs. While the bill creates an annual grant to reimburse LEAs in the amount of BEP funds diverted to ESAs, it limits the reimbursement period to 3 years and restricts the use to school improvements. Following that 3 year period, the grant funding will go exclusively to priority schools. This begs the question, how are LEAs supposed to compensate for the loss of funding due to ESAs? There is no indication that any funding will be provided for the loss after year 3 of the program. 
  • Fraud Prevention. Other states with ESA programs have experienced rampant fraud. Some states only provide funds on a reimbursement basis after receipts are provided. The Governor’s proposal, on the other hand, requires the department to fund the ESA account at least quarterly and not on a reimbursement basis. The Department of Education is required to establish a fraud reporting service and may contract or conduct random, quarterly or annual review of accounts, but it is unclear exactly what monitoring and auditing procedures will ensure appropriate use of ESA funds. 

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Voucher Fraud

While there is clear evidence suggesting vouchers don’t improve academic outcomes for students, a new concern is getting the attention of Tennessee lawmakers: Fraud.

The Daily Memphian has more:

Reports from across the nation show situations in which private-school officials and parents spent voucher money for items unrelated to education. Cards were used at beauty supply stores, sporting good shops and for computer tech support, in addition to trying to withdraw cash, which was not allowed.

The Arizona Republic found many parents there put voucher funds into college-savings accounts then sent their children to public schools, among other fraudulent activity, all amid lax oversight. The Phoenix newspaper also reported the state investigated one case in which voucher funds were allegedly used to pay for an abortion after it adopted an Empowerment Scholarship Account program in 2011.

The Wisconsin State Journal reported in 2014 the state paid $139 million over 10 years to schools it wound up removing from its voucher program for not following Wisconsin’s financial reporting rules and other guidelines.

It’s not clear if voucher legislation will move forward this session, though Governor Bill Lee has consistently supported using public money to fund private schools.

 

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Houston County Commission Takes Stand for Public Schools

The Houston County Commission joined the growing list of opponents to a school voucher program recently.

The Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle has more:

The Houston County Commission has approved a resolution opposing any state measure that would take funds from public schools for use at private schools.

Twelve out of 13 commissioners, with one abstaining, voted on Jan. 28 for a resolution affirming support for public education and educators to be sent to Gov. Bill Lee, members of the Tennessee Legislature and the Commissioner of Education.

Legislation was filed by Rep. Jay Reedy, R-Erin, in early January to create a voucher program. Since then, a number of school boards have passed similar resolutions in opposition to such a program.

Local school boards and county commissions are expressing their position on vouchers as Governor Bill Lee has indicated he intends to pursue voucher legislation.

The bottom line: Vouchers don’t work.

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.

Stay tuned to see if voucher legislation advances and how legislators respond to the local elected officials strongly opposing the use of public money to fund private schools.

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Big Mac’s Audition

Now that failed Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has moved on, speculation is swirling about who will become Bill Lee’s choice to lead education policy in the state.

A recent guest column in the Knoxville News Sentinel by former Knox County Schools Superintendent Jim “Big Mac” McIntyre reads like an audition for the role of Chief Voucher Advocate in the Lee Administration. After all, who better to foist vouchers on the unsuspecting masses than a former school district leader who now holds a cushy post at the University of Tennessee?

Big Mac’s argument for vouchers essentially boils down to saying this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad thing called vouchers will be here anyway, might as well warm up to it.

Umm, no.

But, I’ll not just paraphrase. Here’s some of what he has to say:

Since the adoption of a school voucher program in Tennessee now seems like a foregone conclusion (despite considerable opposition), I would suggest that as a state we at least pause to discern how such school voucher structures could include some modicum of fairness.

Here’s the key problem: Big Mac assumes Tennessee will somehow magically invent a new, better way to go about structuring and implementing vouchers.

He’s wrong.

Voucher schemes have been tried in various states with differing approaches. The evidence suggests they simply don’t work. At all. In fact, they can at times be harmful to the very students they are intended to help.

Here’s more:

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.

While Big Mac offers lip service to the cause of “fairness,” it’s not at all fair to use tax money intended to support our state’s public schools to prop up private schools of questionable efficacy. Our state already chronically underfunds public schools and we’ve failed to move the needle on this front during the Haslam Administration. Now, with the help of former school district leaders like McIntyre, Bill Lee wants to exacerbate the problem by diverting some of our education dollars to a scheme proven to fail in state after state.

In fact, an analysis of a small voucher pilot that expanded into a statewide program in Indiana indicates that the unintended costs of vouchers to public schools could be quite high:

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.

Tennesseans should not be surprised if Big Mac moves from guest columnist and UT professor to top candidate for Education Commissioner in the coming weeks. We should also be wary of his seemingly charming advocacy for vouchers cloaked in edu-buzzwords like “access” and “equity.”

Tennessee students don’t need vouchers, they need policymakers committed to investing in our schools and supporting our teachers.

 

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Actually Putting Students First

While Tennessee policymakers continue to buy the lie that we can’t move away from our failed high-stakes testing regime, New Mexico’s new governor is taking swift action to put students first.

The Albuquerque Journal reports:

On her third day as governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that New Mexico will drop the oft-maligned PARCC exam after the current school year – if not sooner.

“I know that PARCC isn’t working,” Lujan Grisham said after announcing two executive orders during a news conference at the state Capitol. “We know that around the country.”

The governor, who was joined by four teachers at Thursday’s news conference, also said families and students around the state should “expect to see New Mexico transition immediately out of high-stakes testing.”

Bill Lee will officially be sworn-in as Tennessee Governor on January 19th. So far, he has yet to name a permanent Education Commissioner to replace the outgoing Candice McQueen. Instead, he’s been focused on stocking his staff with supporters of school voucher schemes.

Imagine if he issued a clear, direct statement about the failures of TNReady along the lines of what the new Governor of New Mexico has done. He likely won’t because he’s being advised by those who want to use public money to fund the privatization of our public schools.

Still, there are 15 days before he is officially our Governor. There’s still time to let him know we need to move past the “test-and-punish” system that has failed our students and schools.

Shout out to New Mexico’s governor for exposing the lies of the pro-testing “reformers.”

It’s time that level of good sense infected Tennessee policy making.

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Knox School Board Says: NO VOUCHERS!

As it becomes ever more clear that incoming Governor Bill Lee plans to aggressively pursue a voucher scheme agenda that will undermine Tennessee’s public schools, the Knox County School Board voted 7-2 last night to urge the General Assembly to reject any voucher plan.

Here’s the text of the resolution sponsored by Board Member Jennifer Owen:

WHEREAS, the Knox County Board of Education is responsible for managing all public schools established or that may be established under its jurisdiction;

WHEREAS, there is pending legislation before the Tennessee General Assembly that would create a voucher program allowing students to use public education funds to pay for private school tuition (voucher programs also are known as “opportunity scholarships,” “education savings,” “tax credits” or similar terms); and

WHEREAS, proponents have spent millions to convince the public and lawmakers of their efficacy, yet, more than five decades after introduction, vouchers remain controversial, unproven and unpopular; and

WHEREAS, the Constitution of the State of Tennessee requires that the Tennessee General Assembly “provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools;” and

WHEREAS, the State of Tennessee has established nationally recognized standards and measures for accountability in public education; and

WHEREAS, vouchers eliminate accountability, by channeling taxes to private schools without the same • academic or testing requirements, • public budgets or reports on student achievement, • open meetings and records law adherence, • public accountability requirements in major federal laws, including special education laws; and

WHEREAS, vouchers have not been effective at improving student achievement or closing the achievement gap; and

WHEREAS, vouchers leave students behind, including those with the greatest needs, because vouchers channel tax dollars into private schools that are not required to accept all students, nor offer the special services they may need; and

WHEREAS, underfunded public schools are less able to attract and retain teachers; and

WHEREAS, vouchers give choices to private entities, rather than to parents and students, since the providers decide whether to accept vouchers, how many and which students to admit, and potentially arbitrary reasons they might dismiss a student; and

WHEREAS, the Knox County Board of Education provides numerous academic choices (magnet, STEM, International Baccalaureate, career/technical programs, community schools, etc.) and has a liberal transfer policy which allows students to attend other traditional schools in the district; and

WHEREAS, vouchers divert critical funds from public schools to pay private school tuition for a few students, including those who already attend private schools; and

WHEREAS, vouchers are inefficient, compelling taxpayers to support two school systems: one public and one private, the latter of which is not accountable to all taxpayers supporting it;

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Knox County Board of Education opposes any legislation or other similar effort to create a voucher program in Tennessee that would divert money intended for public education to private entities.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that a copy of this Resolution shall be delivered to the Governor, each member of the Tennessee General Assembly, the Knox County Mayor and County Commission, the Knoxville City Mayor and City Council, and the Mayor, Vice Mayor, and Aldermen of the Town of Farragut.

ADOPTED BY THE ELECTED KNOX COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, meeting in regular session on the 12th of December, 2018, with this Resolution to take immediate effect, the public welfare requiring it.

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SHOCKING!

Even though as early as 2016, Bill Lee was extolling the virtues of school voucher schemes and even though he’s a long-time supporter of Betsy DeVos’s pro-voucher Tennessee Federation for Children and even though he has appointed not one, but two voucher vultures to high level posts in his Administration, it is somehow treated as “news” that Bill Lee plans to move forward with a voucher scheme agenda in 2019.

Here’s what he wrote in 2016:

This is where opportunity scholarships come in. The Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act would allow families to take a portion of the funding already spent on their child’s education and send him or her to the private school of their choice. For children languishing in schools that are failing to meet their needs, especially in urban areas like Nashville and Memphis, this proposal represents a much-needed lifeline for Tennessee families.

This despite growing evidence that vouchers don’t actually help students and, in fact, may cause harms:

Writers Mary Dynarski and Austin Nichols say this about the studies:

Four recent rigorous studies—in the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio—used different research designs and reached the same result: on average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students that do not attend private schools. The Louisiana and Indiana studies offer some hints that negative effects may diminish over time. Whether effects ever will become positive is unclear.

While rigorous academic studies tell a tale of a failed education policy, Bill Lee put his money behind Betsy DeVos’s pro-voucher group:

The Tennessee Federation for Children is our state’s affiliate of the American Federation for Children, a political organization funded in large part by Betsy DeVos and her family. The mission of TFC is clear: Divert public money to private schools.

Since 2012, DeVos has provided just under $100,000 to the Tennessee organization. She’s been joined by some key local donors, including Lee Beaman and Bill Lee. Yes, since 2012, Bill Lee has given $11,000 to the Tennessee Federation for Children, the state’s leading political organization supporting school vouchers.

In spite of years of evidence of where Bill Lee stands when it comes to supporting our public schools (he doesn’t), many school board members and county commissioners across the state supported his successful campaign. These local elected officials often touted his business acumen and support of vocational education as reasons to back him. However, it’s difficult to imagine these same officials just “didn’t know” Bill Lee backs a scheme to divert public money to private schools — a scheme that has failed miserably time and again in other states and localities.

More likely, they just didn’t care. Bill Lee was on the right team and spoke the right, religiously-tinged words and so earned the support of people who will look at you with a straight face and say they love Tennessee public schools.

The Tennessee County Commissioners Association provided an analysis of the potential cost to each local government of a modest voucher scheme. Here’s a look at the potential fiscal impact of a “small” voucher program:

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.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t support vouchers and also be 100% behind our public schools. It’s likely no mistake that more than 90% of all schools eligible to receive state voucher funds are private, Christian-affiliated schools.

Stay tuned for a legislative session focused on undermining our public schools. Brought to you by a Governor who has been advertising this desire since at least 2012.

 

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Another Voucher Vulture Joins Team Lee

As Governor-elect Bill Lee staffs up ahead of taking office in January, he’s making it clear he plans to push forward heavily on vouchers. He’s already named one key voucher backer to a top policy role and now, he’s announced his Legislative Director will be the former Director of Students First/Tennessee CAN.

More on this:

Brent Easley will lead the Legislative Affairs office in the Office of the Governor. He currently serves as the state director for TennesseeCAN, an education advocacy group. Previously, he served as the state director for StudentsFirst Tennessee. Prior to that, he worked in the Tennessee House of Representatives as the senior research and policy analyst for the Tennessee House Republican Caucus.

Students First/Tennessee CAN has a long history of attempting to foist misguided education policy on Tennessee schools:

StudentsFirst “spent as much as $213,907 on lobbying in 2014, with its political action committee spending $573,917 during the two years leading up to the 2014 election, according to state finance records.”

In 2016, pro-voucher StudentsFirst Tennessee (now TennesseeCAN) pushed for Rep. Glen Casada’s “Jeb Bush School [A-F] Grading System” bill and thanked Casada for his support. The law “requires the department of education to develop a school grading system that assigns A, B, C, D, and F letter grades to schools” and is viewed as a path to education vouchers.

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