Vouchers Already Impacting Teacher Pay, School Resources

A story out of Coffee County explains how Governor Bill Lee’s voucher scheme (currently under investigation by the FBI), is already impacting teacher pay raises and resources dedicated to public schools:

The day it passed in the senate, April 25 (May 1 for an amended version), the Coffee County Board of Education expressed their concerns and decided it would be more frugal to give their faculty a 1 percent raise instead of a 2 percent raise. This decision had multiple factors involved, including balancing the budget, but the uncertainty of the vouchers was part of the discussion, Aaron explained.

In Manchester, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen did not pledge money in their 2019-20 budget to assist College Street Elementary School with renovations due, in part, to the uncertainty of the voucher program as well. Alderman Ryan French pointed out the program has the potential to decimate Average Daily Attendance (a facet of BEP), which will reduce funding and therefore put more strain on the local population.

It’s still unclear what the total cost of Lee’s voucher scheme will be should it be fully implemented. Some estimates put the cost at more than $300 million. That’s a significant hit to the state’s school funding formula. Even at the conservative end of the scale, a total cost of around or just above $100 million would mean a significant loss to all districts across Tennessee. To put that amount in perspective, $100 million would fund a four percent raise for all of Tennessee’s teachers.

Lee has already demonstrated he prefers to spend money on voucher schemes and charter schools instead of teacher salaries. His initial budget proposal provided a big boost for charter school facilities while offering only a minor increase in funding for teacher salaries.

Previous analysis indicates that even if the voucher program grows only modestly, the impact to all school systems will be significant:

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.

In other words, don’t believe the lie that just because your school district isn’t in the current voucher plan, vouchers won’t impact your schools. They absolutely will. Taking $100 million off the table means a big hit to the BEP formula, a plan that already struggles to meet the needs of our state’s schools.

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SOLD!

Governor Bill Lee and his school privatization friends Betsy DeVos and Lee Beaman scored a major victory today as school voucher legislation passed the House on a 50-48 vote and earned approval in the Senate Finance Committee by a vote of 6-5.

The measure advanced in the House after an apparent 49-49 tie vote on the initial tally. After holding the vote open for nearly 40 minutes, Speaker Glen Casada and Majority Leader William Lamberth were able to convince Rep. Jason Zachary (R-Knoxville) to switch his initial NO vote to a YES. No word on what commitments or rewards Zachary secured in exchange for his betrayal of Knox County — a district directly impacted by the voucher legislation. It’s worth noting the school board in Knox County was one of the first in the state to speak out against vouchers and Knox County parents and teachers protested Bill Lee on his latest visit to the area because of Lee’s support for vouchers. Still, Zachary changed his vote after a back porch meeting with Casada, so it’ll be interesting to see how he explains that.

Over in the Senate, the voucher bill looks somewhat different. Just one week ago, Senator Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga indicated his opposition to the Governor’s voucher scheme. Today, the bill passed 6-5 with Gardenhire voting in favor. Some changes were made, ostensibly to secure Gardnehire’s support.

Now, the Senate bill heads to the floor on Thursday (4/25). The Senate and House versions have some key differences, so even if it secures Senate passage, those changes will likely be worked out in a conference committee. Given the extremely close House vote, those changes could spell trouble for the ultimate voucher package.

The question remains: What did Jason Zachary get in exchange for his YES vote?

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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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