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


 

Million Dollar Baby

Since 2011 (the 2012 election cycle), two pro-voucher groups (Students First and the American Federation for Children) have given nearly $1 million to Tennessee legislators by way of direct or in-kind contributions, according to reports filed with the Registry of Election Finance.

Two of the biggest recipients?

House Speaker Beth Harwell has received more than $43,000 via donations to either her campaign account or her political action committee (PAC).

Senate Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham has received $28,500 in contributions and support.

See the full list:

Students First-AFC Contributions 2011-present

 

Aspiring Toward Mediocrity

That’s what Senate Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham had to say in terms of Tennessee’s education goals right after praising the state’s recent NAEP results.

Her remarks came at the beginning of a hearing her committee conducted on school choice earlier this week. They can be found just past the two minute mark in this video. 

What’s frustrating is that she then proceeded to spend hours conducting a hearing that was nothing short of a celebration of all the supposed benefits of school voucher schemes.

Here’s a quick summary of some key arguments against vouchers.

The bottom line is they are expensive, can be susceptible to fraud, reduce accountability, and most importantly do not improve student academic outcomes.

While Gresham continues to put forward school vouchers as a solution to at least get Tennessee to mediocrity, the state’s BEP Review Committee is busy telling legislators that all the funding woes of the past have been miraculously cleared up.

After hours of hearings, we are still no closer to a path to that mediocrity to which Gresham hopes our state can achieve. At least we now have a clear understanding of her expectations.

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

 

Financed by Fear: Jay Sekulow and the Imaginary Muslim Menace

Have you heard about it? Hundreds of seventh grade students all across Tennessee converting to Islam after their world history class. It’s happening everywhere. In rural and urban communities. It’s happening because Tennessee teachers are not just teaching world religions, they are specifically focusing on Islam and indoctrinating our children. They must be, with so many conversions happening every single week.

Actually, so far, no one has reported a single conversion of any student to Islam after taking a seventh grade history class. But you wouldn’t know that if you read the emails from Jay Sekulow’s ACLJ:

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Sekulow surely knows that the ideas espoused in his email are preposterous, but he persists. Likely because he knows ginning up this kind of fear is rather profitable. This report from 2011 details just how profitable his enterprises are.

While fear-mongering for cash is nothing new, it’s dangerous when it impacts the teaching and learning going on in Tennessee classrooms. In response to concerns magnified by Sekulow, the Chair of the Senate Education Committee, Dolores Gresham, sent a letter asking the Commissioner of Education to ensure Tennessee teachers aren’t indoctrinating kids with Muslim teachings.

Interestingly, Sekulow and Gresham aren’t concerned about indoctrination with other world religions taught over the course of the history curriculum. And so far, they haven’t expressed concern about other ideas Tennessee’s teachers may be planting in the unsuspecting heads of our state’s schoolchildren.

Nevertheless, all this “concern” has caused Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen to schedule an early review of the state’s social studies standards. Here’s her memo on the topic:

“In response to questions we have received from the field, we wanted to share clarifying and factual information on the state’s social studies standards, specifically how the standards address religion. We hope that the information below will help you respond to any questions that may arise from parents or community members.

Click Here to View the Social Studies Fact Sheet
Standards: http://tsba.us2.list-manage.com/track/click…


World History is taught at three different points in a Tennessee student’s K-12 schooling: grade 6, grade 7, and once in high school. The courses cover World History from the beginning of time to the present and are broken up as follows:

Sixth Grade: Early Civilizations through the decline of the Roman Empire
Seventh Grade: The Middle Ages to the exploration of the Americas
High School: The Industrial Revolution to the Contemporary World
Major religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Shinto, are covered throughout the courses mentioned above. Although these religions will be taught at some point in these three courses, the focus on each religion will depend on the context and influence of the time period.

The attached document titled “Standards” shows the standards covering religion for the sixth- and seventh-grade courses. As you can see in the attached document, Christianity and Judaism are emphasized in the sixth-grade course while the Islamic World is covered in the seventh-grade course.

Click Here to View the Social Studies Standards: http://tsba.us2.list-manage.com/track/click…


The content of religion in our social studies standards is not new in Tennessee, but the sequence has been revised. The content of the current Islamic World standards has been included in the state’s social studies standards for many years and what students are expected to know about the Islamic World is also consistent with years prior. The new standards have simply moved what was previously spread throughout the social studies standards prior to 2013 (those standards can be found here: http://tn.gov/education/article/academic-standards-archive
) to one section in the seventh-grade World History course. Most of the current seventh-grade World History standards were previously contained in sixth-grade and can be found here: http://tn.gov/…/education/attachments/std_arch_ss_gr_6.pdf


The State Board of Education adopted the current social studies standards in July 2013. The standards were developed by a committee of Tennessee teachers and were available for the public and all Tennessee educators to review and provide feedback.

Textbooks and Curriculum

Standards are academic expectations that define what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. Because districts know their students and communities best, curriculum and instruction are local decisions made by the district, schools, and teachers.

There is no state required length of time to be devoted to any topic – that is a local decision; however, the department hopes to share a sample pacing guide soon to give to teachers as an example of how much time should be devoted to any one topic.

All textbooks and supplemental materials used to teach these standards are determined at the local level. Additionally, textbooks are not prescriptive of a course’s content and sequence. For example, many people have referenced the seventh-grade textbook, Discovering our Past. While it appears that some seventh-grade teachers are covering Islam longer than Christianity, it’s important to note, that the last chapter of the sixth-grade textbook covers the rise of Christianity extensively. That chapter is repeated at the beginning of the seventh-grade textbook.

The textbook commission was recently reconstituted and the new process for textbook adoption provides more opportunity for public input. Members of the public can review books/materials by contacting their local board of education, visiting the state textbook collection site at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), and/or viewing the materials posted on the department’s website. Comments can be submitted directly to the department or members of the public can request to speak before the Textbook Commission. All public comments will be posted on the department’s website.

Additionally, the bond requirement for textbook publishers was lowered, meaning smaller publishers will now have more opportunity to bid in Tennessee.

The State Board of Education annually adopts an approved textbook list, however, districts may request a waiver to use a book not included on the state approved list.

Assessment

A social studies field test was administered in the 2014-15 school year. Only a very small number of questions were on this topic. The field test was not used for accountability purposes, but was instead a test to collect information on a wide range of questions to ensure that potential questions are fully vetted and that the operational test uses appropriate questions to assess students learning.

Next Steps

Based primarily on the results from the field test and feedback from educators and stakeholders, we have made the decision to review the social studies standards earlier than the traditional six-year cycle.

Per Public Chapter 423, passed in 2015, the social studies standards review will go through a similar process our math and ELA standards are currently undergoing beginning in January of 2016.

This process requires the State Board of Education to post the current standards to a standards review website to allow the public to review and offer feedback. Following the public online review, educator advisory teams will use their expertise and the public comments to revise the standards. The revised standards will then be reviewed by a Standards Recommendation Committee (SRC). As laid out by the General Assembly in Public Chapter 423, the SRC committee members are appointed by the Governor, Lt. Governor and Speaker of the House. The SRC will then recommend the revised standards to the State Board of Education. Following this recommendation, there will be additional opportunity for stakeholder feedback before the State Board issues final approval.

The social studies standards review website will be launched in January of 2016, and we encourage educators and community members to utilize this opportunity to provide critical feedback.”

Despite the World History curriculum including learning about Islam and other world religions for years and despite the lack of any affirmative evidence of indoctrination and certainly no evidence of any child converting to Islam as a result of reading about it in a 7th grade textbook, Sekulow presses on. His bank account depends on it. The facts aren’t getting in the way of Dolores Gresham scoring political points, either.

Now, we can expect to see pressure put on those reviewing the state standards to remove or reduce any discussion of Islam and pressure put on teachers at schools to avoid discussion of the topic or its historical significance.

Legislators are also promising legislative action on the social studies curriculum — because what we really need is the Tennessee General Assembly designing curriculum for our schools.

In all of the storm over a curriculum that has been on the books for years, I go back to one central question: With all this supposed indoctrination going on, where’s the evidence that students have converted to Islam? And then, do they convert to Buddhism late on in the semester when that subject is taught?

I don’t suspect Sekulow or Gresham will be answering that question anytime soon.

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

 

What Did They Just Do?

The Tennessee General Assembly today passed a bill to create a voucher system for students with IEPs. The plan was limited from its original scope to only apply to the most severe cases.

The vote in the House was particularly close, with 52 representatives voting in favor — 50 are required for passage.

What does the bill do?

If you ask the sponsors (and a number of members did), they really don’t know. Essentially, the legislation (HB138) creates individual education accounts of around $6600 to be provided to the parents or guardians who meet the qualifications in the amendment. They must have an IEP. Around 18,000 students (those with autism, blind or deaf, mental disabilities, and orthopedic disabilities) qualify.

A similar program in Florida, started in 1999, has been expanding rapidly. And, it’s been subject to fraud. When asked about what safeguards Tennessee’s plan will have, the sponsors said that the bill calls on the departments of education and health to qualify vendors. When asked what standards may be used to qualify vendors, the sponsors said they didn’t know.

When asked if the money will be distributed as a debit card or a bank account or a voucher, the sponsors didn’t know.

An important element of the bill is that any parent/guardian who accepts the voucher MUST forfeit their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. That’s a pretty big deal. When asked what rights, exactly, parents would be forfeiting, Rep. Roger Kane, a co-sponsor, said, “They are all listed in the IDEA.”

Indeed they are. And it’s pretty important. The rights include:

The right of parents to receive a complete explanation of all the procedural safeguards available under IDEA and the procedures in the state for presenting complaints

Confidentiality and the right of parents to inspect and review the educational records of their child

The right of parents to participate in meetings related to the identification, evaluation, and placement of their child, and the provision of FAPE (a free appropriate public education) to their child

The right of parents to obtain an independent educational evaluation (IEE) of their child

The right of parents to receive “prior written notice” on matters relating to the identification, evaluation, or placement of their child, and the provision of FAPE to their child

The right of parents to give or deny their consent before the school may take certain action with respect to their child

The right of parents to disagree with decisions made by the school system on those issues

The right of parents and schools to use IDEA’s mechanisms for resolving disputes, including the right to appeal determinations

Depending on the child’s disability and a school system’s ability, the parents may be entitled to provision of services by private providers at school system expense. The advantage being that there is accountability to the LEA for providers offering the services.

So, forfeiting one’s IDEA rights is a big deal. And it could mean kids are not well-served by private providers.

An analysis of similar programs across the country found that none of them were subject to state testing to determine student outcomes and that accountability provisions were weak or non-existent. This analysis also noted that as early as 2003, Florida realized its 4-year-old program was subject to fraud. But this 2011 report highlights significant fraud ongoing in the expanding Florida program.

Just a four years ago, Tennessee authorized the creation of the Tennessee Virtual Academy operated by for-profit provider K-12, Inc. At the time, Senator Andy Berke warned of K-12, Inc.’s problems in operating virtual schools in Arizona. He asked how we could be sure there wouldn’t be fraud in Tennessee’s virtual school operated by K-12. The sponsor, Senator Dolores Gresham, said that the accountability would be built-in by the rules.

Yesterday, after $43 million spent on K-12, Inc. in Tennessee, Senator Gresham led the opposition to a last-ditch effort to keep K-12, Inc. open. To her credit, this was an admission that the experiment she had championed had failed. Gresham correctly noted that the Tennessee Virtual Academy was the worst performing school out of 1700 Tennessee schools.

Here’s the problem: Tennessee taxpayers won’t get their $43 million back. More importantly, the children who were poorly-served by TNVA can’t get their time back. They will return to other education environments behind their peers and possibly unable to complete school.

If the IEP voucher program fails, what will happen in two or three or four years to the children who were in the program? How will we ensure the accountability measures work for this program when they failed miserably for TNVA? And if the argument is that they worked for TNVA because the school is closing now, what happens to those kids who might lose years of their lives to a failed experiment?

What did the Tennessee General Assembly just do?

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

Killing K-12, Inc.

I wrote earlier about legislation filed this session that would extend the life of failing Tennessee Virtual Academy (TNVA) operator K-12, Inc.

Now, legislation has been filed that would effectively kill K-12, Inc. in Tennessee.

HB 1331/SB 1363 by Rep. Mike Stewart and Sen. Jeff Yarbro, both of Nashville, would have the effect of ending K-12, Inc.’s reign as an unchecked operator of a failing virtual school.

Here’s the basic language of the bill:

Local Education Agencies – As introduced, prohibits an LEA from contracting for services with a nonprofit or for-profit operator or manager of a virtual school if the contract requires the LEA to pay more per pupil for students in the virtual school than the operator or manager charges individual students for its services. – Amends TCA Title 49, Chapter 16, Part 2.

Union County is the LEA “home” of the Tennessee Virtual Academy, a school that has been among Tennessee’s lowest performing since its opening. K-12, Inc. operates the school and does so at an apparent profit.

Interestingly, in Wednesday’s Senate Education Committee meeting, Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga brought up virtual schools during a presentation on Pre-K that had nothing to do with virtual schools.

Gardenhire repeatedly asked if online instruction, such as that offered through a virtual school, would be the most appropriate option for a student diagnosed with Autism. When the representative from the Tennessee Department of Education said that it would depend on the quality of the virtual program, Gardenhire persisted, accusing the TN DOE of hedging on the issue.

Gardenhire asked if it was appropriate to close a virtual school that might be the only option for an Autistic child.

This line of questioning was interesting not just because it was irrelevant to the topic at hand. It also outlines a likely line of argument proponents of K-12, Inc. such as Gardenhire and Senate Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham will use in defending the school’s continued operation in the state.

To be clear, the legislation filed by Stewart and Yarbro will not close all virtual schools. Districts are free to operate their own virtual schools that comply with the legislative language. The virtual school operated by MNPS would qualify, for example. But, the bill would close the TNVA — an entity that has both drained taxpayer dollars and failed to serve students during its time in operation.

More on K-12, Inc. in Tennessee:

Cash vs. Kids?

K-12, Inc. faces Tennessee Trouble

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

Still Opposed

After mistakenly suggesting that she might actually be listening to the teachers in her district on education issues, Dolores Gresham quickly issued a clarifying statement today setting the record straight.

The confusion began when Gresham reportedly told the Associated Press  she was “OK” with the Common Core State Standards.

The AP reported that Gresham said:

“I have talked to teachers who have told me in so many words, at last, we are no longer dumbing down our children,” she said. “That kind of encouragement is very important when other people are not so enthusiastic.”

Gresham’s statements appeared to be a reversal of position, as she is the prime sponsor of legislation that would repeal Common Core in Tennessee and replace it with Tennessee Standards.

Gresham has historically been more responsive to her donors than to teachers in her district, carrying legislation that authorized K12, Inc.’s failing Tennessee Virtual Academy and supporting a voucher scheme backed by Koch-brothers funded Americans for Prosperity.

Just this summer, she seemed to be on the hunt for an attack on teacher tenure when she requested an Attorney General’s opinion on the issue.

However, when it appeared she might be asking for and responding to educator input on education policy, Gresham was quick to put out a statement saying she still opposes Common Core and wants it repealed in Tennessee.

According to the Tennessean, Gresham wasn’t available to further clarify her statement. But it seems her momentary intimation that she may actually be further considering her stance may have been a verbal lapse rather than a thoughtful reflection.

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

 

AG Issues Tenure Opinion

This summer, in response to the Vergara v. California decision on teacher tenure in that state, Tennessee State Senator Dolores Gresham asked the Attorney General for an opinion on whether Tennessee’s tenure laws violated the state constitution’s protection of a student’s right to a free education of the state or federal equal protection clauses.

The short answer: No. The state’s teacher employment laws do not violate a student’s right to a free education.

Here’s the full opinion.

On the equal protection issues, the AG noted that Tennessee’s laws require a longer probationary period before tenure is awarded and that Tennessee’s dismissal process for tenured teachers is clear, fast, and relatively inexpensive.

Thanks to Tennessee Education Matters for their coverage of this issue.

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

Gresham Takes Swipe at Teacher Tenure Laws

Senate Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham this week began the process of questioning Tennessee’s teacher tenure and employment laws.

According to a press release, Gresham has requested an Attorney General’s opinion on the constitutionality of Tennessee’s teacher tenure and employment laws in light of the recent decision in the Vergara v. California case.

From the release:

“This is a very important decision regarding teacher employment laws, which will reverberate to states across the nation, said Senator Gresham. “Tennessee, like California, has its own constitutional provision regarding student’s education rights in addition to the Equal Protection Clause afforded by the U.S. Constitution. We certainly need to make sure that we are on sound constitutional footing, and especially whether the reforms passed over the last several years will satisfy the constitutional tests as decided in this ruling.”

Gresham asked two specific questions:

1) Whether the current statutes or state law in effect prior to July 1, 2011 governing permanent employment violate students’ rights to a free education under the equal protection provisions of the Tennessee or U.S. Constitution.

2) If Tennessee law or the statutes in effect prior to July 1, 2014, governing layoffs or the dismissal and suspension of teachers violate student’s rights to a free education under the federal and state constitutions.

The Tennessee Constitution in Article 11, Section 12 states:

The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support, and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools.

It’s not clear how tenure protections for teachers would inhibit the provision (on an equal basis) of a free education for all students.

Tennessee’s tenure laws were changed in 2011.  Under those provisions, teachers must teach 5 years before tenure is considered. Only those teachers with two consecutive years of evaluation scores of 4 or 5 (the highest two scores) may be granted tenure. Teachers who fail to meet that standard cannot be granted tenure.

Under Tennessee law (TCA 49-5-511 and TCA 49-5-512), tenure affords simple due process rights to teachers.

That means that if a Director of Schools wishes to dismiss a tenured educator, the reason for dismissal must be provided in writing to the teacher.  Should the teacher wish to appeal the dismissal, the teacher has 30 days to request a hearing by an impartial hearing officer. That hearing must be scheduled within 30 days of the receipt of the request (a maximum of 60 days would pass between the notice of dismissal and the hearing).

In 2012, the Supreme Court of Tennessee, in a unanimous decision, upheld the Tennessee law that requires both written notice and the opportunity for a hearing.

What’s not clear from Gresham’s early salvo is what about affording employees basic due process impedes a student’s right to equal access to a free public education.

It seems that abiding by a process that prevents arbitrary dismissal of teachers demonstrates to students a fundamental concept of fairness.  All teachers receive a TEAM evaluation score and since 2012, that score has been used in determining the granting of tenure. The dismissal process for tenured teachers is straightforward and allows both sides to present a case.  It prevents principals or Directors of Schools from simply dismissing teachers for reasons such as politics or personality issues.

Meanwhile, the free public education to which Gresham seems concerned that all students should have access to, is undermined by a General Assembly that balances the state’s budget on the backs of teachers and schools.  In the case of Gresham specifically, she has been a tireless champion of K12, Inc., a private, virtual school that receives Tennessee tax dollars yet fails to even approach adequately educating Tennessee students.

While the Governor has appointed a duplicative BEP task force designed to avoid the uncomfortable conversation around the inadequacy of current BEP funding, Senator Gresham is starting a fight about teacher tenure.  It’s the BEP funding that could, in fact, be unconstitutional in its current form as many systems find it inadequate to meet the needs of students.

Whatever the AG opinion says, this may only be the beginning of a legislative and legal fight over teacher tenure in Tennessee.

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