Getting the facts straight on Individualized Education Accounts

This is a guest post by Jonathan Butcher, a Senior Fellow on Education Reform at the Beacon Center of Tennessee. He serves as the Education Director for the Goldwater Institute.

Tennessee lawmakers brought hope to thousands of children with special needs by passing SB27/HB138 and creating Individualized Education Accounts. With an account, the state deposits a child’s portion of the school funding formula into a private bank account that parents use to buy educational products and services for their child. These accounts are already available to students in Arizona, Florida, and Mississippi, and existing research demonstrates that participating families are highly satisfied with the new accounts and children have more access to flexible learning opportunities.

Here are the facts about Tennessee’s new options for children with autism, that may be deaf or blind, or who have other cognitive or physical needs:

1. Quality educational choices. Individualized Education Accounts provide students with special needs the chance to attend a school that specializes in helping children that struggle in a traditional classroom. It also allows their parents to find other services such as personal tutors or educational therapists. While some have labeled these accounts as vouchers, they are different in that they give families access to more educational opportunities than vouchers might.

2. Constitutional. In 2014, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that an account system similar to Tennessee’s was constitutional. The court upheld an opinion from Arizona Appeals Court Judge Jon W. Thompson, in which he wrote, “The specified object of the [accounts] is the beneficiary families, not private or sectarian schools. Parents can use the funds deposited in the [account] to customize an education that meets their children’s unique educational needs.

3. Transparent. The accounts protect against financial fraud and require that parents measure student progress. When families receive an account for their student, the state deposits funds onto the debit card that accompanies the account on a quarterly basis. If the Tennessee Department of Education finds that a parent has intentionally or unintentionally misused the card, the department and state board of education must develop rules to resolve the discrepancy that may include withholding the next quarterly deposit, as is the current practice in Arizona. Parents must also keep receipts proving that their purchases are for qualifying services. Arizona and Florida have developed rules for the accounts in those states. The account handbook for Arizona is available here, and Florida’s handbook is here. In addition, students using an account in Tennessee must take a nationally norm referenced test annually. Parents will have ready access to information about how well their children are learning.

4. Cost savings. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Tennessee taxpayers spend approximately $9,000 per student in traditional schools. However, students using an Individualized Education Account will be funded at $6,500. Beacon Center research finds that each account could save local school districts an average $1,000, even after fixed costs are considered.

Individualized Education Accounts hold tremendous promise for children across Tennessee. Research from Arizona and Florida provides evidence that families take advantage of the option to customize their child’s education and that families are highly satisfied with their accounts. Tennessee families can look forward to the same success for their children.

My Time at the State Capitol

I spent Tuesday and Wednesday in the halls of Legislative Plaza at the State Capitol. I also visited the capitol a few weeks ago with members of the Tennessee Reading Association’s Advocacy Committee. Unlike some, I highly enjoy my time on the hill. Here are a few of my takeaways.

There were a lot more people in the education committees then there were in 2012 when I last worked on the hill. As many already know, more and more people are concerned about education in Tennessee. That means there are more advocates and stakeholders when it comes to education. While many people crammed into education committee rooms, other committees sat almost empty. This really shows you how important education is in Tennessee. A lot of time, energy, and lobbying are taking place in the education world.

I spoke to numerous people about Dr. Candice McQueen, the newly appointed Commissioner of Education. Everyone I spoke with only had praise for Dr. McQueen. With Commissioner McQueen at the helm of the department, I believe these next four years will be systematically different than the last four years. Commissioner McQueen was already highly revered in the education world before she became Commissioner, and I believe she will leave the Department of Education in an even higher regard. From the looks of social media, Commissioner McQueen is traveling around the state at every chance she gets. I like that.

With the Tennessee Reading Association, we visited with the education committee chairs. Each chair, Representative John Fogerty, Representative Harry Brooks, and Senator Dolores Gresham, were very receptive on our message of staying on course to retain high standards. While we were advocating for Common Core, we understood that the standards would most likely change names. I think everyone agrees that Common Core will go away, but with a high quality Tennessee State Standards left in Common Core’s place. Too much money has been spent on teacher training to just get rid of the standards all together.

Legislators are already reviewing comments that stakeholders are making through the Tennessee Education Standards Review. https://apps.tn.gov/tcas/ I hope that everyone will go online and take part in this review process. They need to hear from teachers!

If you don’t know who your legislators are, go to this site to find out. http://www.capitol.tn.gov/legislators/ It’s important that you know who represents you at the state capitol. When contacting your member, tell your legislator that you are a constituent and a teacher.

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


 

Education Forum Announced by TNEdReport & Hillsboro PTSO

The Tennessee Education Report and the Hillsboro PTSO are happy to announce a mayoral forum will be held at Hillsboro High School on Thursday, April 2nd, at 6:30 PM. The debate will be moderated by Steve Cavendish, News Editor for the Nashville Scene. The forum will focus on the future of Nashville’s education and will include questions submitted by the Hillsboro High School Student Government. We invite all students, teachers, families, and community members to this event.

“We hope this forum will provide a great setting for our mayoral candidates to really go in depth on how they see the future of Nashville’s education,” said Zack Barnes, co-founder of Tennessee Education Report and a middle school teacher at Metro Nashville Public Schools. “Many people, including teachers, are wanting to know more about the candidate’s views on education, and we think this will be the perfect place to share them.”

“The Hillsboro High School PTSO is thrilled to be co-hosting this important Mayoral Forum with the Tennessee Education Report at Hillsboro,” said Hillsboro PTSO Co-President Carey Morgan. “We believe education is a bedrock issue for Nashville, and we are looking forward to hearing where our candidates stand on the issues surrounding education, including the state of our facilities.”

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


 

 

 

Interview with Beacon Center’s Justin Owen

Below is an interview with Justin Owen, President and CEO of Beacon Center of Tennessee. The Beacon Center is helping push voucher legislation in Tennessee.

 

Some of our readers may not know much about the Beacon Center of Tennessee. Can you tell us about your organization?

Most people refer to the Beacon Center as a “free market think tank,” but what that really means is that we come up with ideas to empower Tennessee to reclaim control of their lives, and we put those ideas into action so that those Tennesseans can freely pursue their version of the American Dream.

During the past legislative session, your organization helped push a measure to create a voucher program in Tennessee. Are you bringing about the same legislation this year? Can you tell us about it?

Beacon supported legislation last year that would provide a voucher, or opportunity scholarship, to low-income children zoned for districts containing failing schools. We believe that parents, not ZIP codes, should decide what school their child attends. We owe it to Tennessee families to ensure that each child in our state gets the best education, tailored to his or her unique needs, and we will support similar legislation to do just that in 2015.

Many of our readers are public school teachers. Why should teachers be in favor of sending money away from public schools to private schools?

Teachers consistently point to the need for higher per-pupil funding and smaller class sizes. Opportunity scholarships will give them both. As a recent Beacon study [http://www.beacontn.org/wp-content/uploads/fiscal-impacts_web.pdf] shows, only a portion of the amount we already spend would follow a child via a scholarship. The rest would remain with that public school to be reinvested in those children. Some districts – like Memphis and Nashville – would not only cover the fixed costs, but save an additional $1,300 to $1,500 for every child that leaves. And while there will be no mass exodus of children from the system (as most families will continue to choose the public school option for their children), those who do leave with a scholarship will reduce classroom sizes, allowing teacher to increase their focus on those who choose to stay in the school.

Is using a voucher system been proven effective?

Yes, studies show that both children who use vouchers and those who choose to remain in their public school benefit. Nine of 10 random assignment studies show gains among opportunity scholarship students. And of 23 studies conducted on vouchers’ impact of public school students, 22 found positive gains in their performance as well. Not one single study has ever found a negative impact on voucher students or those who remain in public schools. Thus, these programs represent a rising tide that lifts all boats.

Besides vouchers, what other education initiations does the Beacon Center promote?

Beacon sees opportunity scholarships as another tool in the education toolbox, and part of a broader movement to empower parents with more choice in education. Our focus is on advancing the various options parents have at their fingertips.

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


 

 

Teacher Prep Programs Will Get New Evaluation System

The U.S. Department of Education has put forth a new plan to evaluate teacher prep programs. The new plan is about making sure teacher prep programs are producing quality teachers, not just a lot of new teachers.

The biggest part of this new plan is allow more public information about the teacher prep programs. In Tennessee, this is already happening. Recently, the state of Tennessee released information on the state’s teacher prep programs.

From the DOE’s press release:

The proposal would require states to report annually on the performance of teacher preparation programs – including alternative certification programs – based on a combination of:

  • Employment outcomes: New teacher placement and three-year retention rates in high-need schools and in all schools.
  • New teacher and employer feedback: Surveys on the effectiveness of preparation.
  • Student learning outcomes: Impact of new teachers as measured by student growth, teacher evaluation, or both.
  • Assurance of specialized accreditation or evidence that a program produces high-quality candidates.

I think providing teacher and employer feedback for teacher preparation programs is great for a few reasons. If a teacher gets out of a program and finds that it was lacking, there should be a way to let others know the program is lacking. The same goes for school districts. If they are receiving top-notch teachers from a school, let others know!

It also means that universities could gain or lose applicants to their universities based on their ranking. Especially for those teachers who want to go back to graduate school to further their education. The rankings from individual school could sway students to go else ware.

From the executive summary of the 2014 Report Card on the Effectiveness of Teaching Training Programs:
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Out of the five programs that are consistently outperforming other programs, only two of those come from traditional teacher training programs. I think it’s time for higher education programs to step up their game to produce only the best teachers.

The Sweet Sixteen

Round 1 of Education Commissioner Madness is over and Round 2 — The Sweet Sixteen – is well underway.

The Round of 16 includes former legislator Gloria Johnson, Deputy Commissioner of Education Kathleen Airhart, and Williamson County Superintendent Mike Looney, who edged out Tullahoma’s Dan Lawson with a late surge.

The Sweet Sixteen also features PET’s JC Bowman and TEA’s Jim Wrye.

Head on over to Bluff City Ed and vote NOW for who should advance to the Elite Eight.

For more on education issues in Memphis, follow @BluffCityEd

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

Ravitch: Ed Reform is a Hoax

Education scholar and activist Diane Ravitch spoke at Vanderbilt University in Nashville last night at an event hosted by Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence (TREE), the Tennessee BATs (Badass Teachers), and the Momma Bears.

Ravitch touched on a number of hot-button education issues, including vouchers, charter schools, teacher evaluations, and testing. Many of these issues are seeing plenty of attention in Tennessee public policy circles both on the local and state levels.

She singled out K12, Inc. as a bad actor in the education space, calling the Tennessee Virtual Academy it runs a “sham.”

Attempts have been made to cap enrollment and shut down K12, Inc. in Tennessee, but they are still operating this year. More recently, the Union County School Board defied the State Department of Education and allowed 626 students to remain enrolled in the troubled school. The reason? Union County gets a payoff of $132,000 for their contract with K12.

Ravitch noted that there are good actors in the charter sector, but also said she adamantly opposes for-profit charter schools. Legislation that ultimately failed in 2014 would have allowed for-profit charter management companies to be hired by Tennessee charter schools.

On vouchers, an issue that has been a hot topic in the last two General Assemblies, Ravitch pointed to well-established data from Milwaukee that vouchers have made no difference in overall student performance.

Despite the evidence against vouchers, it seems quite likely they will again be an issue in the 2015 General Assembly. In fact, the Koch Brothers and their allies spent heavily in the recent elections to ensure that vouchers are back on the agenda.

Ravitch told the crowd that using value-added data to evaluate teachers makes no sense. The Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) has been around since the BEP in 1992. It was created by UT Ag Professor Bill Sanders. Outgoing Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman made an attempt to tie teacher licenses to TVAAS scores, but that was later repealed by the state board of education. A careful analysis of the claims of value-added proponents demonstrates that the data reveals very little in terms of differentiation among teachers.

Ravitch said that instead of punitive evaluation systems, teachers need resources and support. Specifically, she mentioned Peer Assistance and Review as an effective way to provide support and meaningful development to teachers.

A crowd of around 400 listened and responded positively throughout the hour-long speech. Ravitch encouraged the audience to speak up about the harms of ed reform and rally for the reforms and investments our schools truly need.

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

Hamilton County School Board Member Explores BEP Lawsuit

A Hamilton County School Board Member is exploring the idea of a lawsuit that would force the State of Tennessee to fully fund the BEP, the state’s funding formula for schools.

Hamilton County Board Member Jonathan Welch argues that the school system loses $14.5 million a year because the BEP is not fully funded by the legislature.

Welch’s proposal comes on the heels of a resolution passed by the Shelby County School Board calling for increased BEP funding.

These proposals come in an environment where the current BEP leaves Tennessee schools funded at less dollars per student than Mississippi. Additionally, Tennessee teachers rank 40th in the nation in improvement in teacher pay over the past 10 years.

A deeper analysis of the BEP suggests the entire formula is broken and that the state needs an investment of nearly $500 million to fix it.

Of course, as noted in the Times-Free Press story on the issue, some in the General Assembly want to reduce sales taxes and end the Hall Tax on stock dividends and bond interest.

The question is: Will the 2015 session of the General Assembly see a serious move to improve the BEP or will it take a lawsuit to force lawmakers to act?

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

 

From 40th to 1st?

Around this time last year, Governor Haslam stated his intention to make Tennessee the fastest improving state in the nation in teacher salaries. He even tweeted it: “Teachers are the key to classroom success and we’re seeing real progress.  We want to be the fastest improving state in teacher salaries.”

And, at the Governor’s request, the BEP Review Committee included in its annual report the note:

The BEP Review Committee supports Governor Haslam’s goal of becoming the fastest improving state in teacher salaries during his time in office…

Of course, Haslam wasn’t able to pay the first installment on that promise. Teachers then and since then have expressed disappointment.

But, what does it mean to be the fastest improving? How is Tennessee doing now?

Well, according to a recent report by the Appalachia Regional Comprehensive Center, Tennessee ranks 40th in average teacher pay and 40th in teacher salary improvement over the past 10 years.

That means we have a long way to go to become the fastest improving state in the nation. Bill Haslam will certainly be re-elected in November. And that means he has about 5 years left in office. What’s his plan to take Tennessee from 40th in teacher salary improvement to 1st in just 5 years?

Does it even matter?

Yes. Teacher compensation matters. As the ARCC report notes, Tennessee has a long history of teacher compensation experiments that typically fizzle out once the money gets tight or a new idea gains traction.

But the report points to a more pressing problem: A teacher shortage. Specifically, the report states:

Since 2009, Tennessee has identified shortages in the overall numbers of K-12 teachers needed for public schools as well as teachers for specific subjects. There is a critical need in the state for STEM teachers, as well as shortages in high school English, social studies, world languages, Pre-K through high school special education, and English as a second language.

So, we face a teacher shortage in key areas at the same time we are 40th in both average teacher pay and in improvement in salaries over time. Jon Alfuth over at Bluff City Ed notes that a recent analysis of teaching climate ranked Tennessee 41st in the nation. Not exactly great news.

Moreover, an analysis by researchers at the London School of Economics notes that raising teacher pay correlates to increased student achievement.

The point is, Bill Haslam has the right goal in mind. Tennessee should absolutely be aiming to improve teacher salaries and do it quickly. The question remains: What’s his plan to make that happen?

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