Vouchers: Done for Now

Rep. Harry Brooks today rolled his controversial Shelby County school voucher pilot project legislation to 2018. This means the bill won’t move beyond the House Finance Subcommittee this year.

Grace Tatter from Chalkbeat reports:

Many had thought that the plan to limit vouchers to Memphis would give the proposal the necessary support to become law, winning over lawmakers who have wavered in their support for the school choice measure in recent years. They also hoped to benefit from national attention to private school choice efforts. President Donald Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, have both used their platforms to advocate for vouchers and other similar programs.

But in the end, disagreements over how private schools should be held accountable for academic results — as well as legislators’ exhaustion after passing a hotly debated gas tax — caused the measure to stall.


More on vouchers:

The Verdict on Vouchers

Voucher Backers vs. Facts

The Voucher School District

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



Vouchers on the Beach

Joel Ebert and Dave Boucher of The Tennessean reported this weekend on a beach vacation for five Tennessee lawmakers hosted by a prominent school voucher advocate.

Here are some highlights:

The Oscar winner inspired a spirited discussion among the men on the trip, who were hosted by voucher advocate Mark Gill, about leadership and integrity. Reps. Andy Holt, Mike Carter, Billy Spivey and recently ousted lawmakerJeremy Durham stayed at Gill’s condo and left one morning for a half-day deep sea fishing trip paid for by Gill. They didn’t catch many fish, but the captain showed them how to filet the ones they did. Rep. Jimmy Matlock also made the trip but went to the beach instead of fishing because he gets seasick.

Interestingly, the lawmakers who took the vacation at the voucher advocate’s beach house all supported and co-sponsored voucher legislation in subsequent legislative sessions.

From the report:

The “odd duck” Carter referenced is Gill, a member of the board of directors with the Tennessee Federation for Children, an arm of the American Federation for Children that spends hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on contract lobbyists to push lawmakers to legalize school vouchers in Tennessee.

In 2016, all five lawmakers who went to Gill’s condo co-sponsored legislation to allow vouchers in the state.

So, Mark Gill serves on the Board of Directors for the Tennessee Federation for Children, is a large donor to the group, and hosts five Tennessee lawmakers at his beachside condo and then those same lawmakers just happen to co-sponsor pro-voucher legislation at the General Assembly?

No, this isn’t illegal. Yes, it actually happened. This is the type of behavior these same lawmakers decry about DC politicians.

Also: Why is Mark Gill so interested in vouchers?

More on Vouchers:

Million Dollar Baby

What Tennessee Can Learn from Louisiana on Vouchers

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



Vouchers Gone Wild

Vouchers are going wild in the Tennessee General Assembly this week and its not clear where they’ll stop.

First, the Senate Finance Committee tacked on an amendment to the principle voucher vehicle, SB 999.

The amendment adds the words “public or nonpublic school” to the bill.

Here’s what that means: Students could use the so-called Opportunity Scholarship to pay “out of district” tuition to a neighboring school district.

A family lives in Davidson County but wants their child to attend school in Williamson. The language allows them to use the voucher to send their child to school in Williamson if they meet all the other voucher requirements.

This is problematic on several fronts. First, there’s no way for districts to predict how many students will apply for admission from outside their district. This makes planning for growth/space needs difficult.

Next, the voucher amount may or may not equal the actual per pupil dollars spent on the child — creating a financial burden for the receiving district as well as for the district that loses the student. Yes, even if students leave a public school system, fixed costs mean vouchers increase, not decrease expenses.

The amendment will surely require a new Fiscal Note — an analysis of the financial impact of the bill.  And its adoption delayed consideration of the companion bill in the House Education – Administration & Planning Committee.

Following this adventure in vouchers, the Senate Education Committee and a House subcommittee approved a voucher plan that would allow any Tennessee student with an IEP – Individualized Education Plan – to receive vouchers. 120,000 Tennessee students currently meet this definition.

That means that in addition to the 20,000 student cap that is in the first voucher bill, another 120,000 students would be eligible. It’s not hard to imagine an ultimate goal of making vouchers available to every single student in Tennessee.

The idea for the IEP voucher plan is based on a plan promoted by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who saw the program adopted in his state while he was in office.

A report by Sara Mead of Education Sector at American Institutes for Research notes that the Florida program, on which the Tennessee legislation is modeled, is problematic.

Here are some highlights:

McKay students do not have to take the annual state tests administered to public school students, and McKay schools are not required to report any information on student outcomes—which goes against the national trend toward standards and accountability in public education. Thus, it is virtually impossible to say whether special-needs children using McKay vouchers to attend private schools are faring better, worse, or about the same as they had in their old public schools. It is also difficult to determine whether the McKay program is improving existing special-education services, since, unlike public schools, McKay schools are not required to provide these services at all.

Tennessee’s plan would have a similar lack of accountability — which means parents could claim the voucher and then have their child be grossly under-served.

Mead continues:

McKay’s lack of accountability requirements and its minimal quality and service expectations make McKay a seriously flawed program. Under the current structure of the program, taxpayers have almost no knowledge of how their money is being spent, and neither taxpayers nor parents have access to solid information about the performance of different McKay schools. For parents, the stakes are very high, as they are required to give up their due process rights under IDEA if they choose to participate in the McKay program. Parents, taxpayers, and the state’s special-needs children deserve better.

Moving toward a program with zero accountability and unproven results seems a grave disservice to the families of special needs children in Tennessee.

Next week may yield a slow down for these two voucher initiatives. Or, it could be more vouchers gone wild – more tax dollars spent, less accountability.

More on School Vouchers:

Fiscal Note Fantasy

TSBA Talks Vouchers

Why Vouchers Won’t Work

Should Tennesseans Support School Vouchers?

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


Fiscal Note Fantasy

The debate over vouchers began this week in the Tennessee House and Senate. A new vehicle for carrying vouchers (HB1049/SB999) is the chosen method for implementing a voucher scheme in Tennessee.

Of particular interest is the Fiscal Note, prepared by the legislature’s new Executive Director of Fiscal Review, who previously worked at the Friedman Foundation — an outfit dedicated to school choice.

The analysis of costs points out a shift of state and local dollars to non-public schools in an amount that goes up to nearly $70 million by FY 18-19 and beyond.

For local education agencies that have schools in the bottom five percent of achievement and are mandated to participate in the statewide scholarship program, the shift of state and required local BEP funding from these local education agencies to the non-public participating schools is estimated as follows: $16,570,000 in FY15-16; $25,473,800 in FY16- 17; $34,815,000 in FY17-18; and an amount exceeding $69,630,000 in FY18-19 and subsequent years.

In an unusual twist, the analysis notes a long-term savings to local governments and LEAs. Specifically:

LEAs with participating students will be relieved of the long-term educational cost burden of educating such students. Using the third year of the statewide program as the baseline, the cost burden relieved in FY17-18 is reasonably estimated to be $24,275,000.  This amount will increase in FY18-19 and each subsequent year. The long-term result of such cost burden relief could be a permissive decrease in local expenditures, a permissive reallocation of local funding, or a permissive cost avoidance of local expenditures. Cost burden relief may also result in a higher per pupil expenditure for students that remain within an LEA school. An LEA’s capacity to make any such permissive choice depends on the number and dispersion of students that participate in the scholarship program.  If the number of participating students is small and widely dispersed across grade levels it is less likely that any such permissive choice could be implemented, but more likely if the number is large and concentrated in just a few grades. 

What is not mentioned is the net loss of $10 million if these assumptions are accurate. That is, the FY17-18 “cost shift” is $34 million and the savings or “relief” is $24 million. In FY18-19 and beyond, the cost shift is nearly $70 million, with no estimate provided for cost relief, though it should “increase.”

First, I’d note this is still a net loss to school systems.

Next, I’d point out that fixed costs would mean the projected relief is more fantasy than reality. This is admitted to some extent when the note says:

If the number of participating students is small and widely dispersed across grade levels it is less likely that any such permissive choice could be implemented, but more likely if the number is large and concentrated in just a few grades. 

Additionally, a recent report on the impact of charter schools on MNPS gets to the same point in terms of students lost versus fixed costs:

“The key question for determining fiscal impacts is whether enrollment reductions allow a district to achieve expenditure reductions commensurate with revenue reductions. Fixed costs are incurred regardless of whether students attend traditional or charter schools. The problem is that some fixed costs, such as building maintenance, computer network infrastructure, and health services do not vary based on enrollment. Therefore, teachers and their salaries are a key cost driver tied to student enrollment … However, it is not always possible to reduce teacher costs proportionate to losses in revenue. For these costs to be reduced significantly, the school would need to close altogether.”

This analysis suggests two things: First, that the Fiscal Note assumptions about cost “relief” may be suspect and second, that the only way to gain true cost savings from a voucher program would be through school closures.

That’s right, to get true savings from a voucher program public schools would have to close. If they don’t, the cost shift noted in the fiscal analysis would mean increased costs to districts who then operate with decreased revenue.

This may be the fantasy of voucher advocates, but it’s a nightmare for public schools and the families they serve.

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



Koch Brothers, AFP Bring Voucher Debate to TN Campaigns

Koch-brothers-funded out-of-state group Americans for Prosperity hosted a forum this week featuring voucher advocate Steve Perry.

As WPLN reported, the forum comes after the second consecutive legislative session in which lawmakers rejected a voucher proposal.

Americans for Prosperity is also supporting candidates it believes will help advance its pro-voucher agenda.

This includes 45th District State Representative Courtney Rogers.

Rogers is no stranger to out of state special interests supporting her campaigns. In 2012, she unseated State Rep. Debra Maggart in a Republican primary with the help of thousands of dollars in out-of-state special interest money, most of it from the NRA and other gun rights groups.

The AFP sent out this flyer in support of Rogers:


Courtney Rogers AFP


The flyer awards Rogers an A+ rating for her unwavering support of vouchers.

It will be interesting to see if the AFP’s involvement in this year’s campaigns changes the outcome of future voucher debates.

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