The Voucher School District

This week, Education Committees in the House and Senate will consider a number of bills creating school vouchers in Tennessee. Proponents are pushing the bills even as growing evidence suggests vouchers fail kids.

So, what would happen if Tennessee started a voucher program, even a small-scale one, this year?

One state with a record on this is Indiana. Vouchers started there back in 2011 in a relatively small program with fairly strict eligibility requirements. At the time the vouchers were created, then-Governor Mitch Daniels said:

Back in 2011, Daniels spoke to a conservative think tank a few months after he signed the program into law. At that speech, he said he didn’t expect this to become a big problem.

“It is not likely to be a very large phenomenon in Indiana,” he said “I think it will be exercised by a meaningful but not an enormous number of our students.”

Initially, vouchers were only to serve some 7500 students.

Fast forward five years, and the program has expanded exponentially, serving more than 30,000 students — 3 percent of the state’s student population.

The qualifications have changed, too. Now, a student doesn’t even have to have attended a public school to qualify for a voucher. Reports suggest this provision means Indiana is spending some $54 million supporting private schools — money that would not have been spent without the voucher program:

A report on the program released by the Department of Education shows the program costs $54 million.

“If the idea behind a voucher program is we’re going to have the money follow the student, if the student didn’t start in a public school, the money isn’t following them from a public school, it’s just appearing from another budget,” [Researcher Molly] Stewart said. “And we’re not exactly sure where that’s coming from.”

Vouchers, then, create $54 million in new expenditures — an education funding deficit — in Indiana.

green-dollar-sign-clipart-green-dollar-sign-4

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.

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.

This means local governments would be stuck picking up the tab to support private schools. The alternative would be a dedicated state fund to support the voucher school district. That’s a total cost of around $200 million, half of that new money.

Should taxpayers be asked to invest $100 million in a program that gets negative results? Studies in Indiana, Ohio, and Louisiana all indicate that vouchers have a negative impact on student academic outcomes.

Kevin Carey noted recently that even a study by the Fordham Institute showed negative results for vouchers:

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.

This week, we may hear that any new voucher program will start small and will only serve a fraction of our state’s students. Even if that’s true, the cost to taxpayers at the state and local level will be significant. Then, there’s the fact that studies are emerging showing vouchers just don’t work. Why spend more to get less?

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


 

What Could Go Wrong?

Last week, I wrote about the newest voucher craze sweeping the Tennessee General Assembly — vouchers for kids with IEPs – individualized education plans.

The concept sounds interesting, but as noted in the post, the program lacks accountability. Tennessee’s program is modeled after Florida’s McKay Scholarship, and Sara Mead of Education Sector studied that plan and found it to be seriously lacking.

But, what does that mean? What could go wrong?

Well, everything.

A story in the Miami New Times details a number of problems with the McKay program – the very plan Tennessee is seeking to emulate if the legislation passes here.

Here are some highlights:

South Florida Prep

South Florida Prep received significant funds from the Florida Department of Education under the McKay program. Here’s how that school was run:

Two hundred students were crammed into ever-changing school locations, including a dingy strip-mall space above a liquor store and down the hall from an Asian massage parlor. Eventually, fire marshals and sheriffs condemned the “campus” as unfit for habitation, pushing the student body into transience in church foyers and public parks.

“We had no materials,” says Nicolas Norris, who taught music despite the lack of a single instrument. “There were no teacher edition books. There was no curriculum.”

Exponential Growth

Once a niche scholarship fund, the McKay program has boomed exponentially in the 12 years since it was introduced under Gov. Jeb Bush, with $148.6 million handed out in the past 12 months, a 38 percent increase from just more than five years ago.

There are 1,013 schools — 65 percent of them religious — collecting McKay vouchers from 22,198 children at an average of $7,144 per year.

Similarly, proponents of the vouchers in Tennessee suggest that plan will be modest, and not widely used. The Florida numbers tell a different — and financially devastating story.

No Accountability

While supporters of the measure in Tennessee claim that accountability measures are included, they were also included in the Florida legislation. Nevertheless, here’s what’s happened there:

According to one former DOE investigator, who claimed his office was stymied by trickle-down gubernatorial politics, the agency failed to uncover “even a significant fraction” of the McKay crime that was occurring.

Administrators who have received funding include criminals convicted of cocaine dealing, kidnapping, witness tampering, and burglary.

Even in investigations where fraud, including forgery and stealing student information to bolster enrollment, is proven, arrests are rare. The thieves are usually allowed to simply repay the stolen loot in installments — or at least promise to — and continue to accept McKay payments.

Opening the Door

Just as in Florida, the Tennessee voucher plan is being pushed as a way to help kids with IEPs access services. But, here’s what has happened:

To be eligible for a McKay voucher in the early days, a student would have had to qualify for an individual education program (IEP) — which encompasses conditions ranging from attention disorders and autism to physical disabilities — and be failing in public schools. The latter requirement was eventually scrapped by legislators. A cap limiting the number of McKay kids per district was also tossed.

Who Will Check?

The proposed Tennessee plan creates “Individual Education Accounts” for parents/guardians of children qualifying for the program — the qualifications being the child has attended at least two semesters of public school in Tennessee and currently has an IEP.

The parent can then use the funds to provide services either through a private school or on their own, by purchasing curriculum or paying for tutoring. Though the bill requires the Department of Education to set up procedures for policing the program, it seems it would be difficult to keep track of the 6000-8000 accounts the plan is estimated to create in the early years. Additionally, of course, the Department would have to track providers of education services and curriculum. How long will it take to discover fraud? And what happens to the students with legitimate needs who are poorly or never served?

As proposed, Tennessee’s program has many similarities to the way the program in Florida began. The only way to prevent such a plan from becoming a disaster in Tennessee, it seems, is to never let it get started.

 

For more on education politics and policy, follow @TNEdReport

 

Why Vouchers Won’t Work

Samantha Bates, Director of Member Services for Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET) offers her take on why vouchers won’t work in Tennessee.

We are living in an age of historic transformation. There is a no doubt that traditional conservative and liberal ideology has undergone a seismic shift. Political labels mean nothing to voters, because it is very obvious that they mean nothing to politicians elected under a political banner of a party. In education the name of the game is race to the top; in politics it is race to the trough.

Calvin Coolidge understood that the power to tax is the power to destroy. He said, “A government which lays taxes on the people not required by urgent public necessity and sound public policy is not a protector of liberty, but an instrument of tyranny.” Government at all levels has created problems and then miraculously been seen as the savior to resolve that issue. We understand, however, that top-down reform rarely reaches the grassroots.

Unless we generate improved capacities in our people, organizations, and communities to see the world differently and to utilize new concepts and methods, we will continue to try to advance ideas and approaches that are increasingly out of date. For example, we have made our system of public education adhere to one set of rules and then handcuffed them. Now we want to allow other approaches to operate under different constructs. Should we not focus on means to free our state and local school districts from onerous rules and regulations and give them greater freedom to operate? Instead of charter schools, for example, what about charter districts in Tennessee. Let’s simply block-grant federal and money to the states or districts.

Education is the process by which we infuse knowledge of our culture and our moral values in our children. However, our schools are being changed from essential community institutions into government agencies. Rather than serving as hubs of civic life, our schools are converting into apparatuses of state and national policy more concerned with economic development than with the diffusion of culture; more concerned with issues associated with international competitiveness than with concern about national character. We have lost our vision because we handcuffed public schools with burdensome rules and regulations and outsourced our policymaking to chambers of commerce and wealthy philanthropists and their well-funded think tanks.

Just as good teachers know when to put aside curriculum to do what is right for children, good leaders will support that effort and good policy will embrace it. The move to shift more state and local dollars to vouchers in Tennessee will not work and will further destroy our public schools. Under a recent proposal the attempt is to target the lowest performing five percent. There will always be a bottom five percent. So, if your school is not on the list, rest assured it will eventually get there. The numbers will expand, and local school systems will be required to absorb the cost to educate the students that remain.

If policymakers want to argue that the latest voucher proposal will promote market-driven competition, they are operating under a false assumption. They will need to come to grips with the fact that, as a whole, Tennessee lacks the necessary infrastructure of quality private schools, and that list is further narrowed with ones that operate at a reasonable tuition rate in line with any proposed voucher. There are some Jewish, Christian, and Muslim schools that may meet the criteria. While the U.S. Constitution is silent on how states fund or provide a quality education, and courts around the nation have upheld that providing money to faith-based schools through vouchers does not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, each community will ultimately debate if this is where they want their tax money to be spent.

It would also stand to reason, if we are concerned about accountability in public schools and with public monies we will need to also need to be concerned with accountability of a voucher school. If the testing and evaluation system are critical for quality in public schools, would they not be as equally critical for private schools? Vouchers could lead private schools to excessive regulation, as well as undermine the quality and independence of private schools. Whoever pays the piper ultimately calls the tune.

A voucher program will also inevitably lead to continued growth and power by the Tennessee Department of Education over local education. Vouchers will not eliminate or substantially reduce the state’s role in education, and it will take significant resources to oversee the program. If you like big government, this will increase the size and scope of the Tennessee Department of Education.

For some, vouchers are a means to eliminate public education. Looking at the argument for a moment, do we really want a massive system of government contractors, albeit private schools, approved by the state, who in turn will themselves lobby and demand larger subsidies? Vouchers will also likely drive up the cost for parents in private schools whose children do not use or qualify for vouchers.

Philosopher George Santayana defined fanaticism as amplifying your efforts when you have forgotten your purpose. While public schools must promote personal development and intellectual growth, education goes beyond preparing students for college or the workforce. We must remind ourselves of the purpose of public education under the Tennessee Constitution: “The state of Tennessee recognizes the inherent value of education and encourages its support. The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools.” Will vouchers, as proposed, meet that standard?

There are many people working hard to strengthen our system of free public schools. We simply believe that local educators, rather than outside influences, are the people who must transform our schools. We have been there. We are teachers, principals, superintendents and boards of education and we do not believe vouchers will work in our state.

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

 

TSBA Talks Vouchers

The Tennessee School Boards Association is out with an op-ed on its opposition to vouchers. Here are four key points taken directly from the piece:

1. Vouchers use your money to help pay for a student to go to a private school that answers to private administrators and not you the taxpayer.  Public schools must answer to the people and are held accountable for the use of local, state and federal educational tax money.

2. Article XI, Section 12 of the Tennessee Constitution specifically states “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools.”  Nowhere in our constitution is the General Assembly directed to take taxpayer money and use it for a voucher system so parents can use public money to send their children to private schools.

3. Private schools are not public institutions, and without proper oversight the “qualifications and standards” for students may fall short of expectations and undermine the fundamental idea of equality in education.  Vouchers require the public to supplement these standards even if they are contrary to state and federal education law.

4. Vouchers force the public to support two drastically different educational systems one over which the public has no oversight.

 

Essentially, the TSBA argument boils down to accountability and accessibility. Private schools simply aren’t (and won’t be) accountable to the taxpayers funding them. And private schools are not accessible to all Tennessee students, even with a voucher program.

It’s also worth noting that a voucher program would drive up the costs of local school districts without a corresponding increase in revenue.

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