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

 

Cash vs. Kids?

The Union County School Board voted unanimously last night to allow 626 students to remain enrolled in the Tennessee Virtual Academy, a joint project between Union County Schools and K12, Inc.

The decision comes in the wake of a recommendation by Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman that the students be un-enrolled due to the poor performance of the TNVA.

Following that recommendation, parents and some state legislators appealed to the Governor’s office to ask that Huffman’s recommendation be reversed.

It’s worth noting that Union County Schools receives a 4% administrative fee for their part in the program.  Based on numbers in this article, that would mean a total of $132,000+ for Union County Schools if the students remain enrolled.

So, instead of giving the Virtual Academy time to improve its processes so that it may better serve future students, Union County took the money (from state taxpayers) and allowed the students to enroll in one of the worst-performing schools in the state.

What happens to those 626 students if they are served as poorly as the students enrolled in TNVA in previous years? Will any of the $132,000+ Union County collected for this decision be used to help them catch up?

This is definitely a situation to watch going forward.  One would hope that K12 will improve and provide a better service. But there’s certainly legitimate concern based on their track record.

 

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