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


 

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