Voucher Fraud

While there is clear evidence suggesting vouchers don’t improve academic outcomes for students, a new concern is getting the attention of Tennessee lawmakers: Fraud.

The Daily Memphian has more:

Reports from across the nation show situations in which private-school officials and parents spent voucher money for items unrelated to education. Cards were used at beauty supply stores, sporting good shops and for computer tech support, in addition to trying to withdraw cash, which was not allowed.

The Arizona Republic found many parents there put voucher funds into college-savings accounts then sent their children to public schools, among other fraudulent activity, all amid lax oversight. The Phoenix newspaper also reported the state investigated one case in which voucher funds were allegedly used to pay for an abortion after it adopted an Empowerment Scholarship Account program in 2011.

The Wisconsin State Journal reported in 2014 the state paid $139 million over 10 years to schools it wound up removing from its voucher program for not following Wisconsin’s financial reporting rules and other guidelines.

It’s not clear if voucher legislation will move forward this session, though Governor Bill Lee has consistently supported using public money to fund private schools.

 

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A Voucher By Any Other Name

Is still bad for Tennessee students and a raw deal for Tennessee taxpayers.

The Tennessee Education Association has some analysis:

It is clear that privatizers are favoring Education Savings Accounts as a new means to try to change the conversation after five years of stinging defeats when peddling more traditional voucher legislation.  While ESAs are referred to by some as “vouchers light,” nothing could be further from the truth.

ESAs are vouchers on steroids, as recipients are sent money directly rather than applying it toward the cost of private school tuition.  As such, parents can then spend the funds however they like, even if that means keeping their children home and not attending school at all.

This super voucher has been used in other states with disastrous results.  Sending funds directly to parents has invited widespread fraud and abuse of voucher funds.

“The fact is, we have truant officers for a reason,” says TEA chief lobbyist Jim Wrye.  “The state will be providing a monetary incentive for the misuse of funds and children will suffer as a result.”

Stay tuned as the legislative session develops and vouchers in some form emerge at the General Assembly.

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Houston County Commission Takes Stand for Public Schools

The Houston County Commission joined the growing list of opponents to a school voucher program recently.

The Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle has more:

The Houston County Commission has approved a resolution opposing any state measure that would take funds from public schools for use at private schools.

Twelve out of 13 commissioners, with one abstaining, voted on Jan. 28 for a resolution affirming support for public education and educators to be sent to Gov. Bill Lee, members of the Tennessee Legislature and the Commissioner of Education.

Legislation was filed by Rep. Jay Reedy, R-Erin, in early January to create a voucher program. Since then, a number of school boards have passed similar resolutions in opposition to such a program.

Local school boards and county commissions are expressing their position on vouchers as Governor Bill Lee has indicated he intends to pursue voucher legislation.

The bottom line: Vouchers don’t work.

Voucher studies of statewide programs in Ohio, Louisiana, and Indiana all suggest that not only do vouchers not improve student achievement, they in fact cause student performance to decline.

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.

Stay tuned to see if voucher legislation advances and how legislators respond to the local elected officials strongly opposing the use of public money to fund private schools.

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Vouchers Will Hurt Tennessee Students

Rev. David Kidd of Nashville, writing on behalf of Pastors for Tennessee Children, outlines the harms of school vouchers.

Kidd notes:

Although urban legislators have been divided on the question of private school vouchers, rural legislators have voted them down, realizing that vouchers offer no benefit to rural districts, but instead endanger their already fragile budgets.

Indiana’s voucher program, for example, has drawn rural students into religious schools to the detriment of small, vulnerable districts.  Only 15 children in Richland-Bean Blossom attendance district used vouchers in the 2013-2014 school year, soon after Indiana passed voucher legislation in 2011.

By 2016-2017 that number had increased to 41. Result? $200,000 less in revenue for Richland-Bean Blossom, sparking talk of closing schools.

He also outlines the academic harm caused by vouchers:

To make matters worse, vouchers often fail to improve outcomes for the students. Rigorous studies in three different states, Louisiana, Indiana and Ohio, (as well as the District of Columbia, the only federally funded voucher program), have shown that students who use vouchers to attend private schools fare worse academically than their closely matched peers attending public schools.

Kidd points out what the evidence shows: Vouchers are problematic for rural communities financially and end up leaving the kids they purport to help behind.

Our legislature should heed his warning.

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


 

 

New Name, Same Game

The newly-established Pastors for Tennessee Children is already on the scene pointing out the dangers of the latest voucher scheme known as Education Savings Accounts.

Here’s their take on the latest threat to public schools with some explanatory material from the Network for Public Education:

Vouchers have proven to be unpopular in Tennessee, and after years of failed attempts to expand vouchers here, some lawmakers are considering “Education Savings Accounts” (ESAs) as an alternative. But make no mistake, vouchers and “Education Savings Accounts” are one and the same.

Will “Education Savings Accounts” lead to better results for Tennessee children and families? No.

Education Savings Accounts are not truly savings accounts. They “are another voucher-like scheme that redirects public money for educating all children to private, unaccountable education businesses, homeschoolers, and religious institutions. Privatization advocates created these programs because school vouchers are unpopular and because these programs are a way around prohibitions against using public dollars for religious schools. But just like vouchers, ESA’s bleed public schools of essential funds and do little to improve education options for families.”

The Pastors believe in God’s provision for ALL Tennessee children- not just the chosen few. We believe that our shared public tax dollars must be used is ways that align with public accountability so that all Tennessee children may prosper. We believe in the separation of church and state, and we oppose government oversight of religious schools.

The Pastors stand together in support of public education so that we may lift up the children of our state. Stand with us!

 

More from the Network for Public Education:

“Education Savings Accounts” (ESAs) are another voucher-like scheme that redirects public money for educating all children to private, unaccountable education businesses, homeschoolers, and religious institutions. Privatization advocates created these programs because school vouchers are unpopular and because these programs are a way around prohibitions against using public dollars for religious schools. But just like vouchers, ESA’s bleed public schools of essential funds and do little to improve education options for families.

MORE>

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Wilson County School Board Opposes Vouchers

The Wilson County School Board unanimously passed a resolution opposing the creation of a voucher program in the state ahead of this year’s legislative session. Wilson County joins Knox County in speaking out about the dangers of a voucher scheme.

The move comes as Bill Lee is on the verge of taking over as Governor. Lee is strong proponent of using public money to fund unaccountable private schools.

Here’s more from the Lebanon Democrat:

The Constitution of the state of Tennessee requires that the Tennessee General Assembly “provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools,” and the state has established nationally recognized standards and measures for accountability in public education, according to the resolution

“Vouchers eliminate accountability, by channeling taxes to private schools without the same academic or testing requirements, public budgets or reports on student achievement, open meetings and records law adherence, public accountability requirements in major federal laws, including special education laws,” Wright said. “Vouchers have not been proven effective at improving student achievement or closing the achievement gap, and vouchers leave students behind, including those with the greatest needs, because vouchers channel tax dollars into private schools that are not required to accept all students, nor offer the special services they may need.”

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


 

Commissioner Schwinn

Tennessee has a new Commissioner of Education.

Chalkbeat has the story of Penny Schwinn:

Penny Schwinn was tapped Thursday by governor-elect Bill Lee to join his administration in one of his most important and closely watched cabinet picks.

She will leave her job as chief deputy commissioner of academics for the Texas Education Agency, where she has been responsible since 2016 for school programs, standards, special education, and research and analysis, among other things.

In a statement, Lee praised Schwinn’s experience as both a teacher and administrator. An accompanying news release touted her reform work for leading to “the transformation of a failing state assessment program” and expansion of career readiness programs for students in Texas.

Here’s a word from the President of the Tennessee Education Association, Beth Brown:

As the president of the largest professional association for Tennessee educators, I look forward to working with Commissioner Penny Schwinn in the best interest of Tennessee students, educators and our great public schools. As a newcomer to our state, I hope she will take time to see firsthand the meaningful work happening in classrooms all across Tennessee, and also gain an understanding of the support and resources needed to ensure student success.

Based on our first conversation, I am confident we have common ground on the importance of test transparency, including educators’ voices in policy decisions and working to ensure all students have access to a quality public education.

Schwinn will take over a Department of Education reeling from repeated failures of the state’s standardized test, TNReady, and the subsequent lies to cover up the state’s culpability in those failures.

Additionally, the state’s turnaround district — the Achievement School District (ASD) is simply not getting results.

Schwinn’s tenure in Texas was not without controversy, as noted by the Texas Tribune:

In an audit released Wednesday morning, the State Auditor’s Office reviewed the education agency’s work and found it failed to follow all the required steps before offering a no-bid $4.4 million contract to SPEDx, which was hired to analyze how schools serve students with disabilities and help create a long-term special education plan for the state.

State auditors also said the TEA failed to “identify and address a preexisting professional relationship” between a SPEDx subcontractor and the agency’s “primary decision maker” for the contract. Penny Schwinn — that decision maker and the agency’s deputy commissioner of academics — did not disclose that she had received professional development training from the person who ultimately became a subcontractor on the project.

Schwinn will likely be tasked with taking action on both testing and the ASD as immediate action items. Additionally, it is expected that the Lee Administration will soon pursue an education agenda that includes using taxpayer dollars to fund private schools by way some form of voucher scheme.

 

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Big Mac’s Audition

Now that failed Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has moved on, speculation is swirling about who will become Bill Lee’s choice to lead education policy in the state.

A recent guest column in the Knoxville News Sentinel by former Knox County Schools Superintendent Jim “Big Mac” McIntyre reads like an audition for the role of Chief Voucher Advocate in the Lee Administration. After all, who better to foist vouchers on the unsuspecting masses than a former school district leader who now holds a cushy post at the University of Tennessee?

Big Mac’s argument for vouchers essentially boils down to saying this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad thing called vouchers will be here anyway, might as well warm up to it.

Umm, no.

But, I’ll not just paraphrase. Here’s some of what he has to say:

Since the adoption of a school voucher program in Tennessee now seems like a foregone conclusion (despite considerable opposition), I would suggest that as a state we at least pause to discern how such school voucher structures could include some modicum of fairness.

Here’s the key problem: Big Mac assumes Tennessee will somehow magically invent a new, better way to go about structuring and implementing vouchers.

He’s wrong.

Voucher schemes have been tried in various states with differing approaches. The evidence suggests they simply don’t work. At all. In fact, they can at times be harmful to the very students they are intended to help.

Here’s more:

Kevin Carey writes in the New York Times:

The first results came in late 2015. Researchers examined an Indiana voucher program that had quickly grown to serve tens of thousands of students under Mike Pence, then the state’s governor. “In mathematics,” they found, “voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement.” They also saw no improvement in reading.

The next results came a few months later, in February, when researchers published a major study of Louisiana’s voucher program. Students in the program were predominantly black and from low-income families, and they came from public schools that had received poor ratings from the state department of education, based on test scores. For private schools receiving more applicants than they could enroll, the law required that they admit students via lottery, which allowed the researchers to compare lottery winners with those who stayed in public school.

They found large negative results in both reading and math. Public elementary school students who started at the 50th percentile in math and then used a voucher to transfer to a private school dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year. Results were somewhat better in the second year, but were still well below the starting point.

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.

While Big Mac offers lip service to the cause of “fairness,” it’s not at all fair to use tax money intended to support our state’s public schools to prop up private schools of questionable efficacy. Our state already chronically underfunds public schools and we’ve failed to move the needle on this front during the Haslam Administration. Now, with the help of former school district leaders like McIntyre, Bill Lee wants to exacerbate the problem by diverting some of our education dollars to a scheme proven to fail in state after state.

In fact, an analysis of a small voucher pilot that expanded into a statewide program in Indiana indicates that the unintended costs of vouchers to public schools could be quite high:

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.

Tennesseans should not be surprised if Big Mac moves from guest columnist and UT professor to top candidate for Education Commissioner in the coming weeks. We should also be wary of his seemingly charming advocacy for vouchers cloaked in edu-buzzwords like “access” and “equity.”

Tennessee students don’t need vouchers, they need policymakers committed to investing in our schools and supporting our teachers.

 

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Actually Putting Students First

While Tennessee policymakers continue to buy the lie that we can’t move away from our failed high-stakes testing regime, New Mexico’s new governor is taking swift action to put students first.

The Albuquerque Journal reports:

On her third day as governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that New Mexico will drop the oft-maligned PARCC exam after the current school year – if not sooner.

“I know that PARCC isn’t working,” Lujan Grisham said after announcing two executive orders during a news conference at the state Capitol. “We know that around the country.”

The governor, who was joined by four teachers at Thursday’s news conference, also said families and students around the state should “expect to see New Mexico transition immediately out of high-stakes testing.”

Bill Lee will officially be sworn-in as Tennessee Governor on January 19th. So far, he has yet to name a permanent Education Commissioner to replace the outgoing Candice McQueen. Instead, he’s been focused on stocking his staff with supporters of school voucher schemes.

Imagine if he issued a clear, direct statement about the failures of TNReady along the lines of what the new Governor of New Mexico has done. He likely won’t because he’s being advised by those who want to use public money to fund the privatization of our public schools.

Still, there are 15 days before he is officially our Governor. There’s still time to let him know we need to move past the “test-and-punish” system that has failed our students and schools.

Shout out to New Mexico’s governor for exposing the lies of the pro-testing “reformers.”

It’s time that level of good sense infected Tennessee policy making.

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Pastors vs. Vouchers

As 2019 starts, a new group has plans to stand up to efforts to voucherize Tennessee public schools.

Pastors for Tennessee Children has announced an event on the opening day of legislative session:

Dear Pastors for Tennessee Children Partners and Friends,

I hope all of you are enjoying a warm and happy holiday break with your families and friends.

Please save the date for our public launch of Pastors for Tennessee Children. On Tuesday, January 8th at 11 a.m., the opening day of this year’s legislative session, we will gather in Nashville for a prayer event at the Tennessee Capitol (specific location to be determined). Key clergy from across Tennessee will speak and pray on behalf of our great public schools and schoolchildren. We would love for you to join us!

We will share more details soon. In the meantime, please mark your calendar!

 

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