Perspective: Dean and Lee on Charters and Vouchers

Retired educator Dr. Bill Smith offers some perspective on charters and vouchers as they relate to the Tennessee Governor’s race in a column he wrote for the Johnson City Press.

Here’s a bit of what he had to say:

When I read “Profit before Kids,” I wondered if our next governor will look closely at the Tennessee Virtual Academy in Union County, a charter that is operated by K12 Inc. If our state’s lawmakers are genuinely opposed to taxpayer dollars being funneled to for-profit educational entities, the findings reported in “Profit before Kids” should raise some concerns.

It’s no secret that non-profit charter schools often divert money intended for children’s instruction to other priorities. For example, many charters compensate their “CEOs” two to three times the salaries of principals who perform the same functions in regular public schools. Vision Academy in Nashville pays its two top executives (a married couple) a combined $562,000, while reportedly charging students for textbooks. (Imagine the outcry if a local public school engaged in such financial behavior.)

A Call to Action:

In this time of hyper-partisanship and extreme contentiousness over issues such as immigration and tax policy, the dangers of school choice are not going to attract the attention of most citizens until Democrats stand forcefully united against it. If they don’t, I’m afraid we will wake up one day and realize that what David Faris called the Republicans’ “slow-moving hostile takeover” of our educational system has been accomplished.

With one week to go before Election Day, this column is worth a read.

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


 

Vouchers Gone Wrong

While significant evidence suggests that even with proper implementation, vouchers don’t improve student performance (and sometimes, make it worse), a cautionary tale out of Florida raises even greater concerns. What if a voucher program goes horribly, terribly wrong?

This question seems especially relevant given gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee’s backing of vouchers.

Here’s what the Orlanda Sentinel had to say about a range of problems in that state’s voucher program:

In its “Schools Without Rules” series, Sentinel reporters found voucher (or “scholarship”) schools faking safety reports, hiring felons, hiring high-school dropouts as teachers and operating in second-rate strip malls. They discovered curricula full of falsehoods and subpar lesson plans.

If you confront defenders of this system, be they legislators or school operators, many start mumbling about the virtue of “choice”— as if funding a hot mess of a school is a swell thing, as long parents choose that mess.

Horse hockey. I choose accountability. And transparency. And standards.

I’ve written before about the mess made of schools (and of children’s lives) when voucher schemes go awry:

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.”

That’s just one example, of course. The Sentinel series exposes significant problems across a variety of schools. Among the problems were schools closing with little notice, evictions, and teachers without credentials.

Those supporting a voucher-backing candidate for Governor should be very aware of what that policy could mean for Tennessee’s families.

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


 

 

Lightning Can Strike at Any Time

One of Tennessee’s top advocates of using public money to fund private schools through unproven voucher schemes issued a bit of a warning for defenders of public schools recently. After offering up a number of excuses about why voucher legislation has failed in recent legislative sessions, Tommy Schultz of the ironically named American Federation for Children said:

“We understand,” Schultz said, “that lightning can strike at any time.”

The comment was in reference to a surprise voucher win through a wolf in sheep’s clothing tactic in Illinois last year. As Chalkbeat noted:

But he pointed out that school choice legislation can move forward under surprising circumstances — such as in Illinois last year where a legislature dominated by Democrats created a massive tax-credit scholarship program.

While pro-schools lawmakers and advocates should certainly remain vigilant, it does appear that voucher legislation won’t advance during the 2018 legislative session.

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


 

Dead Already?

Is voucher legislation dead before the 2018 legislative session even starts?

Chalkbeat is reporting that the Senate sponsor of voucher legislation won’t bring the bill up for consideration in 2018:

Sen. Brian Kelsey said Monday that he won’t ask a Senate committee to take up his bill — which would pilot a program in Memphis — when the legislature reconvenes its two-year session in January.

Kelsey’s retreat calls into question the future of the voucher legislation in Tennessee, home to a perennial tug-of-war over whether to allow parents to use public money to pay for private school tuition. It also comes as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has focused national attention on the policy.

The early setback for vouchers could mean the legislation won’t advance for a fifth consecutive year.

Polling has shown Tennesseans reject the idea of spending public money on private schools. Additionally, a number of lobbyists ended contracts with pro-voucher groups after the issue failed last session.

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


 

Lobbyists Quit Amid Voucher Failure

Apparently, the fallout from this year’s defeat of voucher legislation has caused six lobbyists associated with Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children to quit.

Sheila Burke and Erik Schelzig of AP report:

Legislators couldn’t even enact a voucher pilot program limited to Shelby County, which includes Memphis.

The decision to put off the pilot program until at least next year incurred the wrath of the American Federation for Children, a school choice group DeVos once chaired. The group’s Tennessee political action committee has spent more than $1.5 million on direct mail, advertising and candidate contributions since 2012.

 

After the measure’s defeat, the group’s national spokesman, Tommy Schultz, placed the blame for what he called the “dysfunctional House process” on Speaker Beth Harwell, a Nashville Republican who is expected to run for governor next year.

 

“By allowing her hand-picked committee to not even bring the bill to a vote, she demonstrated to Tennessee’s Republican voters exactly how highly she regards them and the Republican Party platform,” Schultz said in a press release.

 

Since that release was sent, six lobbyists hired by the American Federation for Children have quit.

This marks the fifth consecutive year voucher legislation has been defeated, despite millions in spending from groups outside of Tennessee.

It’s telling that after AFC attacked Speaker Harwell, lobbyists decided to move on from an association with them. Of course, losing on your signature issue five years in a row doesn’t exactly help you attract and retain top talent.

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


 

Key Voucher Vote Tomorrow

Tennesseans Reclaiming Education Excellence (TREE) has the details:

HB126, this year’s voucher bill, is up for a crucial vote tomorrow (Wednesday) morning in the House Budget Subcommittee.

Please take a moment to e-mail committee members and ask them to oppose this bill. You can do it using our one-click feature at http://treetn.org/act.

This insidious legislation will lead to bad outcomes for students and taxpayers across the state. We need your help to stop it.

Take action and share with your friends. http://treetn.org/act

Showing up in person at the committee hearing is also encouraged. It will be held at 10 a.m. on Wednesday morning. Enter Legislative Plaza at the corner of Union and 6th and take a right after security. The hearing is in Room 16.

More on vouchers:

The Evidence is In: Vouchers Don’t Work

What Do the Facts Say?

Arizona’s Voucher Lesson

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


 

 

What Do the Facts Say?

The facts tells us that school vouchers don’t work — they are expensive and can actually have a negative impact on student achievement.

But, that didn’t matter last night as a subcommittee of lawmakers advanced a voucher bill proponents claim will only impact a small group of students.

Grace Tatter at Chalkbeat reports:

… Tennessee lawmakers insisted Tuesday that the state can succeed where others have failed, and easily advanced a proposal that would start a five-year pilot program in Memphis.

The voice vote came after members of a House education subcommittee heard voucher opponents cite recent research showing that vouchers in other states have led to worse academic outcomes for students. But again and again, lawmakers said that Tennessee could be different.

Perennial voucher advocate John DeBerry of Memphis said that voucher opponents shouldn’t worry — the program will be small, and schools won’t lose that much money.

Tatter notes that he:

… projected that few students would actually opt to participate, meaning public schools would not lose as much funding as its leaders fear. “A lot of folks are not going to put in the time, the effort,” DeBerry said, “but for the handful of parents that do, why not give them that right?”

Let’s examine that a little more closely. DeBerry is acknowledging that public schools will lose money under the plan he supports. He’s willing to take money from a school system that finally appears to be turning around in order to help what he describes as a small group of students. Oh, and the evidence says the vouchers won’t actually help those students and may well harm them.

Now, let’s compare DeBerry’s remarks to what former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels said when he started a voucher program in his state:

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.”

There are other similarities between Indiana’s voucher experience and the Tennessee proposal. Back in 2011, the program in Indiana was capped at 7500 students. The proposal advanced last night would initially provide vouchers for up to 5000 students.

That Indiana program was expanded rapidly, and now it serves more than 30,000 students.

If you think lawmakers won’t move to quickly expand vouchers in Tennessee once the door is opened, you are wrong. At the end of the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers narrowly approved an IEA voucher bill. This bill was targeted at students with a specific list of special needs. Now, Senator Dolores Gresham is advancing legislation that would expand that program to include students who have never attended a public school. The program is in the first year of operation, there’s no data on student results, and yet voucher proponents are already seeking to expand.

Last night, facts didn’t matter. A majority on subcommittee ignored research and suggested Tennessee could be different. The track record in other states tells a different story.

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


 

 

 

The Verdict on Vouchers

As the Tennessee General Assembly considers vouchers as part of the education agenda this year, it is important to look at the evidence. That is, do vouchers work? Do voucher programs lead to improved student outcomes. Until now, most research has been mixed, with some suggesting modest gains for students, while some studies showed no significant improvement. These studies focused on older, typically smaller programs.

Now, however, there is data on some statewide voucher efforts. That data suggests, quite strongly, that vouchers don’t work. In fact, the studies indicate vouchers actually cause student achievement to decline.

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.

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. 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.

MORE on vouchers:

Vouchers the wrong choice for Tennessee

What Tennessee Can Learn from Louisiana on Vouchers

Fitzhugh on Vouchers

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


 

Polling: Tennesseans Oppose Vouchers

As I mentioned last week, the issue of school vouchers will again be a hot topic at the Tennessee General Assembly. Today, the Tennessee Education Association is out with polling suggesting Tennessee residents oppose vouchers.

Here’s the press release:

Tennesseans strongly reject private school vouchers, according to the largest and most comprehensive polling data on the subject. TEA extensively surveyed rural, urban and suburban voters in all three Grand Divisions of the state, with an oversample of highly-likely Republican primary voters. The polls were conducted May through October of 2016.

Of the 6,510 respondents, 59.5 percent rejected private school vouchers, 29 percent approved. The two-to-one negative opinion was consistent across geographic and demographic groups. The polling margin of error is +/- 4 percent.

“I’ve rarely seen such a strong negative opinion. It is clear Tennesseans do not like or want school vouchers,” said Jim Wrye, TEA Government Relations manager. “We are a conservative state that values our local traditions and institutions. Vouchers are a radical idea that attack and weaken the foundation of our communities — our public schools.”

During the 2016 primary and general elections, TEA conducted numerous polls in districts to help defend legislators from attacks by pro-voucher groups and determine where new attacks could happen. Polling was conducted by a respected Republican firm used by Tennessee GOP entities and candidates.

While TEA’s polling asked basic national and local “horse-race” questions and demographic information, the polling also asked a voucher question about using taxpayer funds for private school tuition. The simple and accurate question was asked in every poll commissioned by TEA and now provides the best voter opinion data on vouchers.

“It was important to keep the question simple, and to stay away from leading or flowery language seen in other polling and surveys,” said Wrye. “Vouchers use public school funding for private school tuition. It was important to ask voters in the most simple and accurate way whether they support such a thing. Overwhelmingly, they do not.”

Rejection of vouchers was remarkably consistent across the state. Rural voters tended to be more against vouchers (64.17 percent no, 24.54 percent yes; 2,995 voters) than urban and suburban (54.01 percent no, 34.43 percent yes; 3,536 voters). No area or legislative district saw vouchers receive more support than opposition.

“I strongly encourage any legislator to vote their district and listen to folks back home. There are a lot of special interest lobbyists and money floating around the capitol, pushing things that are not of Tennessee’s great traditions and values,” said Wrye. “No matter the special interest threats or demands, you can be sure voting with your folks back home is always good politics.”

When it comes to vouchers, it is not what voters want in any district.

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


 

Corker Statement on DeVos

Despite an outpouring of opposition from parents, teachers, and others across the state, Senator Bob Corker has indicated he will support Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education.

Here’s his statement:

“For decades, Betsy DeVos has passionately and effectively advocated for all children – regardless of gender, race or socioeconomic status – to have access to a quality education,” Corker said in a statement released by his office.

“She believes in empowering parents and has committed to working with states and local school districts. I have known Betsy for many years and am confident that she will do a great job as secretary of education.”

Corker’s statement comes as DeVos’s nomination appears to be in peril, with 50 Senators indicating that will vote against her.

More on DeVos

Tennessee PTA Opposes DeVos

Knox County parents, teachers speak out on DeVos

A Letter of Reservation

A Voucher Vulture at the DOE

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