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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DeVos Disciple Lands Key Role in Lee Admin

Incoming Governor Bill Lee announced a round of Cabinet and staff appointments yesterday including the appointment of a leading backer of school vouchers to a senior policy role.

Lee named Tony Niknejad as his policy director.

Niknejad served as policy director in the Lee campaign and before that was the Tennessee State Director of Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children. He also served as a policy staffer for state Senator Brian Kelsey, one of the leading advocates of using public money for private schools in the legislature.

Lee has a track record of supporting the DeVos organization and ill-advised voucher schemes.

The announcement is another indicator that Lee intends to move ahead on school vouchers, perhaps as soon as the 2019 legislative session.

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


 

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