Why TN Doesn’t Need Vouchers

Jon Alfuth over at Bluff City Ed wrote about the problems with vouchers last year during what is becoming an annual debate over the need (or lack thereof) for a voucher program in Tennessee. He recently republished the article, and it has some interesting notes.

First, and most important, vouchers don’t improve student outcomes:

In 2010, the Center on Education Policy reviewed 10 years of voucher research and action and found that vouchers had no strong effect on student achievement.  The most positive results come from Milwaukee County’s voucher program, but the effects were small and limited to only a few grades.

It seems to me that if we’re going to “add another arrow to our quiver” as voucher advocate Sen. Brian Kelsey said in the Education Committee recently, that arrow should be an effective one. With vouchers, Kelsey is aiming a broken arrow and hoping it still somehow works.

Next, vouchers perpetuate the status quo rather than providing new “opportunity:”

For example a critical study of the Milwaukee program found that it overwhelmingly helped those already receiving education through private means.  Two thirds of Milwaukee students using the voucher program in the city already attended private schools.  Instead of increasing mobility for low-income students, the program primarily served to perpetuate status quo.

Vouchers can make things worse:

It’s often difficult to determine the quality of the schools serving voucher students because private schools are not required to make public the same amount of student data as public schools.  An example of this occurring can be found right next door in Louisiana where approximately 2250 students were recently found to be attending failing schools through the state’s voucher program.

So, a move toward vouchers is once again at hand in the Tennessee General Assembly. Legislation creating a voucher program narrowly passed the Senate Education Committee, gaining the minimum-needed 5 votes in a recent meeting.

As legislators continue to examine the proposed program, they should take note of similar programs in other states. Vouchers have not historically worked to improve student achievement, they sometimes make matters worse, and there’s no reason to believe the Tennessee “opportunity” will prove any different than in other places in the country.

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

 

Koch Brothers, AFP Bring Voucher Debate to TN Campaigns

Koch-brothers-funded out-of-state group Americans for Prosperity hosted a forum this week featuring voucher advocate Steve Perry.

As WPLN reported, the forum comes after the second consecutive legislative session in which lawmakers rejected a voucher proposal.

Americans for Prosperity is also supporting candidates it believes will help advance its pro-voucher agenda.

This includes 45th District State Representative Courtney Rogers.

Rogers is no stranger to out of state special interests supporting her campaigns. In 2012, she unseated State Rep. Debra Maggart in a Republican primary with the help of thousands of dollars in out-of-state special interest money, most of it from the NRA and other gun rights groups.

The AFP sent out this flyer in support of Rogers:

 

Courtney Rogers AFP

 

The flyer awards Rogers an A+ rating for her unwavering support of vouchers.

It will be interesting to see if the AFP’s involvement in this year’s campaigns changes the outcome of future voucher debates.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interview with Speaker Beth Harwell

We had the pleasure to interview Speaker Beth Harwell again.

1) You have been quoted as saying that districts might need more time to absorb current reform before a voucher plan is enacted. Do you support the adoption of a voucher plan in this legislative session?

I think we need to be mindful about the changes we have already made, and certainly ensure any changes can be as seamless as possible. Most of the proposals that have been brought forth are limited in some way, so I think there is a desire to ease into it.

2) If a voucher program is implemented, would you consider independent funding of the voucher students, i.e. funding their tuition through new state funding rather than by redirecting BEP and local funds that would have gone to the LEA?  If the voucher program is limited, as Governor Haslam would like, this could be a relatively inexpensive way to test whether vouchers can raise student achievement without penalizing LEAs for the experiment.

I want everyone’s voice to be heard throughout the process, and welcome all ideas. However, we are already anticipating a tight budget due to revenue shortfalls, so a new funding source may not be possible at this time.
3) Under Republican leadership, Tennessee expanded access to charter schools beyond the original limitations based on students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, as well as those in currently failing schools.  Currently, access to pre-kindergarten is limited along similar lines, with free and reduced-price lunch students eligible first, and others eligible if there is enough space.  Why not follow the same path as charter schools, and make pre-K available for more students?

I believe we should keep Pre-K funding in place for those at-risk children that are currently eligible for the program. I am not for an expansion, however, because I think our focus right now needs to be on K-12 and making sure those public schools have the resources they need at their disposal. If there is additional money available, I would like to see it go to remedial programs in our K-12 schools.

4) There has been some recent discussion from MNPS and other districts about the state needing to fix the BEP. Perhaps along the lines of the reform started under BEP 2.0. Do you support moving forward with new BEP investment at this time?

The Governor just announced this week that he has formed a task force to take a hard look at the BEP funding formula, including the changes that were made with BEP 2.0. I applaud that approach, because even BEP 2.0 was passed seven years ago. I think allowing the stakeholders come to the table and have a serious discussion about the future of the BEP and what, if any, changes need to be made is important.
5) Some groups have called for the suspension of the use of TVAAS data in teacher evaluations until PARCC is fully implemented. Would you support this?

There are bills that have been proposed this year to take a look at a delay. While my personal preference is not to suspend or delay the use of this data, I will let the legislative process work and a full and healthy debate happen. I understand the concerns, and I’m listening, but I believe it is very important to use the data we are collecting to ensure Tennessee students are getting the education they deserve.

6) TNEdReport interviewed you last June, what has changed in the educational landscape of Tennessee since then?

I don’t know that much has changed, but there has been a lot of healthy discussion on the direction of education in Tennessee, and I think that is a positive thing.

7) What do you tell the teachers who are upset with the constant changes in education policy in Tennessee?

I value the work our teachers do, and I am pleased the Governor has committed to make Tennessee’s teacher salaries the fastest growing in the nation. They deserve that recognition and compensation. We share the same goal: to see that every child in Tennessee has the opportunity to succeed.


 

Voucher Backers Gearing up for 2014

Following a 2013 legislative session that saw voucher proposals competing and ultimately, no proposal succeeding, advocates for a vouchers, or “opportunity scholarships,” are gearing up for the 2014 legislative session.

2014 in education will likely look a lot like 2013 in terms of proposals on vouchers and charter schools.

Voucher advocates, organized under a coalition known as School Choice NOW, held a recent event in Hendersonville. There, they noted that this year’s discussions will start with Governor Haslam’s proposal from last session.  His proposal was a limited voucher plan that would initially offer 5000 vouchers in Memphis and Nashville and eventually grow to 20,000.  While it seems no competing proposal will be offered, it’s not clear what shape the final legislation will take.

Lawmakers in Chattanooga also recently discussed vouchers, with a solid pro-voucher bent coming from that delegation.

One possible stumbling block is the rapid pace of recent education reforms.  Some in the legislature, including House Speaker Beth Harwell, are suggesting that perhaps school systems need time to absorb the current crop of reforms before vouchers are allowed to move forward.

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

Our Interview With Speaker Beth Harwell

Tennessee Education Report had the chance to interview Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) on education issues facing our state. We want to thank her for taking time out of her busy schedule to talk about such an important issue.

Tennessee ranks low in the per-pupil funding of our public schools. Do you think we are doing enough to fund our schools?

This year the legislature fully funded the BEP and increased funding in specific areas; namely, we committed more resources to technology in our schools, which is a vital component of ensuring our students can compete for 21st Century jobs. The most important thing about funding is making sure we are spending those dollars with maximum efficiency to support students and teachers.

Do you support full funding of the bipartisan changes to the BEP that started under BEP 2.0? Will we see a move in that direction in 2014?

Fully funding the BEP is always a top priority. I am always open to discussing ways we can improve the system so we can give our schools the support they need.

Do you support expansion of the state’s voluntary Pre-K program either with federal dollars or through the formula established for expanding Pre-K under the Bredesen administration?

With regards to Pre-K, I think we have struck a good balance thus far. I don’t see expansion in the near future, because I think our priority right now is focusing on K-12 education and making sure we are committing time and resources to that.

Nashville recently changed their starting teacher salaries to $40,000 with great success. Do you support state-level funding to move starting teacher salaries in Tennessee to $40,000 a year?

I think each system should have the flexibility to determine the compensation that makes the most sense for them. In recent years, there has been more of a focus on differentiating pay to some degree based on positions that are traditionally difficult to fill—primarily, STEM positions and lower performing schools. If we can use that as a tool to attract the best and brightest, we should.

Do you support efforts to provide (and state funding for) robust early career mentoring to teachers in their first and second years of teaching?

Any training and mentoring programs we can improve or consider that will give teachers the support and assistance they need is a conversation worth having. As a former professor, I know it is incredibly beneficial to have a network you can reach out to and find out the latest methods and best practices.

After being withdrawn in the Senate on the last day of session, will you work with Sen. Gresham to pass the current charter authorizer bill (HB 702) next session? Would you like to see a revised bill pass?

I do hope we can reach a consensus on the authorizer, because I really do believe it will assist the state in attracting the very best public charter school operators from around the country. This is a critical component, and another tool in the toolbox, to giving students every opportunity to succeed.

Next session, would you support a limited Voucher plan, like Governor Haslam has proposed, or a more expanded plan that has been discussed in the Senate?

I look forward to a continued discussion of vouchers. I think we had a healthy debate last year. While I do not believe they are a silver bullet to ‘fix’ education, I do think it can be a tool. I expect the House and Senate to continue to weigh the pros and cons and find a solution that is right for Tennessee.

Forgive me, I have to ask: Are you planning to run for Governor years down the road? 

I sincerely enjoy being the Speaker of the House—it is an awesome responsibility I do not take lightly, and a great honor. Right now, my focus is on the legislature and what we can do to keep moving this state forward.


 

TNEdReport Interviews Rep. Joe Pitts

We had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Rep. Joe Pitts for the Tennessee Education Report. He is a member of the House Education Committee and the House Education Subcommittee. He is a vocal voice in both committees. We thank him for taking the time to answer our questions.

Let’s start with Vouchers:

What impact will vouchers have on local school districts in terms of budget and tax burden?

A:  Vouchers will have an immediate impact on local government’s budgets and the potential impact on local property tax is significant.  The voucher will further dilute public education funding currently going to the local school district which has an extensive infrastructure – buildings, supervisory staff, transportation, etc. that supports ALL students residing in their jurisdiction.  It is a delicate balance of funds that can be turned upside down if a sudden shift in funding policy, like vouchers, is made.

Do you believe that even if a limited voucher plan passes, the ultimate goal is statewide vouchers with broad qualifications? 

A:  If the past is prologue to the future, then one only need to look at the Charter school authorization passed many years ago by the General Assembly.  The original concept was to address at-risk students in schools within specific geographic boundaries, and we even had a limit on the number of charter schools within those communities. Now, despite evidence to the contrary, Charter schools are available statewide for every student regardless of academic need.  While Charter schools certainly have their place, given the right circumstances, it should be a tool at the LEA’s disposal.

An amendment recently passed to make private schools provide school lunches to those who come to the school via vouchers. Does that help your concern about students choosing free lunch or a private school?

A:  Requiring a school participating in the voucher program to offer a school lunch program makes a flawed proposal less objectionable but still not one I can support.  We don’t need a voucher program for at-risk students in failing schools.  Currently if a student is in a failing school, the parents can raise their hand and request their student go to another, non-failing school, in the same district without sacrificing basic human needs like breakfast and lunch, and transportation, and special needs students get access to the services they need.

Why do you think the GOP is focused on vouchers/charters instead of fully-funding BEP 2.0?

A:  Take a look around the country.  Vouchers seem to be the “cause de jour.”  It appears our education system is the last bastion of public funded services that haven’t been co-opted by the for-profit sector; sadly, not anymore.

Finally, do you think there will be transition problems when taking a child out of a public school and placing them in a private school? Do you think the child may fall behind from the start?

A:  When the child moves from one public school to another public school, or in this case, a private school, it will present some challenges.  Children are resilient though, but I am concerned about the moving back and forth between and among systems since not all private school curriculum lines up with the public school system.

Let’s more on to charters.

Do you believe the recent charter authorizer bill is taking away local control from local education boards?

A:  Yes.  Sadly, as amended, the bill would establish a non-elected group of people appointed by both Speakers and the Governor, to decide how and how much local tax money could be obligated for a state authorized charter school. That’s like the state deciding how big your police force should be and sending you the bill. This is just plain wrong.

Are you supportive of charter schools that get local approval or would you rather limit how many charter schools can open in the state?

A:  I do believe charter schools are a good option for LEA’s who need to try something different for students with specific academic needs.  Being a member of a local school board is a difficult task.  You are required and responsible for the academic achievement of all students in your district but have no say in the funding allocated by any of the funding entities.  I am not a fan of establishing limits on schools if the LEA has control of the authorization.

General Education Questions

If you were the commissioner of education, what would be the first thing you would do to improve public education in Tennessee?

A:  Three things simultaneously:  I would implore the Governor to make it our policy that no new changes would be sought or implemented for two years or until we can sort out the changes enacted in the last two years.

Next I would meet with the school directors and school boards, individually, of every district with a failing school and let them know we are going to become partners.  Instead of a shotgun marriage, it would be a partnership based on putting our resources where are mouths are and helping the failing schools first and immediately.  Students struggling in schools are very often victims of their home environment.  I would deploy an intervention team consisting of master level social workers, health professionals and academic coaches to these schools immediately to provide intensive work and support.

Lastly, I would work with the Charter schools to create a bold new platform for turning around these schools in our districts not meeting expectations.  We need to look beyond the numbers and think about year round charter schools, extended hours, or other non-traditional means to address the needs of the students and their families.  A charter school that mirrors a traditional public school hardly seems worth the effort.

I am convinced that the overwhelming majority of our LEA’s are performing at a high level, given the meager resources we allocate to them, and are open to our help, be it public or private, to give our students the best education experience possible.

Certain reform groups like Democrats for Education Reform and StudentsFirst have very specific policy agendas for reforming education. Some of the typical policies associated with these groups include vouchers, charter schools, pay-for-performance, and ending seniority rules.

What’s the counter-argument?  What are the marquee policies Democrats embrace?  If there aren’t a set of marquee proposals everyone is on board with, why not?  What’s being done to get the Democrats on a united front, to have a set of counter proposals instead of just playing defense?

A:  The reform movement initiatives, added to the self-inflicted policy crush imposed on LEA’s over the past three years, is contributing nothing to the public discourse about improving student performance.  If you think about it, we made significant changes to public policy in education in 2010 as a part of our First to the Top agenda proposed by Gov Bredesen – a Democrat, followed by nightmarish changes to the teachers’ environment in 2011 by eliminating collective bargaining, tenure, and removing TEA from their seat at the table, all in the name of “reform.”

On top of all that we approved virtual schools, unlimited charter schools, put undue pressure on teachers and principals by adopting an assessment tool that is unnecessarily bureaucratic, adopted the Common Core, and are preparing to implement a new assessment called PARRC.  Now, we are attacking our teacher preparation programs by looking at putting artificial thresholds on ACT and SAT scores for students who wish to go through their respective College of Education.  I’ve said it before; we are giving our education system whiplash with these rapid-fire changes and creating massive confusion.  Who can blame more seasoned teachers from deciding to retire instead of continuing in a system that does not appreciate their significant achievement and experience in the classroom and will subject them to the latest reform experiment?

Perhaps the corporate robber barons of the reform movement need to be asked to leave the room and let the education professionals do their jobs.  I have complete faith in our school districts across our state if we can offer our help instead of the cram down policies that have little to no basis in fact or success.

 

Andy, John, and I want to thank Rep. Pitts for his time. Please follow us on twitter @TNEdReport and like us on Facebook.


 

 

 

Voucher Debate Heats Up With 800k Ad Buy.

The voucher debate now looks like campaign season with a huge advertising purchase by the American Federation for Children, a DC based education group that promotes vouchers. The Tennessee Journal (not available online) first reported on Friday that the Federation was buying ad spaces.

The Tennessee Federation for Children has been running cable TV ads in Tipton and Rutherford counties, declaring that Reps. Debra Moody (R-Covington) and Dawn White (R-Murfreesboro), both members
of the Education Subcommittee, can make a difference on the issue. The ads do not mention a specific bill.

This weekend, the federation is adding cable and digital ads in the districts of Reps. Mary Littleton (R-Dickson), Pat Marsh (R-Shelbyville), and Ryan Williams (R-Cookeville). Williams is on the Education Committee.

By Friday afternoon, the Associated Press reported an 800k ad buy the group.

An official familiar with the plans tells The Associated Press that the state chapter of the American Federation for Children is spending $800,000 on broadcast television, cable and radio advertising – a vast amount for political advertising or issue advocacy in the state.

Tennessean Reporter Joey Garrison has heard pro vouchers ads since January on 92Q, a radio station located in Nashville.

This isn’t the first time that the American Federation for Children has thrown thousands of dollars into Tennessee. The group spent almost $36,000 to help reelect Representative John Deberry during the last campaign season. We knew this was coming once the Federation hired Chip Saltsman to promote school vouchers in Tennessee. Saltsman is the former chief of staff for US Representative Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN), former chair of the TNGOP, and served as campaign manger for Huckabee’s 2008 presidential run.

The Federation isn’t the only group that is running TV ads. Again from The Tennessee Journal:

Meanwhile, the Beacon Center of Tennessee, formerly the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, has been airing a TV ad on broadcast stations in Nashville and Knoxville promoting “scholarships and choice for K-12 students.” It also doesn’t mention a particular bill.

This comes at a time when some legislators (specifically Sen. Brian Kelsey) want to see a bigger voucher bill than what has been proposed by Gov. Haslam. The Tennessee Education Report will keep you update on any changes to the current voucher bill.

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Tennessee’s Vouchers Bill

As highlighted in Gov. Haslam’s speech last night, he’s putting forward a relatively conservative version of vouchers this year.  The bill itself (HB 0190/SB 0196) was filed yesterday.  It’s being carried in the House by Rep. McCormick and in the Senate by Sen. Norris.  The salient points are as follows:

(1) It’s only for low-income students (family must qualify for free or reduced price lunch to be eligible)

(2) It’s only for students in low-performing schools (must be a bottom 5% school “in overall achievement as determined by the performance standards and other criteria set by the state board”)

(3) It’s only for public school students (sort of — you have to have been in a public school for at least 2 semesters immediately prior to receiving a voucher OR you’re enrolling in a Tennessee school for the first time)

(4) Participation by private schools is voluntary (and they have to agree to take what the state pays and not charge parents anything above that)

(5) Participating private schools will have to give state assessments and turn over certain data on performance of voucher students.

(6) (THIS IS  A BIG ONE) Participating private schools do not have to offer special education services.  They cannot “discriminate against students with special education needs” BUT “as a nonpublic school, a participating school is required to offer only those services it already provides to assist students with special needs. If a scholarship student would have been entitled to receive special education services in the public school the student would otherwise be attending, the parent shall acknowledge in writing, as part of the enrollment process, that the parent agrees to accept only services that are available to the student in the nonpublic school.”

Some general thoughts:

Just as a point of comparison, our charter schools legislation started the exact same way, with regards to the first few requirements.  Originally, charter school enrollment was limited to free and reduced price lunch students who were in “failing” schools.  Over the years, these requirements have been dropped.  Tennessee is now an “open enrollment” charter school state (anyone can go to a charter school), with no caps on the number of charters operating.

If/when the vouchers legislation passes, I expect to see similar broadening in coming years (unless the generally anti-voucher (with the notable exception of Rep. John DeBerry) Democrats stage an amazing electoral comeback).

Other thoughts: The requirement that participating private schools not offer any special education services beyond what they already offer (which, for most private schools (with some exceptions), is very little — most private schools are not equipped/interested in catering to severe special needs students), is a very important point.  Though this provision is in line with the TNGOP’s stance on not forcing private entities to act a certain way (unless you happen to be Vanderbilt University), it’s still feeds the narrative among anti-voucher (and anti-charter) folks that these reforms simply skim the cream off of public school enrollment (“cream” including high-performing students and, more importantly, students with motivated and active parents) and leave behind low-performing students and high-needs special education students.

Much more ink will be spilled about this in the coming weeks and months, so be sure to check back.

Vouchers, Charters, and Triggers — Oh My! A Preview of Education Legislation in the 2013 Tennessee General Assembly

Michelle Rhee seems to have her hands firmly around Tennessee Education policy as this legislative session begins. Rhee’s group, StudentsFirst, contributed more than $200,000 (or was it more?) in state legislative races in 2012 and they’re getting what they paid for. In short, Rhee’s top policy priorities are now the top priorities of the legislature and Governor Haslam. Here’s a rundown of these policies — all very much en vogue among the education reform elite. None particularly useful in moving Tennessee schools forward.

Vouchers

Or, as some like to call them, “Opportunity Scholarships.” After the Governor’s Task Force on Vouchers came up short of clear recommendations for a voucher scheme, Governor Haslam appeared to cool to the idea. He noted instead that legislators may bring forth a plan and he’d work with that. Then, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush came to town in early January and immediately following the Governor’s public event with Bush, Haslam announced he’d be introducing his own version of a voucher scheme. Never mind that the four largest school districts — the ones most likely to be impacted by a voucher plan — have all expressed opposition. And never mind that many private schools have indicated that they won’t accept the vouchers. Haslam has seen the light as shown to him by Bush and Rhee and he’ll now be moving to divert state education dollars to private schools. This in a state that ranks near the bottom in per pupil spending on public education.

Charters

Tennessee already has among the most liberal charter school laws in the country. Any student in any district that has charter schools may attend a charter school. The local school boards do, however, have control over authorizing a charter to operate in their district and control over closing charters if they are failing. All seemed to be going well with charters opening and growing in Memphis and Nashville. And then there was Great Hearts vs. Metro Nashville. While the Metro Nashville School Board approved several new charters in 2012 and has been fairly aggressive about recruiting charter operators to town, the Board rejected the charter application of Arizona-based Great Hearts Academy. They did so over concerns about diversity and legitimate questions over whether the school would truly meet the community’s needs. The State Board of Education over-ruled the Metro Board and directed them to reconsider. A new school board was elected. And the new board ALSO rejected Great Hearts. So, the state department of education, headed-up by Rhee’s ex-husband, Kevin Huffman, hit Metro with a $3.4 million penalty — withholding BEP funds the district was counting on. Now, Great Hearts is lobbying for a state charter authorizer — a state board that would be unelected and unaccountable — to be created. This charter authorizer would allow charter operators to bypass local school boards and be authorized to operate a charter in a district whether or not the locally elected school board wanted it.

Parent Trigger

The “parent trigger” concept is the idea that if a school is failing and 50% +1 of the parents in that school vote to do so, the parents can convert the school to a charter. Those parents may then “run” the school and hire/fire faculty and obtain other budgetary controls. This may sound like a reasonable proposition. However, in practice, it is a disaster. A school in Indiana recently “pulled the trigger” and the parents were stunned to discover the lack of available resources. The parents presented a list of demands including iPads for all students. The Board replied that in order for that demand to be met, a number of faculty would have to be let go. Parent trigger can also be used by sketchy charter operators to gain a foothold into a school. Rhee is of course behind this measure as well.

Each of these efforts appeals to policymakers because none require any new investment in Tennessee schools. The idea is that we already have money out there, and that if we just did these “new, cool things” we’d have better schools. They allow politicians to claim to be pro-education without making the hard decisions that would lead to meaningful new investments in our schools. Moreover, each of these policies has potentially disastrous effects on an already struggling school system. Stay tuned as the 2013 legislative session advances and these policies gain traction.