What’s the Rush?

Gov. Bill Lee has moved quickly to implement his school voucher scheme as courts have cleared the way for it to start this school year.

So far, though, not many families are expressing serious interest.

The Tennessean reports that as of the first day of school in Memphis and Nashville (the only two districts eligible for vouchers), only 30 applications had been submitted for approval.

As of Monday morning, only 30 families had submitted an actual application, according to information from Department of Education spokesperson Brian Blackley. The department received applications from 40 schools, he said, noting that application process has closed.

While Lee has claimed that several thousand families want the vouchers, that has not yet been borne out in the application process.

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NPEF Opposes Voucher Program

Amid news that Gov. Bill Lee’s office and Department of Education plan to begin a school voucher program in Memphis and Nashville for this school year (2022-23) following the lifting of an injunction that had been blocking the scheme, the Nashville Public Education Foundation (NPEF) issued a statement expressing opposition to Lee’s move.

Here’s the statement:

Governor Bill Lee announced yesterday that the Tennessee Education Savings Account (ESA) program will enroll students for the upcoming school year in Davidson and Shelby counties.The Nashville Public Education Foundation (NPEF) opposes this decision and the ESA program. While NPEF supports high-quality school options for all students in Nashville, the foundation believes public dollars should stay with public schools. In addition, research suggests conflicting and inconclusive evidence on the effectiveness of voucher programs on academic achievement for students.  NPEF will continue to support Nashville students and Metro Nashville Public Schools to create a public system of education where all students can thrive.
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Voucher Case Gets New Court Hearing

Chalkbeat reports that a case against Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher scheme will receive another hearing before the Tennessee Supreme Court as that body attempts to assess the constitutionality of the program.

The Tennessee Supreme Court will rehear arguments in the case of educational savings accounts, also known as vouchers. The court’s announcement on Tuesday comes in the wake of the death of Justice Cornelia Clark who was on the bench in June to hear the arguments, but died of cancer in September before the court was able to issue a ruling.

In the brief order, court members said that “in light of the untimely death of Clark, this court has concluded that re-argument will aid the resolution of this appeal.”

At stake in the case is the future of school vouchers in Tennessee. Republican Gov. Bill Lee pushed the educational savings accounts, or school voucher law, in 2019, as a way for students in Nashville and Memphis to use public funds to pay for private education, supplies, and tutoring. The program was to begin with 5,000 students and grow to 15,000 by the fifth year, but the program never got off the ground as multiple courts blocked it.

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Vouchers and Taxes

The Associated Press is reporting that after much debate, Tennessee’s school voucher plan (education savings accounts) will be counted as taxable income for some families.


Tennessee’s top education officials say a small number of parents who participate in the state’s latest school voucher imitative might be taxed for participating in the program.


The development on Monday comes after months of debate between policy officials, education advocates and lawmakers over whether the new school vouchers for private education will be considered federally taxable income for parents.

The announcement on taxes comes following a November statement by Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn that vouchers would be subject to taxes:


… Penny Schwinn dropped a bombshell yesterday when she told a legislative committee that the value of a voucher under the state’s new education savings account program would be considered taxable income for the purpose of federal taxes.

Following that announcement, Gov. Bill Lee said he didn’t believe the vouchers would be taxed. Now, it appears that at least for some recipients, accepting an education savings account will also mean accepting an increased tax burden.

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Policy Shift

Tennessee’s next Governor, Bill Lee, is an unabashed voucher supporter.

As the General Assembly prepares to return in January, it will be important for policymakers to focus on what gets results instead of what the new Governor thinks is the cool new thing for Tennessee schools.

Derek Black, who teaches law at the University of South Carolina and focuses on education policy issues, points out some flaws in arguments in favor of “school choice” in a recent column in Salon.

His argument is essentially that a lack of accountability in many choice programs combined with the financial strain they put on traditional K-12 schools has a devastating impact and must be re-examined:

The current debate over school funding must move beyond teacher salaries and whether the books in public schools are tattered. Those conversations ignore the systematic policies that disadvantage public schools. Increasing public school teachers’ salaries alone won’t fix the problem. The public school teaching force has already shrunk. Class sizes have already risen. And the rules that advantage charter and private schools remain firmly in place.

Long-term solutions require a reexamination of these preferences. As a state constitutional matter, the law requires that states make public education their first priority. It is not enough to make education one of several competing priorities. And as a practical matter, states cannot continue to ask public schools to work with whatever is left over and then criticize them for doing a poor job. This cycle creates a circular justification for dismantling public education when states should be repairing it.

Black’s analysis is especially relevant in a state that consistently brings up the rear in investment in education and also continues to lag behind in overall student achievement.

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


 

Bill Lee Wrong on Vouchers

Back in January of 2016, now-gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee wrote an op-ed claiming that adding school vouchers to the mix in Tennessee’s education landscape would lead to improved education outcomes.

Here’s what he had to say:

This is where opportunity scholarships come in. The Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act would allow families to take a portion of the funding already spent on their child’s education and send him or her to the private school of their choice. For children languishing in schools that are failing to meet their needs, especially in urban areas like Nashville and Memphis, this proposal represents a much-needed lifeline for Tennessee families.

Recent evidence tells us that’s not the case. In fact, studies of voucher programs in D.C., Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio indicate students lose ground academically when accepting a voucher and attending a private school.

Writers Mary Dynarski and Austin Nichols say this about the studies:

Four recent rigorous studies—in the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio—used different research designs and reached the same result: on average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students that do not attend private schools. The Louisiana and Indiana studies offer some hints that negative effects may diminish over time. Whether effects ever will become positive is unclear.

Last year, Lee was peddling the myth that private schools offered better opportunity for kids. After analyzing the date, Dynarski and Nichols say this:

If the four studies suggest anything, it’s that private schools have no secret key that unlocks educational potential.

Visiting Lee’s campaign website yields little information about his views on actual policy. Of course, it is early in the campaign. However, it’s not clear if he still believes Tennessee tax dollars should be spent on voucher schemes that have been shown to have negative results in other states.

If Lee does in fact continue to advocate for vouchers, he’ll need to explain why Tennessee should invest in a program that has gotten such bad results across the country.

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


 

The Voucher School District

This week, Education Committees in the House and Senate will consider a number of bills creating school vouchers in Tennessee. Proponents are pushing the bills even as growing evidence suggests vouchers fail kids.

So, what would happen if Tennessee started a voucher program, even a small-scale one, this year?

One state with a record on this is Indiana. Vouchers started there back in 2011 in a relatively small program with fairly strict eligibility requirements. At the time the vouchers were created, then-Governor Mitch Daniels said:

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.”

Initially, vouchers were only to serve some 7500 students.

Fast forward five years, and the program has expanded exponentially, serving more than 30,000 students — 3 percent of the state’s student population.

The qualifications have changed, too. Now, a student doesn’t even have to have attended a public school to qualify for a voucher. Reports suggest this provision means Indiana is spending some $54 million supporting private schools — money that would not have been spent without the voucher program:

A report on the program released by the Department of Education shows the program costs $54 million.

“If the idea behind a voucher program is we’re going to have the money follow the student, if the student didn’t start in a public school, the money isn’t following them from a public school, it’s just appearing from another budget,” [Researcher Molly] Stewart said. “And we’re not exactly sure where that’s coming from.”

Vouchers, then, create $54 million in new expenditures — an education funding deficit — in Indiana.

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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.

Let’s look at Davidson County as an example. If three percent of the student population there took vouchers, and half of those were students who had never attended a public school, the loss to the district would be a minimum of $8.4 million.

This means local governments would be stuck picking up the tab to support private schools. The alternative would be a dedicated state fund to support the voucher school district. That’s a total cost of around $200 million, half of that new money.

Should taxpayers be asked to invest $100 million in a program that gets negative results? Studies in Indiana, Ohio, and Louisiana all indicate that vouchers have a negative impact on student academic outcomes.

Kevin Carey noted recently that even a study by the Fordham Institute showed negative results for vouchers:

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.

This week, we may hear that any new voucher program will start small and will only serve a fraction of our state’s students. Even if that’s true, the cost to taxpayers at the state and local level will be significant. Then, there’s the fact that studies are emerging showing vouchers just don’t work. Why spend more to get less?

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


 

Voucher Wars

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Every single year, in a legislature that meets in Nashville, one issue rises from the ashes again and again. That issue: Vouchers.

This year, there are multiple school voucher proposals and just about all of them will be up for consideration in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday.

Here’s a rundown of the bills and what they would do:

SB161/HB126 – Senator Brian Kelsey/Rep. Harry Brooks

This bill would create a pilot voucher program in Shelby County. Voucher advocates have been pushing some version of a statewide voucher program for the past four years. So far, they haven’t been successful. Now, they are trying to limit the plan to Shelby County to start in hopes they can garner additional votes.

SB380/HB336 — Sen. Todd Gardenhire/Rep. Bill Dunn

This is the voucher bill that has failed the past four years. It would allow students from districts with at least one “priority school” to apply for a voucher.

SB573/HB715 — Sen. Dolores Gresham/Rep. Debra Moody

This bill would expand eligibility to the failing IEA voucher program. Despite claims of widespread demand for this program, so far, only 39 students have taken these vouchers.

SB987/HB1109 — Sen. Kelsey/Rep. John DeBerry

This bill would also change (expand) eligibility for the IEA vouchers. It would allow students who had not previously attended public schools to obtain this voucher.

SB395/HB460 – Gresham/Rep. Roger Kane

This is an Education Savings Account (ESA) bill with no eligibility restrictions. This bill would allow the parents of any student to convert their BEP funding into a debit card or have the money wired into a checking account to use for approved education expenses.

Here’s the deal: Vouchers don’t work. The recent evidence is clear. Here’s what I wrote last week after reading recent research on the issue:

Some state policymakers (State Rep. Bill Dunn, State Senator Brian Kelsey, Governor Bill Haslam) are asking taxpayers to invest in a voucher scheme. These advocates suggest that a voucher program can provide a path to better outcomes for students. However, the results of statewide programs in three different studies indicate just the opposite: Vouchers offer a path to dismal achievement.

Tennessee lawmakers should take a look at the evidence. Vouchers just don’t work. In fact, they harm the very students voucher advocates claim to want to help. Instead of funding voucher schemes we know don’t get results, the state should focus on funding existing programs that will enhance education for all students.

Despite overwhelming evidence that vouchers fail, expect the voucher wars to wage just as hot this session — and next week.

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


 

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