Heating up

Chalkbeat explains what school vouchers could mean for Tennessee

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
From left: Shelby County Schools Board of Education members Stephanie Love and Mike Kernell speak at an anti-voucher rally that was attended by supporters of the pro-voucher group Black Alliance for Educational Options.

In an impromptu public debate over using public money to pay for private schooling, Shelby County Board of Education member Stephanie Love stood practically toe-to-toe Monday with voucher advocate Roxie Nunnally while impassioned opponents of vouchers — mainly public school teachers, parents, and community organizers —  congregated in front of the district’s central offices in Memphis.

Voucher advocate Roxie Nunnally speaks with voucher foe Stephanie Love.
PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Voucher advocate Roxie Nunnally speaks with voucher foe Stephanie Love.

The discourse during an anti-voucher rally highlighted the intensity of emotion around Tennessee’s school voucher debate — especially in Memphis, the city that would be most impacted by a voucher bill advancing through the state legislature.

As the House Finance Committee prepares for a possible vote on the proposal on Tuesday, here’s our primer on school vouchers and the legislation under consideration:

Who would be eligible to receive vouchers?

The current bill would target students zoned to the bottom 5 percent of schools in Tennessee — most of whom are in Memphis and Nashville, with some in Hamilton, Knox and Madison counties. It would impact 5,000 students in the program’s first year and reach 20,000 students annually in two years. If any vouchers remain after all eligible students receive them, they can be awarded to students who reside in a district that contains at least one school in the state’s bottom 5 percent — meaning potentially students zoned even to high-performing schools in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga and Jackson could cash vouchers out at a private school. Several Republican lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga, have said they hope the program would expand to even more students in the future.

How would vouchers impact student achievement?

That question strikes at the core of the debate.

Proponents say vouchers drive competition, and that competition makes all schools better and increase student achievement. They argue that anything would be better than the current situation for students who attend Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools.

Opponents say there’s no guarantee that a private school accepting a voucher would be of better quality than a public school, especially since private schools are less regulated. That’s what happened in Milwaukee, home of the nation’s oldest voucher program, where a crop of financially mismanaged and low-achieving private schools popped up after a 1992 school voucher law passed. Tennessee’s proposed legislation somewhat mitigates that concern by mandating that voucher-accepting schools be fully accredited by the State Department of Education or an agency approved by the state at least two years before they can accept voucher payments. Opponents also worry that private schools have no obligation to offer the same level of special education programming or afterschool care as public schools.

Researchers haven’t reached consensus on the impact of vouchers. A working paper by Duke, MIT and Harvard researchers for the National Bureau for Economic Research shows attendance at a voucher-eligible private school in Louisiana lowered scores on statewide math assessments and increased students’ likelihood of a failing score by 50 percent. Other studies have found that voucher programs have improved public schools and increased the likelihood of college enrollment.

How would vouchers impact public school funding?

Again, that’s unclear. Opponents say vouchers would leach much-needed funding from public schools, while proponents say the program wouldn’t overburden districts because public schools would be relieved of educating students now receiving vouchers. The bill’s current fiscal note predicts vouchers would cost districts with schools in the bottom 5 percent: $17 million in 2016-17; $26 million in 2017-18; $36 million in 2018-19; and more than $71 million in 2019-20 and subsequent years. It would cost state government $185,000 to pay for personnel to administer the program.

How much would vouchers be worth for each recipient?

In most districts, just under $7,000, although the amount varies based on local funding.

Would students use vouchers at any private school?

Probably not. Most students who use vouchers in states with programs that extend beyond special education go to previously established religious schools. In Indiana and Washington, D.C., more than half of these schools are Catholic, although in North Carolina, an Islamic school was the most popular school for parents using vouchers when the state launched the program in 2014.

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Do private schools have to accept vouchers?

Plenty of private school administrators have said they won’t. In 2014, Vanderbilt researchers found that most Memphis-area private schools either could not or would not accept vouchers for reasons ranging from financial to ideological concerns. Private schools could not charge more than the voucher amount, which is a fraction of what some schools charge (nearing $30,000 annually at the most expensive private schools in Memphis and Nashville). Private schools might also be opposed to the amount of government regulation that comes with accepting vouchers. For instance, voucher recipients would be required to take state TNReady assessments or a nationally recognized test at the end of each school year.

If the House approves the voucher bill, would it likely become law?

The legislation would have to be signed by Gov. Bill Haslam, who has indicated his support. Currently, the proposal has reached the farthest it’s come in six years of legislative debate, passing in the Senate three of those years. Because Tennessee’s Senate approved the bill during the first half of the current 109th General Assembly, it needs only House approval to go to the governor’s desk.

 

Chalkbeat Memphis reporter Micaela Watts contributed to this report.

New Arrivals

Advocates decry Fariña’s explanation of low graduation rates among English learners

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Nancie Adolphe, a case manager at Flanbwayan, a group that helps young Haitian immigrants hosts a press conference on English Language Learner graduation rates.

When the head of New York City schools suggested that English Language Learners fail to graduate, in part, because they lack formal schooling and are “coming from the mountains,” advocates from a group that serves Haitian immigrants said she undoubtedly missed the point.

“We are insulted by her statement,” said Nancie Adolphe, a case manager at Flanbwayan, a group that helps young Haitian immigrants, during a Thursday press conference. “As a community of immigrants, of English learners, we care about what happens to each student, no matter where they come from.”

The city pointed out that combining current and former English Language Learner graduation rates, 57 more students graduated this year. Fariña also said that while she is working to help more English learners graduate, it is harder for students to earn a diploma if they start off years behind.

Members of Flanbwayan have a different explanation for the city’s 27 percent June graduation rate for English learners, a 9.6 percentage point decrease over the previous year. In their view, many ELL students face a huge disadvantage because of how the city’s high school admissions process treats newly arrived immigrants.

New York City’s admissions process, which allows students to apply to any high school throughout the city, is notoriously difficult even for students born and raised in New York. But for newly arrived immigrants, the process is even worse, said Darnell Benoit, director of Flanbwayan.

Students have years to wade through a thick directory of more than 400 high schools, tour the ones they like and apply for competitive programs. For new immigrants, that process is often replaced by a quick trip to an enrollment center. Many times the only seats left are at low-performing schools, and students often find they don’t have access to the language help they need, Benoit said.

“They don’t have a lot of time to fight for their lives,” said Alectus Nadjely, a Haitian immigrant who arrived in the United States when she was twelve and is now a senior in high school, about the process.

A student’s high school placement is directly connected to whether or not they will graduate on time, advocates said. When newly arrived immigrants enter the country, they have to move quickly to pass the state’s required exit exams in time for graduation — and they need all the support they can get, advocates said. Twenty-seven percent of English learners in New York City drop out before graduating, according to state data.

“If a student is not set up in the right placement from the start, the likelihood of being able to stay engaged, be on track for graduation and not drop out, all of that will be impacted,” said Abja Midha, a project director at Advocates for Children. “We really think the high school enrollment piece is a really critical point.”

Education department officials pointed out that the graduation rate for former English learners went up by more than five percentage points this year. They also noted that enrollment information is available in Haitian Creole and that they have increased translation and interpretation services.

“We’ll continue our work to ensure that all our students receive a high-quality education,” said education department spokesman Will Mantell, “and have the support they need to be successful in the classroom and beyond.”

This story has been updated to include additional information.

Charter changes

This sweeping proposal would rewrite Tennessee’s charter school law

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Rep. Harry Brooks and Assistant Commissioner of policy Elizabeth Fiveash present the charter proposal to lawmakers on Wednesday.

A wide-ranging charter school bill written by the State Department of Education seeks to overhaul Tennessee’s 15-year-old charter law and address concerns of both advocates and opponents.

Called the “Tennessee High-Quality Charter Schools Act,” the bill attempts to address the often rocky relationships between the state’s 105 charter schools and the districts that oversee them. The legislation clarifies rules on everything from applications to closure, and includes measures that charter and local district leaders have fought for — and against.

“This bill develops a stronger partnership between the (districts) and the charter schools,” said Rep. Harry Brooks, the Knoxville Republican sponsor.

But smoothing over fractious relationships won’t be quick or easy, based on the first discussion in a House subcommittee on Wednesday. Lawmakers adjourned before casting a first vote on the proposal, with plans to pick up the discussion next week.  

And while representatives of the Tennessee School Boards Association and the Tennessee Charter School Center told lawmakers that the bill is a “step in the right direction,” some critics remain concerned about the growing sector’s impact on traditional public schools.

For years, local school board members — especially from districts in Memphis and Nashville, which are home to most of the state’s charter schools — have charged that charter schools drain resources from traditional public schools. Charter leaders, meanwhile, have complained that they don’t get enough funding to cover facilities, forcing them to spend money that should go toward students instead on rent and building upkeep.

The Department of Education tried to address both concerns in its bill. The legislation establishes a $6 million fund over three years to help cover leaky roofs and cramped quarters that operators say make their jobs harder. But the bill also allows local districts to charge operators an authorizer fee to offset oversight costs.  

Local districts have sought to charge an authorizer fee for years, and charter operators in Memphis recently have shown willingness to voluntarily pay one. In 2015, the state legislature voted to allow the state’s Achievement School District to begin collecting a fee, too.

The state proposal would allow a district with 21 or more charter schools to charge a fee up to 1 percent of per-pupil funding. Districts with 10 to 20 charters could charge a 2 percent fee, and those with 10 or fewer could charge 3 percent. The change would go into effect in 2018.

“The local district has significant responsibility in regards to being an authorizer of charter school,” Brooks explained when introducing the bill. “There’s expense tied up in that; there’s personnel tied up in that.”

But some think the proposed fee isn’t nearly enough, especially in Memphis and Nashville, where the ASD and State Board of Education can charge charter schools 3 and 4 percent, respectively. In Shelby County Schools, for instance, the district is doubling the size of its charter office to keep up with its oversight duties.

“When state authorizers are getting higher fees than districts, that’s a red flag,” Nashville school board member Will Pinkston told Chalkbeat. “One percent seems like a nice first offer, but districts need to make significant counter offers to get that higher.”

Other parts of the expansive bill would curb local attempts to rein in charter schools. One section says that applications can’t be based on “conditions or contingencies” — a provision that concerns Pinkston, who spearheaded an effort to make the approval of Nashville charter schools contingent on their location.

“Every local school system needs to have the ability to ask for the details they think are necessary before making a decision,” he said.

Charter operators argue that such contingencies put them in impossible situations, unable to secure a location without a contract, and vice versa.