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.

School choices

School choice supporters downplay new voucher research, saying schools are more than a test score

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

At this week’s gathering of school choice supporters, there was an awkward fact in their midst: A wave of new studies had shown that students receiving a voucher did worse, sometimes much worse, on standardized tests.

That was the inconvenient verdict of studies examining programs in Louisiana, Ohio, Washington, D.C., and in Indianapolis, where the advocates had convened for the annual conference of the American Federation for Children. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the group’s former leader, gave the keynote address.

But many of the school choice proponents, who had long made the case that their favored reform works, had an explanation at the ready.

Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, only alluded to the recent studies. “In spite of a few research projects of a narrowly identified group of students, the simple fact is when you create a marketplace of choices and informed parents … the children do better,” he told the audience.

Other leading supporters emphasized the impact the programs have beyond test scores, as well as the shortcomings of recent studies.

“Some of the data that is really interesting [looks at] not just achievement, but attainment,” Robert Enlow, head of EdChoice, a group that backs vouchers and tax credit programs, told Chalkbeat. “A kid may not be doing as well on a test score as we would like, but they’re graduating at higher rates [and] they’re going into college at higher rates.”

Indeed, older studies show that students in Milwaukee’s voucher program were more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college. Students in D.C.’s initiative also completed high school at a higher rate.

Enlow also pointed to evidence that private school choice can spur improvements in public schools through competition and increase parent satisfaction rates. Sounding a bit like some of his opponents who lead teachers unions, Enlow argued that test scores are a poor measure of educational quality.

“We want a vibrant society of people who know what they’re doing who are productive members of society,” he said. “A single test doesn’t prove jack about that.”

In fact, EdChoice opposes requiring students in voucher programs to take state tests at all. Without such data, making comparisons to public schools is more difficult.

Still, Enlow said, “there are some studies showing that private schools need to get better on test scores.”

Supporters also noted that the studies in D.C. and Louisiana were based on just one and two years of data, respectively. Enlow says that is too little information to draw helpful conclusions, a point echoed by Kevin Chavous, a board member at the American Federation for Children and a former D.C. city council member.

“This is after one year in the program,” said Chavous referring to the recent D.C. report, which analyzed three groups of students after a single year of receiving a voucher. “Studies also show … the longer the kids are in these programs, the better they’ll do.”

An overview of past research on school vouchers, including studies in other countries, found that students were neither helped nor harmed after three years, but saw significant test score jumps in the fourth year.

DeVos hasn’t addressed the topic in depth. After her own Department of Education released the report on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, DeVos stated, “The study released today found that D.C. OSP parents overwhelmingly support this program, and that, at the same time, these schools need to improve upon how they serve some of D.C.’s most vulnerable students.”

Chavous argues that giving families choice means allowing them to pick schools based on what is important to them, which may not be test scores. It’s also hypocritical for those who are skeptical of testing to then use test results to criticize voucher programs, he said.

“You can’t have it both ways — you can’t say we have too much high-stakes testing when it comes to public schools and then when it comes to private choice programs, OK, they aren’t passing the test,” he said.

But he acknowledges inconsistency on his own side among those who use test results to claim that public schools are failing.

“We’re all hypocrites on the testing thing,” Chavous said.

trumped up

DeVos said rejecting choice plan would be a ‘terrible mistake.’ New York education advocates have a different take

At a speech in Indianapolis Monday night, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos promised an “ambitious” expansion of school choice — and said it would be a “terrible mistake” if states refuse to participate.

Yet, at a discussion of school choice in New York City Tuesday morning, panelists invited by the Women’s City Club of New York, seemed unfazed by the secretary’s comments.

“None of us here at the table are persuaded that what’s happening in Washington is going to have a tremendous impact here in New York,” said Shawn Morehead, the moderator, a program director at The New York Community Trust.

In part, that is because the version of school choice advocated by DeVos is more radical than the existing choice system in New York state, panelists said. New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman, argued that New York state charter schools represent a highly regulated version of school choice, whereas DeVos favors a deregulated, market-orientated approach.

“We took that fork in the road a long time ago,” Merriman said. “I don’t see that changing in any way, shape or form because of who the secretary of education is.”

New York City also has a high school choice system, where students can apply to any school in the city. But recent reporting has found that the admissions rules are hazy and the system has maintained racial, academic and socioeconomic segregation in city schools.

Panelists advocated for more regulation to help correct this problem. (Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said last week she is “reconsidering” some enrollment in high schools but did not provide any more details.)

DeVos offered few specifics on her school choice proposal during her Indianapolis speech, but President Donald Trump’s budget proposal includes a $1 billion increase for Title I, earmarked to allow funding to follow students to the public schools of their choice.

Later on Tuesday, a flurry of statements from New York’s education advocates denounced Trump’s budget for its deep cuts in many areas, including career and technical education and teacher preparation.

“The president’s outrageous education budget is yet another example of his administration putting the most vulnerable Americans at risk,” said Breakthrough New York Executive Director Rhea Wong. “At a time when our country should be making education great again, this plan kneecaps success and oppresses opportunity.”