Voucher votes

Trump wants states to push vouchers. Tennessee shows why that might be hard, even in red states.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Voucher opponents cheer Tennessee lawmakers after voucher legislation is tabled.

When President-elect Donald Trump tapped Betsy DeVos as his choice for U.S. secretary of education, advocates of school tuition vouchers saw it as a good omen. The Michigan Republican is a staunch advocate for vouchers that allow taxpayer money to be spent on private schools.

But the perennial battle over vouchers in Tennessee, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump, suggests it won’t be easy for vouchers to sweep the nation, even if Trump’s administration champions federal incentives for such programs. While Tennessee’s Senate has voted in favor of a voucher bill three times since 2011, opponents have blocked it each year in the House of Representatives, albeit by decreasing margins. Opposition has coalesced around a fear of undermining public schools — a concern that transcends party lines and geography.

Tennessee’s voucher proposals have exclusively targeted urban schools, anomalies in a mostly rural state. But as each major vote approached, lawmakers in Nashville fielded calls from constituents back home who worried that the program would quickly expand at the expense of public schools in areas with few alternatives.

During the last legislative session, the perceived lack of public support for vouchers eclipsed Gov. Bill Haslam’s endorsement of them. It also countered an outpouring of spending from pro-voucher advocacy groups that include a state chapter of American Federation for Children, of which DeVos founded and serves as chairwoman of the board.

The most vocal opponent of vouchers has been the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union and an organization that many Republican lawmakers openly oppose. But lawmakers also got pushback from statewide professional groups that represent superintendents and school boards and argue that vouchers would hurt public schools.

Rep. Bill Dunn
PHOTO: TN.Gov
Rep. Bill Dunn

During the most recent legislative session, Rep. David Hawk, a Republican from Greeneville, made a last-minute attempt to make vouchers more palatable to sympathetic lawmakers wary of how the issue would play out at home. With the blessing of the bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, Hawk amended the proposal so it only would impact Memphis, home to Tennessee’s largest school district and frequently a laboratory for the state’s education reforms. The move infuriated many Memphis lawmakers and failed to sway enough undecided legislators to push the bill over the top.

Still, the proposal came closer to passing than ever before. It cleared all committees before Dunn tabled it on the House floor. He said he just didn’t have the votes. Later, Dunn told reporters that he only had 48 “yes” votes confirmed out of the necessary 50.

“I believe there are legislators who hear from their school board that they’re against this,” Dunn reflected on Tuesday. “Instead of legislators sitting down and saying what’s best for students, it’s about what’s best for school bureaucracy.”

Research is mixed on whether vouchers help or hurt students. According to a 2015 review by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “vouchers have been neither the rousing success imagined by proponents nor the abject failure predicted by opponents.”

Undaunted, Dunn says he will sponsor voucher legislation again in the upcoming legislative session, which starts in January. But if vouchers pass this time, he said, it will be because of growing support for the program among Tennesseans, not because of Trump or DeVos.

“Education is a state issue,” he said.

BARRIERS TO ACCESS

Public transportation won’t solve Denver’s school choice woes, study finds

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Riders disembark a Denver city bus.

Providing all Denver middle and high school students with free public transportation is unlikely to result in equal access to the city’s best schools, according to a new analysis from the Center on Reinventing Public Education in Washington state.

The concentration of the best schools in central Denver, coupled with the city’s large size and geographic quirks, mean that only 58 percent of students could get to one of the small number of top-rated middle and high schools in 30 minutes or less by public transit, the study found.

Racially segregated housing patterns make the odds worse for African-American and Latino students: While 69 percent of white students could get to a top-rated school in 30 minutes or less, just 63 percent of black students and 53 percent of Latino students could. A similar gap exists between low-income students and their wealthier peers.

Lack of transportation is often cited as a barrier to school choice, even in a school district like Denver Public Schools that strives to make choice easy for families. While DPS does not promise transportation to every student who chooses a charter school — or a district-run school outside their neighborhood — the district has for six years provided shuttle bus service to students attending all types of schools in the northeastern part of the city.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos praised that system, known as the Success Express, in a speech in March. But expanding it to cover the entire city would cost too much.

Community advocates have been pushing instead for the city and the school district to work together to provide more bus passes to high school students. Currently, DPS gives passes to high school students attending their neighborhood school if they live more than 3.5 miles away.

The district earmarked $400,000 from a tax increase approved by voters in November for that purpose, and city officials have said they’d contribute money toward the initiative too.

The study suggests free bus passes aren’t the solution.

“Our analysis shows that most of the city’s students can reasonably use public transit to get to their current school,” the study says, “but public transit won’t necessarily help them access the city’s highest-performing schools.”

The study offers other strategies to increase students’ access to top schools, including sending those who live near Denver’s borders to better-performing schools in the suburbs.

First Person

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

PHOTO: NPEF

This is the fourth entry in a series we’re calling How We Got Here, where students and families explain how they chose, or ended up at, the schools they did. You can see the whole series here.

My child attends a Nashville charter school. But that might not make me the “charter supporter” you think I am.

Let me explain.

My husband and I chose our neighborhood zoned school for our child for kindergarten through fourth grade. We had a very positive experience. And when we faced the transition to middle school, our default was still the neighborhood school. In fact, I attended those same schools for middle and high school.

But we also wanted to explore all of the options offered by Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. Eventually, we narrowed it down to three choices: our zoned school, one magnet and one charter.

We spent months studying everything we could learn about them, visiting each one more than once, asking countless questions, talking to other parents, and openly discussing different options as a family. We even let our child “shadow” another student.

I also did a lot of soul searching, balancing what we learned with my deeply held belief that traditional public education forms the backbone of our democracy.

When we chose the charter school, it was not because we wanted our neighborhood public school to fail. It was not because we feel charters are a magic bullet that will save public education. We did not make the choice based on what we felt would be right according to a political party, school board members, district superintendents, nonprofit organizations, charter marketers or education policy wonks.

These are the reasons why we chose our school: A discipline policy firmly grounded in restorative justice practices; a curriculum tightly integrated with social and emotional learning; a community identity informed by the racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of its families; a culture of kindness that includes every child in the learning process, no matter what their test scores, what language they speak at home, or if they have an IEP; and not least of all, necessary bus transportation.

It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me. The discussion about charter schools, especially, has become so polarized that it sometimes seems completely divorced from the realities faced by many Nashville families.

Education advocates and even some of our elected school board members often characterize families that choose charters in an extreme way. We’re either depicted as corporate cronies out to privatize and destroy public schools with unabated charter growth and vouchers, or we’re painted as uneducated, uninformed parents who have no choice, don’t care, or don’t know any better.

This is simply not reality. As a parent who opted for a charter school, I am by definition a “charter supporter” in that I support the school we chose. That doesn’t mean I support all charter schools. Nor does it mean I support vouchers. And it certainly doesn’t mean that I agree with the current presidential administration’s stance on public education.

Nashville families who choose charter schools are public school supporters with myriad concerns, pressures, preferences and challenges faced by any family. Demonizing families for choosing the schools they feel best fit their children’s needs, or talking about those families in a patronizing way, does not support kids or improve schools.

I am aware that shady business practices and financial loopholes have made it possible for unscrupulous people at some charter organizations to profit off failing schools paid for on the public dime. Exposing this kind of abuse is vital to the public interest. We should expect nothing less than complete transparency from all our schools.

That does not mean that every charter school is corrupt. Nor does every charter school “cream” high-performing students (as many academic magnet schools do).

It’s important that, unlike other states, Tennessee doesn’t allow for-profit entities to operate public charter schools or allow nonprofit charter organizations to contract with for-profit entities to operate or manage charter schools. And we need Metro Nashville and the state of Tennessee to limit charters to highly qualified, rigorously vetted charter organizations that meet communities’ needs, and agree to complete transparency and regulatory oversight.

We also have to recognize that traditional neighborhood schools separated by school district zones are themselves rooted in economic inequality and racial segregation. Some charter schools are aiming to level the playing field, helping kids succeed (and stay) in school by trying new approaches. That’s one of the reasons we chose our school.

I’m not saying this all works perfectly. My school, like any school, has room for improvement. Nor am I saying that other traditional public schools don’t incorporate some of the same practices that drew us to the charter.

If we believe that our public schools have a role to play in dismantling inequality and preparing all children to be thoughtful, engaged citizens, let’s look at what is and is not working in individual school communities for different populations.

I know that my family is not alone, and other families have grappled with these same issues as they made a careful choice about a public school for their child. I have no doubt that if charter school opponents would keep this in mind, rather than making sweeping generalizations about all charter schools and “charter supporters,” it would make our community dialogue more meaningful and productive.

Aidan Hoyal is a Nashville parent. This piece is adapted from one that first appeared on the Dad Gone Wild blog.