behind the scenes

Trump’s nominee for ed chief already has influenced Tennessee’s voucher debate

PHOTO: YouTube / American Federation for Children
Betsy

While many Tennesseans are still unfamiliar with President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to oversee the nation’s schools, Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos already has quietly influenced the state’s contentious tug-of-war over a school voucher program.

This election cycle alone, advocacy groups founded and led by DeVos helped to oust at least one outspoken voucher opponent — and elect two new supporters — in Tennessee’s House of Representatives, the key arena for the state’s voucher debate.

From the helm of groups including the American Federation for Children and the Alliance for School Choice, DeVos, a staunch Republican, has contributed millions of dollars nationally to state legislative candidates in favor of vouchers and against those who do not, regardless of political party.

In Tennessee, most of that work has been done through the state’s affiliate of the American Federation for Children, which launched in 2012. The group has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, reaching more than $600,000 for races in 2014. This year, organizers spent at least $169,777 on House races.

Vouchers, which allow the use of taxpayer money for private school tuition, have been a hot potato issue in Tennessee in recent years. Three times since 2011, a voucher bill for low-income students has been approved by the state Senate, only to be shot down in the House, where lawmakers responded to constituent concerns about undermining public schools. But the votes have been increasingly close. During the most recent session, the proposal was only two votes shy of the necessary 50 to become law.

This year, the Tennessee Federation for Children targeted several seats aimed at tipping the balance. Republican Paul Sherrell, who received a $5,000 contribution, defeated Democratic incumbent Rep. Kevin Dunlap for a seat representing Warren, Grundy and White counties. A public high school teacher, Dunlap virulently opposed vouchers during both years of his term serving on a House education panel.

The group also spent nearly $6,000 in support of Republican Michael Curcio, who won the Dickson-area district seat held by Democrat and voucher opponent David Shepard before he retired this year.

This summer, Tennessee Federation for Children was active during the summer’s Democratic primaries in Memphis, where the latest voucher proposal would have the largest impact. There, the affiliate spent $54,466 in support of school choice candidates — and a combined $25,144 against incumbents Antonio Parkinson and Johnnie Turner, who consistently have voted against voucher bills. Parkinson and Turner retained their seats, and only one candidate supported by the Tennessee Federation for Children won: Rep. John DeBerry, a passionate believer that vouchers would improve outcomes in his city.

The Tennessee affiliate is funded in part by DeVos’s philanthropic foundation, the Alliance for School Choice, receiving $200,000 in 2014. The same year, the foundation awarded $100,000 to the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank that encourages lawmakers to embrace school choice legislation including vouchers.

It’s not yet clear if the Tennessee House’s pro-voucher contingent gained sufficient ground as a result of spending in this year’s elections, though the lead sponsor of last year’s voucher bill is optimistic.

“The elections definitely benefitted those who believe parents should have a choice in where the students go to school,” Rep. Bill Dunn said this week.

The Knoxville Republican noted that support for vouchers has steadily increased in Tennessee since he was first elected to the legislature more than 20 years ago. While he believes that support needs to grow to clinch the voucher vote, he attributes the gradual rise in part to groups like Tennessee Federation for Children.

“I’m very, very happy that people have gotten involved and said they’re willing to support this,”  he said.

Want to know more about how Tennessee’s most recent voucher proposal would impact schools? Read our explainer here.

Politics & Policy

Indianapolis school board members make an unusual school visit — halfway around the world

PHOTO: Courtsey: Kelly Bentley
Kelly Bentley posted a photo of herself and Thai students on Facebook. The students hosted American teens enrolled in a study abroad program IPS could join.

When Indianapolis Public Schools board members visit schools, it’s usually a short trip across town. But the latest site visit took them a little farther afield — about 8,500 miles.

IPS board president Mary Ann Sullivan and member Kelly Bentley traveled to Thailand earlier this month to visit a study abroad program that could soon be available to students in the district.

Thrival Academy, which is designed to give low-income high school students the chance to study and travel internationally, aims to launch as an IPS innovation school in 2018. If the Indianapolis school gets board approval, it will be the second Thrival site. This year, the group is piloting the program in partnership with Oakland Unified School District in California.

Indianapolis has a rapidly growing selection of innovation schools, which are considered part of the district but are managed by outside nonprofits or charter operators. With its study-abroad focused program, Thrival is one of the most unusual ideas put forward.

It’s so unusual that Bentley and Sullivan wanted to see the program in practice.

During a four-day visit, they stayed at the camp where Oakland students lived, visited sites where the teens did home stays, and learned about the academics that are offered during the three months that high schoolers in the program spend in South Asia. They also had the chance to talk with students from Oakland about their experience.

“These were kids that, some of them had never, ever been away from home,” Bentley said. “I think it is a life-changing experience for these kids.”

PHOTO: Courtesy: Kelly Bentley
A camp where Thrival students stayed in Laos.

The trip was paid for by the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that partners with IPS to support innovation schools and that funds a fellowship that Thrival’s founder, Emma Hiza, won to start the school.

In addition to the board members, the Mind Trust sent the IPS chief of operations, and Aleesia Johnson, who oversees innovation schools for the district, had previously gone to scout the program. Other board members were also invited to go, but declined because the trip was on short notice, said Sullivan.

Almost as soon as Bentley and Sullivan shared photos and tidbits from the trip on Facebook, critics of the Mind Trust’s influence in Indianapolis schools began raising questions about the Thailand trip.

Brandon Brown of the Mind Trust said the group wanted board members to have a chance to see the program because it is so unusual — not in an effort to sway their votes.

“Because we are sending students halfway across the world,” he said, “we thought it would’ve been irresponsible for them not to go see it.”

PHOTO: Courtesy: Kelly Bentley
A garden near the camp where students stayed in Thailand.

The camp did not charge Bentley and Sullivan for their stay, Hiza said, so the group’s main costs were their plane tickets.

But accepting an international trip to see a school they will eventually vote on could make it appear that the board members are not impartial, said Kristen Amundson, president of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

“I would just have advised them not to do it,” she said. “I’m not questioning anybody’s integrity. I’m not questioning anybody’s motivation. … It’s the perception.”

For their part, Bentley and Sullivan say they won’t make final decisions on whether to support the school until the details of the Indianapolis program are ironed out. But they now have a greater understanding of Thrival’s model.

The trip gave them insight into the program that it would’ve been hard to get without seeing it in practice, said Sullivan, such as how Thrival integrates academics into study abroad.

“It’s a really big jump for IPS to get involved in something like this,” she said. “Some of the questions I think that we had and will have were answered much better by actually seeing and meeting the students, the teachers, the people on the Thailand side.”

Story booth

A Detroit student speaks: Her charter school promised college tours and art classes. They didn’t exist.

Detroit high school senior Dannah Wilson says a charter school broke promises it made promises to her family.

When Dannah Wilson decided to enroll in a charter school on Detroit’s west side, her family was drawn by the promise of programs like college tours and art classes.

In reality, however, those programs didn’t exist.

“We were made promises by the administration that weren’t kept,” said Wilson, who is now a high school senior at another Detroit charter school.

But when parents and students tried to complain, they discovered that the college that authorized the school’s charter, Bay Mills Community College, was in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a five-hour drive from Detroit.

Wilson had been the “poster child” for the school, she said, her face plastered on billboards and brochures for the school.

“I willingly gave,” she said. “But did not receive a quality education in return.”

Wilson discussed her challenges navigating Detroit schools in a story booth outside the School Days storytelling event at the Charles H. Wright Museum last month.

The event, cosponsored by Chalkbeat and the Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers, featured Detroit parents, educators, and a student telling stories on stage about schools in Detroit.

The event also invited other Detroiters to share their stories in a booth set up by Chalkbeat and the Skillman Foundation. (Skillman also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

Last week, we featured a teacher sharing the tragic reason why her students don’t always come to class. This week, we’re featuring Wilson, who is part of a family whose children have collectively attended 22 different schools in Detroit in search of a quality education.

Watch Wilson’s story below, and if you have a story to tell about Detroit schools — or know someone who does — please let us know.