Delay

Debate over Sunday sports bumps vote on Memphis school tuition vouchers

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Teachers on spring break fill a legislative committee room Tuesday at the State Capitol to voice opposition to school vouchers.

Busloads of Memphis teachers, parents and students traveled to the State Capitol Tuesday to voice their opposition to tuition vouchers. Instead, they heard a debate about whether districts should excuse students from school-sponsored sporting events held on Sunday.

The prolonged discussion bumped the voucher bill to next week’s agenda for the House Education Administration and Planning Committee. That means fewer Memphians will be able to attend the debate about a proposal meant exclusively for their students. This week is spring break for Shelby County Schools, allowing Memphians to make the seven-hour round trip drive to Nashville.

Stephanie Love, who serves on the Shelby County Board of Education, said she hopes concerned community members will rally others to call and email representatives, even if they can’t attend the committee meeting.

“We don’t know if they have all the votes. I want (lawmakers) to understand … this will put a burden on an already burdened city,” Love said, referring to the city’s challenges with enrollment and funding in schools.

Sponsors of voucher legislation say the program would give parents options for children who are attending “failing” schools. The leading voucher bill this year would pilot them in Memphis, which has the state’s highest concentration of low-performing schools.

But parents with Shelby County Schools traveled to Nashville tell lawmakers about existing choices in Memphis, like the district’s 45 optional schools, which provide theme-based learning to fit the needs of individual students.

Del Sulemani had planned to testify about the experience of her two daughters, who attended Catholic school before transferring to John P. Freeman Optional School. Her oldest daughter graduated from Central High School, and her youngest is a senior at Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High School, a charter school in the state-run Achievement School District.

She said she was glad her family made the switch to public schools.

“I think parents have to understand when you put your child in private school, it’s their way or the highway,” she said. “Public schools have to address your concerns.”

In addition to the busload from Memphis, 150 teachers and 40 parents from across the state were at Capitol Hill through an event organized by the Tennessee Education Association. Sporting “no vouchers” stickers, they filled the committee room and overflowed into the hallway, highlighting passionate opposition to a proposal to allow public funds be spent on private schools.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Harry Brooks of Knoxville and Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown, passed last week in the Senate Education Committee.


Here’s what you need to know about the bill.


 

breaking news

Plan for school vouchers in Tennessee on hold again, despite national momentum

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Rep. Harry Brooks talks in his office about the decision to roll his voucher bill until next year. The Knoxville Republican is the House sponsor of a proposal to pilot vouchers in Memphis and Shelby County.

School voucher supporters thought that this was finally their year.

But despite national attention and initial momentum, vouchers have sputtered in Tennessee once again. Rep. Harry Brooks on Wednesday pushed his bill to next year, meaning that for the seventh year, vouchers will not pass the Tennessee Legislature.

It’s an anticlimactic ending after months of debate and hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars spent to boost legislation allowing public money to be spent on private school tuition.

Many advocates had thought that limiting vouchers to Memphis would give this year’s proposal the support needed to become law, winning over wary lawmakers from elsewhere in Tennessee. They also hoped to benefit from national attention to private school choice efforts. President Donald Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, have both used their platforms to advocate for vouchers and similar programs.

But in the end, disagreements over how private schools should be held accountable for academic results — as well as legislators’ exhaustion after passing a hotly debated gasoline tax — caused the measure to stall.

Brooks pledged to pick up the measure next year where he left it — in the House Finance subcommittee.

“We’re satisfied that we’ve moved it this far,” the Knoxville Republican said later. “…We were able to accomplish more than we thought that we could (in the first year of the two-year session).”

Brooks said he’ll work in the coming months to nail down consensus specifically around high school testing, since private high schools often offer different courses than their public counterparts.

Two versions of amendments emerged this year to Brooks’ bill with Sen. Brian Kelsey — one that mandated all students take Tennessee’s state tests, and one that allowed private school students accepting vouchers to take other tests, so long as they are approved by the State Board of Education.

“I’ve had a request from folks on different sides of the issue to say we need to look at that,” Brooks said.

As word spread of a voucher pause, both advocates and opponents took the long view.

“I don’t want anybody to think the fight is over just because it’s been rolled until 2018,” said Stephanie Love, a board member with Shelby County Schools.

Love, who led busloads of Memphians to Nashville to voice opposition, said she’s already gearing up for next year’s debate — as was voucher supporter Mendell Grinter, director of the Memphis-based Campaign for School Equity.

“We’ll be prepared for next year,” said Grinter, whose organization supports expanding school choice, especially for students of color. “We don’t anticipate stopping or altering our course.”

Roy Herron, a former state senator who lobbies for Tennessee’s small school systems, was elated but stopped short of saying that vouchers are dead for another year.

“It’s a good day for public schools,” he said. “(But) there’s an enormous amount of money and highly capable lobbyists working very hard to pass this legislation. I have great respect for their ability and great concern about the amount of resources they bring on this issue.”

The House has been the harder route for advancing voucher legislation in Tennessee, where it’s passed the Senate three times. Last year, a proposal that would have permitted students in urban districts to use vouchers was pulled before coming to vote on the House floor.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated from a previous version.

Doing the math

As lawmakers scrutinize the price tag of school vouchers in Memphis, here’s a cost breakdown

PHOTO: The Commercial Appeal
Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown has been a passionate supporter of vouchers his entire legislative career. He says that concerns about cost are overblown.

If the legislature votes to pilot school vouchers in Memphis, the state will have to spend about $45,000 on envelopes and stamps to get the word out to eligible families.

But the vast majority of the cost for the five-year pilot would fall on districts that operate in Memphis — and that could be more than double the $18 million that’s been cited.

The House Finance Committee is scheduled to vote Wednesday on the bill, and the Senate finance panel is to weigh in next week. Their role is to consider the cost of the program to taxpayers.

They’ll pick up questions that state lawmakers have been hashing out for six years, all with money at the center. Would vouchers drain too much money from public schools? Would taxpayer dollars be well spent on private schools?

What follows is the full text of the “fiscal note,” which outlines the price as estimated by the Tennessee General Assembly Fiscal Review Committee. It itemizes highly debated costs such as the $7,000-per-student voucher for up to 5,000 students, but also details unexpected costs, such as thousands of dollars for postage to inform Memphis families about the option of using public money to pay for private school tuition beginning in the fall of 2018.

We’ve annotated the fiscal note to include links to our past coverage and context. Click on the highlighted passages to read our annotations.


ESTIMATED FISCAL IMPACT: Increase State Expenditures – Exceeds $330,400/FY17-18 $230,400/FY18-19 and Subsequent Years

Other Fiscal Impact – For local education agencies that have schools in the bottom five percent of achievement and are mandated to participate in the statewide scholarship program, the shift of state and required local BEP funding from these local education agencies to the non-public participating schools is estimated as follows: $8,867,500 in FY17-18; $13,633,100 in FY18- 19; $18,632,500 in FY19-20; and an amount exceeding $18,632,500 in FY18-19 and subsequent years.

Assumptions relative to state expenditures:

 The DOE will require two new positions to administer the program beginning in FY17-18. One position will require a salary of $80,124 with benefits of $20,219; a total of $100,343. One position will require a salary of $67,008 with benefits of $18,043; a total of $85,051.

 The total recurring increase in state expenditures for personnel is estimated to be $185,394 ($100,343 + $85,051).

 Pursuant to § 49-1-1205 of the proposed bill, the DOE shall notify parents of student eligibility and participating schools. Though the exact number of eligible students is unknown; based on information from the DOE, it is estimated that the Department will notify at least 65,000 students annually of the pilot program.

 Based on information from DOE, the recurring increase in state expenditures to notify eligible students and participating schools through mailings and brochures is estimated to be $45,000.

Other Fiscal Impact – For local education agencies that have schools in the bottom five percent of achievement and are mandated to participate in the statewide scholarship program, the shift of state and required local BEP funding from these local education agencies to the non-public participating schools is estimated as follows: $8,867,500 in FY17-18; $13,633,100 in FY18- 19; $18,632,500 in FY19-20; and an amount exceeding $18,632,500 in FY18-19 and subsequent years.

Assumptions relative to state expenditures:

 Based on information from the DOE, the Department will require a new online portal system for receiving and processing student applications. The Department confirms a thirdparty contract vendor will be required to develop the new portal system. Though the exact cost for developing such system is unknown; the one-time increase in state expenditures for software development is estimated to exceed $100,000. Such expenses will be incurred in FY17-18.

 The total increase in state expenditures in FY17-18 is estimated to exceed $330,394 ($185,394 + $45,000 + $100,000).

 The total recurring increase in state expenditures beginning in FY18-19 is estimated to be $230,394 ($185,394 + $45,000).

Assumptions relative to enrollment, scholarship amounts, and program estimates:

 The scholarship pilot program will begin in the fall of 2017.

 Based on information from DOE, Shelby County Schools will be the sole location of the pilot program based on the achievement scores of all LEAs in FY15-16. 3 SB 161 – HB 126

 Though the exact number of annually participating students is unknown, it is reasonably estimated that a minimum of 25 percent of the cap for the pilot program will be filled each year beginning in FY17-18.

 For the purposes of this fiscal note, the required state and local BEP expenditures are utilized as the scholarship amount with an estimated scholarship growth of 2.5 percent annually.

 Statewide Program Student Enrollment Estimates:

 In FY17-18, an estimated 1,250 students will participate.

 In FY18-19, an estimated 1,875 students will participate.

 In FY19-20, an estimated 2,500 students will participate.

 In FY20-21 and subsequent years, over 2,500 students will participate.

 Statewide Program Scholarship Estimates:

 In FY17-18, the scholarship is estimated to be $7,094 (the average 2016-2017 per pupil expenditure).

 In FY18-19, the scholarship is estimated to be $7,271 ($7,094 x 1.025%) per pupil.

 In FY19-20, the scholarship is estimated to be $7,453 ($7,271 x 1.025%) per pupil.

 In FY20-21 and subsequent years, the scholarship is estimated to exceed $7,453 per pupil.

 Total Statewide Program Estimates:

 In FY17-18, an estimated $8,867,500 ($7,094 x 1,250 students) will shift from LEAs to participating schools.

 In FY18-19, an estimated $13,633,125 ($7,271 x 1,875 students) will shift from LEAs to participating schools.

 In FY19-20, an estimated $18,632,500 ($7,453 x 2,500 students) will shift from LEAs to participating schools.

 In FY20-21 and subsequent years, an amount estimated to exceed $18,632,500 will shift from LEAs to participating schools.

Assumptions relative to LEA fund retention:

 The BEP maintenance of effort requires that local government continue to fund their LEA at the same level year-to-year unless there is a decrease in enrollment.

 Participating students will continue to be counted in LEA enrollment numbers, and LEAs will be required to continue providing funding based on the enrollment numbers that include participating students.

 A majority of LEAs are currently funding their students above and beyond the BEP local match requirement. This amount varies widely by LEA, but according to DOE, the average amount that LEAs will retain in FY17-18 is $1,279 per pupil. This amount is estimated to increase at an average growth rate of 2.5 percent annually in each subsequent year.

 Each year, students leave and enter LEAs. As a result, LEAs adjust expenditures, teachers, facilities, and other items to meet the change in student population.

 LEAs will be able to use retained funding to offset any increase in local government expenditures or to use at their discretion for some other purpose.

CERTIFICATION: The information contained herein is true and correct to the best of my knowledge. Krista M. Lee, Executive Director