Battleground state

Before Trump speaks in Nashville, here are five things to know about school choice in Tennessee

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

President Donald Trump has chosen Nashville for his first policy address outside of Washington, D.C., and “school choice” is on the agenda for his Wednesday night speech.

That’s a top priority for him and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who has long lobbied for choice programs. Trump has called on Congress to propose a $20 billion program to expand choice for poor students across the nation, and more details are expected this week when he proposes his first budget.

So far, Tennessee has encountered all of the ups, downs, opposition and advocacy typically experienced by choice programs. Here’s what you should know about the issue in Tennessee as Trump prepares to showcase it.

  1. Choice programs have expanded significantly in recent years. Since a 2003 state law opened the door to charter schools, more than 100 have sprung up across Tennessee, mostly in Memphis and Nashville. A state-run initiative to turn around long-struggling schools added another set of choices, especially in Memphis. And the state’s first voucher program, which allows families of students with some disabilities to use public dollars to attend private schools, launched this year.
  1. Not everyone is on board with the shift. School choice advocates often blame opposition on teachers unions, which are weakened when students leave traditional public schools for charter or private schools that typically don’t have unionized teachers. But in Tennessee, opposition also has bubbled up from local school superintendents and boards who are worried that vouchers could drain already under-funded traditional schools of students and money. The latest school choice proposal, vouchers for students without disabilities, is aimed at the lowest performing schools in Memphis — and opposed by many Memphians.
  1. Robust school choice has put a lot of pressure on traditional public schools. Nashville school leaders have long complained that the city’s growing charter sector is siphoning off funding from its other schools. But Memphis has a more acute problem. Its schools are struggling with low enrollment in an increasingly fragmented public education landscape. Half of the schools in the state-run Achievement School District are operating below capacity, while nearly a third of Shelby County Schools are grappling with under-enrollment. The challenge is forcing both districts to close schools — disrupting families and educators alike.
  1. School voucher legislation has historically fizzled in Tennessee, but advocates hope this year will break the pattern. 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. A proposal went the furthest it’s ever gone last year, only to be pulled on the House floor at the last minute when the sponsor realized he was just short of the votes he needed. 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 with Trump in the White House, voucher proponents are enthusiastic about its chances this year.
  1. If vouchers are introduced, private schools are on the fence about accepting them. A Vanderbilt University researcher found in 2014 that most private schools in Memphis weren’t interested in participating. And private school leaders have been reluctant to commit on more current proposals too. Not only would they not be allowed to charge more than the $7,000 voucher value that’s being proposed, accepting public funding would open them up to regulations and state testing. A key question about Trump’s proposal is whether the U.S. Department of Education would require states to include accountability rules in their voucher programs.

Correction: March 15, 2017: This story has been corrected to show that about a third of Shelby County Schools are grappling with under-enrollment. A previous version incorrectly reported that 70 percent of the district’s schools struggle with that challenge.

Fiery remarks

Memphis lawmaker, voucher advocate says ‘unraised’ students hold back public schools, teachers

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Rep. John DeBerry, a Democrat, has represented House District 90 in Memphis since 1995.

A state lawmaker from Memphis delivered a fiery speech Tuesday in which he said public schools are filled with “immoral” students whose parents “can care less” about their education. He also defended student suspensions and the right of teachers to fight back.

The comments came from Rep. John DeBerry, who is Memphis’s strongest proponent of school vouchers in the legislature, during a discussion of a Teachers Bill of Rights that lawmakers are considering putting in place.

The remarks offered new insight into DeBerry’s motivation for wanting families to be able to use public funding to pay private school tuition — to allow students to escape surroundings he described as an educational hellscape.

“We’ve got people who can care less whether or not their child is educated, just as long as their child is out of the house so they can go back to bed. And while it is not politically correct to say stuff like that, we all know it exists,” said DeBerry, a Democrat who consistently has promoted vouchers as a tool to help students escape “failing” schools.

“So when we take that teacher and take 25 to 30 unraised, untaught, irremannerable [sic], immoral, don’t-care-you-can’t-teach-give-a-flip, you can’t teach that,” he said. “You’ve got chaos and you’ve got good little children who want to learn trapped in that mess and a teacher who wants to control it.”

The Teachers Bill of Rights — written with input from the Professional Educators of Tennessee, the second-largest teachers association in the state — is intended to signify lawmakers’ respect for the teaching profession. It declares that teachers should be allowed to defend themselves against students and to report offensive behavior to administrators.

“We hope teachers are going to feel empowered,” said J.C. Bowman, the group’s president. “At last this legislative body is sending a message that (teachers) are indeed respected for what they do.”

The measure originally included items about teacher evaluation and out-of-pocket spending, but now features only rights related to student behavior. One sponsor of the bill, Rep. Jay Reedy, said he hopes to add those rights back in the future.

The House Education Administration and Planning Committee on Tuesday passed both the Bill of Rights and legislation from Rep. Raumesh Akbari, another Memphis Democrat, that would require the state to try to reduce suspensions in prekindergarten and kindergarten. DeBerry questioned if alternatives to suspension are necessary.

“Of course they’re going to [need to] send students out of school, even in kindergarten, because you’re not sending a student to school; you’re sending a problem,” DeBerry said.

Five questions

Why this Memphis Republican supports school vouchers — but is concerned about accountability

PHOTO: TN.gov
From left: Rep. Mark White of Memphis speaks with Gov. Bill Haslam at a bill-signing ceremony at the State Capitol.

Only one school voucher bill remains under consideration in Tennessee, and it’s all about Memphis.

The proposal, which would pilot a voucher program exclusively for students in Shelby County Schools, is putting a spotlight on the 16 state lawmakers who represent Memphis and Shelby County, including Rep. Mark White.

White is one of only four from the county’s legislative delegation to pledge support for the bill, which would allow some Memphis parents to use public education funding to pay for private school tuition.

The East Memphis Republican, whose district includes Germantown, has long supported vouchers. But he’s also concerned about how private schools would be held accountable if they accept public money.

Chalkbeat spoke with White this week about the legislature’s last remaining voucher proposal, as well as a bill to give in-state tuition to Tennessee high school students who are undocumented immigrants.

If vouchers pass, what kinds of things would you look for to ensure they’re effective?

PHOTO: TN.gov
<strong>Rep. Mark White</strong>

Accountability is important. Five years ago, when we we first considered vouchers full force, I was in agreement totally with vouchers, with not a lot of limitations. But … if we’re going to hold our public schools accountable, we need to hold everyone accountable, and that’s why I want to get to the part about TNReady (testing).

Can the Department (of Education) and can (the Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability) manage what the bill is asking them to do? I want to answer those questions. If we want to ensure that a student taking a voucher takes the TNReady test, who is going to oversee that? Who is going to make that happen? That’s the part I think we still need to work out if it moves forward through the various committees. It’s not good to go to the floor without all of the answers.

Most elected officials in Memphis oppose vouchers and are also concerned that this bill goes against local control over education. How do you respond to that?

I’d rather it be statewide. But you know, they’ve tried that in the past. The reason it got to be Shelby County is because we had more low-performing schools in the bottom 5 percent. And so therefore the bill got tied to Shelby County. If it was more someplace else, it would have gone there.

Shelby County Schools has made major improvements, boosting its graduation rate and receiving national attention for its school turnaround program, the Innovation Zone. Would vouchers undermine those efforts by diverting students and funding from the district?

Go back to 2002. We were looking for answers, so we started pushing charters. Those who wanted to preserve public schools fought that tooth and nail. Then we went to the Achievement School District. As a result, Shelby County Schools has created the Innovation Zone. …  Memphis is now known as Teacher Town. We’ve brought so much competition into the market. It’s a place where the best teachers are in demand. That’s what you want in every industry.

A lot of good things have come about, and I think it’s because we have pushed the envelope. Is this voucher thing one thing that keeps pushing us forward? I like that it’s a pilot, and we can stop it if we see things that aren’t working. I think trying all of these things and putting competition into the market has made things improve.

Every Memphis parent, student, and teacher who testified this week before a House education committee opposed vouchers. You’ve been steadfast in your support of them. What do you take away from hearing those speakers?

Any time you talk about children, people get passionate, and that’s a good thing. Conflict can be a good thing, because then we can move to resolve it. If you have an issue, look at it head on and let’s talk about it. If you don’t agree with vouchers, if you do agree vouchers, let’s talk about ways we can stop failing our children.

I’ve heard from just as many on the other side; they just weren’t here (on Tuesday). I’ve had an office full of people just begging us to pass this. I’ve had people on all sides want this.

I think this bill still has a long way to fly. We’ll see where it goes. But I think the challenge is good for all of us. It makes us look at ourselves.

You’re the sponsor of another bill to provide in-state tuition to undocumented immigrant students. This is the third year you’ve filed the bill. Why is that issue important?

What I’m trying to do is fix a situation for people who want to get a higher education degree. They’re caught up in the political mess of 2017, and all we’re trying to do is say, ‘Hey, you were brought to this country, and now we want to help you realize your dreams.’ We’re not trying to address any federal immigration issue. Everyone deserves a chance for an education.