And then there was one

This year’s list of school voucher bills just got shorter in Tennessee

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Sen. Dolores Gresham (right) chairs the Senate Education Committee. On Wednesday, she tabled a $71 million voucher-like proposal for consideration next year.

Tennessee lawmakers advocating for vouchers and similar school-choice programs are now rallying behind a single bill.

One tuition voucher bill died Wednesday in committee due to a lack of votes, while a more expansive voucher-like measure was tabled until next year. And the sponsor of a third bill, which would expand another voucher-like program for special education students, pulled that proposal from consideration as well.

After the flurry of action in the Senate Education Committee, voucher advocates only have a proposed pilot program in Memphis to focus on, and that bill appears to have momentum. Sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown and Rep. Harry Brooks of Knoxville, the measure passed a House education committee on Tuesday, and heads next to the House Government and Operations and Senate Finance committees.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire

The voucher bill that stalled Wednesday was similar to one that almost became law last year. Sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga and Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, the proposal would have impacted students in districts with “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent, which includes Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga and Jackson. It garnered only four of the five votes needed to pass, with four senators electing to pass, and one voting no.

Meanwhile, Sen. Dolores Gresham announced that she was tabling until next year her voucher-like proposal that could shift up to $71 million annually in public dollars toward private education services.

Gresham, a Republican from Somerville who chairs the panel, said she wants to flesh out her proposal based on what other states, including Nevada and Arkansas, are doing to fund their massive school-choice programs.  

“I need some time to look at what they’re doing, because that might be very helpful in the future for us to fund empowerment scholarships,” she said. “I’m very excited about what I see happening across the country.”

Gresham added that momentum is building at the national level, too, now that Betsy DeVos is U.S. secretary of education under President Donald Trump. DeVos, a billionaire philanthropist from Michigan, has made a career of advocating to give parents more flexibility on how to spend public education funding.

“I’m excited to see what the new secretary might bring to the table,” she said.

Gresham’s bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Roger Kane of Knoxville, would allow any parent to use up to $7,000 of public school funding toward private schools, tutoring or other educational services through Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. The proposal would be similar to a program that went into effect this year for special education students, but far more sweeping.

All of Tennessee’s 1 million public school students would be eligible to participate, though the program would be capped at 9,600.

The state’s new voucher-like program for special education students was created by the legislature last year, and Kelsey was seeking this year to expand it. But the bill faced opposition due to the potential cost to public schools, and he took it off notice on Wednesday.

Social studies switch

At 11th hour, lawmakers mandate a whole semester of Tennessee history, but don’t specify where it will fit

PHOTO: Malia, Flickr

Tennessee students will have to take a whole semester of state history after all — but no one knows in what grade.

In the waning hours of the legislative session, the House this week approved the change, only days after its sponsor had said he was going to wait until 2018 to hash out the details. The Senate already had passed the measure, which does not specify the grade level for the course.

Now, the state will have to adjust social studies standards that already have gone through a significant amount of review and are one vote from final approval by the State Board of Education. It’s uncertain what that will entail, but board leaders pledged their cooperation.

“The State Board of Education will partner with the Department of Education to ensure that the social studies standards are in full compliance with any new state law before they are heard on final reading at the Board’s July 2017 meeting,” said executive director Sara Heyburn Morrison in a statement.

The law will go into effect for the 2018-19 school year, the year before the new standards, which were supposedly finished, are scheduled to reach classrooms.

One of the reasons for the state’s social studies review, which began in January 2016, was the large number of standards that teachers were struggling to cover. The review panel worked to winnow those down to a more manageable amount and did not include a separate semester for Tennessee history.

To eke the bill through, House leaders amended another bill to include the mandate. Rep. Art Swann, the House sponsor, said Thursday that he was glad not to put off the measure until next year.

“We’re still going to have to wait for implementation, which will take a year or two to get done,”  said the Maryville Republican.

Swann said he didn’t discuss the changes with the State Department of Education. “The Senate sent me the language, and it was fine with me and that’s what we ran with,” he said.

Eight of the nine members of the Standards Recommendation Committee who vetted the proposed new standards believe they allow teachers to go in-depth on important historical topics. But member Bill Carey, who sells Tennessee history materials through his nonprofit Tennessee History for Kids, voted against some of the standards. He was mostly concerned with the reduction of Tennessee historical facts in grades 1-5.

Architects of the new standards say teachers still could cover such topics, but that decisions about how should be made at the local level.

Called the Douglas Henry History Act, the legislation mandating the course is named after the longtime state senator from Nashville who died in March.

post mortem

Before voucher legislation comes back in 2018, Tennessee lawmakers want a plan to determine whether vouchers work

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students eat lunch at the Oaks Academy Middle School, a private Christian school in Indiana that accepts taxpayer funded vouchers. All students at the private school must take Indiana's state tests. Whether Tennessee should have a similar requirement in its voucher proposal is up for debate.

While Tennessee lawmakers will go home this year without passing school vouchers into law, they’re not leaving the idea behind.

In the coming months, lawmakers who backed the proposal to start a five-year pilot program in Memphis will fine-tune it. One goal: clearing up questions about what kind of tests students need to take so lawmakers can determine if the program is “working.”

“The thing I want to have clarity on is … the language in regard to accountability,” said the House sponsor Harry Brooks, a Knoxville Republican, after he announced that he was pushing pause on vouchers for the year.

“How do we create accountability on the money that’s being spent in private schools? I’ve had a request from folks on different sides of the issue to say we need to look at that.”

Vouchers have never been an easy sell in Tennessee, with legislation falling short nearly every year since 2010. But it came close in 2016, with one of the bill’s sponsors estimating that he was only two votes shy of getting it passed. This year’s sponsors tweaked the bill to be a targeted pilot in hopes of making it more palatable to lawmakers on the fence.

But a lengthy battle over a new gas tax delayed the voucher vote, giving advocates less time to decide how to assess whether the vouchers help students — an important question because the proposal would create only a five-year pilot that lawmakers would expand depending on the results.

Many private schools are wary of state tests, which they say do not match up with their academic standards. And some lawmakers feared such a requirement would cause the standardization of private schools — something that appears to have happened in Indiana, where private schools that accept vouchers must test all students.

Brooks said that in his mind, state testing in grades 3-8 is a done deal — even though the bill was amended to remove the state testing requirement for all grades shortly before he pushed pause on the proposal until next year.

End-of-course testing for high school students is another story, he said. Private schools often have different graduation requirements and course offerings than public high schools, which come with different material to be tested. Brooks said he and other lawmakers would look into whether high schools that accept vouchers should be exempt from a testing requirement — and what, if anything, should replace tests to measure students’ success.

Tennessee’s voucher proponents think they can overcome those barriers before they pick up the voucher debate next year, hashing out a policy that appeals to private schools while appeasing lawmakers hungry for data.

“People want to see students go to these schools and do well,” said Mendell Grinter, the director for the pro-voucher advocacy group Campaign for School Equity. He said the bill will be helped by having hard conversations around testing in the offseason, rather than the crunch of the legislation session.

Other states have negotiated this terrain successfully. Two of the country’s largest and most recent programs, in Indiana and Louisiana, require private schools to publicly post state test scores. And the country’s oldest voucher programs, in Ohio and Wisconsin, have moved toward more accountability, both without losing private schools along the way.
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Graphic includes voucher programs targeted at low-income students. It excludes programs for students with disabilities or rural students without public school access. Data: National Conference of State Legislatures. Graphic by: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat
Graphic includes voucher programs targeted at low-income students. It excludes programs for students with disabilities or rural students without public school access. Data: National Conference of State Legislatures. Graphic by: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat

“It’s hard at a time when traditional schools and charter schools are held accountable in such a visible way to make the argument that private schools getting public dollars shouldn’t have to,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the pro-voucher Thomas B. Fordham Institute. “I think we’re going to continue to see that in voucher programs.”

As states overhaul their accountability systems for public schools to include more measures than just test scores, a requirement under the new federal education law, lawmakers could consider doing the same for private schools in Tennessee.

“A pilot program with a rigorous evaluation makes a lot of sense,” said Douglas Harris, a researcher at the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, who studied Louisiana’s voucher program and found that students using vouchers scored far below their public school peers on state tests. “Using multiple measures makes even more sense.”

But Harris cautioned against letting schools choose their own tests, something that schools in Florida are allowed to do as long as the tests are nationally normed. Some Tennessee voucher advocates, including Brian Kelsey, the Senate sponsor, have pointed to that model as offering accountability while preserving flexibility for private schools, but Harris said that it’s hard to draw meaningful conclusions from a smorgasbord of tests.

If Tennessee does figure out how to craft a pilot, a full-blown, statewide voucher program could easily follow. That’s what happened in Louisiana, which started with a pilot in New Orleans; Ohio, which started out with a smaller program in Cleveland; and Wisconsin, which started out with vouchers only in Milwaukee.

Brooks says Tennessee lawmakers wouldn’t allow vouchers statewide if they don’t succeed in Memphis — and that’s why it’s important to figure out how to measure outcomes.

“If it doesn’t work, then it answers the question,” he said. “It’s why it’s called a pilot.”