Another pause

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.

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.”

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