Future of Schools

Proposed voucher bill would have big implications for Memphis parents

Tennessee state legislators will vote Tuesday on a proposal that would offer so-called “Opportunity Scholarships,” also known as vouchers, to help children zoned to lowest-performing schools in the state attend private schools with the help of public funds.

Several voucher bills have been proposed in the state’s legislature this year. House Bill 0190, which passed the house budget committee last week, is scheduled for a vote in the House’s Ways and Means Committee later Tuesday. The senate version of the same proposal, Senate Bill 0196, has not yet been voted on.

Many students in the 140,000-student Shelby County school system would be eligible for the vouchers. Eighty-four percent of legacy Memphis City’s students were economically disadvantaged in the 2012-13 school year, and the bulk of the state’s bottom five percent schools are in Memphis.

Voucher programs are controversial: Proponents argue that they offer a critical choice for low-income families stuck in low-performing schools, while opponents argue that they drain public schools of much-needed resources while benefitting just a few students. Others fear that the vouchers will benefit parents who would not send their children to public school in the first place. As many of the state’s private schools are also religious, some argue that the programs unconstitutionally break the barrier between church and state.

As many as 5,000 students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch and who are enrolled in schools in the bottom five percent in the state would be eligible for vouchers next year if the bill passes. The program is slated to grow annually, providing up to 20,000 scholarships in the 2016-17 school year.

The bill’s authors estimate that approximately $15 million will be shifted away from public schools and to private schools accepting students using vouchers during the next fiscal year. That amount would grow each year.

In the current bill, the voucher would cover either the tuition and fees of the school, or the per-pupil state and local funds in the district a child attends, whichever is less. Students must have attended public school for at least two semesters before they begin attending school with the help of a voucher.

In order to accept voucher funds, schools would have to agree to abide by the state’s standardized testing protocol. That would mark a change for many local private schools. Schools accepting vouchers are not required to change the services they provide to special needs students.

Several amendments are still being considered, including one that would open the program up to students enrolled in the bottom ten percent of schools. The Tennessean reports than an amendment could also require private schools to abide by the state’s guidelines for teacher evaluations in public schools. 

Tennessee would be the 24th state to adopt a voucher program. Each state’s program looks different. In Indiana, the program has grown rapidly in recent years and urban public schools have indeed seen significant drops in enrollment.

Vouchers are one of a number of state initiatives targeting the bottom 5 percent of schools: The state-run Achievement School District was created to take over and turn around schools that fall into that category, and districts can receive extra funds to create their own “innovation zones” to turn around such schools.

House Democrats voted against the proposal in the budget subcommittee meeting last week. And Shelby County Schools officially opposes the creation of a voucher program. A group of parents went to Nashville in order to oppose the bill, WREG reports. From WREG:

“As we know all dollars need to be allocated to public education and needs to remain with students being served by the public schools,” said Anthony Harris, a Gordon Elementary teacher.

But the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) held an event in Memphis promoting school vouchers this February. And a separate group of Memphians led by state representative John Deberry, a Democrat, traveled to Nashville earlier this year to advocate for the bill.

Michael Benjamin, the director of the Tennessee Federation for Children, spoke at the SCLC event, describing his own choice to put his son in a private school. He said that many parents currently cannot afford that option. “No one can say the need’s not there. We’re putting more educational options on the menu…what better place to start than in the cradle of civil rights?”

And Tennessee Black Alliance for Educational Options, which also supports vouchers, recently established a chapter in Memphis.

The debate over vouchers in Tennessee is not new: Several school voucher bills were also floated during last year’s legislative session, but in the end they were withdrawn.


hurdle cleared

Indiana’s federally required education plan wins approval

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Education
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick greets elementary school students in Decatur Township.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signed off on Indiana’s federally required education plan, ushering in another era of changes — although not exactly major ones — to the state’s public school system.

The U.S Department of Education announced the plan’s approval on Friday. Like other states, Indiana went through an extensive process to craft a blueprint to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was signed into law in 2015.

“Today is a great day for Indiana,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement. “Our ESSA plan reflects the input and perspective of many stakeholders in communities across our state. From the beginning, we set out to build a plan that responded to the needs of Hoosier students. From our clear accountability system to our innovative, locally-driven approach to school improvement, our ESSA plan was designed to support student success.”

The federal government highlighted two aspects of Indiana’s plan. One is a pledge to close achievement gaps separating certain groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, from their peers by 50 percent by 2023.

Another is a staple of other states’ plans, as well: adding new ways for measuring how ready students are for attending college or starting their careers. Indiana education officials and lawmakers have made this a priority over the past several years, culminating in a new set of graduation requirements the Indiana State Board of Education approved late last year.

Under Indiana’s plan, high schoolers’ readiness will be measured not just by tests but also by performance in advanced courses and earning dual credits or industry certifications. Elementary school students will be measured in part by student attendance and growth in student attendance over time. Test scores and test score improvement still play a major role in how all schools are rated using state A-F letter grades.

In all, 35 states’ ESSA plans have won federal approval.

Advocates hope the law will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

Indiana officials struggled to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, such as graduation requirements and diplomas.

Under the state’s ESSA plan, A-F grades would include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and, in the case of chronic absenteeism, attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

Because the Indiana State Board of Education passed its own draft A-F rules earlier this month — rules that deviate from the state ESSA plan — it’s possible Hoosier schools could get two sets of letter grades going forward, muddying the initial intent of the simple A-F grade concept parents and community members are familiar with.

The state board’s A-F changes include other measures, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan. The state board plan also gets rid of the test score improvement measure for high-schoolers.

While that A-F proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

The state can still make changes to its ESSA plan, and the state board’s A-F draft is also expected to see revisions after public comment. But the fact that they conflict now could create difficulties moving forward, and it has led to tension during state board meetings. Already, the state expected schools would see two years of A-F grades in 2018. If both plans move forward as is, that could continue beyond next year.

Read: Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Find more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.


Aurora recommends interventions in one elementary school, while another gets more time

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Aurora school district officials on Tuesday will recommend turning over management of some operations at one of their elementary schools to an outside management company.

The school, Lyn Knoll Elementary, is located in northwest Aurora near 2nd Avenue and Peoria Street and serves a high number of students from low-income families, with 4 percent of students identified as homeless. The school was one of three Aurora schools that earned the lowest rating from the state in 2017.

That rating automatically flags the school under a district process for school interventions. The process directs district officials to consider a number of possible improvement plans, including closure or turning the school over to a charter school.

Lyn Knoll has had good rankings in recent years before slipping dramatically in the past year, a change that put it on the turnaround list. The district did not recommend intervening at Paris Elementary, even though that school has been in priority improvement for years and will face state sanctions if it has one more year without improvement.

Annual ratings for Lyn Knoll Elementary

  • 2010: Improvement
  • 2011: Improvement
  • 2012: Performance
  • 2013: Improvement
  • 2014: Priority Improvement
  • 2016: Performance
  • 2017: Turnaround
Colorado Department of Education

The board will discuss the recommendation on Tuesday and vote on the school’s fate next month. In November, four union-backed board members who have been critical of charter schools won a majority role on the district’s school board. This will be their first major decision since taking a seat on the board.

In September, Superintendent Rico Munn had told the school board that among January’s school improvement recommendations, the one for Paris would be “the most high-profile.” A month later the district put out a request for information, seeking ideas to improve Aurora schools.

But in a board presentation released Friday, district officials didn’t give much attention to Paris. Instead, they will let Paris continue its rollout of an innovation plan approved two years ago. Officials have said they are hopeful the school will show improvements.

The recommendation for Lyn Knoll represents more drastic change, and it’s the only one that would require a board vote.

The district recommendation calls for replacing the current principal, drafting a contract for an outside company to help staff with training and instruction, and creating a plan to help recruit more students to the school.

Documents show district officials considered closing Lyn Knoll because it already has low and decreasing enrollment with just 238 current students. Those same documents note that while officials are concerned about the school’s trends, it has not had a long history of low ratings to warrant a closure.

In considering a charter school conversion, documents state that there is already a saturation of charter schools in that part of the city, and the community is interested in “the existence of a neighborhood school.” Two charter networks, however, did indicate interest in managing the school, the documents state.
The district recommendation would also include stripping the school’s current status as a pilot school.

Lyn Knoll and other schools labeled pilot schools in Aurora get some internal district autonomy under a program created more than 10 years ago by district and union officials.

Because Lyn Knoll is a pilot school, a committee that oversees that program also reviewed the school and made its own recommendation, which is different from the district’s.

In their report, committee members explained that while they gave the school low marks, they want the school to maintain pilot status for another year as long as it follows guidance on how to improve.

Among the observations in the committee’s report: The school doesn’t have an intervention program in place for students who need extra help in math, families are not engaged, and there has not been enough training for teachers on the new state standards.

The report also highlights the school’s daily physical education for students and noted that the school’s strength was in the school’s governance model that allowed teachers to feel involved in decision making.

Read the full committee report below.