Future of Schools

Vouchers could transform Memphis, and one network of schools

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
A group of Jubilee School students work on a craft during a summer reading program at La Salle School, one of the Memphis schools expected to accept tuition vouchers if the state legislature approves a program.

Before the Achievement School District, before Tennessee allowed charter schools, before Memphis became “Teacher Town,” there were the Catholic Diocese of Memphis’ Jubilee Schools.

The network of schools launched in 1999 with a mission to educate poor students in Memphis, regardless of their religion. The mission made the Jubilee Schools different from Catholic school networks in other cities, which had been closing schools at unprecedented rates. It also placed the schools at the forefront of a movement toward school choice in Memphis that was on the verge of accelerating.

“Jubilee Schools were a really significant first wave of reform in the education setting in Memphis,” said David Hill, director of academic operations for the Catholic Diocese of Memphis.

Now, the schools are among the leading advocates for a new controversial form of school choice in Tennessee: vouchers, which would let low-income families zoned to low-performing schools use public funds to pay for private schools. Lawmakers have left voucher legislation on the table in each of the last two years, but sources including lobbyists, researchers at Vanderbilt University, and a Democratic opponent of the program, say vouchers are likely to get the okay next year.

Although its impossible to be sure of what next year’s legislation would look like, the introduction of vouchers could dramatically change the Jubilee Schools’ financial picture. And it would further complicate the web of school options that parents in Memphis already have. Right now parents that would be offered vouchers can already send their students to schools run by the Achievement School District (many of which are charter schools), charter schools outside of the ASD, or the Shelby County Schools.

Jubilee Schools could stand to gain more than $2 million from vouchers if they managed to fill all their classroom space, meaning that Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District would receive less. If vouchers become a Memphis reality, other players in school choice will have to react.

“We’d have to step up our game and make sure we have schools where parents want to send their kids,” Chris Barbic, the head of the statewide Achievement School District, said of the post-voucher educational landscape.

The voucher debate in Tennessee

The bill that made it through the State Senate this year would have made vouchers available only to students zoned to the bottom 5 percent of schools in Tennessee. Almost all of those students live in Memphis, although that might change when the state releases a new list of priority schools later this month.  The vouchers would either have covered tuition at a private school or let families apply the amount that the state and district together spend per student toward the tuition. And the number of vouchers covered would have grown from 5,000 in the program’s first year to 20,000 two years later.

Until now, opposition from two groups have stopped similar bills that have cropped up the in Tennessee Senate since 2011.

On one side, there are those who say the voucher legislation is not expansive enough, and should include a greater breadth of Tennessee children. In 2013, Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Republican from Germantown, was at the forefront of a push for an expansive voucher program that would impact students across the state, not just in the bottom 5 percent of schools. This year, he supported the legislation limited to low-income families. Gov. Bill Haslam has insisted he will only sign voucher legislation targeted at low-income students.

The other group argues that voucher bills would deplete the budgets of already cash-strapped schools. Democratic representatives and the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, have been among the most vocal proponents of that argument.

“When we talk about Tennessee now being behind Mississippi in funding per child, it just seems silly to talk about vouchers,” said Alexei Smirnov, the managing editor of TEA’s magazine.

Barbara Cooper, a Democrat representative from Memphis, echoed concerns about the allocation of school funding at a recent community meeting in Frayser.  Families living in Frayser, a neighborhood already dominated by the Achievement School District, would qualify for vouchers under last year’s proposed legislation.

“I think we need to be careful about that,” Cooper said. “ It’s helping [schools] that are rich already.”

Around the country, uncertain results

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia already offer voucher programs. Some of those states only offer vouchers to students who receive special education, but seven extend vouchers to students attending academically-struggling schools and from low-income families. Indiana’s legislation allows even families making up to $62,000 year to use vouchers.

Researchers haven’t reached consensus on the impact of vouchers.  In the 2012-2013 school year, students in voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland performed worse on average than their peers in public schools on statewide assessments, and in Louisiana, seven private schools had such low test scores they were prohibited from further accepting vouchers. Other studies have found that voucher programs have improved public schools and increased the likelihood of high school graduation.

Sometimes, more choices does not equal good choices. In Milwaukee, home of the oldest voucher program in the United States, a crop of financially mismanaged and low-achieving private schools popped up after legislation was passed in 1992.

Tennessee’s proposed legislation troubleshoots such pop-up schools by requiring that schools be fully accredited by the state department of education or an agency approved by the department of education at least two years before they can accept voucher payments. The accreditation process takes at least two years, said Claire Smrekar, a researcher at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education.

Most students who use vouchers in states with programs that extend beyond special education go to previously-established religious schools. In Indiana and Washington, D.C., more than half of these schools are Catholic, although in North Carolina, the most popular school with parents using vouchers is Islamic.

What vouchers could do in Memphis

While Memphis’ Jubilee Schools has spots for 500 students, it’s not clear how many poor students would take advantage of those seats. It is clear they could never educate all of the city’s poor students. Many other independent schools are not interested in accepting vouchers. This spring, researchers from Vanderbilt University did a study of private schools in the Memphis area. After interviews with more than 50 heads of schools, they found most of the private schools either could not or did not want to accept vouchers.

That might encourage legislators redrafting the bill for the next session to ease up requirements for private schools accepting vouchers, said Smrekar, who led the study. Or, of the 20,000 students who would eventually get vouchers, many — maybe even the vast majority —  might not find a private school that would accept them.

The reasons private schools might not accept vouchers range from financial to ideological. Private schools could not charge more than the voucher amount, just a fraction of what some schools charge. Annual tuition for students in grades 9-12 at Lausanne Collegiate School, for example, is $20, 610.

Additionally, many schools are neither set up nor feel a calling to take students who might have fallen several grade levels behind and get them up to speed, Smrekar said. And many more don’t want the government regulation that would come with government funding.

But since the Jubilee Schools already accept Title 1 funding from the federal government, and offer free and reduced lunch, they’re used to government oversight, administrators say.  Students also already take nationally-normed standardized tests twice a year, another stipulation in last year’s proposed voucher bill.

“They’re ready,” said Carra Powell, a lobbyist for Tennessee Federation for Children, and  parent of two in Jubilee Schools and one recent graduate. “As soon as the voucher bill is passed, we’re rolling them in.”

But it’s not clear how great the demand for vouchers in Memphis is. Although choice has expanded significantly in Shelby County in the past decade, with 41 charter schools in operation, few, if any of those charter schools have waiting lists, and many parents still opt to go to their neighborhood school. And a new study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education shows that school choice doesn’t necessarily equate to increased access to better schools because of barriers like transportation and parents lacking or misunderstanding information schools provide.

Inside Jubilee

Administrators and teachers at Jubilee Schools think they have a lot to offer families currently in public schools.

Catholicism is a central part of the education offered at the Jubilee Schools, and the diocese prides itself on offering a faith-based education, said David Hill, the academic director for the dioceses and a former charter school principal.  A crucifix hangs in every classroom, and students attend mass weekly.

Of the more than 1,000 students who attend Jubilee Schools, most practice a religion other than Catholicism. Most of the teachers aren’t Catholic either, nor is Hill. The diocese’s goal is for students –92 percent of whom are black or Hispanic,  with virtually all of them receiving need-based scholarships–have been in Jubilee Schools since at least third grade to average in the top third on a nationally normed standardized test, the Iowa Assessments, by the sixth grade. More than three-quarters of Jubilee students met or exceeded their expected achievement growth on the Iowa Assessment in English and math, as determined by the Riverside Publishing Company’s Estimated Growth Report for the Iowa Assessment Core Composite during the 2012-13 school year, Hill said.

Erika Hansen helps a third grade student work on a craft at a reading program at De La Salle Elementary.
PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Erika Hansen helps a third grade student work on a craft at a reading program at De La Salle Elementary.

The schools collaborate with the University of Memphis to make sure that growth can happen. This summer, after noting a problem endemic to all schools, students losing knowledge during the summer months, the schools and the University of Memphis decided to hold a summer reading program at De La Salle Elementary School in Midtown. Each day, about sixty third-and-fourth graders from eight of the Jubilee Schools come to De La Salle for breakfast, lunch, and reading activities. Teachers include some from Jubilee Schools, some from other schools in the diocese, and University of Memphis doctoral students. The students are broken into groups of around eight students, depending on their reading level.

On a recent Monday, the program went to Booksellers, a bookstore in East Memphis. Some of the students had never bought a book before, said program coordinator Erika Hansen. By that Wednesday, the students were reading about Ancient Egypt and making jewelry Ancient Egyptians might have worn. (“We’re rich Egyptians,” a third grader explained.)

“It’s really about instilling a love of learning,” Hansen said.

Carra Powell says she’s experienced the schools’ ability to bring kids to grade level firsthand. Before her divorce, her children had gone to a private Montessori School in Mississippi, but as a single mother, she couldn’t afford to keep them there. Her oldest daughter seemed to do fine in the public schools. But her son, who started at the local elementary school in kindergarten, still couldn’t read by the second grade. Powell is quick to say that she does not want to bash the public schools. But, she said, they weren’t working for her son, and she didn’t know what to do.

Some of her friends were Catholic, and recommended she look into Jubilee Schools. Powell went to visit St. John, a Jubilee School in Orange Mound. She said she walked in and talked to the principal, and started to cry. To Powell, now a lobbyist for the Tennessee Federation for Children working on voucher legislation, the Jubilee Schools seemed a godsend.

Carra Powell, a Jubilee parent
PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Carra Powell, a Jubilee parent

She said the school was able to get Nicholas up to grade level by working with him on reading in a small group four times a week. He also participated in a book group with the principal after school. In a single school year, his reading test scores improved by 60 percent.

And the small size of the school allowed teachers to provide her daughter, who was above grade level in math and reading, with an individualized curriculum. Her daughter recently graduated from St. John, and is attending St. Agnes, another Catholic school, on a merit scholarship. Powell’s son, an eighth grader, is never without a book. “He reads himself to sleep,” she said.

Powell said that her work as a lobbyist is infused by her children’s experiences.  “I want other people to be able to access these schools,” she said.

IPS School Board Race 2018

Indiana teachers union spends big on Indianapolis Public Schools in election

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
IPS board candidate signs

The political arm of Indiana’s largest teachers union is spending big on the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The group donated $68,400 to three candidates vying for seats on the board this November, according to pre-election campaign finance disclosures released Friday.

The three candidates — Susan Collins, Michele Lorbieski, and Taria Slack — have all expressed criticism of the current board and the leadership of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. Although that criticism touches on many issues, one particular bone of contention is the district’s embrace of innovation schools, independent campuses that are run by charter or nonprofit operators but remain under the district’s umbrella. Teachers at those schools are employed by the school operators, so they cannot join the union.

The trio was also endorsed by the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that has received funding from a national teachers union.

It’s not unusual for teachers unions to spend on school board elections. In 2016, the union contributed $15,000 to an unsuccessful at-large candidate for the Indianapolis Public Schools board. But $68,400 dwarfs that contribution. Those disclosures do not capture the full spending on the election. The three candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana — Mary Ann Sullivan, Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, and Evan Hawkins — are likely getting significant unreported benefits.

Stand for Children, which supports innovation schools, typically sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses. But it is not required to disclose all of its political activity because it is an independent expenditure committee, also known as a 501(c)(4), for the tax code section that covers it. The group did not immediately respond to a request for information on how much it is spending on this race.

The candidates’ fundraising varied widely in the reporting period, which covered the period from April 14 to Oct. 12, with Taria Slack bringing in $28,950 and Joanna Krumel raising $200. In recent years, candidates have been raising significantly more money than had been common. But one recent candidate managed to win on a shoestring: Elizabeth Gore won an at-large seat in 2016 after raising about $1,200.

Read more: See candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

One part of Stand for Children’s spending became visible this year when it gave directly to tax campaigns. The group contributed $188,842 to the campaign for two tax referendums to raise money for Indianapolis Public Schools. That includes a $100,000 donation that was announced in August and about $88,842 worth of in-kind contributions such as mailers. The group has a team of campaign workers who have been going door-to-door for months.

The district is seeking to persuade voters to support two tax increases. One would raise $220 million for operating funds, such as teacher salaries, over eight years. A second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements. Donations from Stand for Children largely power the Vote Yes for IPS campaign, which raised a total of $201,717. The Indiana teachers union also contributed $5,000.

Here are the details on how much each candidate has raised and some of the notable contributions:

At large

Incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan, a former Democrat state lawmaker, raised $7,054. Her largest contribution came from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which donated $4,670. She also received $1,000 from Steel House, a metal warehouse run by businessman Reid Litwack. She also received several donations of $250 or less.

Retired Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Susan Collins, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $16,422. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $15,000. She also received several donations of $200 or less.

Ceramics studio owner and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Joanna Krumel raised $200. Her largest contribution, $100, came from James W. Hill.

District 3

Marian University Executive Director of Facilities and Procurement and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Evan Hawkins raised $22,037. His largest contributions from individuals were from businessmen Allan Hubbard, who donated $5,000, and Litwack, who donated $2,500. The Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee contributed $4,670 and web design valued at $330. He also received several donations of $1,000 or less. His donors included IPS board member Venita Moore, retiring IPS board member Kelly Bentley’s campaign, and the CEO of The Mind Trust, Brandon Brown.

Frost Brown Todd trial attorney and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Michele Lorbieski, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $27,345. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $24,900. She also received several contributions of $250 or less.

Pike Township schools Director of Information Services Sherry Shelton raised $1,763, primarily from money she contributed. David Green contributed $116.

District 5

Incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an Indianapolis Public Schools parent, raised $16,006. Her largest contributors include Hubbard, who donated $5,000; the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which gave $4,670 and web design valued at $330; and the MIBOR PAC, which contributed $1,000. She also received several contributions of $500 or less, including from Bentley.

Federal employee and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Taria Slack, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $28,950. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $28,500.

Innovation zone

Two more Denver schools win additional freedom from district rules

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki/Chalkbeat
Alex Magaña, then principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, greeted students as they moved between classes in 2015.

Two more Denver schools this week won more flexibility in how they spend their money and time. The schools will create a new “innovation zone,” bringing the district’s number of quasi-autonomous zones to three.

The Denver school board on Thursday unanimously approved the schools’ application to operate more independently from district rules, starting in January.

The new zone will include Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver and Kepner Beacon Middle School in southwest Denver. The two schools are high-performing by the district’s standards and follow a model that allows students to learn at their own pace.

With just two schools, the zone will be the district’s smallest, though Beacon leaders have signaled their intent to compete to open a third school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood, where the district has said it will need more capacity. The district’s other two innovation zones have four and five schools each.

Schools in zones are still district schools, but they can opt out of paying for certain district services and instead spend that money on things that meet their specific needs, such as additional teachers or aides. Zones can also form nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors that provide academic and operational oversight, and help raise extra dollars to support the schools.

The new zone, called the Beacon Schools Network Innovation Zone, will have a five-member board of directors that includes one current parent, two former parents, and two community members whose professional work is related to education.

The zone will also have a teacher council and a parent council that will provide feedback to its board but whose members won’t be able to vote on decisions.

Some Denver school board members questioned the makeup of the zone’s board.

“I’m wondering about what kinds of steps you’re going to take to ensure there is a greater representation of people who live and reside in southwest Denver,” where Kepner Beacon is located, asked school board member Angela Cobián, who represents the region. She also asked about a greater representation of current parents on the board.

Alex Magaña, who serves as executive principal over the Beacon schools and will lead the new zone, said he expects the board to expand to seven members within a year. He also said the parent council will play a key role even if its members can’t vote.

“The parent council is a strong influence,” he said. “If the parent council is not happy, that’s going to be impacting both of the schools. I don’t want to undersell that.”

Other Denver school board members questioned the zone’s finances and how dependent it would be on fundraising. A district summary of the zone’s application notes that the zone’s budget relies on $1.68 million in foundation revenue over the next 5½ years.

Magaña said the zone would eventually seek to expand to four schools, which would make it more financially stable. As for philanthropic dollars, he said the zone would work to ensure any loss of revenue doesn’t hurt the schools’ unique programs or enrichment.

“I can’t emphasize enough that it won’t impact the schools,” he said.

Ultimately, Denver school board members said they have confidence in the Beacon model and look forward to seeing what its leaders do with their increased autonomy.