At rally, Memphis activists push vouchers as civil rights issue

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette II
A choir performs during a rally for school vouchers Tuesday at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church.

Nicole Gates was at her wit’s end with her nine-year-old twin daughters’ public education. Their reading skills had suffered, their classes were overcrowded and teachers were apathetic, she said. So the single mother scrounged up $4,500 and this year they’re attending St. John’s, a Memphis-based private school.

On Tuesday night, she joined about 350 parents, activists and political leaders at Greater Mt. Moriah Baptist Church to advocate for legislation that stands to give Gates and parents like her government-backed scholarships known as vouchers to attend private schools. They say they’ve already paid that money, around $9,000, in sales and property taxes, and they should get it back in the form of a voucher to spend on schooling that best suits their children.

Tuesday’s rally featured social justice poetry, rousing gospel music, a call to the altar and fiery speeches from former Memphis City Schools board member Pastor Kenneth T. Whalum Jr. and former Memphis schools superintendent and mayor Mayor Willie Herenton. Both Whalum and Herenton were credited Tuesday with building strong schools using some of the earliest versions of school choice — magnets and intra-district transfers — only to be later “crucified” by opponents.

“Public schools for too long had a monopoly and children of lower income status didn’t have the option of going to a private school,” Herenton said to shouts of amen from the audience. “Every parent deserves the right and the opportunity to have choices in the educational market place. I’m an advocate of public schools, a strong advocate, but I’m a stronger advocate for options and choices for parents.”

Voucher activists are largely focusing their organizing efforts in Memphis this year, where any proposed voucher bill in the 2015 legislative session would likely have a disproportionate impact. If several legislators have their way, vouchers would be given to low-income students at the state’s lowest-performing schools, the majority of which are clustered in Memphis.

Several Catholic, Christian and Muslim private schools in Memphis that already serve low-income students stand to gain millions with vouchers if they can fill their empty seats. Many of those schools’ leaders were there Tuesday to tout their academic successes using a model that includes spiritual teachings, corporal punishment, and small class sizes.

Opponents of vouchers point to several studies that show students with vouchers perform no better at private schools than at public schools (they sometimes perform worse), that public dollars should not be used for religious indoctrination and that vouchers take money from already cash-strapped public schools.

Tuesday’s event was sponsored by the American Federation for Children and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a civil rights organization once lead by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In 2010, the two organizations galvanized thousands of black parents in Florida to push through voucher legislation that now provides $357.8 million in scholarships that fund about 69,000 students’ private school educations.  The program is currently being challenged in court by Florida’s NAACP branch, the teachers’ union, and PTA.

The SCLC and the American Federation for Children want to bring those same tactics to Tennessee, another Republican-dominated state where voucher legislation has a strong chance of passing.  They held a rally at the capitol this January that 1,200 people attended to help push through voucher legislation that would have made vouchers available to students zoned to the bottom 5 percent of schools in Tennessee.

The voucher bill ultimately failed.

“This year, we decided we wanted to organize people in Memphis on their own turf instead of taking them to Nashville,” said Carra Powell, a lobbyist with the American Federation for Children, a national advocacy organization that advocates for school choice, particularly vouchers. in low-income communities.

Powell recently started hosting a weekly 30-minute radio program on WLOK to discuss school choice, holding regular community and government meetings with education advocates and holding several rallies here in Memphis.

“We’re thinking outside the box this year,” she said.

Nicole Gates and her daughters Brooklyn and Bheanna who attend St. John's catholic school.
Nicole Gates and her daughters Brooklyn and Bheanna who attend St. John’s Catholic School.

On Tuesday, speakers cited failing traditional public schools and the threat of a state takeover as reasons for expanded school choice. They also pointed to Memphis City Schools’ 2011 charter surrender which sparked a historic merger between suburban and city schools and a subsequent municipality split as evidence that the government has failed black children.

“We recognize that the children have to be educated, trained, enriched, and nurtured,” said Dwight Montgomery, a local minister and the president of Memphis’ SCLC chapter.

Gates’ daughters, Brooklyn and Bheanna, are being tutored this year and their reading scores have improved at St. John’s. But the price tag isn’t getting cheaper.  She’s had to pay for field trips, school supplies and “just about everything else you can think of.”

“I’ll be glad when this (voucher legislation) passes,” she said.  Her other daughter, Yolanda, attends a charter school because she couldn’t afford private school for her. “They need to quit playing around.  This couldn’t come soon enough.”


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”