Future of Schools

New guides push school choice for parents, families

PHOTO: Submitted

Shelby County parents have abundant options when deciding where to send their children to school, but there are few, if any, resources to help them navigate the often intimidating process.

Understanding school choice in Memphis, which is home to the majority of the state’s lowest-performing schools, can require copious amounts of research that some choice advocates on the state and local level are hoping they can simplify for parents. But their help comes with a slant away from traditional public schools.

Earlier this month, the Beacon Center of Tennessee released a statewide school choice booklet, which the center’s CEO says will give parents access to information about private, charter, homeschool and virtual school options. Traditional public schools are not included in the booklet. The Beacon Center, which is based in Nashville, is a free-market think-tank that advocates for unfettered school choice, limited government, and “individual liberty.”

The organization held a press conference  Oct. 8 to launch the release of the booklet, which was co-sponsored by several other pro-school choice organizations: Black Alliance for Educational Options, or BAEO,  Agudath Israel, Education Freedom Alliance, Public SchoolChoiceOptions.org, Tennessee Charter School Center and Tennessee Federation for Children.

“We’re in agreement that parents need a school choice booklet, and this is the first resource that is statewide,” said Jennifer Littlejohn, state director of BAEO.

Approximately 83,000 children in Tennessee attend a failing school, according to the Beacon Center’s presentation.

The booklet has sparked some controversy because of its pointed exclusion of traditional public schools.

“(It) covers both private and public options available to Tennessee families,” said Justin Owen, CEO Beacon Center of Tennessee. “At this time, (public schools) districts differ so greatly in the menu of options that it would be difficult to include in a statewide booklet, so our focus was to provide the general choice options currently available.”

The absence of traditional public schools in the booklet concerns the Tennessee Education Association.

“Our stance is that Tennessee children deserve great public schools and diverting money through vouchers to a private or charter school strips our public schools,” said Barbara Gray, president of the Tennessee Education Association, which represents the majority of the state’s public school teachers. “We find the booklet to be misleading and doesn’t fully inform parents. Public schools should have been mentioned.”

An upcoming online choice guide for Memphis will include traditional public schools along with private, charter and virtual options. This effort is being led by Memphis parent Ginger Spickler, who also also serves as communications director  for Memphis Opportunity Scholarship Trust, or MOST, an organization that helps low-income families pay for private schooling.

Spickler said her website will be similar to a STL City Schools, which offers parents explainers on the four types of schools in St. Louis — regular public, public magnet, public charter, and private — and the steps to researching local schools.  It’s being funded by a local philanthropist “with a strong interest in education,” Spickler said. She said the philanthropist wanted to remain anonymous. Spickler didn’t know when the site will launch.

Simply producing guides for parents won’t help them gain access to the best educational options for their children, said Cardell Orrin, director of the Memphis chapter of Stand for Children, a national parent organizing group.

“It’s one thing to have the tool, but parents should know how to use it and why they should,” Orrin said.

Contact Tajuana Cheshier at tcheshier@chalkbeat.org and (901) 730-4013.

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Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.