Heating up

Chalkbeat explains what school vouchers could mean for Tennessee

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
From left: Shelby County Schools Board of Education members Stephanie Love and Mike Kernell speak at an anti-voucher rally that was attended by supporters of the pro-voucher group Black Alliance for Educational Options.

In an impromptu public debate over using public money to pay for private schooling, Shelby County Board of Education member Stephanie Love stood practically toe-to-toe Monday with voucher advocate Roxie Nunnally while impassioned opponents of vouchers — mainly public school teachers, parents, and community organizers —  congregated in front of the district’s central offices in Memphis.

Voucher advocate Roxie Nunnally speaks with voucher foe Stephanie Love.
PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Voucher advocate Roxie Nunnally speaks with voucher foe Stephanie Love.

The discourse during an anti-voucher rally highlighted the intensity of emotion around Tennessee’s school voucher debate — especially in Memphis, the city that would be most impacted by a voucher bill advancing through the state legislature.

As the House Finance Committee prepares for a possible vote on the proposal on Tuesday, here’s our primer on school vouchers and the legislation under consideration:

Who would be eligible to receive vouchers?

The current bill would target students zoned to the bottom 5 percent of schools in Tennessee — most of whom are in Memphis and Nashville, with some in Hamilton, Knox and Madison counties. It would impact 5,000 students in the program’s first year and reach 20,000 students annually in two years. If any vouchers remain after all eligible students receive them, they can be awarded to students who reside in a district that contains at least one school in the state’s bottom 5 percent — meaning potentially students zoned even to high-performing schools in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga and Jackson could cash vouchers out at a private school. Several Republican lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga, have said they hope the program would expand to even more students in the future.

How would vouchers impact student achievement?

That question strikes at the core of the debate.

Proponents say vouchers drive competition, and that competition makes all schools better and increase student achievement. They argue that anything would be better than the current situation for students who attend Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools.

Opponents say there’s no guarantee that a private school accepting a voucher would be of better quality than a public school, especially since private schools are less regulated. That’s what happened in Milwaukee, home of the nation’s oldest voucher program, where a crop of financially mismanaged and low-achieving private schools popped up after a 1992 school voucher law passed. Tennessee’s proposed legislation somewhat mitigates that concern by mandating that voucher-accepting schools be fully accredited by the State Department of Education or an agency approved by the state at least two years before they can accept voucher payments. Opponents also worry that private schools have no obligation to offer the same level of special education programming or afterschool care as public schools.

Researchers haven’t reached consensus on the impact of vouchers. A working paper by Duke, MIT and Harvard researchers for the National Bureau for Economic Research shows attendance at a voucher-eligible private school in Louisiana lowered scores on statewide math assessments and increased students’ likelihood of a failing score by 50 percent. Other studies have found that voucher programs have improved public schools and increased the likelihood of college enrollment.

How would vouchers impact public school funding?

Again, that’s unclear. Opponents say vouchers would leach much-needed funding from public schools, while proponents say the program wouldn’t overburden districts because public schools would be relieved of educating students now receiving vouchers. The bill’s current fiscal note predicts vouchers would cost districts with schools in the bottom 5 percent: $17 million in 2016-17; $26 million in 2017-18; $36 million in 2018-19; and more than $71 million in 2019-20 and subsequent years. It would cost state government $185,000 to pay for personnel to administer the program.

How much would vouchers be worth for each recipient?

In most districts, just under $7,000, although the amount varies based on local funding.

Would students use vouchers at any private school?

Probably not. 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, an Islamic school was the most popular school for parents using vouchers when the state launched the program in 2014.

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Do private schools have to accept vouchers?

Plenty of private school administrators have said they won’t. In 2014, Vanderbilt researchers found that most Memphis-area private schools either could not or would not accept vouchers for reasons ranging from financial to ideological concerns. Private schools could not charge more than the voucher amount, which is a fraction of what some schools charge (nearing $30,000 annually at the most expensive private schools in Memphis and Nashville). Private schools might also be opposed to the amount of government regulation that comes with accepting vouchers. For instance, voucher recipients would be required to take state TNReady assessments or a nationally recognized test at the end of each school year.

If the House approves the voucher bill, would it likely become law?

The legislation would have to be signed by Gov. Bill Haslam, who has indicated his support. Currently, the proposal has reached the farthest it’s come in six years of legislative debate, passing in the Senate three of those years. Because Tennessee’s Senate approved the bill during the first half of the current 109th General Assembly, it needs only House approval to go to the governor’s desk.

 

Chalkbeat Memphis reporter Micaela Watts contributed to this report.

showdown

McQueen’s deadline looms for Memphis and Nashville to share student info with charter schools — and no one is budging

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A request for student contact information from Green Dot Public Schools to help with enrollment efforts sparked a fight between the state and Shelby County Schools.

As Tennessee’s two largest school districts fought an order to share student information with charter schools, the state education commissioner set a deadline last week.

Candice McQueen told the superintendents of Shelby County Schools and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools they had to provide the data to charter schools that asked for it by Sept. 25 — or the state would “be forced to consider actions to enforce the law.”

But with just three days until the deadline, neither district has said it will budge. The consequences “will be determined Monday,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on Friday.

McQueen has not offered more information about what those consequences could be, though some lawmakers have worried it could mean funding cuts. There is some precedent for such a move: The Nashville district lost $3.4 million in state funding in 2012 when it refused to approve a controversial charter school, according to The Tennessean.

The clash comes after the Nashville and Memphis districts refused to turn over student contact information to charter networks, who argue that information is vital to their operation. Many Memphis schools, including those in the state-run school district, have been struggling with under-enrollment.

An amendment to an untested U.S. Department of Education rule suggests local districts can withhold information like phone numbers, addresses and email addresses — but a new state law requires Tennessee districts to hand it over to charter schools within 30 days.

The state department of education asked the attorney general’s office to weigh in. Last week, the attorney general said the districts had to turn the information over, but also that districts could take a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents about their right to opt out.

Shelby County Schools posted opt-out forms for parents on its website the next day, and gave parents until Oct. 22 to fill them out. The form allows parents to keep their information from charter schools specifically or from outside entities more broadly, including companies like yearbook providers, for example.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The school boards for the two districts have been in lockstep in defying the state’s order, with the Memphis board even offering to write a legal opinion if Nashville were to go to court over the issue.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said his legal team is still reviewing the attorney general’s opinion.

“We still want to make sure parents know what their options are,” Hopson told Chalkbeat on Tuesday. “When we [McQueen and I] talked, she understood that our opt-out forms were out there.”

Anna Shepherd, board chair for the Nashville district, said the board met with its attorney this week to discuss the issue but took no action.

“We have not had any further conversation with the state concerning the release of data for MNPS students,” Shepherd said by email. “I’m not anticipating any action [before Monday].”

Reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.

what's public?

Private managers of public schools, charter leaders enjoy extra buffer from public-records laws

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Eva Moskowitz, Success Academy Charter Schools CEO.

When Success Academy officials read the news last month that board chair Daniel Loeb had made a racially charged comment about a New York State senator, what did they do next?

Did Success CEO Eva Moskowitz frantically email confidantes about the incident? Did her team craft a new policy on board member conduct?

It turns out, we may never know.

That’s in part because emails sent by Moskowitz and other leaders of New York City’s largest charter network which oversees 46 public schools and 15,500 students are not subject to the same public-records laws as district school officials, such as Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

Moskowitz and officials at other charter school networks are generally exempt from the law because they don’t work for individual schools or city agencies, both of which are required to hand over certain records to members of the public who request them. Instead, they are employed by nonprofit groups called charter management organizations, or CMOs, which aren’t covered by the state records law.

“Success Academy Charter Schools, Inc. (SACS) is a private nonprofit organization that provides services to charter schools, but it is not itself a charter school or a government agency under FOIL,” wrote Success Academy lawyer Robert Dunn in response to an appeal of a Chalkbeat request for Moskowitz’s emails under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, which the network had denied. “Thus, it is not in and of itself subject to FOIL or required to have an appeal process.”

In addition, Success officials said the emails would not need to be released because they qualify as internal communications that are exempt from the public-records law.

The city’s most prominent charter school networks — including KIPP and Uncommon — have similar CMO structures, which appears to shield their leaders from at least some FOIL requests. While “the KIPP NYC public charter schools themselves are subject to the New York Freedom of Information Law,” KIPP spokesperson Steve Mancini said in an email, the “CMOs are not.”

But some government-transparency advocates argue that the law is not so clear cut.

Because CMOs are so heavily involved in the operation of public schools, it could be argued that the vast majority of their records are kept on behalf of public schools and should be public, said Bob Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government and an expert on public-records laws.

Even though nonprofits aren’t covered by FOIL, he said, “Everything you do for an entity that is subject to FOIL — everything you prepare, transmit, and receive — falls within the scope of FOIL.”

Success Academy officials emphasized that the network does not categorically deny public-records requests involving its management organization. For instance, it may hand over CMO records related to the daily operation of its schools, the officials said. The network decides on a case-by-case basis which CMO records are public and which are not, they added.

“We follow the same policies as all other charter management organizations,” said Nicole Sizemore, a Success Academy spokeswoman.

Uncommon Schools spokeswoman Barbara Martinez said that their individual schools are subject to public-records requests and the nonprofit CMO releases budget information on its public tax forms.

“Uncommon Schools is a non-profit organization that follows all local, state and federal laws regarding disclosure,” she said in a statement.

However, because public-records laws mainly apply to government agencies and institutions, it is likely that some important communications related to charter schools — such as charter officials’ emails to real-estate companies, for example and detailed financial records related to their CMOs would be off limits to the public.

The issue of charter management transparency flared up in Connecticut a few years ago.

After the state accused a CMO of nepotism and financial mismanagement of its charter schools, the Hartford Courant requested CMO records under the state’s Freedom of Information law. The CMO refused to hand them over, saying, “We are not a public agency.”

In response, state lawmakers proposed a law to increase CMO transparency and subject them to public-records laws. After charter advocates decried the law as overly broad, lawmakers amended it and the law was passed. (A similar bill was recently introduced in the California legislature but did not pass.)

Similar scandals involving CMOs could happen elsewhere, said Wendy Lecker, an attorney at the Education Law Center. During the debate in Connecticut, she called for making all CMO records public.

“Something done on behalf of a school should be subject to transparency and Freedom of Information laws,” she said. “I don’t see why they’d want to shield the public from that.”

A large number of charter schools are run by charter management organizations. In 2015, about 55 percent of New York City charter schools were managed by CMOs, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

The nonprofits help their schools hire, pay, and train staff; analyze data; and handle advertising and public relations, according to a report by the NAPCS. The report notes that these organizations are distinct from textbook companies or other vendors that schools contract with because CMOs “have considerable influence over the instructional design and operations of their affiliated charter schools.”

The nonprofit structure has enabled networks to open new schools more easily, including ones in multiple districts and states, said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center.

Even if New York’s public-records laws applied to CMOs, that would not guarantee that all their records would be accessible or easy to obtain.

New York City’s education department, for instance, is notorious for dragging its feet on FOIL requests. And some information is also exempt from the public-records law.

For instance, opinions or recommendations from within an agency or from outside consultants are exempt from public disclosure. Success’ lawyer argued that even if the network’s executives were subject to public information requests, Moskowitz’s emails to or about Loeb would fall under this “inter-agency” communication exception.

However, government agencies would still have to supply the requested emails, just with the exempted information redacted, said Allan Blutstein, the public-records advisor for the political opposition research group America Rising. Even redacted emails can provide a wealth of information, Blutstein said, since simply seeing when the emails were sent, who they were sent to, and how many were exchanged provides insights into how the organization responded.

“You may not get his or her personal opinion back and forth, but there’s value in knowing how soon they reacted, how soon they’re responding to other people,” Blutstein said. “You can make these types of inferences and learn a lot.”

In addition, institutions that are subject to FOIL must hand over more detailed budget information than nonprofits typically disclose, Blutstein said. While nonprofits are required to release general information, like how much they spend on supplies or training, public institutions must hand over almost every record, he said.