curve ball

Latest school voucher proposal would restrict new pilot program to Memphis students

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. Bill Dunn is the sponsor of a joint resolution to amend the Tennessee Constitution's provisions over school funding.

A new amendment to a hotly contested piece of voucher legislation scheduled for a vote Thursday would make Memphis the home of a pilot program in which families could divert public funding for private school tuition.

The proposal was filed as an amendment Wednesday by Rep. David Hawk, a Republican from Greeneville, about 500 miles from Memphis. It has the support of Rep. Bill Dunn, the bill’s sponsor, a Knoxville Republican.

The measure would dictate that 5,000 vouchers would be handed out in the 2017-2018 school year to low-income students in Shelby County Schools who are zoned to the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools. That’s considerably fewer than the original legislation, which would allow up to 20,000 vouchers in any district with schools in the bottom 5 percent by 2020. The amendment doesn’t specify the length of the proposed pilot program.

“The purpose of the pilot project shall be to evaluate the effectiveness of the scholarship program before broadening its scope to other school systems,” the amendment reads. The legislature would assess the effect on educational achievement and the fiscal capacity on Shelby County Schools before expanding vouchers to other districts.

Memphis is already is ground zero for the Achievement School District and home to the vast majority of the state-run district’s schools. It’s also home to many of the state’s lowest-performing schools, although Metro Nashville, Hamilton, Knox and Madison counties have some as well.

The fate of the voucher legislation, which was considered a sure thing by its proponents when the legislative session began last month, is now less sure, and Dunn has been considering amendments that might court legislators on the fence.

Amanda Chaney, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Education Association, said opponents to vouchers shouldn’t stand for any version of the bill.

“Vouchers in any form are bad for Tennessee, regardless of whether it’s limited or not,” she said.

Chaney pointed to a bill that unanimously passed the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, expanding eligibility for the Individualized Education Act — a voucher program to launch in 2017 for students with severe disabilities — to students not already enrolled in Tennessee public schools.

“That’s a good example of something they made very limited in the first year, and now they’re already expanding it before the program has even been implemented,” Chaney said.

Leaders with the Black Alliance for Educational Options, which has been building a base of support in Memphis, were open to and optimistic about the latest amendment.

“We are still excited that local students in Memphis will have the opportunity to take advantage of this option, but we want to emphasize the need for students across the state,” said Mendell Grinter, the group’s state director. “I think legislators really want to make sure that whatever they do is going to benefit students, and what they’re trying to do is making sure it serves kids well before moving forward.”

enrollment

Who’s in and who’s not? Chicago board to announce new boundaries for popular Taft High

PHOTO: Tim Boyle / Getty Images
Taft High School is one of Chicago Public Schools' most overenrolled campuses. In 2019, it will spin off its freshman class to a separate campus.

The Chicago school board will announce much-anticipated new attendance boundaries on Tuesday for one of its most crowded schools, William Howard Taft High School on the Northwest side.

Starting next school year, Taft will spin off one grade level to a new campus, the Taft Freshman Academy, which is expected to enroll 1,000 freshman. Chicago Public Schools will give those living within the new attendance area priority in enrollment.

“I look forward to what CPS has to say about the new campus,” Taft Principal Mark Grishaber told Chalkbeat Chicago. “This is good for every kid on the Northwest side.”

A community meeting on the new boundaries will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Wilbur Wright College, 4300 N. Narragansett Ave.

At its regular monthly meeting at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, the board will discuss the Taft boundaries and also what to do about its underrolled schools, which are primarily neighborhood schools.  A state law signed in August requires Chicago to make a plan for intervening in schools that do not have enough students.

The Chicago school district faces a critical decline in enrollment, but still plans to invest $1 billion to shore up existing schools and build new ones.

 

hiring crisis

Want ideas for easing Illinois’ teacher shortage? Ask a teacher.

PHOTO: Beau Lark / Getty Images

West Prairie High School is feeling the teacher shortage acutely.

The school — in a town of 58 people in downstate Illinois — hasn’t had a family and consumer science teacher for eight years, a business teacher for four years, or a health teacher for two years. The vacancies are among the state’s 1,400 teaching jobs that remained unfilled last school year.

To alleviate a growing teacher shortage, Illinois needs to raise salaries and provide more flexible pathways to the teaching profession, several teachers have urged the Illinois State Board of Education.  

“If we want top candidates in our classrooms, we must compensate them as such,” said Corinne Biswell, a teacher at West Prairie High School in Sciota.

Teachers, especially those in the rural districts most hurt by teacher shortages, welcomed the board’s broad-brush recommendations to address the problem. The board adopted seven proposals, which came with no funding or concrete plans, on Wednesday. It does not have the authority to raise teacher pay, which is negotiated by school districts and teacher unions.

“I appreciate that ISBE is looking for creative ways not only to approve our supply of teachers, but looking at the retention issues as well,” said Biswell, who favored the recommendations.

Goals the board approved include smoothing the pathway to teaching, providing more career advancement, and improving teacher licensing, training and mentorship.

However,  teachers attending the monthly meeting  disagreed over a proposal to eliminate a basic skills test for some would-be teachers and to adjust the entrance test to help more midcareer candidates enter the profession.

Biswell and other teachers warned that some of the recommendations, such as dropping the test of basic skills for some candidates,  could have unintended consequences.

Biswell urged the state board to change credentialing reviews to help unconventional candidates enter teaching. When issuing a teaching credential the state should look at a candidate’s work and college grades, and a mix of skills, she said, and also consider adjusting the basic-skills test that many midcareer candidates take — and currently fail to pass.

She told the board a warning story of teacher licensing gone wrong. When a vocational education teacher failed to pass the teacher-entry tests, he instead filed for a provisional certification. That meant he ended up in the classroom without enough experience.

“We are effectively denying candidates student teaching experiences and then hiring them anyway simply because we do not have any other choice,”  said Biswell, who is a fellow with Teach Plus, a nonprofit that works to bring teacher voices into education policy.

But other teachers want to make sure that credentialing stays as rigorous as possible. In the experience of Lisa Love, a Teach Plus fellow who teaches at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy, a public school in Chicago, too many new teachers don’t know what they are in for. “Being able to be an effective classroom teacher requires a lot of practice and knowledge and education that you can bring to the table in the classroom,” Love said. “Unprepared teachers are more likely to leave the classroom.”

Over the years, she has seen that attrition.

Teach Plus surveyed more than 600 teachers around Illinois about the teacher shortage and how to solve it. The survey found that most teachers wanted a basic skills requirement but also flexibility in meeting it.

The survey also found a divide between current and prospective teachers, as well as rural and urban teachers, on several issues. For example, the majority of current teachers said it wasn’t too difficult to become a teacher, while people trying to enter the profession disagreed. Educators in cities and suburbs didn’t find it too hard to become a teacher, while teachers in rural areas did.

Better pay came up for several teachers interviewed by Chalkbeat.

Illinois legislators passed a bill to set a minimum salary of $40,000 for teachers in Illinois, but Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it last summer.

Love noted that she has spent years getting advanced degrees related to teaching. And yet, she said, “I don’t make the salary of a doctor or lawyer but I have the same loans as a doctor or lawyer and the public doesn’t look to me with the same respect.”

But how much do the tests actually measure who might be good at teaching in the classroom? Gina Caneva, a teacher at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, said that written or video tests are very little like the daily work of being an educator. “Being a teacher, you are really out there in the field, you have to respond on your feet,” she said. “These tests don’t equate to the teaching profession.”

Chicago Public Schools is trying to tackle the teacher shortage problem by offering a teacher training program that would offer would-be teachers the chance to get into a classroom and earn a master’s degree in two years.

Some educators also suggest that there are region-specific barriers that could go. Caneva suggests that Chicago get rid of the requirement that teachers live in the city, and instead draw talent from the broader Midwest.

The seven measures the state board passed to improve the teaching force came from Teach Illinois: Strong Teachers, Strong Classrooms, a yearlong partnership between the board and the Joyce Foundation.