vouchers flounder

Once considered a sure thing, vouchers fizzle in Tennessee legislature

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville (center) looks straight ahead after tabling his voucher bill in 2016.

A bill that until recently seemed assured to introduce school vouchers in Tennessee flew off the table Thursday morning after its chief advocate realized it would not pass.

Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville shocked allies and opponents alike when he announced on the floor of the House of Representatives that he would not bring the voucher legislation to a vote. The bill, which would have allowed poor students in low-performing schools to use public funding to pay private school tuition, had come closer than ever to passing after six years of review.

“There’s no reason to have four hours of debate if I don’t have the votes,” Dunn explained later.

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Lawmakers had arrived at the state Capitol in Nashville anticipating a long debate. Some even brought a bevy of snack foods to sustain them through the discourse.

But a tense exchange with a leading opponent early in the day revealed Dunn’s reservations. He rode the elevator to the House floor with Jim Wrye, the lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, which has fiercely argued that vouchers do not help students who use them while also draining money from public school systems.

Dunn, unsmiling, gauged opposition to the bill by asking Wrye how many legislators the lobbyist was still trying to convince to vote against it.

“I don’t know. Not many. You?” Wrye asked.

“Not many,” Dunn said, indicating that the vote would be close.

Moments later, Dunn announced to his colleagues that he did not feel comfortable bringing the bill to a vote.

“I’ve been carrying this bill I guess for four years,” Dunn said, voice strained with emotion. He indicted opponents of the legislation as uncaring. “In four years, I’ve received thousands of emails and phone calls, and they’ve all said, ‘Don’t take our money.’ But never once have they said, ‘Don’t take our kids.’”

The surprise decision leaves the future of vouchers in Tennessee in the air. The legislation enjoyed unprecedented momentum this year, making it to the House floor for the first time after being passed in the state Senate three out of six years.

That momentum shifted in recent days. Lawmakers filed last-minute amendments that would limit vouchers to Shelby County in Memphis and to introduce rules that would reduce incentives for private schools to accept the vouchers.

“The momentum’s not there,” Dunn told Chalkbeat later. Asked if the voucher legislation is off the table for the year, he said, “In my opinion, it is. … I don’t think people want to bring it back.”

Dunn attributed the tide shifting this week to “the lies from the other side that put doubt in other people’s heads.” He specifically cited the Tennessee Education Association, the state teacher association, also known as TEA.

“The whole path of this bill has been attacked by lies — lies that said there was no accountability when the bill actually said that there was,” Dunn said. “They said this had never worked before when there are dozens of studies that show that it has. So truth didn’t win out today.”

In fact, researchers haven’t reached consensus on the impact of vouchers on student achievement, which have been pushed by advocates of free markets and limited government since the 1950s, and have been implemented in some states since the early 1990s.

TEA Executive Director Carolyn Crowder said that “there are numerous studies that say it hasn’t (worked).” She said the bill’s seeming defeat was due to calls and emails from teachers, administrators, parents and “a broad coalition of public school supporters” to legislators asking them not to siphon off public school funding.

“The point is that the people of Tennessee did not want this legislation, and that’s why it went down,” she said.

While doubting that the bill will be resurrected this year, Dunn said it’s still possible if he can get the 50 votes necessary. “Technically, it is still alive on the desk and can be brought up,” he said.

Vouchers had never made it to the House floor before, although the proposal had become a fixture on the legislative agenda. The measure passed in the Senate last year during the first half of the legislative session, and Gov. Bill Haslam has said he would sign the legislation if it reached his desk.

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Legislators from Shelby County were grateful for the turn of events. An amendment filed Wednesday to limit the program to Memphis caused an onslaught of calls and emails to their offices from constituents, concerned about the implications for Memphis schools.

“Obviously when you have a slew of amendments at the last minute that really change the bill, you really do need to slow things down,” said Rep. Raumesh Akbari, a Democrat. “I was surprised, but I am happy. Leadership in the Shelby County school system, legislators from Shelby County — I mean, we just got this amendment yesterday afternoon. We were still trying to digest it.”

“Being a 35-year teacher in Memphis City Schools, I know they are not failing schools,” said Rep. Barbara Cooper, another Memphis Democrat who has been a vocal opponent of vouchers. “Knowing that the people who make decisions do not live in Shelby County, have really had no contact with our children, … they shouldn’t experiment kids on Shelby County. That’s just not fair.”

But Dunn had a different perspective when asked whether Memphis students were being used as “guinea pigs” on education reform efforts.

“I feel sorry for the parents who have children in failing schools. All we did was try to help them and unfortunately for another year they’re going to be on the path to failure,” he said.

game plan

After years of school voucher rejections, backers consider another approach in Tennessee

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The State Capitol in Nashville is home to the Tennessee General Assembly.

The campaign to introduce school vouchers to Tennessee has come up short for so many years that supporters are looking closely at another voucher-like approach to give families more control over public funding for their children’s education.

Education savings accounts have gained traction in some other states and are viewed as an attractive alternative for Tennessee in the debate about parental choice.

And with the inauguration soon of a new governor who promised to give parents more education options for their kids, this approach would fit the bill — and even offer a longer menu of services than traditional vouchers would.

“I would like to help lead the charge,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican and fierce voucher proponent, who this week was elected speaker pro tempore of Tennessee’s House of Representatives.

“Education freedom, if it’s done correctly, gives students opportunities to do better, and public schools rise to the occasion through competition. Everybody wins,” Dunn added.

Not so fast, say public school officials who view any kind of voucher program as a major step toward privatizing education.

“Outside interests pushing ‘school choice’ options have learned that when ideas like vouchers become toxic to the public, they can be repackaged as education savings accounts, which might be more palatable to lawmakers,” said Amy Frogge, a Nashville school board member who opposes vouchers.

Both approaches raise the same concerns, said Frogge, citing a drain of funding from public schools, increased student segregation, and a lack of accountability for students whose families choose that route.

Education savings accounts, or ESAs, allow parents to withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized accounts. The money could be used to cover everything from private school tuition and tutoring to homeschool materials and online learning programs.

A voucher is taxpayer money that’s restricted to paying for private school tuition and fees for eligible students.

For years, Tennessee lawmakers have tried to start a voucher program and came close in 2016 with legislation sponsored by Dunn. But an unlikely alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans have foiled every attempt.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. Bill Dunn (center) looks straight ahead after tabling his voucher bill in 2016.

Dunn, who has since risen to the House’s No. 2 leadership position, thinks education savings accounts would be more appealing to rural legislators who see little local benefit in opening the door to vouchers in Tennessee.

“A voucher is dependent upon having a private school being available. But there’s more flexibility with an ESA and you could shop for a lot more educational services for your child no matter where you live,” he said, adding that a better educated workforce could lure more jobs to rural Tennessee.

A 2018 poll by the pro-voucher American Federation for Children found that voters are more open to voucher-like programs like education savings accounts  and “tax credit scholarships” than vouchers, even though all three would siphon off funding from public schools. That’s one reason that backers are avoiding the V-word and re-branding how they talk about “school choice.”

Leaders of the American Federation for Children say they wouldn’t be surprised to see legislation filed this year in Tennessee, whether for vouchers or education savings accounts.

“We’re supportive of both,” said state director Shaka Mitchell. “But because an ESA allows students’ education to be far more customized, I think it’s useful in some ways that a voucher isn’t.”


Do school vouchers work? Here’s what the research says


“School choice” advocates will have two powerful new allies in the governor’s office when Bill Lee is inaugurated on Jan. 19. The governor-elect has hired Tony Niknejad, former state director of the American Federation for Children, to be his policy director, while Brent Easley of TennesseeCAN, another pro-voucher group, is his legislative director.

But it’s uncertain whether Lee — a Williamson County businessman who won his first bid for office — will put his political muscle behind the divisive issue in his early months of governing, especially when he must develop his first proposed budget and a broader vision for his four-year administration.

PHOTO: Ned Jilton II/Kingsport Times-News
Bill Lee was elected Tennessee’s 50th governor in November and will take the oath of office on Jan. 19.

“There may be a lot of talk about vouchers or education savings accounts, but I don’t think it’s the right climate yet,” said Rep. Mark White of Memphis, who this week was named chairman of the House Education Committee.

One reason, he said, is accountability for recipients of education savings accounts and the services they choose.

“We’ve worked so hard making sure the public schools are accountable with testing that if we just give a parent money to go to a private school of their choice or to choose other services and we don’t have any accountability, then I would be against it,” White said. “If we’re talking about taxpayer dollars and we’re holding one group accountable, then we’ve got to hold everybody accountable.”

Tennessee already has one program that’s similar to education savings accounts. The state launched launched Individualized Education Accounts for students with certain disabilities in 2017, allowing families to receive up to $6,000 annually to pay for private educational services. This year, 137 students from 38 districts are participating, with 70 percent attending a private school and the rest homeschooled, according to the state’s most recent data.

“When we debated that limited-choice program, people got up and said it would be the end of the world and would destroy public education — but it hasn’t,” said Dunn.

Others point out that, although the state planned for more participants in the program, no one expected families to rush out of public schools. Anyone opting to use the accounts must waive their federal right to receive a “free and appropriate” public education. For students with disabilities, that usually costs far beyond the $6,000 a year allocated to participants.

One bill filed in the legislature’s first week seeks to expand the program to make more students eligible. Rep. Jay Reedy, a Republican from Erin, wants students who are already in private or home schools to be able to participate. Currently, families can apply only if their student is enrolled in public schools.

Full circle

On her first day as Denver superintendent, Susana Cordova visits the school where she was a student

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Susana Cordova addresses students at Barnum Elementary School on Jan. 7, her first day as Denver superintendent.

At a morning assembly marking the first day of Susana Cordova’s tenure as Denver schools superintendent, the most telling moment was not the speeches from current and former mayors pledging their support, or even the remarks from Cordova herself.

It was when Cordova whispered in the ear of third-grader Grace Sotelo. Grace was one of four students chosen to present Cordova with gifts, including a bouquet of flowers. Afterward, the third-grader stepped up for a brief turn at the microphone.

“Doctor — ” Grace said, then paused.

“Cordova,” the new superintendent whispered to her.

“Cordova,” Grace said. “We are proud of your success of being our — ”

“Superintendent,” Cordova whispered.

“Our superintendent,” Grace said. “We know you’ll be the best superintendent we’ve ever had.”

The interaction served as a reminder that the district’s new superintendent started her career in the classroom, teaching students like Grace.

The location of the event was also symbolic. It was held at the school that Cordova, a lifelong Denver resident, attended as a child: Barnum Elementary in southwest Denver. A printout of her fourth-grade school photo — straight-cut bangs, dimples, and a striped turtleneck — hung on a wall behind the risers.

PHOTO: Courtesy Denver Public Schools
Cordova in fourth grade

“When I was a student here at Barnum, one of my very favorite things to do was read,” Cordova told the first-, second-, and third-graders sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the gym floor.

“One of my favorite authors was a woman named Judy Blume. And she wrote a lot of good books. Maybe you’ve read some of them. But Judy Blume also said something that I think is really important. She said, ‘Our fingerprints don’t fade from the lives we touch.’

“That’s what education does. It touches lives. And I want to make sure that our fingerprints — all our fingerprints — are forever part of the story, so that our students are successful.”

Cordova, 52, officially assumed the role of superintendent of Denver Public Schools on Monday, making her the top boss of Colorado’s largest school district with about 93,000 students. Cordova was selected by the school board last month after a four-month national search. She succeeds Tom Boasberg, who served as superintendent for nearly 10 years.

Cordova was an internal candidate. A graduate of Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School, she has worked for the district since 1989 as a teacher, principal, and district administrator. For the past two years, she served as deputy superintendent under Boasberg.

Cordova was the sole finalist for the top job, a decision that sparked accusations from some community members that the search was a sham. In choosing her, the school board noted her depth of experience, her willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints, and how she fit many of the criteria students, parents, and teachers wanted in the next superintendent.

Among them: Cordova is an educator. The previous two superintendents came from the business world. She is also Latina. The previous two superintendents were white men. Only 25 percent of Denver students are white, while 54 percent are Hispanic and 13 percent are black.

Cordova is also bilingual in English and Spanish, and started her career in Denver as a bilingual teacher. Currently, more than a third of Denver students are learning English as a second language. The most common first language spoken by students is Spanish.

Denver students, on the whole, have made academic gains over the past decade. Many people credit the progress to controversial strategies such as replacing struggling schools.

But Cordova faces several big challenges as superintendent, including narrowing persistent test score gaps between students of color and white students, and between students from low-income families and those from wealthier ones.

Last year, 69 percent of Denver students from high- and middle-income families met expectations on state literacy tests, compared with just 27 percent of students from low-income families. About two-thirds of Denver students belong to the latter category.

While Cordova has emphasized the importance of closing those gaps, she said on Monday that her sole focus for the next two weeks will be reaching an agreement on teacher pay with the Denver teachers union. The two sides have been negotiating changes to the district’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp, for more than a year. The union has threatened to hold a strike vote if the two sides don’t reach an agreement by Jan. 18.

The union and the district are set to return to the negotiating table Tuesday for the start of several all-day bargaining sessions. Cordova said she plans to attend every one, a departure from her predecessor’s approach to contract negotiations.

“I’m very optimistic we can get to a good solution,” Cordova said in an interview following the event at Barnum. “My closest friends are DPS teachers. I deeply understand and know the complexities of what it means to be a teacher in the district.”

Toward the end of the interview, after the students had returned to class and the custodial staff was stacking the chairs, Cordova was approached by two women with district lanyards around their necks. They introduced themselves as teacher’s aides who’d worked for the district for more than 20 years each. One of them held out her cell phone.

“Could we have a picture with you?”

Yes, Cordova said. In the gymnasium of her old elementary school, festooned for the occasion with yellow and blue crepe paper, the new superintendent stood between them and smiled.