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.

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.