vouchers flounder

Once considered a sure thing, vouchers fizzle in Tennessee legislature

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville 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.

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.

saying goodbye

Here’s how the local and national education communities are responding to Boasberg’s exit

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As the news of Tom Boasberg’s departure ricocheted through the local and national education community, critics and champions of the Denver schools superintendent sounded off.

Here’s a roundup of comments from teachers, parents, school board members past and present, elected officials, and some of Boasberg’s colleagues.

Alicia Ventura, teacher

“I am shocked! I understand his decision as I have one (child) grown and out of the house and one in middle school. Time with our children is short and precious! I will always remember how fun and open-minded Tom was. He would do anything for children and truly lived the students first vision! We will miss you!”

Michael Hancock, Denver mayor and Denver Public Schools graduate

“I am saddened that DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg will be stepping down but full of gratitude for his close partnership with the city on behalf of Denver’s kids and families. As a DPS graduate and a DPS parent, I know firsthand that Tom has led DPS with integrity and commitment. His focus on success for all kids has greatly improved our schools and provided better opportunities for all students to live their dreams.

“We have much work still to do in DPS, but we have an incredible foundation for moving forward and we are committed to continuing in partnership with the next DPS leader.”

Corey Kern, deputy executive director, Denver Classroom Teachers Association

“We were a little surprised by it ourselves. For us, we obviously wish Tom the best. The big focus for us is making sure the selection process for the next superintendent is something that is fair and transparent and open to the public; that it’s not a political appointment but talking to all stakeholders about who is the best person for the job for the students in Denver.”

Anne Rowe, president, Denver school board

“He has given … 10 years to this district as superintendent, and it is an enormous role, and he has given everything he has. … My reaction was, ‘I understand,’ gratitude, a little surprised but not shocked, certainly, and understand all the good reasons why he has made this decision.

“With change, there is always some uncertainty, and yet I look at the people here and their dedication to the kids in DPS and I have full confidence in these folks to continue driving forward while the board takes on the responsibility to select the next superintendent. We won’t miss a beat, and we have a lot of work to do for kids.”

Jeannie Kaplan, former school board member critical of the district’s direction

“I was very surprised. … I wish Tom well. I still do believe that working together is the way to get things done. I’m sorry we weren’t able to do that.

“My one hope would be that one of the primary criteria for the next leader of the district would be a belief in listening to the community – not just making the checkmark, but really listening to what communities want.”

John Hickenlooper, Colorado governor and former Denver mayor

“Tom Boasberg has invested a significant part of his life into transforming Denver Public Schools into one of the fastest-improving school districts in America. As a DPS parent, former mayor, and now governor, I am deeply grateful for the progress made under Tom’s leadership. I applaud Tom and Team DPS for driving the innovations that are creating a brighter future for tens of thousands of young people in every corner of the city.”

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, who preceded Boasberg as Denver superintendent from 2005 to 2009 and has known him since childhood

“As a DPS parent, I thank him for his commitment, his compassion, and his extraordinary tenure. As Tom always says himself, we have a long way to go, but his transformational leadership has resulted in extraordinary progress over the past 10 years. Our student achievement has substantially increased, the number of teachers and other school personnel serving our children has grown tremendously, and the school choices available to children and their families have never been greater.”

Bennet also penned an op-ed in The Denver Post with this headline:

Ariel Taylor Smith, former Denver Public Schools teacher and co-founder of Transform Education Now, a nonprofit that focuses on improving schools through parent advocacy

“I was a teacher during Tom’s first half of his tenure at DPS and was amazed at how often he would walk the halls of North High School during our turnaround. Tom has dedicated 10 years to this work and for that I am grateful. I also believe that we have a long way to go to getting where we need to be. I believe that we are ready for new leadership who operates with the sense of urgency that we need to see in our city. There are 35,000 students who are attending ‘red’ and ‘orange’ (low-rated) schools in our city right now. One out of every three third-graders is reading on grade level. We need a new leader with a clear vision for the future and an evident sense of urgency to ensure that all our kids are receiving the education that they deserve.”

Brandon Pryor, parent and member Our Voice Our Schools, a group critical of the district

“You have a number of people he works with that are reformers. They think he’s leaving an awesome legacy and he did a lot to change and meet needs of the reformist community. You ask them and I’m sure his legacy will be great. But if you come to my community and ask some black folks what Tom Boasberg’s legacy will be, they’ll tell you something totally different.

“I think he has time with this last three months in office to follow through with some of the promises he’s made us (such as upgrades to the Montbello campus) to improve his situation.”

Jules Kelty, Denver parent

“He personally responded to an email that I sent him about my school. I appreciated that.”

Van Schoales, CEO of the pro-reform advocacy group A Plus Colorado

“On the one hand, I’m not surprised. And on the other hand, I’m surprised.

“I’m not surprised because he’s had a track record of pretty remarkable service for a decade, which is amazing. Nobody else has done that. The district has improved pretty dramatically. He deserves a great deal of credit for that. …The surprise is that we’ve all become so used to him being the superintendent, it’s just a little weird (to think of him leaving).”

Lisa Escárcega, executive director, Colorado Association of School Executives

“Tom’s longstanding commitment and service to DPS have made a significant impact on the district. He is strongly focused on ensuring student equity, and the district has seen improvement in several areas over the last 10 years under his superintendency. Tom is a strong and innovative leader, and I know he will be missed by the DPS community and his colleagues.”

John King, former U.S. Secretary of Education

“Under Tom Boasberg’s leadership for the past decade, Denver Public Schools has made remarkable academic progress and has become one of the most innovative school districts in the country. Tom has brought tremendous urgency and a deep commitment to closing both opportunity and achievement gaps for students of color and those from low-income backgrounds. For many school districts throughout the country, Denver’s innovative and collaborative approaches serve as a valuable model.”

Katy Anthes, state education commissioner

“I’ve appreciated working with Tom over the years and know that his personal commitment to students is incredibly strong. I thank Tom for his service to the students of DPS and Colorado.”

Mike Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, a national group of district and state superintendents 

“Tom Boasberg is an extraordinary leader who has dedicated his life to expanding opportunities for all of Denver’s children. During his tenure, the district has made remarkable gains on virtually every measure of progress. Denver Public Schools is a national model for innovation, district-charter collaboration, and teacher and school leader support. Every decision Tom has made over the course of his career has been focused on helping students succeed. No one is more respected by their peers. As a member of the Chiefs for Change board and in countless other ways Tom has supported education leaders across the nation. He leaves not just an impressive legacy but an organization of talented people committed to equity and excellence.”

David Osborne, author of the book “Reinventing America’s Schools,” which included chapters on Denver’s efforts

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