Voucher votes

Trump wants states to push vouchers. Tennessee shows why that might be hard, even in red states.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Voucher opponents cheer Tennessee lawmakers after voucher legislation is tabled.

When President-elect Donald Trump tapped Betsy DeVos as his choice for U.S. secretary of education, advocates of school tuition vouchers saw it as a good omen. The Michigan Republican is a staunch advocate for vouchers that allow taxpayer money to be spent on private schools.

But the perennial battle over vouchers in Tennessee, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump, suggests it won’t be easy for vouchers to sweep the nation, even if Trump’s administration champions federal incentives for such programs. While Tennessee’s Senate has voted in favor of a voucher bill three times since 2011, opponents have blocked it each year in the House of Representatives, albeit by decreasing margins. Opposition has coalesced around a fear of undermining public schools — a concern that transcends party lines and geography.

Tennessee’s voucher proposals have exclusively targeted urban schools, anomalies in a mostly rural state. But as each major vote approached, lawmakers in Nashville fielded calls from constituents back home who worried that the program would quickly expand at the expense of public schools in areas with few alternatives.

During the last legislative session, the perceived lack of public support for vouchers eclipsed Gov. Bill Haslam’s endorsement of them. It also countered an outpouring of spending from pro-voucher advocacy groups that include a state chapter of American Federation for Children, of which DeVos founded and serves as chairwoman of the board.

The most vocal opponent of vouchers has been the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union and an organization that many Republican lawmakers openly oppose. But lawmakers also got pushback from statewide professional groups that represent superintendents and school boards and argue that vouchers would hurt public schools.

Rep. Bill Dunn
PHOTO: TN.Gov
Rep. Bill Dunn

During the most recent legislative session, Rep. David Hawk, a Republican from Greeneville, made a last-minute attempt to make vouchers more palatable to sympathetic lawmakers wary of how the issue would play out at home. With the blessing of the bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, Hawk amended the proposal so it only would impact Memphis, home to Tennessee’s largest school district and frequently a laboratory for the state’s education reforms. The move infuriated many Memphis lawmakers and failed to sway enough undecided legislators to push the bill over the top.

Still, the proposal came closer to passing than ever before. It cleared all committees before Dunn tabled it on the House floor. He said he just didn’t have the votes. Later, Dunn told reporters that he only had 48 “yes” votes confirmed out of the necessary 50.

“I believe there are legislators who hear from their school board that they’re against this,” Dunn reflected on Tuesday. “Instead of legislators sitting down and saying what’s best for students, it’s about what’s best for school bureaucracy.”

Research is mixed on whether vouchers help or hurt students. According to a 2015 review by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “vouchers have been neither the rousing success imagined by proponents nor the abject failure predicted by opponents.”

Undaunted, Dunn says he will sponsor voucher legislation again in the upcoming legislative session, which starts in January. But if vouchers pass this time, he said, it will be because of growing support for the program among Tennesseans, not because of Trump or DeVos.

“Education is a state issue,” he said.

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policy makers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.

Future of Schools

Chicago mayoral hopeful Gery Chico has regrets — and big plans for schools if elected

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Mayoral candidate Gery Chico, former school board president.

Former school board president Gery Chico has said that if elected mayor, he would oversee the largest ever expansion of technical and vocational education at Chicago Public Schools.

That’s a very different approach than the one he presided over during his tenure amid a rush to expand rigorous academic programs like the International Baccalaureate and selective enrollment schools that left a lot of families on the outside looking in, especially in black and Latino communities.

Related: Who’s best for Chicago schools? A Chalkbeat voter guide to the 2019 mayor’s race

“We’re losing people from the city over this issue today,” said Chico, board president from 1995 to 2001. “If an African-American parent doesn’t feel that their child who didn’t get into [selective enrollment high school] Whitney Young is going to be served well by the alternatives — they’re out of here. They leave. They may go to the south suburbs or if the change they seek is more dramatic, they may go to Dallas or Atlanta.”

Chico, who also pledges to open eight new selective enrollment high schools if elected, said he wishes he had anticipated how popular selective enrollment and IB programs were going to be, so that the district could keep up with demand. Just as when Chico ran the school board two decades ago, top academic schools and programs still are disproportionately clustered in wealthier and white neighborhoods, and fewer black and Latino students have access to those schools and programs.

Related: 5 tough questions a new report puts front-and-center for Chicago’s next mayor

Despite some regret and criticism of his tenure at the district from detractors like the Chicago Teacher’s Union, Chico counts balanced budgets, test score gains and scores of opened schools among his accomplishments running the district alongside then-schools chief Paul Vallas, another mayoral contender. After leaving the Chicago Board of Education, Chico went on to serve as board president for the City Colleges of Chicago, and later at the Illinois State Board of Education, experience he says provides him a rare vantage point to steer Chicago schools toward improvements.  

If he emerges from the crowded field of candidates in one of the most competitive mayoral elections in recent memory, he said he’d use his power as mayor to open several new trade schools every year for each year of his first term with the goal of spurring Chicago’s “largest ever” expansion of vocational and technical education. His plan is to repurpose closed schools or build new ones to house the specialized career-focused schools.

Related: In one Chicago neighborhood, three high schools offer dramatically different opportunities

Chico wouldn’t say how much it would cost.

He did say he would pay for the plan with budget savings, public-private partnerships with businesses in the trade industry, and surplus economic development dollars from the city’s tax increment finance program. Like other candidates, he’s said he would press downstate lawmakers in the state capitol to fully fund Chicago schools.

“I’m not going to do 20 in one year,” he said. We’re going to phase it in and ramp it up, whether we’re repurposing buildings, or building new buildings, largely with the money of the trade unions. It doesn’t have to break the bank.”

Related: Chicago’s mayoral candidates differ on how they’d improve outcomes for students of color

But Chico’s vocational plan doesn’t mean he’s abandoning the proliferation of rigorous curricula. He said he would expand IB programs from 50 schools to 150.

“This is not one size fits all. Some people want just neighborhood high schools, some people want IB in that high school, some communities like the South and West Sides are clamoring for a selective-enrollment school,” he said. “You have to follow the communities, listen, and then we’ll figure out the best direction based on that dialogue.”

Chicago’s municipal election is Feb. 26.

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