behind the scenes

Trump’s nominee for ed chief already has influenced Tennessee’s voucher debate

PHOTO: YouTube / American Federation for Children
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

While many Tennesseans are still unfamiliar with President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to oversee the nation’s schools, Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos already has quietly influenced the state’s contentious tug-of-war over a school voucher program.

This election cycle alone, advocacy groups founded and led by DeVos helped to oust at least one outspoken voucher opponent — and elect two new supporters — in Tennessee’s House of Representatives, the key arena for the state’s voucher debate.

From the helm of groups including the American Federation for Children and the Alliance for School Choice, DeVos, a staunch Republican, has contributed millions of dollars nationally to state legislative candidates in favor of vouchers and against those who do not, regardless of political party.

In Tennessee, most of that work has been done through the state’s affiliate of the American Federation for Children, which launched in 2012. The group has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, reaching more than $600,000 for races in 2014. This year, organizers spent at least $169,777 on House races.

Vouchers, which allow the use of taxpayer money for private school tuition, have been a hot potato issue in Tennessee in recent years. Three times since 2011, a voucher bill for low-income students has been approved by the state Senate, only to be shot down in the House, where lawmakers responded to constituent concerns about undermining public schools. But the votes have been increasingly close. During the most recent session, the proposal was only two votes shy of the necessary 50 to become law.

This year, the Tennessee Federation for Children targeted several seats aimed at tipping the balance. Republican Paul Sherrell, who received a $5,000 contribution, defeated Democratic incumbent Rep. Kevin Dunlap for a seat representing Warren, Grundy and White counties. A public high school teacher, Dunlap virulently opposed vouchers during both years of his term serving on a House education panel.

The group also spent nearly $6,000 in support of Republican Michael Curcio, who won the Dickson-area district seat held by Democrat and voucher opponent David Shepard before he retired this year.

This summer, Tennessee Federation for Children was active during the summer’s Democratic primaries in Memphis, where the latest voucher proposal would have the largest impact. There, the affiliate spent $54,466 in support of school choice candidates — and a combined $25,144 against incumbents Antonio Parkinson and Johnnie Turner, who consistently have voted against voucher bills. Parkinson and Turner retained their seats, and only one candidate supported by the Tennessee Federation for Children won: Rep. John DeBerry, a passionate believer that vouchers would improve outcomes in his city.

The Tennessee affiliate is funded in part by DeVos’s philanthropic foundation, the Alliance for School Choice, receiving $200,000 in 2014. The same year, the foundation awarded $100,000 to the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank that encourages lawmakers to embrace school choice legislation including vouchers.

It’s not yet clear if the Tennessee House’s pro-voucher contingent gained sufficient ground as a result of spending in this year’s elections, though the lead sponsor of last year’s voucher bill is optimistic.

“The elections definitely benefitted those who believe parents should have a choice in where the students go to school,” Rep. Bill Dunn said this week.

The Knoxville Republican noted that support for vouchers has steadily increased in Tennessee since he was first elected to the legislature more than 20 years ago. While he believes that support needs to grow to clinch the voucher vote, he attributes the gradual rise in part to groups like Tennessee Federation for Children.

“I’m very, very happy that people have gotten involved and said they’re willing to support this,”  he said.

Want to know more about how Tennessee’s most recent voucher proposal would impact schools? Read our explainer here.

Why not Michigan?

As Michigan’s poorest 4-year-olds wait for classroom seats, free pre-K for all kids seems elusive

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
All New York City four year-olds — including these kids who attend school is in the city's education department headquarters — are guaranteed a spot in a city-funded pre-K. In Michigan, far fewer students have access to free preschool.

Michigan is the home to America’s most famous study on the benefits of early childhood education.

But when it comes to providing free prekindergarten for all children, other states and cities are leading the way.

Vermont, Florida, Washington, and the District of Columbia have public programs for all 4-year-olds, regardless of income. Seven more states have greatly expanded their pre-K programs, too, including Wisconsin, where free voluntary pre-K is in the state’s 1848 constitution.

But not Michigan. Not yet, at least.

The pioneering Perry Preschool Study began in Ypsilanti in 1962 and followed 123 study participants starting at age 3 through the age of 40. Among the study’s  findings: Those who went to pre-K were more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to repeat grades. They were also less likely to use drugs or commit crimes.

As they grew older, they were more likely to be employed and to have stable homes, savings accounts, significantly higher incomes, and report good relations with their families.

Skills such as cooperative play lay the groundwork for children to get along with others. In addition, learning to use fine motor skills and mastering shapes, colors, numbers, and the alphabet, contribute to future growth.

Further research has underscored the worth of pre-K, making it a rare realm of bipartisan support. In fact, funding for early childhood education has risen under the past three governors.

“I’ve been around long enough to see Democrats and Republicans in office, and early childhood education continues to be on the radar as a positive,” said Lena Montgomery, director of the Wayne County branch of the Great Start Readiness Program, a state funded initiative for 4-year-olds from low-income families.

But even though the governor’s own 21st Century Education Commission recommended that Michigan expand pre-K with $390 million in new investment, he chose instead to further study the impact of Great Start. In his most recent budget, he allocated $300,000 to do that research, and kept spending for Great Start flat at $245.6 million.

Momentum toward providing publicly funded pre-K, often called universal preschool, has been slowed by cost, teacher shortages, and family resistance, advocates say. They also note that there is no incentive for different institutions to pool their money to pay for a more comprehensive pre-K program in the state.  

Other states and cities have navigated similar challenges. But Michigan families face a patchwork of options. They may keep young children at home, pay for private childcare or pre-K, or, if they meet income or disability requirements, they can enroll them in Great Start or federally funded Head Start. Both are designed to support vulnerable children, including families with low-incomes.

But there aren’t enough seats, even for every child in need. Great Start’s Montgomery said she has 27 programs with qualified families on wait lists. It’s common, she said, for policymakers to say they support children. But some families are still falling into the gaps because more money is needed, she said.

About 133,000 Michigan children are not enrolled in any early childhood program.

Half of Wayne County’s 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in various pre-K programs, said Iheoma Iruka of Highscope, though she added that “we can’t vouch for the quality of these programs.”

The education plan of Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic nominee for governor, advocates for a universal program that expands Great Start until all 4-year-olds are eligible, similar to what the 21st Century Education Commission recommended. It would be paid for, according to her campaign staff, with anticipated increases in the School Aid Fund, which is mostly made up of sales, income, and property taxes. It would also use tax revenue from, among other things, the marijuana ballot initiative that’s expected to pass in November. Tax hikes shouldn’t be necessary, her staff said.

Bill Schuette, the Republican nominee, has an education plan that emphasizes third-grade literacy over pre-K. It mentions need-based transportation scholarships for preschoolers, and he said in a recent interview that universal pre-K was an option that he’d consider.

Hope Starts Here, the $50 million initiative created by the Kellogg and Kresge foundations to improve Detroit’s early childhood systems, has a number of suggestions to pay for universal pre-K. Among them: a dedicated tax proposal, a local sales tax on alcohol, coordinated philanthropic and corporate giving, and leveraging all federal grant money.

States and cities around the nation have experimented with other strategies. Georgia tied pre-K funding to the state lottery. New York City’s new universal program for all 3- and 4-year-olds comes from a mix of city, state and federal funding. Oklahoma, a pioneer in the field, discovered that school districts with half-day kindergartens were receiving state money meant for full-day programs. Lawmakers reformed the state aid formula so that those resources went into pre-K. (The districts had been spending the extra money on sports.)

Others have expanded access by combining different sources of money. North Carolina integrated pre-K with its K-12 schools and contributed part of the Title 1 money that’s allocated to school districts. Chicago is moving toward universal pre-K with a mix of state and district budget increases, and block grants. Washington, D.C. blends Head Start and local funding into its education formula.

A pilot model for blended funding in Michigan can be found in Flint, where the state’s only Educare program is based on the grounds of a former elementary school. The national Educare Early Learning Network draws from multiple revenue sources, including federal, state, and philanthropic dollars.

But regardless of where the money is coming from, opportunities to expand pre-K programs may be missed because of the statewide teacher shortage. In addition,  salaries are not as high as they are in K-12 schools. The median salary for Head Start teachers is $27,613, and for lead Great Start teachers, $37,440, according to a statewide advocacy organization.

To recruit and retain more teachers at all levels, including pre-K,  a new public-private initiative called Teach 313 launched in Detroit in August. Other places facing shortages or high turnover for its preschool teachers have turned to Teach for America to fill gaps, or provided scholarships for early childhood educators to obtain degrees that would raise their wages.

But before Michigan can explore other strategies and expand into universal pre-K, it needs to make the program it already has available to more families.

If you ask Montgomery from Great Start about her wish list, it begins with providing pre-K to all the children who are sitting on waitlists.

“It would be wonderful to to say to parents, ‘We have a spot for your child,’” Montgomery said. “ ‘You don’t have to wait for someone to drop out or leave.’ It would be wonderful to say to the people who want to run programs, or to expand their programs in their communities, ‘We have the funds for you set up and run a high quality program.’ ”

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.