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.

Immigration fears

Chicago on Trump administration changes: ‘A sicker, poorer and less secure community’

PHOTO: Scott Olson/Getty Images
A scene from an August immigration rally in downtown Chicago. Mayor Rahm Emanuel submitted a public comment on the proposed public charge rule changes on Monday.

The possibility of tougher rules on immigration and citizenship has provoked “tremendous fear” and plummeting participation in publicly funded daycare programs and afterschool care, according to a federal memorandum the City of Chicago submitted Monday.

The Trump administration has proposed changes that would weigh participation in programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, or housing assistance when granting residency and citizenship.

The changes could be devastating, the Chicago memorandum warns.

They could affect 110,000 Chicago residents, according to the filing. One in three Chicago residents receives Medicaid benefits, which the proposed changes would affect.

Chicago and New York led a coalition of 30 cities that filed comments to the Department of Homeland Security over changes to the so-called “public charge” rule, which is used by immigration officials to decide who is allowed entry and permanent residency in the United States.

“History teaches that, given this choice, many immigrants will choose to forgo public aid, which will make them a sicker, poorer, and less secure community,” according to the City of Chicago’s comments. You can read the entire document below.

Already, the city said, a group called Gads Hill that operates child care centers in Pilsen and North Lawndale has struggled to enroll children because of families’ worries about the impending rules.

Another operator, Shining Star Youth and Community Services in South Chicago, saw families start to keep children home since the proposed changes were announced.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago told the city that participation in its after-school programming also has taken a hit, the filing said.

The changes to the proposed rule do not specifically mention Head Start or any of the publicly funded child care programs. But many families are fearful that participation in anything offered by the government — from child care to health care to even food programs — would bring them to the attention of immigration authorities.

Early childhood advocates shared similar concerns at a November meeting of the Early Learning Council, an influential group of policymakers who help set the state agenda for children ages birth to 5.

“Families are very confused about the changes,” Rocio Velazquez-Kato, an immigration policy analyst with the Latino Policy Forum, told the group. “They think that by enrolling in Head start or free and reduced-price lunch at school — that it will factor against them.”

Public comment on the proposed rule change was due Monday. The 60-day public comment period is required by law before the federal government delivers a final recommendation.



on the move

Lack of transportation, conflicting deadlines put school choice out of reach for some, study finds

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

More Colorado students use school choice to opt into traditional district-run schools than use it to attend charter schools. Those who do so are more likely to be white and middle- or upper-class than their peers. And transportation continues to be a barrier for students who want to go somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

Those are the findings of a report on choice and open enrollment in the traditional public school sector put out by Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform advocacy group that supports greater access to school choice.

The report, “Open Doors, Open Districts,” looked at the roughly 49,800 Colorado students who attended school in a district other than the one in which they resided during the 2016-17 school year and another 95,600 who used school choice within the 12 largest districts in the state. Together, these 145,400 students make up roughly 16 percent of all Colorado students. Another 13 percent of state students attend charter schools.

Since 1990, the School Choice Act has allowed students to enroll in any public school they want, without paying tuition, provided there is room — and that the school provides the services that student needs, a sticking point for many students who require special education services.

The number of students using this system to attend school in another district increased 58 percent over 10 years to 49,800 in 2016. Roughly 6,000 of those students attend multi-district online schools.

The students taking advantage of inter-district open enrollment are more likely to be white than Colorado students as a whole — 58 percent are white compared with 54 percent of all students. They’re also less likely to come from low-income families (36 percent, compared with 42 percent of all students), to speak a language other than English at home (8 percent compared with 14 percent statewide), or to have a disability (8 percent compared with 11 percent).

“It is important to understand these differences so that policy leaders and educators can work to ensure that open enrollment opportunities are more accessible for all Colorado families,” the report said. “The underrepresentation of Hispanic/Latino students and English learners suggests there may be some unmet needs in Spanish-speaking communities around inter-district choice — either in information, accessibility, or appropriate services for students.”

The report highlights two major barriers to more students using school choice.

Most districts don’t have the kind of common enrollment system that Denver pioneered or that Jeffco is rolling out each year. Most districts require parents to turn in paperwork at a particular school. Not only do districts not share the same deadlines as each other, often different schools in the same district have different deadlines.

The other is transportation. 

“Time spent driving students to school can conflict with work schedules for parents, and public transit options can be scarce in many areas, making open enrollment functionally impossible for families without a transportation solution,” the report said. In one rural district, a group of parents banded together and hired their own school bus to take students to another district.

A bill sponsored last year by state Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, would have addressed both issues, encouraging the creation of more consistent deadlines across the state and allowing districts to cross boundaries to provide transportation. That bill was defeated in the Democratic-controlled House after some school districts said it would set the stage for larger, wealthier districts to poach students.

The transportation provision was later added to an unrelated bill in the final days of the session, a move that led to a lawsuit in which a judicial decision is pending.

Democrats now control both chambers of the Colorado General Assembly, and it’s not clear how any attempts to expand school choice would fare. Both school choice and charter schools have enjoyed bipartisan but not universal support in Colorado.

By highlighting the prominence of traditional public schools in how Colorado students use the choice system, advocates hope to separate choice and the popular idea that parents should be able to find the school that best meets their child’s needs from the more divisive debate about charter schools, which critics see as siphoning scarce dollars from other schools while not serving all students.

The report recommends developing more consistency between and within districts, providing more information to parents, and removing barriers to transportation.

Districts with higher ratings, which are determined primarily by results on standardized tests, tend to get more students than those with lower ratings, but some districts, particularly in the Denver metro area, send and receive large numbers of students, reflecting that parents and students are making decisions at the school rather than at the district level.

Metro area districts that have struggled to raise student achievement are losing large numbers of students to other districts. A quarter of students who live in Adams 14, whose low test scores prompted a state order for external management, attended school in neighboring districts in 2016. In Westminster, which just came off a state watchlist for low-performing schools this year, that number was 29 percent.

Ready Colorado found no clear relationship between districts that spent more per student and districts that attracted more students — but districts with higher enrollment get more money from the state for each student, creating incentives to compete for students.

Read the full report here.