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.

breaking

A student is in custody after Noblesville West Middle School shooting that injured another student and teacher

Police asses the scene outside Noblesville High School after a shooting at Noblesville West Middle School on May 25, 2018 (Photo by Kevin Moloney/Getty Images)

A male student shot and injured a teacher and another student at Noblesville West Middle School on Friday morning, police said.

Noblesville police Chief Kevin Jowitt said the shooting suspect asked to leave a class and returned armed with two handguns. The suspect, who police said appeared to be uninjured, is in custody and has not been identified by police.

The teacher, 29-year-old Jason Seaman, was in “good” condition Friday evening at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital, police said. The female student, who was not identified by police, was in critical condition at Riley Hospital for Children.

News outlets were reporting that Seaman intervened to stop the shooter, but authorities said they could not confirm that on Friday afternoon.

The Noblesville Police Department has a full-time school resource officer assigned to the school who responded to the incident, Jowitt said. Local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies also responded to the shooting.

“We do know that the situation resolved extremely quickly,” Jowitt said. “We don’t know what happened in the classroom, so I can’t make any kinds of comments about what [the resource officer’s] involvement was.”

Students were evacuated to Noblesville High School on Friday morning, where families met them.

Jowitt said an additional threat was made at the high school, but they had “no reason to believe it’s anything other than a communicated threat.”

Police continue to investigate. They said they do not believe there are additional suspects. Noblesville Police spokesman Bruce Barnes could not say how the student acquired the guns, but he said search warrants have been issued.

Noblesville West Middle School enrolls about 1,300 students. Noblesville is a suburb of Indianapolis, about 20 miles north in Hamilton County. The district has about 10,500 students.

The frenzied scenes Friday outside the school have become sadly familiar. Already, there have been 23 school shootings in 2018 that involved someone being injured or killed, according to media tallies.

Just last week, 10 people were killed and 13 others were injured in a shooting at Santa Fe High School outside Houston. A student at the school has been arrested and charged.

In February, 17 people — 14 students and three staff — were shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and a 19-year-old faces multiple charges.  The Parkland tragedy set off a wave of student activism across the country — including in Indianapolis — calling for stricter gun control.

“We’ve had these shootings around the country,” said Noblesville Mayor John Ditslear. “You just never think it could happen in Noblesville, Indiana. But it did.”

Noblesville Schools Superintendent Beth Niedermeyer praised the “heroic” efforts of school staff and students, saying they followed their training on how to react to an active shooter situation.

Barnes also hinted at the broader trauma that school shootings can have on students and communities.

“We ask for your prayers for the victims in this case,” he said. “I think that would include a lot of kids, not only ones that were truly the victims in this case, but all these other kids that are trying to make sense of this situation.”

Watch the press conference:


A Chalkbeat reporter is on the scene:

In a pattern that has become routine, Democratic and Republican politicians offered prayers on Twitter.

temporary reprieve

Parents score a temporary victory in slowing the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Protesters gathered at the education department's headquarters to protest a recent set of closure plans.

A judge blocked the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school Thursday — at least for now.

Three families from P.S. 25/the Eubie Blake School filed a lawsuit in March backed by the public interest group Advocates for Justice, arguing the city’s decision to close the school was illegal because the local elected parent council was not consulted.

Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Katherine Levine did not make a final ruling Thursday about whether the closure plan violated the law. But she issued a temporary order to keep the school open while the case moves forward.

It was not immediately clear when the case will be resolved or even if the school will remain open next year. “We are reviewing the stay and will determine an appropriate course of action once the judge makes a final decision on the case,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement.

The education department said the school has hemorrhaged students in recent years and is simply too small to be viable: P.S. 25 currently enrolls just 94 students in grades K-5.

“Because of extremely low enrollment, the school lacks the necessary resources to meet the needs of students,” Holness wrote. The city’s Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide oversight board that must sign off on all school closures, voted in February to close the school.

But the school’s supporters point out that despite low test scores in the past, P.S. 25 now ranks among the city’s top elementary schools, meaning that its closure would force students into lower-performing schools elsewhere.

“Why close a school that’s doing so well?” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and one of the lawsuit’s supporters. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The lawsuit hinges on a state law that gives local education councils the authority to approve any changes to school zones. Since P.S. 25 is the only zoned elementary school for a swath of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the department’s plans would leave some families with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating them, forcing students to attend other district schools or enter the admissions lottery for charter schools.

That amounts to “effectively attempting to change zoning lines” and “unlawfully usurping” the local education council’s authority to determine those zones, according to the lawsuit.

But even if the education department loses the lawsuit, the school’s fate would still be uncertain. The closure plan would theoretically be subject to a vote from the local education council, whose president supports shuttering the school.

Still, Haimson hopes the lawsuit ultimately persuades the education department to back away from closing the school in the long run.

“My goal would be to get the chancellor to change his mind,” Haimson said. “I don’t think the future is preordained.”