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.

Listening Tour 2018

5 bold ideas for how Chicago can send more kids through college

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Chalkbeat Chicago sat down with educators and OneGoal staff as part of our series of listening tours throughout the city

It takes resilience and a lot of support to launch students on the path to college, let alone get through Year One.

“Students trying alone to make it is not going to work,” said Kate Kaushal, a counselor at Phillips Academy High School in Bronzeville. “It takes a village.”

In a conversation on Tuesday, educators, Chalkbeat reporters and editors, and staff from the nonprofit OneGoal brainstormed ways to marshal that village to guide more students in Chicago’s neighborhood schools toward college and careers. As the sixth stop of Chalkbeat’s summer listening tour, the two-hour discussion took place at the Loop office of OneGoal, which offers one-on-one coaching to help low-income high school students transition to college.

The discussion covered many of the challenges schools face, from keeping students moving forward during their “sophomore slump,” to conquering the complexity of college applications and financial aid forms — and, moving beyond, to keeping students in college once they get there.  In 2016, 66 percent of CPS high school graduates enrolled in two- or four-year colleges. But of district students who had enrolled in college in 2011, only 57 percent graduated by spring 2016.

Tuesday’s group shared ideas that are working — and even came up with other bold ones that could catch on. Here are five ideas that came out of our conversation:

1. Build out a system of post-secondary “help desks” in libraries and public spaces

Sharon Thomas Parrott suggested instituting “help desks” to support high school students in navigating financial aid

Problem: The variations among applications for colleges and trade programs is mind-boggling,  even for adults, said Kaushal of Phillips Academy.: “Each college has a different process, and a different portal, and students get frustrated when applying.”

Solution: Sharon Thomas Parrott, an ex-officio member of One Goal’s Board of Directors who began her career as a CPS teacher, proposed a network of community “help desks” that could help students review options and navigate applications and federal financial aid forms. “How do we support schools and provide counseling opportunities without counselors?” she asked rhetorically. Help desks with services in English and Spanish would also help make the process more accessible to parents and guardians.

2. Financial aid navigators accessible to high school students throughout the city, either at schools or through organizations

Problem: College has become astronomically expensive. It’s great to encourage students to pursue higher education, “but don’t sugarcoat it either,” said Andrew Nelson, a humanities teacher at Multicultural Academy of Scholarship High School in South Lawndale. However, reality can also discourage families.

Solution: Alejandro Espinoza, OneGoal Chicago’s director of secondary partnerships,  suggested that the city or schools can provide financial aid navigators to help families figure out how much schools cost, what financial aid is available, and how loans figure into the picture. “Parents won’t take a risk if they don’t know this information.”

3. Start the post-secondary conversation earlier

Mary Beck, principal of Senn High School, emphasized the importance of Freshman Connection for getting incoming students on track for high school graduation

Problem: Many students don’t enter high school with thoughts about what they’ll do afterward, and may not think about them until junior year, when their options — such as entering into a trade or a college — become limited because they lack required courses and credits.

Solution: Mary Beck, the principal of Senn High School in Edgewater, said that her school has placed much emphasis on Freshman Connection, a program that gets incoming students acquainted with staff and graduation requirements before the school year starts. At Senn, the goal is to get students on track to graduate before they even show up for Day One of high school. “It’s setting yourself up so that you have options,” she said. “They have to be prepared to apply for a four-year college even if they don’t ultimately go.”

4. Focus on individual students once they get to college

Problem: Students who make it to college don’t always stay there. Beyond academics, it can be challenging to deal with a new environment, cost, and even culture. Adults often tell students that once they’re in college ‘you’re going to be an adult, no one is going to hold your hand,’ said Kaushal, “but sometimes someone still needs to hold their hand.”

Solution: Thomas Parrott said that colleges or external programs could provide counselors who sit down with incoming college students and looking at what classes they’ll take in freshman year, as those grades set the foundation for the students’ trajectories in college. Kaushal added that guidance needs to continue in college. While organizations such as OneGoal provide one-on-one coaching for college freshmen, she said that continued coaching will help ensure students ultimately graduate.

5. Students need to see success stories

Problem: Students sense challenges facing their family, neighborhood and city all the time. They need to hear stories of resilience — and see exactly how kids who look like them persevered.

Solution: OneGoal Director of External Affairs Chloe Lahre said that mentors, connected through a robust directory of program alumni, could offer practical advice and encouragement. Nelson of Multicultural Academy suggested more stories in the media about students overcoming setbacks. It would be helpful, he said, “seeing people who have had similar experiences and seeing what their story is like.”

In our listening tours, we’ve gathered parents, community groups, students, and educators to discuss pressing issues in Chicago education. Our seventh event, in partnership with City Bureau, is next Thursday, August 23. It is open to the public.

Timely Decision

Detroit school board approves 2018-19 academic calendar after union agrees to changes

PHOTO: Hero Images
Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said teachers agreed to calendar changes to do what's best for students.

The Detroit school board approved this year’s academic calendar Tuesday night, hours after Detroit’s main district and its largest teachers union settled a contract disagreement.

The calendar approval, which comes just three weeks before the first day of school, includes some changes to the original calendar spelled out in the teachers’ contract.  The new calendar was approved last week by a school board subcommittee without comment from the the Detroit Federation of Teachers, and it was on the agenda for tonight’s meeting of the full school board.

After discussion with the district, the union signed an agreement on the changes, known as a memorandum of understanding.

The calendar eliminates one-hour-early releases on Wednesdays and moves the teacher training that occurred during that time mostly to the beginning of the school year. It also will move spring break to April 1-5, 2019 — a few weeks earlier than the April 19-26 break specified in the contract.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the situation was not ideal, and he realizes that some teachers may already have made plans for the week of April 19-26.

“Hopefully, our teachers realize they should be there,” he said. But if vacation plans were already made and can be changed, “that’s good.”

“We will be prepared as much as possible to have substitutes and even district staff, if it’s necessary,” he said.

Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said teachers aren’t pleased about the agreement.

“No, we were not happy with the change,” Bailey said.

Addressing a question from board member LaMar Lemmons, Bailey said the calendar changes “did constitute an unfair labor practice” because, among other reasons, teachers lost preparation days with the new calendar.

“We are not happy, but we are here for students,” Bailey said. “We understand this is what’s right for students. We put students first, and we are going to work it out.”

The earlier spring break is designed to avoid the testing window for the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, a college entrance exam commonly known as the PSAT.

Other changes to the calendar include eliminating scheduled parent-teacher conferences on October 31 because of the Halloween celebration.