school choice

Voucher-like proposal could take $71 million of public school funding from all Tennessee districts

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Rep. Roger Kane, center, is the sponsor of a bill that would allow up to 9,600 Tennessee students to use an Empowerment Scholarship Account of up to $7,000 each.

A $71 million-a-year proposal to allow public dollars to go toward private education services could reshape schools across the state, offering low-income and affluent parents alike unprecedented school choice.

Rep. Roger Kane introduced a bill on Tuesday that would allow any parent to use up to $7,000 of public school funding toward private schools, tutoring or other educational services. Called an Empowerment Scholarship Account, the proposal would be similar to a program that went into effect this year for special education students, but far more sweeping. All of Tennessee’s 1 million public school students would be eligible to participate, though the program would be capped at 9,600.  

It’s also far more extensive than voucher proposals that have deadlocked the legislature in recent years, as well as two competing voucher bills capturing headlines this session. Under those bills, families zoned to low-performing schools could use vouchers toward private school tuition. Parents would never handle the public money; it would go directly from local districts to private schools. And wealthy parents could not use the state money toward more expensive private school tuition.

But all families, regardless of income, could have a shot at Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or ESAs, although parents in districts with low-performing schools would get priority. And parents would be paid the $7,000 directly, in quarterly installments.

If it passes, the legislation could divert millions of dollars from public schools to individual families and private services, although it’s not clear how many families would take advantage of the program. The fiscal note estimates Kane’s proposal would cost more than $71 million in local and state education funds each year beginning in 2018-19, and cost an additional million dollars annually to administer.

After a lengthy discussion, lawmakers in the House Education Administration and Planning subcommittee tabled the bill for two weeks. Rep. Harry Brooks, a Republican from Knoxville who chairs the full committee, said he doesn’t oppose the bill but has concerns about how private services would be held accountable if they accept taxpayer money.

Rep. Johnnie Turner was the only lawmaker to speak against the bill. The Memphis Democrat said she is concerned that ESAs would harm public schools by taking away much-needed funds from local districts.

Kane, also a Knoxville Republican, said the proposal would give parents far more choice than voucher proposals that have dominated Tennessee’s legislative debates for nearly a decade. He said being a parent has opened his eyes to the need for choices. He’s sent his children to both public and private schools, as well as home schooled them.

Kane called vouchers “one-size-fits-all,” as they can only be used at private schools that agree not to charge tuition beyond the voucher amount.

“It is truly customizing education to match the child,” he said of his proposal.

He acknowledged the possibility that parents could misuse the funds, but added that such abuses have not been widespread in states with similar programs.

Kane’s proposal is modeled after legislation adopted in Florida and Indiana and championed by the Foundation for Educational Excellence, founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. The Senate sponsor is Dolores Gresham, a Somerville Republican who is chairwoman of the Senate Education.

While few lawmakers spoke against the proposal, several education leaders did, including Wayne Miller, director of the Tennessee Organization for School Superintendents, and Elizabeth Fiveash, assistant commissioner for policy for the State Department of Education, and as well as Jim Wrye, lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association. Speaking in favor of the bill was a representative of the Beacon Center, an influential free-market think tank.

Tennessee’s Individualized Education Accounts for special education students went into effect in January. Only 47 of the 20,000 eligible students applied to use them so far.

changeup

School vouchers hit snag in Tennessee as sponsor announces he won’t advance bill

PHOTO: The Commercial Appeal
Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Republican from Germantown, has sponsored several voucher bills in the Tennessee General Assembly.

The push to allow some Tennesseans to use private-school vouchers has hit a roadblock that could stall voucher legislation for a fourth year.

Sen. Brian Kelsey said Monday that he won’t ask a Senate committee to take up his bill — which would pilot a program in Memphis — when the legislature reconvenes its two-year session in January.

“I listen to my community. Right now, there’s not enough parental support,” the Germantown Republican lawmaker told Chalkbeat after sharing the news with Shelby County’s legislative delegation.

Rep. Harry Brooks, who sponsors the proposal in the House, did not immediately return phone calls about whether he will seek a new Senate sponsor. Kelsey would not comment if he would support the legislation if another state senator picked up the mantle.

Kelsey’s retreat calls into question the future of the voucher legislation in Tennessee, home to a perennial tug-of-war over whether to allow parents to use public money to pay for private school tuition. It also comes as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has focused national attention on the policy.

This year, the proposal reached as far as the Senate finance committee and a House finance subcommittee before Brooks asked to delay a vote until 2018. At the time, he cited the need to work out details about private school accountability, specifically for high school students.

Kelsey said Monday he would not withdraw the bill or his sponsorship, but also doesn’t plan to bring the measure to a vote in the finance committee, which would halt the proposal in its tracks unless a new sponsor comes aboard.

This week’s development signals that the momentum for vouchers may be shifting for now.

Nationally, recent studies show that achievement dropped, at least initially, for students using vouchers in Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio and Washington, D.C. And in Tennessee, one group that has lobbied annually for vouchers is taking a step back from the issue, according to its executive director.

“I can tell you that Campaign for School Equity will not be pursuing or supporting any voucher legislation this year. It’s a shift in focus for us …,” Mendell Grinter said, adding that the Memphis-based black advocacy group is switching emphasis to student discipline and other issues of more concern to its supporters.

Even so, DeVos urged Tennessee lawmakers to pass vouchers during her first visit to the state last month. “Too many students today … are stuck in schools that are not working for them,” she told reporters. (The U.S. Department of Education cannot mandate voucher programs, but could offer incentives to states to pass them.)

Vouchers have passed three times in Tennessee’s Senate, only to stall each time in the House. Proponents had thought that limiting vouchers to Memphis would garner the legislative support needed this year, but the Kelsey-Brooks bill didn’t sit well in the city that would be most impacted. Opposition swelled among county commissioners, local legislators, and numerous school boards across Greater Memphis.

During discussions Monday with Shelby County lawmakers, Bartlett Superintendent David Stephens said vouchers would be a blow to districts already unsteady from years of reform efforts.

“Any time we take dollars out of public schools, we’re hurting public schools,” Stephens told Chalkbeat later. “We don’t need to do anything to hurt or cut funding there. When we talk in Shelby County about school choice, we have the municipal districts, charter schools, the county school system. That’s choice.”

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, said opposition from the Bartlett district appeared to carry more weight with Kelsey than did Shelby County Schools, which has publically been on the record against the legislation from the start.

“Challenges (that Stephens) talked about were challenges we’ve been screaming about from SCS’ standpoint for years,” Parkinson said.

Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican who has championed vouchers for years, said he’ll be disappointed if a bill doesn’t come up for a vote in 2018. “The whole reason for vouchers is to give a chance to these kids who are doomed unless they get in a different educational environment,” he said.

Tennessee’s legislature reconvenes on Jan. 9.

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.

She's here!

Betsy DeVos tours school during her first Tennessee visit as education chief

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos talks with students during a 2017 tour of career and technical education programs at Oakland High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

In her first official stop in Tennessee as secretary of education, Betsy DeVos praised career and technical education at a traditional public school, but also put in a good word for vouchers in a state that has consistently eschewed them.

DeVos visited Oakland High School in Murfreesboro, a fast-growing university town south of Nashville, and spoke with students taking classes in health sciences, automotive technology and mechatronics.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich

She lauded the school for “addressing individual students’ needs and aptitudes and helping them to prepare for their adulthood very early on” — in partnership with regional industries that are heavy on healthcare and automobile production.

But even as she praised instruction happening at Oakland, DeVos encouraged Tennessee lawmakers to approve a voucher program. Vouchers would allow parents to use public funding to send their children to private schools, despite recent studies showing that student achievement dropped, at least initially, for students making that leap in Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio and Washington, D.C.

“I think empowering parents to make the right decision for their children is important, no matter what state and no matter what community,” she told reporters when asked about Tennessee’s perennial tug-of-war over vouchers. “We have far too many students today that are stuck in schools that are not working for them and parents that don’t have the opportunity to make a different decision.”

Since becoming the nation’s education chief in February under President Donald Trump, DeVos has been tasked mainly with overseeing the new federal education law that shifts most decision-making back to states. With her diminished authority, she is using her position as a bully pulpit to promote policies that she favors, including expanding school choices for families. She is a big proponent of charter and virtual schools and using vouchers or tax credits to go to private or church-run schools.

While Tennessee has more than a hundred charter schools and a few virtual schools, its legislature has consistently shied away from vouchers. Lawmakers will take up the matter again in January with a proposal that would pilot a program in Memphis, home to a large concentration of low-performing schools that local and state initiatives are attempting to turn around.

At least one longtime voucher proponent told Chalkbeat that the prognosis isn’t good for passage in 2018 in the House of Representatives, where the proposals have stalled each year.

“I would hope that the politicians would put the kids first, but kids don’t vote. Public school employees do, so I’m not as optimistic,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican who has sponsored voucher legislation in the past.

One reason might be districts like Rutherford County Schools, where DeVos visited on Wednesday. Last spring, school board members there urged their representatives to oppose vouchers through a resolution that says vouchers “hurt the free public education system, divert limited state education dollars to private interests, and have been shown to hurt the academic progress of students.”

DeVos came to Tennessee in conjunction with the National Summit on Education Reform, which kicks off on Thursday in Nashville. The annual event is hosted by her friend Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida. DeVos will deliver a keynote address.

About 1,100 education leaders and influencers from across the nation are scheduled to attend the summit and — as has happened frequently when DeVos comes to a city  — several teachers unions are planning a protest against what they call her “anti-public education agenda.” DeVos was among the most controversial picks for Trump’s cabinet, in part because the Michigan billionaire came to the job with little experience with public schools.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
DeVos talks with health science students at Oakland.

At Oakland High School, the faculty, students and administrators who showed DeVos around said they hoped she came away from their campus with a greater appreciation for what goes on there.

“We’re public education, and we do it right,” said principal Bill Spurlock.

Brianna Bivins, a junior, added that she doubts a private school could offer the health sciences classes that she takes at Oakland. “It’s good for her to see this kind of class,” she said of DeVos. “It gives a good perspective of our public schools.”