school choice

Lawmakers puzzle over how to expand vouchers for students with disabilities without hurting local schools

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
From left: Sen. Jim Tracy of Shelbyville confers with Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown before the Senate Education Committee considered Kelsey's bill on March 8 to expand the state's vouchers program for students with disabilities.

Increasingly, Tennessee lawmakers say it’s common sense: When students leave public schools, taxpayer money for educating them should follow those students to pay for private educational services.

But when it comes to students who have never attended public schools, some of those same lawmakers are reticent to expect local districts to lose even more funding.

That tension is giving lawmakers pause over a proposal from Sen. Brian Kelsey to allow current private school students with disabilities to collect public money to pay for their tuition. Last week, members of the Senate Education Committee opted to roll Kelsey’s bill for a week to review the matter, even as they expressed eagerness to push the boundaries of school choice in Tennessee.

“The money follows the child. That’s non-negotiable,” declared Sen. Dolores Gresham, the panel’s Republican chairwoman from Somerville, who has supported several bills to give parents more control over public dollars.

On Wednesday, Gresham’s committee is scheduled to take up Kelsey’s proposal again to expand the state’s voucher-like special education program, called the Individualized Education Act. The program, which launched in January with 35 students, was created in 2015 by legislators who said it would empower public school parents to choose educational options for their children with disabilities.

Under current law, students must be enrolled in public school for a year, or be entering school as a kindergartener, before opting to collect up to $6,000 toward paying private school tuition or other private educational services. Kelsey wants to amend the program so parents of students already in private school can access public funds.

He said the bill came out of conversations with parents at Madonna Learning Center, a school in his hometown of Germantown that serves students with disabilities. “We had left certain children out, because we put a requirement in our bill … that students attend public school,” Kelsey said.

While no one opposed Kelsey’s bill last week, Gresham and Sen. Jim Tracy of Shelbyville were among those who asked for a delayed vote after hearing Tennessee Assistant Education Commissioner Elizabeth Fiveash testify that expanding the program would lower per-pupil spending for students remaining in public schools.

Clay Culpepper was among parents at Madonna Learning Center to speak in favor of Kelsey’s bill. A corporate attorney who is the father of an 8-year-old student at Madonna, he said parents who already have chosen private school for children with special needs deserve help from the state too — and that many other parents at Madonna barely scrape by to pay Madonna’s $13,000 annual tuition. He added that the true cost of educating most students far exceeds that amount and is subsidized through private fundraising.

“This is a big struggle and a big sacrifice to send our kids here,” Culpepper said.

Fiveash, who oversees policy for the Department of Education, said she is sympathetic to those parents, but that public schools would lose too much money if they pay for students who never enrolled in them. That’s because state and local funding is based on enrollment. If a student was never enrolled in public schools, local school districts would have to spend money to educate the student that they never had.

The bill’s fiscal note estimates that only about 18 private school students would take advantage of the program at an annual cost of about $137,000 to local districts statewide. But it also assumes that students would still transfer to public schools for at least 60 days so they could generate public funding. If private school students did not temporarily transfer to public schools before collecting public money, local schools would lose even more.

“(It) would lower the per-pupil amount for students still enrolled in a school district attending public schools,” Fiveash said.

That caused the senators, who had voted minutes before in favor of a school voucher bill unrelated to disabilities, to take pause.

“I’d like to see this work, but I also think we have a responsibility to our local school districts,” said Sen. Ferrell Haile, a Republican from Gallatin.

Voucher opponents say “following the money” is not easy. Even when students have generated government funding by attending public schools, losing them to private schools means fewer resources are available to pay for fixed costs.

That line of arguing has received little notice this year from lawmakers who are debating other tuition voucher bills that would impact even more students than the new program for students with disabilities.

“I do now understand the argument that, if a child never attends a public school to begin with, there are no funds generated for that child,” Kelsey said. “Right now is the first time I’m understanding the problem the Department of Education has.”

Still, Kelsey believes that lawmakers should find some way to help parents like his constituents at Madonna.

As of Tuesday, Kelsey had not amended his bill.


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.”