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.

post mortem

Before voucher legislation comes back in 2018, Tennessee lawmakers want a plan to determine whether vouchers work

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students eat lunch at the Oaks Academy Middle School, a private Christian school in Indiana that accepts taxpayer funded vouchers. All students at the private school must take Indiana's state tests. Whether Tennessee should have a similar requirement in its voucher proposal is up for debate.

While Tennessee lawmakers will go home this year without passing school vouchers into law, they’re not leaving the idea behind.

In the coming months, lawmakers who backed the proposal to start a five-year pilot program in Memphis will fine-tune it. One goal: clearing up questions about what kind of tests students need to take so lawmakers can determine if the program is “working.”

“The thing I want to have clarity on is … the language in regard to accountability,” said the House sponsor Harry Brooks, a Knoxville Republican, after he announced that he was pushing pause on vouchers for the year.

“How do we create accountability on the money that’s being spent in private schools? I’ve had a request from folks on different sides of the issue to say we need to look at that.”

Vouchers have never been an easy sell in Tennessee, with legislation falling short nearly every year since 2010. But it came close in 2016, with one of the bill’s sponsors estimating that he was only two votes shy of getting it passed. This year’s sponsors tweaked the bill to be a targeted pilot in hopes of making it more palatable to lawmakers on the fence.

But a lengthy battle over a new gas tax delayed the voucher vote, giving advocates less time to decide how to assess whether the vouchers help students — an important question because the proposal would create only a five-year pilot that lawmakers would expand depending on the results.

Many private schools are wary of state tests, which they say do not match up with their academic standards. And some lawmakers feared such a requirement would cause the standardization of private schools — something that appears to have happened in Indiana, where private schools that accept vouchers must test all students.

Brooks said that in his mind, state testing in grades 3-8 is a done deal — even though the bill was amended to remove the state testing requirement for all grades shortly before he pushed pause on the proposal until next year.

End-of-course testing for high school students is another story, he said. Private schools often have different graduation requirements and course offerings than public high schools, which come with different material to be tested. Brooks said he and other lawmakers would look into whether high schools that accept vouchers should be exempt from a testing requirement — and what, if anything, should replace tests to measure students’ success.

Tennessee’s voucher proponents think they can overcome those barriers before they pick up the voucher debate next year, hashing out a policy that appeals to private schools while appeasing lawmakers hungry for data.

“People want to see students go to these schools and do well,” said Mendell Grinter, the director for the pro-voucher advocacy group Campaign for School Equity. He said the bill will be helped by having hard conversations around testing in the offseason, rather than the crunch of the legislation session.

Other states have negotiated this terrain successfully. Two of the country’s largest and most recent programs, in Indiana and Louisiana, require private schools to publicly post state test scores. And the country’s oldest voucher programs, in Ohio and Wisconsin, have moved toward more accountability, both without losing private schools along the way.

Graphic includes voucher programs targeted at low-income students. It excludes programs for students with disabilities or rural students without public school access. Data: National Conference of State Legislatures. Graphic by: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat
Graphic includes voucher programs targeted at low-income students. It excludes programs for students with disabilities or rural students without public school access. Data: National Conference of State Legislatures. Graphic by: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat

“It’s hard at a time when traditional schools and charter schools are held accountable in such a visible way to make the argument that private schools getting public dollars shouldn’t have to,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the pro-voucher Thomas B. Fordham Institute. “I think we’re going to continue to see that in voucher programs.”

As states overhaul their accountability systems for public schools to include more measures than just test scores, a requirement under the new federal education law, lawmakers could consider doing the same for private schools in Tennessee.

“A pilot program with a rigorous evaluation makes a lot of sense,” said Douglas Harris, a researcher at the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, who studied Louisiana’s voucher program and found that students using vouchers scored far below their public school peers on state tests. “Using multiple measures makes even more sense.”

But Harris cautioned against letting schools choose their own tests, something that schools in Florida are allowed to do as long as the tests are nationally normed. Some Tennessee voucher advocates, including Brian Kelsey, the Senate sponsor, have pointed to that model as offering accountability while preserving flexibility for private schools, but Harris said that it’s hard to draw meaningful conclusions from a smorgasbord of tests.

If Tennessee does figure out how to craft a pilot, a full-blown, statewide voucher program could easily follow. That’s what happened in Louisiana, which started with a pilot in New Orleans; Ohio, which started out with a smaller program in Cleveland; and Wisconsin, which started out with vouchers only in Milwaukee.

Brooks says Tennessee lawmakers wouldn’t allow vouchers statewide if they don’t succeed in Memphis — and that’s why it’s important to figure out how to measure outcomes.

“If it doesn’t work, then it answers the question,” he said. “It’s why it’s called a pilot.”

Another pause

Plan for school vouchers in Tennessee on hold again, despite national momentum

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Rep. Harry Brooks talks in his office about the decision to roll his voucher bill until next year. The Knoxville Republican is the House sponsor of a proposal to pilot vouchers in Memphis and Shelby County.

School voucher supporters thought that this was finally their year.

But despite national attention and initial momentum, vouchers have sputtered in Tennessee once again. Rep. Harry Brooks on Wednesday pushed his bill to next year, meaning that for the seventh year, vouchers will not pass the Tennessee Legislature.

It’s an anticlimactic ending after months of debate and hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars spent to boost legislation allowing public money to be spent on private school tuition.

Many advocates had thought that limiting vouchers to Memphis would give this year’s proposal the support needed to become law, winning over wary lawmakers from elsewhere in Tennessee. They also hoped to benefit from national attention to private school choice efforts. President Donald Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, have both used their platforms to advocate for vouchers and similar programs.

But in the end, disagreements over how private schools should be held accountable for academic results — as well as legislators’ exhaustion after passing a hotly debated gasoline tax — caused the measure to stall.

Brooks pledged to pick up the measure next year where he left it — in the House Finance subcommittee.

“We’re satisfied that we’ve moved it this far,” the Knoxville Republican said later. “We were able to accomplish more than we thought that we could (in the first year of the two-year session).”

Brooks said he’ll work in the coming months to nail down consensus specifically around high school testing, since private high schools often offer different courses than their public counterparts.

Two versions of amendments emerged this year to Brooks’ bill with Sen. Brian Kelsey — one that mandated all students take Tennessee’s state tests, and one that allowed private school students accepting vouchers to take other tests, so long as they are approved by the State Board of Education.

“I’ve had a request from folks on different sides of the issue to say we need to look at that,” Brooks said.

As word spread of a voucher pause, both advocates and opponents took the long view.

“I don’t want anybody to think the fight is over just because it’s been rolled until 2018,” said Stephanie Love, a board member with Shelby County Schools.

Love, who led busloads of Memphians to Nashville to voice opposition, said she’s already gearing up for next year’s debate — as was voucher supporter Mendell Grinter, director of the Memphis-based Campaign for School Equity.

“We’ll be prepared for next year,” said Grinter, whose organization supports expanding school choice, especially for students of color. “We don’t anticipate stopping or altering our course.”

Roy Herron, a former state senator who lobbies for Tennessee’s small school systems, was elated but stopped short of saying that vouchers are dead for another year.

“It’s a good day for public schools,” he said. “(But) there’s an enormous amount of money and highly capable lobbyists working very hard to pass this legislation. I have great respect for their ability and great concern about the amount of resources they bring on this issue.”

The House has been the harder route for advancing voucher legislation in Tennessee, where it’s passed the Senate three times. Last year, a proposal that would have permitted students in urban districts to use vouchers was pulled before coming to vote on the House floor.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.