Capitol Hill

Vouchers have dominated Tennessee’s ed debate for years, but won’t in 2018. Here’s why — and what could come next.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Lawmakers reconvene the 110th Tennessee General Assembly on Tuesday at the State Capitol in Nashville.

When Tennessee lawmakers convene on Tuesday for the first time in 2018, one big issue isn’t expected to be on the education agenda: school vouchers.

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

For 11 straight years, Brian Kelsey has asked his fellow legislators to let parents use taxpayer money to send their students to private schools. But not this year.

Last month, the Republican state senator — himself a product of private schools — quietly told other Memphis-area leaders that he didn’t plan to pursue his voucher bill in 2018.

His co-sponsor in the House confirmed that he, too, was pulling the plug on their bill, considered the frontrunner this year. “The votes just aren’t there. That’s a simple fact,” said Rep. Harry Brooks, a Knoxville Republican who will retire from his seat this year.

The about-face comes after years of tweaking voucher proposals to make them more palatable to lawmakers from across the state — and coming close. Last year, for example, a bill that would have launched a pilot program in Memphis gained early support before stalling over disagreement about how to hold private schools accountable for academic results.

“We tried it statewide. We tried it in Memphis only. We tried it all kinds of ways. But it always falls flat,” said Rep. Roger Kane, a Knoxville Republican and voucher proponent. “I just don’t think anybody wants to champion it this year.”

What’s behind the dramatic shift? Here are four explanations — and a look at why the climate could change again next year.

1. Vouchers are no longer the only game in town when it comes to paying for private school with taxpayer money.

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have voucher programs right now. But discussion about starting new ones has slowed in most U.S. statehouses, said Micah Ann Wixom, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States.

Instead, Wixom said, momentum is shifting to other strategies.

“I suspect we’re going to see more movement in the future around education savings accounts and tax credit scholarships,” she said.

Both of those programs also would allow public dollars to flow to private education services, either by establishing state-funded education savings accounts for parents to manage, or using a tax incentive program to give parents more options.

Kane proposed one such approach last year, but it didn’t catch on. He said the appetite to pursue those ideas is diminished this year, too.

“No matter what name you want to give it, I don’t think we’ll be looking at vouchers this year,” he said.

Federal lawmakers might have just reduced pressure for local ones to act. That’s because the new federal tax law allows families to use education savings accounts known as 529s to set aside tuition money that is sheltered from federal taxes. Previously, those accounts could be used only for higher education costs.

2. Tennessee families have more options than they used to.

When voucher-like bills began emerging routinely in Tennessee’s legislature in 2006, the state hovered at the low end of national rankings and offered few options for parents who weren’t happy with their public schools.

But a lot has changed since then. Based on 2013 and 2015 scores on a national exam known as the Nation’s Report Card, Tennessee is considered one of America’s fastest-improving states in reading and math. And in cities like Nashville and especially Memphis, which has the state’s highest concentration of low-performing schools, a plethora of tuition-free options have emerged for families who previously felt stuck.

“Today, Memphis has a ton of charter schools and Innovation Zone schools,” said Kane, who chairs a key education subcommittee in the House. “Vouchers work great when there are no options, but I think they may have lost some of their allure.”

3. The research isn’t helping the case for vouchers.

A decade of debate in Tennessee has provided time for evidence to add up on vouchers’ effectiveness elsewhere. But the growing body of research is mixed, at best.

The underwhelming data has contributed to bipartisan opposition to vouchers in Tennessee, according to Rep. Mike Stewart, a Nashville Democrat and voucher critic. “It’s gotten pretty easy to argue against them,” he said.

Kane acknowledges that the evidence from other states suggests that vouchers are hardly a magic bullet to improve education.

“In Louisiana, it hasn’t done what it’s supposed to do,” he said. “Indiana has had better results, but nobody’s education system has just taken off with vouchers.”

4. Some voucher advocacy may be backfiring.

Some proponents thought having a powerful ally in charge in Washington would bolster their cause when President Donald Trump picked Betsy DeVos as his education secretary.

But even though DeVos has used her platform to lobby for voucher and choice programs, the Michigan billionaire’s unpopularity as a cabinet pick may have actually weakened the voucher movement instead of galvanizing it, according to Stewart.

“Secretary DeVos is essentially an avowed enemy of public schools, and I think her views are out of step with the views of most Americans,” Stewart said. “People pay taxes for expensive school facilities. Who wants to pay for a new gym and then have money siphoned away to private schools? People aren’t stupid.”

Kane said lawmakers heard those fears from people across the state last year, even though the proposal on the table at the time would have limited vouchers to Memphis, where local officials didn’t want them either.

“Even legislators who were truly conservative were split,” said Kane.

On the horizon

The legislative session that starts this week is the second half of a two-year General Assembly that started in 2017. When the next legislature starts fresh in January 2019, Capitol Hill will look very different.

Tennesseans will vote this year for a new governor and fill more than 20 open seats in its 132-member legislature. Voucher advocates say they hope whoever is elected will take up the mantle of legislation aimed at “school choice.”

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Rep. Harry Brooks, who chairs a education committee in the House, is retiring this year.

“I think it’s best left to the new governor and new legislature,” Brooks said last week as Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, a voucher supporter, began his last year in office. “There’s a freshness when you have a new administration.”

One thing that’s clear: Voucher advoctes such as Tommy Schultz say they aren’t giving up. His group, the American Federation for Children, is tuned in to what’s holding voucher legislation back in Tennessee — and what could change in the future.

“We know that any serious K-12 reform efforts requires thoughtful and deliberate consideration during a legislative session, and this upcoming one will simply be too abbreviated to entertain a robust discussion,” said Schultz, a national spokesman for the AFC, which DeVos once chaired and has helped to bankroll.

But he pointed out that school choice legislation can move forward under surprising circumstances — such as in Illinois last year where a legislature dominated by Democrats created a massive tax-credit scholarship program.

“We understand,” Schultz said, “that lightning can strike at any time.”

charter talks

Hopson weighs charters as school turnaround tool for Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson leads Shelby County Schools in Memphis, home to Tennessee's highest concentration of low-performing schools.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has opened a crack in the door to charter school partnerships that might help his district avoid losing more schools to Tennessee’s turnaround district.

Hopson emailed his principals this week to clarify his recent comments to the editorial board of The Commercial Appeal about possibly recruiting charter organizations for turnaround work. The report’s original headline read: “Hopson says he’s willing to hand schools over to charters, if they have a plan for improvement.”

The superintendent quickly turned to Twitter to label the headline “misleading and inaccurate” and, as he sought to regain control of dialogue on the thorny matter, dispatched an email to his school principals.

“…It is my top priority to ensure all of our schools have the necessary resources to provide students with the high-quality education they deserve,” he wrote on Tuesday. “If the Tennessee Department of Education offers us the opportunity to select a charter operator that is willing to collaborate closely with District leaders to improve a school instead of losing it to the (Achievement School District), then I believe it is our responsibility to explore the option.”

Hopson’s comments hint at a potentially significant shift for a district that has battled openly with the charter sector over students being absorbed by the state’s 6-year-old turnaround initiative known as the ASD.

They also point to the tough spot that the superintendent is in.

On the one hand, the growth of the city’s charter turnaround sector has been a thorn in the side of local school leaders since 2012 when the state-run district began taking control of low-performing schools and assigning them to charter operators. Now with 29 Memphis schools, the ASD has siphoned off thousands of students and millions of dollars in an already under-enrolled and under-funded school environment — and made mostly anemic academic gains. (The local district also oversees about 50 charter schools that it’s authorized.)

On the other hand, Shelby County Schools has its hands full trying to improve a substantial number of struggling schools. It’s made some important headway through its Innovation Zone, which adds resources, extends the school day, and pays more to top principals and teachers who are willing to do some of the toughest education work in America. But the iZone is an expensive model, and few of its schools have exited the state’s priority school list.

In addition, some education reform advocates are lobbying to shift Memphis to a “portfolio model,” in which districts actively turn over schools to charter operators and manage them more like stocks in a portfolio. In other words, successful ones are expanded and failing ones are closed. Indianapolis has a robust portfolio model and, last fall, the philanthropic group known as the Memphis Education Fund took several Memphis school board members there for a tour. (The Memphis Education Fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including The Pyramid Peak Foundation and the Hyde Foundation. Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

In his email to principals, Hopson said the school board ultimately would decide whether to authorize charter schools for the district’s turnaround work, and that he expects to discuss the matter with members in the coming weeks.

“All that said, I want to be very clear that my preference would always be to keep schools under the governance of (Shelby County Schools),” the superintendent added.

Hopson has been in discussions with the state Department of Education about several school improvement avenues available in Tennessee’s education plan under a new federal law. Among them is an option for Shelby County Schools to voluntarily convert priority schools to a charter, according to department spokeswoman Sara Gast.

One school board member told Chalkbeat he needs more information from the district and state before he would support any move forward. Chris Caldwell added that he thinks the board isn’t up to speed on options under the state’s new education plan.

“At this point, there’s so little information that I’ve been given,” Caldwell said. “I don’t want to conjecture what (a charter conversion) would actually will be like, but I have reservations with any kind of collaboration with the state.”

What would it take for such a shift to be successful?

One Memphis charter advocate says the ground rules are already in place because of a charter compact developed in recent years to address turf issues such as facilities, funding, and accountability.

“In order for a charter to manage a district school that’s underperforming and for it to be successful, that charter needs to have supports from the district to be successful,” said Luther Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center.

The next school board work session is scheduled for Jan. 23.

School and church partnership

Detroit district aims for faith-based partnerships for every school to support student needs

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti surrounded by religious and district leaders wearing new "Got Faith?" shirts.

Each Detroit public school might soon have its own church, synagogue, mosque, temple, chapel, or parish as a partner.

The district on Thursday announced an initiative to connect every district school with a faith-based community partner to help with academic support, student basic needs, and personal and career development, among other services.

The district is now trying to determine which schools have a defined partnership with a religious institution, but estimates that 25 to 30 percent of schools already do. Sharlonda Buckman, senior executive director of family and community engagement, said that the district hopes that, by the end of the year, every one of its 106 schools “has a religious partner working with them in tandem toward the goal of helping our children achieve.”

The program was announced at a press conference at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Midtown, attended by educators, school board members, and invited guests.

“It doesn’t surprise me when I look around the room and see our religious leaders, because you guys, for a long time, have been investing in our children and our people, and it’s been an informal effort,” Buckman said. “You’ve worked with a number of our schools across the district, so today we recognize that we don’t need to do it informally anymore — we need to make this a formal part of how we move this district forward.”

The district is not unique in its approach: church-school partnerships are common across the country and in the state. The national partnering organization Kids Hope USA is based near Holland, Michigan. Supporters believe that stronger faith-school ties will not only improve local support for schools, but also help provide vital services for children and a more stable personal and family foundation upon which learning could take place.

District leaders “cannot lift our children up to their full potential by themselves,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said at the press conference. “We need help in that work.”

The district is looking to the faith-based partners to provide services such as tutoring, coaching, chaperoning; deliver before and after school support; donate uniforms and other goods; and highlight teachers at their institutions through announcements and bulletins.

R. Khari Brown, a professor of sociology at Wayne State, said the faith community is already deeply ingrained in Detroit in a variety of ways.

“There are a lot of community centers that closed down over the years in the city, and most churches in the city provide some sort of programming,” he said. “They provide backpacks and school supplies, so [the partnership] makes sense.”

Religion is also a large part of the culture of many African Americans, he said, and a significant force in a district where 81 percent of the students were black in 2016-2017.

“Most African Americans want their churches to be involved on the ills that disproportionately affect black people.” he said.

While other communities might balk at such intermingling of church and state, Brown said he believes that it is a “non issue” in this case because the religious institutions are not receiving money from the district.

The ACLU of Michigan said it had no comment at this time but that the organization hopes to “continue to learn more” about the district’s initiative.

Vitti said a more explicit district-faith community partnership could provide both protection and support for Detroit’s children.

“What I’m talking about is developing a stronger safety net to ensure that what students are not receiving in homes, what students are not receiving in school, can be addressed through the faith-based community,” Vitti said. “When we go back to when the city was at its peak, we worked together as a team to lift children up. When children fell through the cracks, there was a safety net to catch them and lift them back up. That happened through the school system, through the churches, the synagogues.”

Vitti said the initiative is part of his larger effort to align schools and the community more closely. Since starting in his position as superintendent in May of last year, he has been pressing programs like the parent academy.

The academy will provide parents with lessons on subjects like what to ask during parent-teacher conferences, how to create stronger readers, how to fill out FAFSA paperwork, and even how to print a resume. Vitti said most of all, it would empower parents to pursue educational goals for their children, even if they weren’t the best students themselves.

“Every parent knows education is important, but parents don’t know how to navigate the system often, and they feel hypocritical when they push their children when they know they didn’t do well in school,” he said.  

Vitti said he envisions a time when faith-based institutions could house some of the parent services.

He said he also sees the faith community working side by side with the district’s 5,000 role models initiative. The program is recruiting volunteers to work with middle and high school African American and Hispanic students, and plans to have sponsors in each school to work with students daily, taking them on field trips and providing an open line of communication.