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: Chalkbeat/Marta W. Aldrich
The State Capitol in Nashville is home to the Tennessee General Assembly.

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.”

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.