Future of Schools

Vouchers pass state Senate for third time in five years

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) introduces voucher legislation to the state Senate, where the bill easily passed.

An initiative that would allow some low-income Tennessee students to receive vouchers to attend private schools cleared the state Senate Monday, despite worries that the program is ill-timed because of legal questions over the adequacy of state funding for education.

The measure passed 24-8 with little debate, and mirrored legislation that the Senate has passed three times in five years.

The circumstances are different this year, however, argued Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) and Sen. Lee Harris (D-Memphis), urging their colleagues to vote the plan down.

“The timing of this could not really be worse,” said Yarbro, referring to a funding lawsuit filed last week against the state by seven school districts. “We’ve heard numerous concerns this year about whether we’re properly funding our public schools.”

The bill is scheduled for consideration Tuesday in the House Government and Operations Committee after advancing earlier this month from a House education panel.

Last year, the proposal passed in the Senate but failed in the House Finance Committee. But supporters are optimistic — and detractors are concerned — that the measure has more support in the House this year.

The proposed legislation would make vouchers available to students zoned for the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools. The state would provide 20,000 vouchers of up to $5,000 per student by the 2018-2019 school year. Private schools accepting the vouchers could not charge additional tuition.

Supporters say the bill is a natural progression of Tennessee’s drive to expand school choice and will make all schools better by increasing competition. Despite recent state reforms aimed at helping struggling low-income students, too many students are “imprisoned” in failing schools, said Sen. Delores Gresham (R-Somerville).

Critics oppose vouchers because they are costly and have a mixed track record of improving student achievement. Critics say they also distract policymakers from investments that would bring lasting educational improvements to all public schools.

Local public school districts would lose up to $70 million under a voucher system as money follows students to private schools, according to the bill’s fiscal note. In North Carolina, similar legislation is being challenged in the state Supreme Court, in part because of arguments that vouchers would cause hardship for public schools. Yarbro said Tennessee could see legal challenges to a voucher program as well.

Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) said the proposed cap of 20,000 students would help public schools achieve financial stability, even as they lose students and money to private schools. Kelsey said he believes school systems actually would end up with more money per pupil because the bill doesn’t require sending all per-pupil funding to private schools, allowing local districts to keep $2,000 per student.

Also at issue was the breadth of the bill. Harris expressed concern about a provision that would allow unused vouchers to go to low-income students who do not attend schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent. He said the provision goes too far, but Gresham said the bill doesn’t go far enough.

“If I have any criticism [of this bill], it would be its timidity,” Gresham said. “When you have a narrow, restricted bill, you’re going to get narrow and restrictive results.”

Seven states and the District of Columbia currently offer vouchers to low-income students, but research is inconclusive on the impact of such programs. Several studies indicate that students who accept vouchers to private schools actually perform worse on average than their peers in public schools on statewide assessments. Other studies suggest voucher programs have improved public schools in their communities and increased the likelihood of high school graduation. The most expansive voucher program is in Indiana, where students in families with an income up to $62,000 can qualify.

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.
Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

Communities with vouchers have found that private schools accepting them sometimes are lower-performing schools than the public schools students are leaving. In Milwaukee, home of the nation’s oldest voucher program, the state’s 1992 voucher legislation incentivized the creation of  several financially mismanaged and low-achieving private schools. Louisiana has closed seven voucher-accepting private schools because of their low performance.

The potential impact of vouchers in Tennessee is unknown. With the choice landscape more varied than ever in Memphis — the city that would be most impacted — it’s not clear how many parents would opt for private schools. What is certain is that many private schools are not interested in accepting vouchers and the increased governmental involvement that goes with them, according to a 2014 Vanderbilt University study.

Do you support or oppose a voucher program in Tennessee – and why? Chalkbeat welcomes your comments below.

Contact Grace Tatter at [email protected]

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Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised more than $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Other groups such as Americans For Prosperity work outside the reporting requirements altogether by spending money on “social welfare issues,” rather than candidates. The conservative political nonprofit, which champions charter schools and other school reforms, pledged to spend more than six-figures for “a sweeping outreach effort to parents” to promote school choice policies in Douglas County. The fight over charter schools and vouchers, which use tax dollars to send students to private schools, has been a key debate in school board races there.

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

Another union-funded group, called Brighter Futures for Denver, has spent all of its money on consultant services for one Denver candidate: Jennifer Bacon, who’s running in a three-person race in northeast Denver’s District 4. The Denver teachers union, which contributed $114,000 to the committee, has endorsed Bacon. The statewide teachers union also contributed money.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, the incumbent running in District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $625,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a slate of candidates that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more information about Americans for Prosperity’s Douglas County plans. 

what is a good school?

New York policymakers are taking a closer look at how they evaluate charter schools

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Erica Murphy, school director of Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in New York, oversees students in a fourth-grade English class.

New York is rethinking how it judges whether charter schools are successful and deserve to remain open — a discussion that comes as some top education policymakers have asked tough questions about the privately managed schools.

The state education department currently decides which of the more than 70 charter schools it oversees can stay open based largely on their test scores and graduation rates, though other factors like family involvement and financial management are also reviewed. A set of changes now being considered could add additional performance measures, such as the share of students who are chronically absent and student survey results.

Policymakers also discussed whether to change how they calculate charter-school student enrollment and retention.

The move — which got its first public discussion Monday during a Board of Regents meeting and is expected to become a formal proposal in December — would bring charter schools in line with a shift underway in how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the board has moved away from using test scores as the main metric for evaluating schools and will begin to track absences and eventually suspensions.

Since the state’s current system for evaluating charter schools was last revised in 2015, the board has added several new members and elected a new leader, Betty Rosa. Several members at a previous board meeting questioned the enrollment practices at a charter school in Brooklyn.

At Monday’s meeting, some suggested the schools attain high test scores partly by serving fewer high-needs students — and that the system for evaluating charters should take this into account.  

For instance, Regent Kathleen Cashin implied at Monday’s meeting that some charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students. Their motivation, she said, “is not pedagogic, I’ll tell you that.” She suggested that, in addition to tracking how well charter schools retain students, the state should survey parents who leave those schools to find out why.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Rosa suggested Monday that it’s unfair to compare charter schools that serve few high-needs students to traditional schools.

Charter schools receive autonomy from many rules, but in return they agree to meet certain performance targets — or risk closure if they do not. The state judges charters based on a variety of metrics, everything from their enrollment figures to how they respond to parent concerns. However, test scores and graduation rates are “the most important factor when determining to renew or revoke a school’s charter,” according to state documents.

Even if the state adds new measures that move beyond test scores, those will still hold the most weight, according to state officials.

The state is also considering whether to change how it measures charter schools’ enrollment and retention targets. Currently, schools must set targets for students with disabilities, English learners, and those eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch. If they fail to meet those targets, they must show they are making yearly progress towards meeting that goal.

During the state’s presentation, officials also floated the idea of a “fiscal dashboard,” which would display charter schools’ financial information. They also said they may compare charter high school graduation rates and Regents exam scores with those of the districts where they’re located, instead of using only the state average or their targets as a comparison point.