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 gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

Follow us on Twitter: @GraceTatter, @chalkbeattn.

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Future of Schools

School shooting reported at Noblesville West Middle School

One adult and one teenager were injured in a shooting at Noblesville West Middle School Friday morning, according to the Indiana State Police and the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office. The suspect is in custody.

The adult victim was taken to Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, and the teen victim was taken to Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis. Their families have been notified. No information is available on their status.

The police do not believe there are any additional suspects.

Students are being moved to Noblesville High School.

A Chalkbeat reporter is on the scene.

Noblesville West Middle School enrolls about 1,300 students in Hamilton County, a suburban community just north of Indianapolis. The district has just over 10,500.

This story will be updated.

temporary reprieve

Parents score a temporary victory in slowing the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Protesters gathered at the education department's headquarters to protest a recent set of closure plans.

A judge blocked the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school Thursday — at least for now.

Three families from P.S. 25/the Eubie Blake School filed a lawsuit in March backed by the public interest group Advocates for Justice, arguing the city’s decision to close the school was illegal because the local elected parent council was not consulted.

Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Katherine Levine did not make a final ruling Thursday about whether the closure plan violated the law. But she issued a temporary order to keep the school open while the case moves forward.

It was not immediately clear when the case will be resolved or even if the school will remain open next year. “We are reviewing the stay and will determine an appropriate course of action once the judge makes a final decision on the case,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement.

The education department said the school has hemorrhaged students in recent years and is simply too small to be viable: P.S. 25 currently enrolls just 94 students in grades K-5.

“Because of extremely low enrollment, the school lacks the necessary resources to meet the needs of students,” Holness wrote. The city’s Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide oversight board that must sign off on all school closures, voted in February to close the school.

But the school’s supporters point out that despite low test scores in the past, P.S. 25 now ranks among the city’s top elementary schools, meaning that its closure would force students into lower-performing schools elsewhere.

“Why close a school that’s doing so well?” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and one of the lawsuit’s supporters. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The lawsuit hinges on a state law that gives local education councils the authority to approve any changes to school zones. Since P.S. 25 is the only zoned elementary school for a swath of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the department’s plans would leave some families with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating them, forcing students to attend other district schools or enter the admissions lottery for charter schools.

That amounts to “effectively attempting to change zoning lines” and “unlawfully usurping” the local education council’s authority to determine those zones, according to the lawsuit.

But even if the education department loses the lawsuit, the school’s fate would still be uncertain. The closure plan would theoretically be subject to a vote from the local education council, whose president supports shuttering the school.

Still, Haimson hopes the lawsuit ultimately persuades the education department to back away from closing the school in the long run.

“My goal would be to get the chancellor to change his mind,” Haimson said. “I don’t think the future is preordained.”