Voucher debate

Tennessee’s leading voucher bill is aimed at Memphis, where most elected officials are on the record against it

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown (left) confers with someone before the Senate Education Committee voted March 7 to advance his Memphis-specific voucher bill.

Tennessee’s Republican lawmakers often push for local control — but many appear to feel differently when it comes to school vouchers.

A bill with momentum in the legislature would pilot tuition vouchers in Shelby County, despite opposition from the county’s Board of Commissioners, most of its legislative delegation, and numerous school boards across Greater Memphis.

That includes Germantown, home to Sen. Brian Kelsey, who is sponsoring the bill.

The proposal, which is carried in the House by Rep. Harry Brooks of Knoxville, would launch the five-year pilot voucher program in the fall of 2018 beginning with 5,000 students. The bill breezed through two legislative panels earlier this month and also advanced this week in a full House education committee stacked with voucher supporters.

The fact that local school boards are opposing vouchers isn’t surprising. Shelby County Schools stands to lose $18 million in state funding if a program starts, and other area school systems could have to surrender students and money, too.

But 13 out of 17 state lawmakers in the county’s mostly Democratic caucus either have consistently voted against vouchers or come out against the Memphis-specific proposal.

There’s also been passionate outcry from the county’s Board of Commissioners, which is the local funding body for Shelby County Schools and its six suburban school systems. Last month, commissioners passed a legislative agenda that opposes vouchers.

“This will decimate our public schools,” Commissioner Terry Roland said during the meeting. “With the amount of money and the way they want to administer this, this could kill our Millington school district. … There’s no way in the world I could support this.”

Commissioner David Reaves called vouchers “a direct assault on the Shelby County Schools” and promised to take the matter to court if the bill passes.

“None of the school systems in this county — not one municipal district, not one Shelby County school district — is for this bill,” Reaves said.

Voucher proponents argue that it’s time to try vouchers in Tennessee, which has developed a solid reputation for school reform in recent years. And starting with Shelby County makes sense, they say, given its large number of “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent and a desire for choices by some parents and advocacy groups. The proposed program is for five years, and then would be dropped, extended or expanded depending on what the legislature decides. The bill calls for the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability to assess the program’s results by comparing students’ test scores and growth scores.

Read details about the voucher bill here.

Trying out the state’s new and controversial education strategies in Memphis isn’t new, and many community members are offended by that approach. The majority-black city has the state’s highest concentration of low-performing schools and a deep history of intergenerational poverty.

Tennessee’s Achievement School District made Memphis the hub of its turnaround work, for instance, after launching in 2012. The state-run district took over dozens of low-performing schools there and now oversees 31 in the city. Leaders of Shelby County Schools say the ASD’s presence costs the local district tens of millions of dollars in annual funding.

Some lawmakers elsewhere in the state have said they wouldn’t support a statewide voucher plan but are open to passing one aimed at Memphis. That riles some Memphians.

“Everything is pointing toward ‘Not in my backyard, do it in Shelby County!’” said Mike Kernell, a former state legislator who is now a school board member for Shelby County Schools. “Here we go again, trying something else when we’ve tried our best to show that more resources for kids in poverty actually works.”

Tony Thompson, a lobbyist for Shelby County Schools, argues that it’s wrong for lawmakers to target the Memphis area if their own elected officials are against vouchers. “Would it be OK for the Shelby County delegation to impose its role on the Knoxville delegation?” Thompson asked.

Reporters Grace Tatter and Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show that the bill advanced March 21 in the House Education Administration and Planning Committee.

Social studies switch

At 11th hour, lawmakers mandate a whole semester of Tennessee history, but don’t specify where it will fit

PHOTO: Malia, Flickr

Tennessee students will have to take a whole semester of state history after all — but no one knows in what grade.

In the waning hours of the legislative session, the House this week approved the change, only days after its sponsor had said he was going to wait until 2018 to hash out the details. The Senate already had passed the measure, which does not specify the grade level for the course.

Now, the state will have to adjust social studies standards that already have gone through a significant amount of review and are one vote from final approval by the State Board of Education. It’s uncertain what that will entail, but board leaders pledged their cooperation.

“The State Board of Education will partner with the Department of Education to ensure that the social studies standards are in full compliance with any new state law before they are heard on final reading at the Board’s July 2017 meeting,” said executive director Sara Heyburn Morrison in a statement.

The law will go into effect for the 2018-19 school year, the year before the new standards, which were supposedly finished, are scheduled to reach classrooms.

One of the reasons for the state’s social studies review, which began in January 2016, was the large number of standards that teachers were struggling to cover. The review panel worked to winnow those down to a more manageable amount and did not include a separate semester for Tennessee history.

To eke the bill through, House leaders amended another bill to include the mandate. Rep. Art Swann, the House sponsor, said Thursday that he was glad not to put off the measure until next year.

“We’re still going to have to wait for implementation, which will take a year or two to get done,”  said the Maryville Republican.

Swann said he didn’t discuss the changes with the State Department of Education. “The Senate sent me the language, and it was fine with me and that’s what we ran with,” he said.

Eight of the nine members of the Standards Recommendation Committee who vetted the proposed new standards believe they allow teachers to go in-depth on important historical topics. But member Bill Carey, who sells Tennessee history materials through his nonprofit Tennessee History for Kids, voted against some of the standards. He was mostly concerned with the reduction of Tennessee historical facts in grades 1-5.

Architects of the new standards say teachers still could cover such topics, but that decisions about how should be made at the local level.

Called the Douglas Henry History Act, the legislation mandating the course is named after the longtime state senator from Nashville who died in March.

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.”