Future of Schools

Proposed voucher bill would have big implications for Memphis parents

Tennessee state legislators will vote Tuesday on a proposal that would offer so-called “Opportunity Scholarships,” also known as vouchers, to help children zoned to lowest-performing schools in the state attend private schools with the help of public funds.

Several voucher bills have been proposed in the state’s legislature this year. House Bill 0190, which passed the house budget committee last week, is scheduled for a vote in the House’s Ways and Means Committee later Tuesday. The senate version of the same proposal, Senate Bill 0196, has not yet been voted on.

Many students in the 140,000-student Shelby County school system would be eligible for the vouchers. Eighty-four percent of legacy Memphis City’s students were economically disadvantaged in the 2012-13 school year, and the bulk of the state’s bottom five percent schools are in Memphis.

Voucher programs are controversial: Proponents argue that they offer a critical choice for low-income families stuck in low-performing schools, while opponents argue that they drain public schools of much-needed resources while benefitting just a few students. Others fear that the vouchers will benefit parents who would not send their children to public school in the first place. As many of the state’s private schools are also religious, some argue that the programs unconstitutionally break the barrier between church and state.

As many as 5,000 students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch and who are enrolled in schools in the bottom five percent in the state would be eligible for vouchers next year if the bill passes. The program is slated to grow annually, providing up to 20,000 scholarships in the 2016-17 school year.

The bill’s authors estimate that approximately $15 million will be shifted away from public schools and to private schools accepting students using vouchers during the next fiscal year. That amount would grow each year.

In the current bill, the voucher would cover either the tuition and fees of the school, or the per-pupil state and local funds in the district a child attends, whichever is less. Students must have attended public school for at least two semesters before they begin attending school with the help of a voucher.

In order to accept voucher funds, schools would have to agree to abide by the state’s standardized testing protocol. That would mark a change for many local private schools. Schools accepting vouchers are not required to change the services they provide to special needs students.

Several amendments are still being considered, including one that would open the program up to students enrolled in the bottom ten percent of schools. The Tennessean reports than an amendment could also require private schools to abide by the state’s guidelines for teacher evaluations in public schools. 

Tennessee would be the 24th state to adopt a voucher program. Each state’s program looks different. In Indiana, the program has grown rapidly in recent years and urban public schools have indeed seen significant drops in enrollment.

Vouchers are one of a number of state initiatives targeting the bottom 5 percent of schools: The state-run Achievement School District was created to take over and turn around schools that fall into that category, and districts can receive extra funds to create their own “innovation zones” to turn around such schools.

House Democrats voted against the proposal in the budget subcommittee meeting last week. And Shelby County Schools officially opposes the creation of a voucher program. A group of parents went to Nashville in order to oppose the bill, WREG reports. From WREG:

“As we know all dollars need to be allocated to public education and needs to remain with students being served by the public schools,” said Anthony Harris, a Gordon Elementary teacher.

But the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) held an event in Memphis promoting school vouchers this February. And a separate group of Memphians led by state representative John Deberry, a Democrat, traveled to Nashville earlier this year to advocate for the bill.

Michael Benjamin, the director of the Tennessee Federation for Children, spoke at the SCLC event, describing his own choice to put his son in a private school. He said that many parents currently cannot afford that option. “No one can say the need’s not there. We’re putting more educational options on the menu…what better place to start than in the cradle of civil rights?”

And Tennessee Black Alliance for Educational Options, which also supports vouchers, recently established a chapter in Memphis.

The debate over vouchers in Tennessee is not new: Several school voucher bills were also floated during last year’s legislative session, but in the end they were withdrawn.



As fate of ‘Newark Enrolls’ is debated, top enrollment officials resign

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The top officials overseeing Newark’s controversial school-enrollment system have resigned just weeks after the school board blocked the new superintendent from ousting them.

Their departure creates new uncertainty for Newark Enrolls, one of the few enrollment systems in the country that allows families to apply to district and charter schools through a single online portal. Proponents say the centralized system simplifies the application process for families and gives them more options, while critics say it undermines traditional neighborhood schools while boosting charter-school enrollment.

Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, chief of the Newark Public Schools division that includes enrollment, and Kate Fletcher, executive director of the enrollment office, both departed on Friday. The district did not provide information about why they left or who — if anyone — will replace them, and neither of the two could be reached for comment.

Their departure comes after Superintendent Roger León, who took over on July 1, included them among 31 officials and administrators who were given the option to resign or face being fired. Days later, the school board approved all but nine of the dismissals; Ramos-Solomon and Fletcher were among those spared.

Both officials were hired in 2013 shortly before former Superintendent Cami Anderson unveiled the enrollment system, then called One Newark, as part of a sweeping overhaul that also included closing some schools. Parents were outraged by the closures and the system’s glitchy rollout, which left some students without school placements and separated other students from their siblings.

In recent years, Ramos-Solomon has overseen improvements to the system, including tweaking the computer algorithm that matches students with schools to give a greater boost to families who live near their chosen schools. While district data shows that most students are matched with one of their top choices, critics remain wary of the system and some — including some board members — call for it to be dismantled.

León, a veteran Newark educator who was expected by some observers to oppose Newark Enrolls, said in a private meeting with charter-school leaders that he intends to keep the process in place. But he will have to win over the board, whose members have asked the district skeptical questions about the system in recent months, such as why some students are reportedly matched with charter schools they didn’t apply to. (The district says that does not happen.)

Board member Tave Padilla said he was not aware that Ramos-Solomon or Fletcher had resigned, and did not know whether replacements had been lined up. He added that the board had not discussed the fate of Newark Enrolls since a meeting in June where Ramos-Solomon provided information about the system, nor has the full board discussed the matter with León.

“The district now does have the option to keep what we have in place, modify it, or do away with it,” he said. “Whether we choose to do that or not, I don’t know.”

Future of Schools

Indiana is struggling to give kids speech therapy. Here’s why it’s getting harder.

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Indiana let emergency permits that make it easier for schools to hire high-demand speech-language pathologists lapse — and there won’t be time to address the oversight before the first day of classes.

“This is going to take legislative action to resolve,” said Risa Regnier, director of licensing for the Indiana Department of Education. “So there’s really no way to fix this for the beginning of school this year.”

The communication disorders emergency permits, which expired at the end of June, were created by a 2007 law to offer relief to schools struggling to find enough speech-language pathologists, educators say. While the number of students who will be affected wasn’t immediately available, nearly one-fifth of all special education students across the state need speech and language services.

The permits allowed schools to hire graduates of four-year speech-language programs who have been accepted to master’s programs, which are typically required for a full license as a speech-language pathologist.

But the employees who use these permits are no longer able to continue in their jobs, and the state cannot issue new permits unless lawmakers step in.

“You have to understand that we have a huge shortage of (speech-language pathologists),” said Ann Higgins, director of a special education cooperative that serves four districts in north central Indiana. “This is the beginning of my sixth year being director, and we have yet to be fully staffed … as a result, we’re constantly piecing together a puzzle, if you will, to provide speech services.”

These professionals can work in educational or medical settings, and their roles can vary widely depending on the students they serve. They might work on letter sounds with some students with milder needs, but they could also help students with more severe disabilities improve swallowing.

According to state data, 84 educators who currently have full communications disorders licenses once held emergency permits, and 190 have received them since 2007.

The emergency permits are a “last resort,” said Tammy Hurm, who handles legislative affairs for the Indiana Council of Administrators of Special Education. But they have made it possible for speech-language program graduates to work as pathologists while completing their licenses. With the permits, schools have had more flexibility around supervision, but permit-holders still couldn’t practice outside of what they’ve been educated to do.

Although the number of people affected might seem small, many districts are seeing a shortage, Hurm said, especially rural districts like Higgins’ that already have a hard time attracting people to jobs in their communities.

Because schools can rarely pay as much as a hospital or nursing home, schools are not as attractive for the already-small number of fully qualified speech-language pathology graduates. Part of that also stems from the fact that the needed master’s programs have caps on enrollment.

“A lot of the kids that graduate go directly into medical (jobs) because they pay more, they can work more days,” Higgins said. “Unless they have school experience or know that school is what they love … a lot go medical.”

This problem is not unique to Indiana. Across the country, demand for speech-language pathologists is projected to grow 18 percent by 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s partially because of growth in other groups of people that need them, such as senior citizens, and because of growing school enrollment and earlier, more frequent identification of speech and language issues.

Without these permits, four-year graduates in speech and language can generally only be speech-language pathology assistants, which means they can offer certain services with supervision, Hurm said. Salaries can be hourly or close to what a starting teacher might make.

To get over the pay hurdle, Higgins has been creative. Her co-op runs entirely on federal funds, a strategy that began three years ago so she could pay speech-language pathologists higher salaries than what collective bargaining rules dictated. More than one-third of her budget is just spent on speech services.

But critics of the emergency permits say they’re a short-term solution and place under-qualified people in roles they aren’t prepared to handle.

Undergraduate students who study speech, language, and hearing sciences typically have only a theoretical knowledge of what communications disorders are like, not the clinical, hands-on experience they’d get at the graduate level to diagnose and treat children.

When the students get an emergency permit that grants them some responsibilities that usually only come with full licensure, it can be a disincentive to finish the program, critics point out.

“The problem with that is that those folks then are not put in a position where they have to continue their education,” said Janet Deppe, director of state advocacy for the The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. “We don’t necessarily believe that just putting a body in a place is going to make a difference in that child’s educational success and success beyond education.”

Adam Baker, spokesman for the education department, said education officials are discussing what to do about the permits now so that they can find a way forward and propose a solution during next year’s legislative session.

Higgins didn’t find out the permits were expiring until the spring — after the previous legislative session had already ended. With the emergency permits off the table for this year, Higgins has lost one employee. That leaves her with three full-time speech-language pathologists for the coming year in a co-op that serves about 1,170 students — 455 of which need speech services. To be fully staffed, she needs seven pathologists.

Each speech-language pathologist is responsible for about 60 students at a time, though it can grow to be closer to 70, she said.

To get by, Higgins is having retirees come in to supervise assistants, evaluate students, work on education plans, and write reports. She’s also using teletherapy — providing speech-language services over the internet — for high-schoolers, who generally need less intensive therapies.

The permit expiration is frustrating, she said, because it’s one more factor working against schools that have been trying to fully staff speech and language programs for years — and especially because for the majority of students, speech therapy can fix their issues. It’s not always the case, Higgins said, but many times, students’ speech or language problems are correctable with therapy, meaning they won’t need services in the future.

It puts the shortage, and the effects of losing the emergency permits, into perspective, she said.

“While there may not be many people impacted by this particular change … it just magnifies this whole shortage issue that we have with speech-language pathologists,” Higgins said. “We just lost a person that serves 60 kids.”