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.


The New Chancellor

Tell us: What should the new chancellor, Richard Carranza, know about New York City schools?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A student at P.S. 69 Journey Prep in the Bronx paints a picture. The school uses a Reggio Emilia approach and is in the city's Showcase Schools program.

In a few short weeks, Richard Carranza will take over the nation’s largest school system as chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

Carranza, who has never before worked east of the Mississippi, will have to get up to speed quickly on a new city with unfamiliar challenges. The best people to guide him in this endeavor: New Yorkers who understand the city in its complexity.

So we want to hear from you: What does Carranza need to know about the city, its schools, and you to help him as he gets started April 2. Please fill out the survey below; we’ll collect your responses and share them with our readers and Carranza himself.

The deadline is March 23.

buses or bust?

Mayor Duggan says bus plan encourages cooperation. Detroit school board committee wants more details.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Detroit’s school superintendent is asking for more information about the mayor’s initiative to create a joint bus route for charter and district students after realizing the costs could be higher than the district anticipated.

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a school board subcommittee Friday that he thought the original cost to the district was estimated to be around $25,000 total. Instead, he said it could cost the district roughly between $75,000 and a maximum of $125,000 for their five schools on the loop.

“I think there was a misunderstanding….” Vitti said. “I think this needs a deeper review…The understanding was that it would be $25,000 for all schools. Now, there are ongoing conversations about it being $15,000 to $25,000 for each individual school.”

The bus loop connecting charter and district schools was announced earlier this month by Mayor Mike Duggan as a way to draw kids back from the suburbs.

Duggan’s bus loop proposal is based on one that operates in Denver that would travel a circuit in certain neighborhoods, picking up students on designated street corners and dropping them off at both district and charter schools.

The bus routes — which Duggan said would be funded by philanthropy, the schools and the city — could even service afterschool programs that the schools on the bus route could work together to create.

In concept, the finance committee was not opposed to the idea. But despite two-thirds of the cost being covered and splitting the remaining third with charters, they were worried enough about the increased costs that they voted not to recommend approval of the agreement to the full board.  

Vitti said when he saw the draft plan, the higher price made him question whether the loop would be worth it.

“If it was $25,000, it would be an easier decision,” he said.

To better understand the costs and benefits and to ultimately decide, Vitti said he needs more data, which will take a few weeks. 

Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, said the district’s hesitation was a sign they were performing their due diligence before agreeing to the plan.

“I’m not at all deterred by this,” Wiley said. She said the district, charters, and city officials have met twice, and are “working in the same direction, so that we eliminate as many barriers as we can.”

Duggan told a crowd earlier this month at the State of the City address that the bus loop was an effort to grab the city’s children – some 32,500 – back from suburban schools.

Transportation is often cited as one of the reasons children leave the city’s schools and go to other districts, and charter leaders have said they support the bus loop because they believe it will make it easier for students to attend their schools.

But some board members had doubts that the bus loop would be enough to bring those kids back, and were concerned about giving charters an advantage in their competition against the district to increase enrollment.

“I don’t know if transportation would be why these parents send their kids outside of the district,” Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said. “If we could find out some of the reasons why, it would add to the validity” of implementing the bus loop.

Board member LaMar Lemmons echoed other members’ concerns on the impact of the transportation plan, and said many parents left the district because of the poor quality of schools under emergency management, not transportation.

“All those years in emergency management, that drove parents to seek alternatives, as well as charters,” he said. “I’m hesitant to form an unholy alliance with the charters for something like this.”