Capitol Hill

Vouchers have dominated Tennessee’s ed debate for years, but won’t in 2018. Here’s why — and what could come next.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State lawmakers are in session at the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville.

When Tennessee lawmakers convene on Tuesday for the first time in 2018, one big issue isn’t expected to be on the education agenda: school vouchers.

PHOTO: The Commercial Appeal
Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Republican from Germantown, has sponsored several voucher bills in the Tennessee General Assembly.

For 11 straight years, Brian Kelsey has asked his fellow legislators to let parents use taxpayer money to send their students to private schools. But not this year.

Last month, the Republican state senator — himself a product of private schools — quietly told other Memphis-area leaders that he didn’t plan to pursue his voucher bill in 2018.

His co-sponsor in the House confirmed that he, too, was pulling the plug on their bill, considered the frontrunner this year. “The votes just aren’t there. That’s a simple fact,” said Rep. Harry Brooks, a Knoxville Republican who will retire from his seat this year.

The about-face comes after years of tweaking voucher proposals to make them more palatable to lawmakers from across the state — and coming close. Last year, for example, a bill that would have launched a pilot program in Memphis gained early support before stalling over disagreement about how to hold private schools accountable for academic results.

“We tried it statewide. We tried it in Memphis only. We tried it all kinds of ways. But it always falls flat,” said Rep. Roger Kane, a Knoxville Republican and voucher proponent. “I just don’t think anybody wants to champion it this year.”

What’s behind the dramatic shift? Here are four explanations — and a look at why the climate could change again next year.

1. Vouchers are no longer the only game in town when it comes to paying for private school with taxpayer money.

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have voucher programs right now. But discussion about starting new ones has slowed in most U.S. statehouses, said Micah Ann Wixom, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States.

Instead, Wixom said, momentum is shifting to other strategies.

“I suspect we’re going to see more movement in the future around education savings accounts and tax credit scholarships,” she said.

Both of those programs also would allow public dollars to flow to private education services, either by establishing state-funded education savings accounts for parents to manage, or using a tax incentive program to give parents more options.

Kane proposed one such approach last year, but it didn’t catch on. He said the appetite to pursue those ideas is diminished this year, too.

“No matter what name you want to give it, I don’t think we’ll be looking at vouchers this year,” he said.

Federal lawmakers might have just reduced pressure for local ones to act. That’s because the new federal tax law allows families to use education savings accounts known as 529s to set aside tuition money that is sheltered from federal taxes. Previously, those accounts could be used only for higher education costs.

2. Tennessee families have more options than they used to.

When voucher-like bills began emerging routinely in Tennessee’s legislature in 2006, the state hovered at the low end of national rankings and offered few options for parents who weren’t happy with their public schools.

But a lot has changed since then. Based on 2013 and 2015 scores on a national exam known as the Nation’s Report Card, Tennessee is considered one of America’s fastest-improving states in reading and math. And in cities like Nashville and especially Memphis, which has the state’s highest concentration of low-performing schools, a plethora of tuition-free options have emerged for families who previously felt stuck.

“Today, Memphis has a ton of charter schools and Innovation Zone schools,” said Kane, who chairs a key education subcommittee in the House. “Vouchers work great when there are no options, but I think they may have lost some of their allure.”

3. The research isn’t helping the case for vouchers.

A decade of debate in Tennessee has provided time for evidence to add up on vouchers’ effectiveness elsewhere. But the growing body of research is mixed, at best.

The underwhelming data has contributed to bipartisan opposition to vouchers in Tennessee, according to Rep. Mike Stewart, a Nashville Democrat and voucher critic. “It’s gotten pretty easy to argue against them,” he said.

Kane acknowledges that the evidence from other states suggests that vouchers are hardly a magic bullet to improve education.

“In Louisiana, it hasn’t done what it’s supposed to do,” he said. “Indiana has had better results, but nobody’s education system has just taken off with vouchers.”

4. Some voucher advocacy may be backfiring.

Some proponents thought having a powerful ally in charge in Washington would bolster their cause when President Donald Trump picked Betsy DeVos as his education secretary.

But even though DeVos has used her platform to lobby for voucher and choice programs, the Michigan billionaire’s unpopularity as a cabinet pick may have actually weakened the voucher movement instead of galvanizing it, according to Stewart.

“Secretary DeVos is essentially an avowed enemy of public schools, and I think her views are out of step with the views of most Americans,” Stewart said. “People pay taxes for expensive school facilities. Who wants to pay for a new gym and then have money siphoned away to private schools? People aren’t stupid.”

Kane said lawmakers heard those fears from people across the state last year, even though the proposal on the table at the time would have limited vouchers to Memphis, where local officials didn’t want them either.

“Even legislators who were truly conservative were split,” said Kane.

On the horizon

The legislative session that starts this week is the second half of a two-year General Assembly that started in 2017. When the next legislature starts fresh in January 2019, Capitol Hill will look very different.

Tennesseans will vote this year for a new governor and fill more than 20 open seats in its 132-member legislature. Voucher advocates say they hope whoever is elected will take up the mantle of legislation aimed at “school choice.”

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Rep. Harry Brooks, who chairs a education committee in the House, is retiring this year.

“I think it’s best left to the new governor and new legislature,” Brooks said last week as Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, a voucher supporter, began his last year in office. “There’s a freshness when you have a new administration.”

One thing that’s clear: Voucher advoctes such as Tommy Schultz say they aren’t giving up. His group, the American Federation for Children, is tuned in to what’s holding voucher legislation back in Tennessee — and what could change in the future.

“We know that any serious K-12 reform efforts requires thoughtful and deliberate consideration during a legislative session, and this upcoming one will simply be too abbreviated to entertain a robust discussion,” said Schultz, a national spokesman for the AFC, which DeVos once chaired and has helped to bankroll.

But he pointed out that school choice legislation can move forward under surprising circumstances — such as in Illinois last year where a legislature dominated by Democrats created a massive tax-credit scholarship program.

“We understand,” Schultz said, “that lightning can strike at any time.”

Future of Schools

Indiana lawmakers are bringing back a plan to expand takeover for Gary and Muncie schools

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

It’s official: Lawmakers are planning to re-introduce a controversial plan to expand state takeover of the Gary and Muncie school districts when they come back May 14 for a one-day special session.

Indiana Republican leaders said they believe the plan, which would give control of Muncie schools to Ball State University and strip power from the Gary school board, creates opportunities for both districts to get on the right track after years of poor decision-making around finances.

“Two state entities year after year ignored requests from the legislature to get their fiscal health in order,” said Senate President David Long. “We understand there’s going to be some politics associated with it.”

But Indiana Democrats strongly oppose the takeovers, and House Minority Leader Terry Goodin, a Democrat from Austin, said bringing back the “heinous” takeover plan is too complicated to be dealt with in one day. Democrats had cheered when the bill unceremoniously died last month after lawmakers ran out of time during the regular session and lambasted Republican for calling for an extension to revisit it.

“This is not a thing that can be idly approved without full consideration,” Goodin said. “Because you are talking about the latest step to take the education of our children out of the hands of local school boards and parents and placing it under the control of Big Brother.”

But lawmakers’ push to expand district takeovers come as the state’s education officials are stepping back from taking control of individual schools. In this case, as with last year’s unprecedented bill that took over Gary schools, finances appear to be the driving motivation behind lawmakers’ actions, not academics. Typically, state takeover of schools has come as a consequence for years of failing state letter grades.

Gary schools have struggled for decades to deal with declining enrollment, poor financial management and poor academic performance. Although the Muncie district hasn’t seen the same kind of academic problems, it has been sharply criticized for mishandling a $10 million bond issue.

“All I had to hear is that a $10 million capital bond was used for operating expenses,” House Speaker Brian Bosma said, since those funds are intended to make improvements to buildings. “Fiscal irresponsibility is paramount, but also fiscal irresponsibility translates to educational irresponsibility as well.”

Bosma said that Ball State and Gary officials were on board with resurrecting House Bill 1315. Another part of the bill would develop an early warning system to identify districts in financial trouble.

The provisions in the bill would only apply to public school districts, but other types of schools, including online charter schools and private schools accepting taxpayer-funded vouchers, have had recent financial situations that have raised serious questions and even led to closure.

Bosma said those schools have their own fiscal accountability systems in place, but recent attempts to close gaps in state charter law and have private schools with voucher students submit annual reports to the state have gone mostly nowhere.

Both Bosma and Long said their plan to reconsider five bills during the special session, including House Bill 1315, had passed muster withGov. Eric Holcomb. But district takeover was not mentioned in Friday’s statement from Holcomb, nor did he say it was one of the urgent issues lawmakers should take up when he spoke to reporters in mid-March.

Instead, he reiterated his support for getting a $12 million loan from the state’s Common School Fund for Muncie schools and directing $10 million over the next two years to the state’s Secured School Fund. The money would allow districts to request dollars for new and improved school safety equipment and building improvements.

match day

On high school match day, two-thirds of Newark eighth graders want magnet schools — but far fewer will get them

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Keyon Lambert waited a long time for April 20th to arrive — the day when he and hundreds of other Newark students are discovering which high schools they’ve been matched with.

Long before this day, Keyon, an eighth-grader at Brick Avon Academy in the South Ward, spent hours poring over the test scores, class offerings, and graduation rates of the city’s high schools. As he awaited the results this week, he explained why he had invested so much time and thought into his application.

“If I went to a bad high school and got distracted — time flies by,” he said. “Senior year, I [might not] even know what I want to be, what college I want to go to. I probably miss out on a whole bunch of stuff. I’d probably be a dope by then.”

“But if I go to a good school,” he added, “I’ll be able to get my education and focus on the other things. Nothing, basically, will distract me.”

Newark students can apply to as many as eight high schools — traditional, magnet, or charter — through the district’s universal online application, and to the county-run vocational schools through a separate application. While the city has long offered competitive magnet schools alongside its traditional “comprehensive” high schools, the online system has made it easier for students to apply to multiple schools.

Still, each student only gets one match. And, as Keyon understood, some options are better than others. That leads many students to compete for the limited seats at the most selective schools, whose enrollments often do not match the overall demographic makeup of the district — a trend the school board has been probing.

Chalkbeat spoke to more than a dozen eighth-graders this week as high-school match day approached to understand their decisions. We’ll be checking back with some of them after they receive their matches Friday.

“There’s going to be a lot of tears,” said Jahida Gilbert, another Brick Avon eighth-grader, earlier this week.

The district’s six magnet high schools, which admit students based on their academic records or artistic talent, are by far the most popular option — and the most exclusive. Last year, more than two-thirds of incoming ninth-graders ranked a magnet school first on their applications, according to a new report on the city’s enrollment system. But just 31 percent of students across all grades who rank magnets first are actually admitted, and only 24 percent of Newark high schoolers wind up attending one of the coveted schools.

At the other end of the spectrum are the district’s eight comprehensive high schools. Unlike magnets, they cannot weed out students with low scores or poor attendance — they must admit anyone they have room for, or use a random lottery if they are oversubscribed. Partly as a result, they tend to serve far more students with disabilities, have many more students who are chronically absent, and post much lower test scores.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Brianna Padilla and Ahad Hall, eighth-graders at Hawthorne Avenue School.

About 10 percent of Newark students opt into one of the four technical-vocational schools run by Essex County, where they can join peers from other towns and study trades ranging from culinary arts to engineering while also earning a high-school diploma. Like the magnets, the “vo-tech” schools screen applicants. They look at students’ grades, test scores, disciplinary and attendance records, and the results of an entrance essay and interview.

Keyon ruled out the comprehensive high schools. But he did go for an interview at a vocational school, where the interviewer tried to assess Keyon’s personality by asking whether he’d rather be a lion or a bear. “I picked a lion because you could set a good example for others,” he explained.

He also explored a third category — charter high schools. Publicly funded but independently operated, those schools cannot screen applicants. However, several are affiliated with lower-grade charter schools that act as feeder schools, leaving few spots for other incoming ninth-graders. The charter high school Keyon applied to, Great Oaks Legacy, which includes pre-kindergarten to 12th-grade, reported having no available seats for students entering ninth-grade last year.

During his search, Keyon consulted his parents, who told him: “Be mature and pick the wise decision,” he said. Finally, he decided to apply to the vocational school (Essex County Newark Tech), along with two magnet schools (Science Park and American History) and two charter schools (KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy, in addition to Great Oaks Legacy).

Noon on April 20 was this year’s appointed hour, when families could start viewing their children’s matches — for elementary as well as high schools — on the enrollment website. The district also sends letters to students’ homes and gives copies to schools to hand out. Last school year, 41 percent of incoming ninth-graders were matched to their first choice, while 70 percent got one of their top three picks.

Brick Avon’s principal, Charity Haygood, said students shouldn’t despair if they don’t get into one of the most competitive schools. Some high-achieving students flourish at the city’s comprehensive schools, which also boast impressive sports teams and arts programs.

Still, Haygood is troubled by the knowledge that some of her students will be shut out of the selective schools where they applied. She hates to think that a less-than-stellar report card one year or a poor showing on the state tests — perhaps because of an upheaval at home — can determine the course of a student’s high-school career, and maybe well beyond that.

“The idea that we — at the age of 12 or 13 — tell a child their destiny. How dare we?” she said. “That’s devastating.”

Out of about 14,400 students who attended a public high school in Newark this school year, 45 percent go to one of the district’s traditional high schools and 24 percent attend a magnet school. Another 21 percent are enrolled in one of the city’s seven charter schools with high-school grades.

While each high school has its strengths and weaknesses, academic performance varies sharply across sectors, with the magnet sector on average outscoring the charter sector on state exams — and both sectors outperforming the comprehensive schools. One factor that impacts their performance is the share of students with disabilities they serve.

Among comprehensive high schools, 22 percent of incoming ninth-graders require special-education services, compared to 13 percent in magnet schools and 15 percent in charter schools, according to the new report on the city’s enrollment system by the Center for Public Research and Leadership at Columbia University and MarGrady Research.

One exception is People’s Preparatory Charter School, where 33 percent of ninth-graders have disabilities, according to founder and co-director Jessica Rooney.

“Our whole job is to make sure that we’re decreasing or eliminating barriers to a high-quality education,” she said.

Haneefah Webster with her daughter, Samiyah, an eighth-grader at George Washington Carver School.

To help families sort through all the options each year, the district publishes a 115-page guidebook, hosts two school fairs each year, and created an informational video on the website where families can apply to most district or charter schools using a single application. (The vo-tech schools use a separate system.)

Students also lean heavily on their teachers and guidance counselors to make sense of all the options. At Sussex Avenue School in the Central Ward, seventh-grade teacher Amanda Grossi prints out the guidebook and goes through it page-by-page with students, helping them interpret the schools’ academic data and acceptance rates. She brings in former students to talk about the process and where they landed, and hosts a family night where parents can fill out the application.

While Grossi tries to help students make informed decisions, she worries about hardworking but middling students who fall into the “big divide” between magnet and comprehensive schools — and who, for all the dizzying options, have limited choices.

“There’s really no in-between,” she said.

For many parents, the solution is to push their children toward the magnets. Haneefah Webster encouraged her daughter, Samiyah, an eighth-grader at George Washington Carver School, to apply to Bard Early College High School, a magnet where students can earn two-year college degrees by graduation.

When she was her daughter’s age, Webster attended one of Newark’s traditional high schools, where she said she was a “math genius” and a “super honor roll student.” But when she entered a public college to study accounting, she soon found huge gaps in the math education she’d received. Before long, she switched her major to literature.

“That’s why I picked Bard” for Samiyah, she said. “So when she gets to college, she won’t have that struggle.”

Below are some of the eighth-graders we spoke with:

Valencia McDonald
Age: 13
Current school: Sussex Avenue
Top choice: Bard Early College High School (magnet school)
Advice to next year’s eighth-graders: “Go to a school that you like, especially if they have a club day you want to go to — so you can enjoy your time there, and also learn.”

Jahida Gilbert
Age: 14
Current school: Brick Avon Academy
Top choice: Science Park High School (magnet school)
Advice: “Go beyond where you want to go — not what level your teachers say you’re at. [But] also, don’t choose too high, to where all the ones you choose you don’t get accepted so then you have to wait until they put you in one. Be reasonable with your grades — but try to go big too.”

Brianna Padilla
Age: 13
Current school: Hawthorne Avenue
Top choice: Essex County Newark Tech (vocational-technical school)
Advice: “Don’t let no one doubt you, whatever high school you want to go to. If you feel you want to go there, then go there.”

Jordan King
Age: 15
Current school: Hawthorne Avenue
Top choice: Science Park High School (magnet)
Observation: “The one thing I hate is the waiting part. Life is all about waiting.”