Voucher votes

Trump wants states to push vouchers. Tennessee shows why that might be hard, even in red states.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Voucher opponents cheer Tennessee lawmakers after voucher legislation is tabled.

When President-elect Donald Trump tapped Betsy DeVos as his choice for U.S. secretary of education, advocates of school tuition vouchers saw it as a good omen. The Michigan Republican is a staunch advocate for vouchers that allow taxpayer money to be spent on private schools.

But the perennial battle over vouchers in Tennessee, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump, suggests it won’t be easy for vouchers to sweep the nation, even if Trump’s administration champions federal incentives for such programs. While Tennessee’s Senate has voted in favor of a voucher bill three times since 2011, opponents have blocked it each year in the House of Representatives, albeit by decreasing margins. Opposition has coalesced around a fear of undermining public schools — a concern that transcends party lines and geography.

Tennessee’s voucher proposals have exclusively targeted urban schools, anomalies in a mostly rural state. But as each major vote approached, lawmakers in Nashville fielded calls from constituents back home who worried that the program would quickly expand at the expense of public schools in areas with few alternatives.

During the last legislative session, the perceived lack of public support for vouchers eclipsed Gov. Bill Haslam’s endorsement of them. It also countered an outpouring of spending from pro-voucher advocacy groups that include a state chapter of American Federation for Children, of which DeVos founded and serves as chairwoman of the board.

The most vocal opponent of vouchers has been the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union and an organization that many Republican lawmakers openly oppose. But lawmakers also got pushback from statewide professional groups that represent superintendents and school boards and argue that vouchers would hurt public schools.

Rep. Bill Dunn
Rep. Bill Dunn

During the most recent legislative session, Rep. David Hawk, a Republican from Greeneville, made a last-minute attempt to make vouchers more palatable to sympathetic lawmakers wary of how the issue would play out at home. With the blessing of the bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, Hawk amended the proposal so it only would impact Memphis, home to Tennessee’s largest school district and frequently a laboratory for the state’s education reforms. The move infuriated many Memphis lawmakers and failed to sway enough undecided legislators to push the bill over the top.

Still, the proposal came closer to passing than ever before. It cleared all committees before Dunn tabled it on the House floor. He said he just didn’t have the votes. Later, Dunn told reporters that he only had 48 “yes” votes confirmed out of the necessary 50.

“I believe there are legislators who hear from their school board that they’re against this,” Dunn reflected on Tuesday. “Instead of legislators sitting down and saying what’s best for students, it’s about what’s best for school bureaucracy.”

Research is mixed on whether vouchers help or hurt students. According to a 2015 review by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “vouchers have been neither the rousing success imagined by proponents nor the abject failure predicted by opponents.”

Undaunted, Dunn says he will sponsor voucher legislation again in the upcoming legislative session, which starts in January. But if vouchers pass this time, he said, it will be because of growing support for the program among Tennesseans, not because of Trump or DeVos.

“Education is a state issue,” he said.


Memphis candidate no longer in running to lead Achievement School District

The only Memphis applicant to lead Tennessee’s school turnaround district is no longer under consideration.

Keith Sanders told Chalkbeat Thursday that Education Commissioner Candice McQueen called him with the news that he would not advance in the application process to become superintendent of the Achievement School District. Sanders is a Memphis-based education consultant and former Memphis school principal who most recently was chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education.

The state later confirmed that Sanders will not advance, citing concerns from the search firm hired to find the next leader of the turnaround district.

In a March 21 letter to McQueen, the search firm highlighted Sanders’ time as a charter school leader in New Orleans as a reason he should not advance. Sanders co-founded Miller-McCoy Academy, an all-boys public school that closed in 2014. The school was academically low-performing, and Sanders and his co-founder left the school before it shuttered amidst allegations of financial mismanagement and cheating, according to the letter.

“Given the visibility of the ASD role, I think there are too many questions about his time at Miller-McCoy for him to be credible,” wrote Mollie Mitchell, president of The K-12 Search Group, in the letter.

The announcement comes a day after Stephen Osborn, a finalist for the position, visited Memphis for a second time to meet with local stakeholders. Osborn is currently the chief of innovation for Rhode Island’s Department of Education.

Sanders said he was shocked to be eliminated, as just weeks earlier he was told that he would advance as one of two finalists.

“I was given an itinerary for two days next week for my final interview process,” Sanders said. “I’m shocked that I’ve been suddenly and abruptly removed from this process. I want to be clear in this community I reside in — I did not withdraw.”

In addition to Sanders and Osborn, other candidates under consideration are Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

McQueen emphasized during her Memphis visit on Wednesday that the superintendent search is still in progress.

“We certainly have an expectation that we’ll bring in others,” she told reporters. “At this point, we wanted to move one forward while we’re continuing to solicit additional information from the search firm on current candidates as well as other candidates who have presented themselves over last couple of weeks.”

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. Kathleen Airhart, a longtime deputy at the State Department of Education, has served as interim leader.

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools, the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis.

Editor’s note: We have updated this story with comment from the Tennessee Department of Education. 

Play nice

How can Michigan schools stop skinned knees and conflict? Use playtime to teach students kindness

PHOTO: Amanda Rahn
Macomb Montessori kindergartner London Comer plays with a ball during a Playworks session at her school.

Kindergartners play four square, jump rope and line up in two rows with outstretched arms to bump a ball during recess. What’s unusual is that the four- and five-year-olds don’t fight over balls or toys, and when one child gets upset and crosses her arms, a fifth-grade helper comes over to talk to her.

This is a different picture from last spring, when the students at the Macomb Montessori school in Warren played during recess on a parking lot outside. The skinned knees and broken equipment were piling up, and school administrators knew something needed to change.

“Recess was pretty chaotic, and it wasn’t very safe,” Principal Ashley Ogonowski said.

The school brought in Playworks, a national nonprofit that uses playtime to teach students how to peacefully and respectfully work together to settle disagreements — also known as social emotional learning, said Angela Rogensues the executive director of the Michigan Playworks branch.

Ogonowski said the change she has seen in her students has been huge. Kids are getting hurt less, and teachers have said they have fewer classroom behavior problems.

The program teaches better behavior through physical activity. Games focus on cooperation, not winners and losers. When tensions rise on the playground, kids are encouraged to “rock, paper, scissors” over conflicts.

Playworks is adamant that their coaches are not physical education teachers, nor are their 30-45 minute structured play periods considered gym class. But the reality is that in schools without them, Playworks is the closest many kids come to receiving physical education.

Macomb Montessori does not have a regular gym teacher, a problem shared by schools across the state and nearly half of the schools in the main Detroit district, and a symptom of a disinvestment in physical education statewide. In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified.

But with Playworks, the 210 elementary-aged children at the school have a daily recess and a weekly class game time lasting about 30 to 45 minutes.

Another benefit of the program is the chance to build leadership skills with upper elementary students chosen to be junior coaches. Shy kids are picked, as are natural leaders who might be using their talents to stir up trouble.

“I made it because I’m really good with kids. I’m nice and kind and I really like the kids,” Samerah Gentry, a fifth-grader and junior coach said. “I’m gaining energy and I’m having fun.”

Research shows that students are benefitting from both the conflict resolution tools and the junior coach program.

“The program model is really solid and there’s so much structure in place, I can’t really think of any drawbacks,” Principal Ogonowski said.

The program, however, is not free.  

Part of the cost is handled on the Playworks side through grants, but schools are expected to “have some skin in the game,” Rogenesus said. The program at Macomb Montessori costs between $60,000 and $65,000, but poor schools can receive a 50 percent subsidy.

The cost hasn’t prevented eight Detroit district schools from paying for the program. Rogenesus said she is talking with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti about putting the program in even more schools next year. He also identified Playworks as one organization that could be brought in to run after-school programs at a time when he’s rethinking district partnerships.

Part of Playworks’ mission is to work together with schools, even if they already have gym and recess in place or plan to hire a physical education teacher.

“PE is a necessary part of their education in the same way social-emotional learning is a necessary part of that education,” she said.