Battleground state

Before Trump speaks in Nashville, here are five things to know about school choice in Tennessee

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

President Donald Trump has chosen Nashville for his first policy address outside of Washington, D.C., and “school choice” is on the agenda for his Wednesday night speech.

That’s a top priority for him and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who has long lobbied for choice programs. Trump has called on Congress to propose a $20 billion program to expand choice for poor students across the nation, and more details are expected this week when he proposes his first budget.

So far, Tennessee has encountered all of the ups, downs, opposition and advocacy typically experienced by choice programs. Here’s what you should know about the issue in Tennessee as Trump prepares to showcase it.

  1. Choice programs have expanded significantly in recent years. Since a 2003 state law opened the door to charter schools, more than 100 have sprung up across Tennessee, mostly in Memphis and Nashville. A state-run initiative to turn around long-struggling schools added another set of choices, especially in Memphis. And the state’s first voucher program, which allows families of students with some disabilities to use public dollars to attend private schools, launched this year.
  1. Not everyone is on board with the shift. School choice advocates often blame opposition on teachers unions, which are weakened when students leave traditional public schools for charter or private schools that typically don’t have unionized teachers. But in Tennessee, opposition also has bubbled up from local school superintendents and boards who are worried that vouchers could drain already under-funded traditional schools of students and money. The latest school choice proposal, vouchers for students without disabilities, is aimed at the lowest performing schools in Memphis — and opposed by many Memphians.
  1. Robust school choice has put a lot of pressure on traditional public schools. Nashville school leaders have long complained that the city’s growing charter sector is siphoning off funding from its other schools. But Memphis has a more acute problem. Its schools are struggling with low enrollment in an increasingly fragmented public education landscape. Half of the schools in the state-run Achievement School District are operating below capacity, while nearly a third of Shelby County Schools are grappling with under-enrollment. The challenge is forcing both districts to close schools — disrupting families and educators alike.
  1. School voucher legislation has historically fizzled in Tennessee, but advocates hope this year will break the pattern. 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. A proposal went the furthest it’s ever gone last year, only to be pulled on the House floor at the last minute when the sponsor realized he was just short of the votes he needed. 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 with Trump in the White House, voucher proponents are enthusiastic about its chances this year.
  1. If vouchers are introduced, private schools are on the fence about accepting them. A Vanderbilt University researcher found in 2014 that most private schools in Memphis weren’t interested in participating. And private school leaders have been reluctant to commit on more current proposals too. Not only would they not be allowed to charge more than the $7,000 voucher value that’s being proposed, accepting public funding would open them up to regulations and state testing. A key question about Trump’s proposal is whether the U.S. Department of Education would require states to include accountability rules in their voucher programs.

Correction: March 15, 2017: This story has been corrected to show that about a third of Shelby County Schools are grappling with under-enrollment. A previous version incorrectly reported that 70 percent of the district’s schools struggle with that challenge.

changeup

School vouchers hit snag in Tennessee as sponsor announces he won’t advance bill

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

The push to allow some Tennesseans to use private-school vouchers has hit a roadblock that could stall voucher legislation for a fourth year.

Sen. Brian Kelsey said Monday that he won’t ask a Senate committee to take up his bill — which would pilot a program in Memphis — when the legislature reconvenes its two-year session in January.

“I listen to my community. Right now, there’s not enough parental support,” the Germantown Republican lawmaker told Chalkbeat after sharing the news with Shelby County’s legislative delegation.

Rep. Harry Brooks, who sponsors the proposal in the House, did not immediately return phone calls about whether he will seek a new Senate sponsor. Kelsey would not comment if he would support the legislation if another state senator picked up the mantle.

Kelsey’s retreat calls into question the future of the voucher legislation in Tennessee, home to a perennial tug-of-war over whether to allow parents to use public money to pay for private school tuition. It also comes as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has focused national attention on the policy.

This year, the proposal reached as far as the Senate finance committee and a House finance subcommittee before Brooks asked to delay a vote until 2018. At the time, he cited the need to work out details about private school accountability, specifically for high school students.

Kelsey said Monday he would not withdraw the bill or his sponsorship, but also doesn’t plan to bring the measure to a vote in the finance committee, which would halt the proposal in its tracks unless a new sponsor comes aboard.

This week’s development signals that the momentum for vouchers may be shifting for now.

Nationally, recent studies show that achievement dropped, at least initially, for students using vouchers in Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio and Washington, D.C. And in Tennessee, one group that has lobbied annually for vouchers is taking a step back from the issue, according to its executive director.

“I can tell you that Campaign for School Equity will not be pursuing or supporting any voucher legislation this year. It’s a shift in focus for us …,” Mendell Grinter said, adding that the Memphis-based black advocacy group is switching emphasis to student discipline and other issues of more concern to its supporters.

Even so, DeVos urged Tennessee lawmakers to pass vouchers during her first visit to the state last month. “Too many students today … are stuck in schools that are not working for them,” she told reporters. (The U.S. Department of Education cannot mandate voucher programs, but could offer incentives to states to pass them.)

Vouchers have passed three times in Tennessee’s Senate, only to stall each time in the House. Proponents had thought that limiting vouchers to Memphis would garner the legislative support needed this year, but the Kelsey-Brooks bill didn’t sit well in the city that would be most impacted. Opposition swelled among county commissioners, local legislators, and numerous school boards across Greater Memphis.

During discussions Monday with Shelby County lawmakers, Bartlett Superintendent David Stephens said vouchers would be a blow to districts already unsteady from years of reform efforts.

“Any time we take dollars out of public schools, we’re hurting public schools,” Stephens told Chalkbeat later. “We don’t need to do anything to hurt or cut funding there. When we talk in Shelby County about school choice, we have the municipal districts, charter schools, the county school system. That’s choice.”

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, said opposition from the Bartlett district appeared to carry more weight with Kelsey than did Shelby County Schools, which has publically been on the record against the legislation from the start.

“Challenges (that Stephens) talked about were challenges we’ve been screaming about from SCS’ standpoint for years,” Parkinson said.

Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican who has championed vouchers for years, said he’ll be disappointed if a bill doesn’t come up for a vote in 2018. “The whole reason for vouchers is to give a chance to these kids who are doomed unless they get in a different educational environment,” he said.

Tennessee’s legislature reconvenes on Jan. 9.

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.

She's here!

Betsy DeVos tours school during her first Tennessee visit as education chief

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos talks with students during a 2017 tour of career and technical education programs at Oakland High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

In her first official stop in Tennessee as secretary of education, Betsy DeVos praised career and technical education at a traditional public school, but also put in a good word for vouchers in a state that has consistently eschewed them.

DeVos visited Oakland High School in Murfreesboro, a fast-growing university town south of Nashville, and spoke with students taking classes in health sciences, automotive technology and mechatronics.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich

She lauded the school for “addressing individual students’ needs and aptitudes and helping them to prepare for their adulthood very early on” — in partnership with regional industries that are heavy on healthcare and automobile production.

But even as she praised instruction happening at Oakland, DeVos encouraged Tennessee lawmakers to approve a voucher program. Vouchers would allow parents to use public funding to send their children to private schools, despite recent studies showing that student achievement dropped, at least initially, for students making that leap in Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio and Washington, D.C.

“I think empowering parents to make the right decision for their children is important, no matter what state and no matter what community,” she told reporters when asked about Tennessee’s perennial tug-of-war over vouchers. “We have far too many students today that are stuck in schools that are not working for them and parents that don’t have the opportunity to make a different decision.”

Since becoming the nation’s education chief in February under President Donald Trump, DeVos has been tasked mainly with overseeing the new federal education law that shifts most decision-making back to states. With her diminished authority, she is using her position as a bully pulpit to promote policies that she favors, including expanding school choices for families. She is a big proponent of charter and virtual schools and using vouchers or tax credits to go to private or church-run schools.

While Tennessee has more than a hundred charter schools and a few virtual schools, its legislature has consistently shied away from vouchers. Lawmakers will take up the matter again in January with a proposal that would pilot a program in Memphis, home to a large concentration of low-performing schools that local and state initiatives are attempting to turn around.

At least one longtime voucher proponent told Chalkbeat that the prognosis isn’t good for passage in 2018 in the House of Representatives, where the proposals have stalled each year.

“I would hope that the politicians would put the kids first, but kids don’t vote. Public school employees do, so I’m not as optimistic,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican who has sponsored voucher legislation in the past.

One reason might be districts like Rutherford County Schools, where DeVos visited on Wednesday. Last spring, school board members there urged their representatives to oppose vouchers through a resolution that says vouchers “hurt the free public education system, divert limited state education dollars to private interests, and have been shown to hurt the academic progress of students.”

DeVos came to Tennessee in conjunction with the National Summit on Education Reform, which kicks off on Thursday in Nashville. The annual event is hosted by her friend Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida. DeVos will deliver a keynote address.

About 1,100 education leaders and influencers from across the nation are scheduled to attend the summit and — as has happened frequently when DeVos comes to a city  — several teachers unions are planning a protest against what they call her “anti-public education agenda.” DeVos was among the most controversial picks for Trump’s cabinet, in part because the Michigan billionaire came to the job with little experience with public schools.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
DeVos talks with health science students at Oakland.

At Oakland High School, the faculty, students and administrators who showed DeVos around said they hoped she came away from their campus with a greater appreciation for what goes on there.

“We’re public education, and we do it right,” said principal Bill Spurlock.

Brianna Bivins, a junior, added that she doubts a private school could offer the health sciences classes that she takes at Oakland. “It’s good for her to see this kind of class,” she said of DeVos. “It gives a good perspective of our public schools.”