Doing the math

As lawmakers scrutinize the price tag of school vouchers in Memphis, here’s a cost breakdown

PHOTO: The Commercial Appeal
Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown has been a passionate supporter of vouchers his entire legislative career. He says that concerns about cost are overblown.

If the legislature votes to pilot school vouchers in Memphis, the state will have to spend about $45,000 on envelopes and stamps to get the word out to eligible families.

But the vast majority of the cost for the five-year pilot would fall on districts that operate in Memphis — and that could be more than double the $18 million that’s been cited.

The House Finance Committee is scheduled to vote Wednesday on the bill, and the Senate finance panel is to weigh in next week. Their role is to consider the cost of the program to taxpayers.

They’ll pick up questions that state lawmakers have been hashing out for six years, all with money at the center. Would vouchers drain too much money from public schools? Would taxpayer dollars be well spent on private schools?

What follows is the full text of the “fiscal note,” which outlines the price as estimated by the Tennessee General Assembly Fiscal Review Committee. It itemizes highly debated costs such as the $7,000-per-student voucher for up to 5,000 students, but also details unexpected costs, such as thousands of dollars for postage to inform Memphis families about the option of using public money to pay for private school tuition beginning in the fall of 2018.

We’ve annotated the fiscal note to include links to our past coverage and context. Click on the highlighted passages to read our annotations.


ESTIMATED FISCAL IMPACT: Increase State Expenditures – Exceeds $330,400/FY17-18 $230,400/FY18-19 and Subsequent Years

Other Fiscal Impact – For local education agencies that have schools in the bottom five percent of achievement and are mandated to participate in the statewide scholarship program, the shift of state and required local BEP funding from these local education agencies to the non-public participating schools is estimated as follows: $8,867,500 in FY17-18; $13,633,100 in FY18- 19; $18,632,500 in FY19-20; and an amount exceeding $18,632,500 in FY18-19 and subsequent years.

Assumptions relative to state expenditures:

 The DOE will require two new positions to administer the program beginning in FY17-18. One position will require a salary of $80,124 with benefits of $20,219; a total of $100,343. One position will require a salary of $67,008 with benefits of $18,043; a total of $85,051.

 The total recurring increase in state expenditures for personnel is estimated to be $185,394 ($100,343 + $85,051).

 Pursuant to § 49-1-1205 of the proposed bill, the DOE shall notify parents of student eligibility and participating schools. Though the exact number of eligible students is unknown; based on information from the DOE, it is estimated that the Department will notify at least 65,000 students annually of the pilot program.

 Based on information from DOE, the recurring increase in state expenditures to notify eligible students and participating schools through mailings and brochures is estimated to be $45,000.

Other Fiscal Impact – For local education agencies that have schools in the bottom five percent of achievement and are mandated to participate in the statewide scholarship program, the shift of state and required local BEP funding from these local education agencies to the non-public participating schools is estimated as follows: $8,867,500 in FY17-18; $13,633,100 in FY18- 19; $18,632,500 in FY19-20; and an amount exceeding $18,632,500 in FY18-19 and subsequent years.

Assumptions relative to state expenditures:

 Based on information from the DOE, the Department will require a new online portal system for receiving and processing student applications. The Department confirms a thirdparty contract vendor will be required to develop the new portal system. Though the exact cost for developing such system is unknown; the one-time increase in state expenditures for software development is estimated to exceed $100,000. Such expenses will be incurred in FY17-18.

 The total increase in state expenditures in FY17-18 is estimated to exceed $330,394 ($185,394 + $45,000 + $100,000).

 The total recurring increase in state expenditures beginning in FY18-19 is estimated to be $230,394 ($185,394 + $45,000).

Assumptions relative to enrollment, scholarship amounts, and program estimates:

 The scholarship pilot program will begin in the fall of 2017.

 Based on information from DOE, Shelby County Schools will be the sole location of the pilot program based on the achievement scores of all LEAs in FY15-16. 3 SB 161 – HB 126

 Though the exact number of annually participating students is unknown, it is reasonably estimated that a minimum of 25 percent of the cap for the pilot program will be filled each year beginning in FY17-18.

 For the purposes of this fiscal note, the required state and local BEP expenditures are utilized as the scholarship amount with an estimated scholarship growth of 2.5 percent annually.

 Statewide Program Student Enrollment Estimates:

 In FY17-18, an estimated 1,250 students will participate.

 In FY18-19, an estimated 1,875 students will participate.

 In FY19-20, an estimated 2,500 students will participate.

 In FY20-21 and subsequent years, over 2,500 students will participate.

 Statewide Program Scholarship Estimates:

 In FY17-18, the scholarship is estimated to be $7,094 (the average 2016-2017 per pupil expenditure).

 In FY18-19, the scholarship is estimated to be $7,271 ($7,094 x 1.025%) per pupil.

 In FY19-20, the scholarship is estimated to be $7,453 ($7,271 x 1.025%) per pupil.

 In FY20-21 and subsequent years, the scholarship is estimated to exceed $7,453 per pupil.

 Total Statewide Program Estimates:

 In FY17-18, an estimated $8,867,500 ($7,094 x 1,250 students) will shift from LEAs to participating schools.

 In FY18-19, an estimated $13,633,125 ($7,271 x 1,875 students) will shift from LEAs to participating schools.

 In FY19-20, an estimated $18,632,500 ($7,453 x 2,500 students) will shift from LEAs to participating schools.

 In FY20-21 and subsequent years, an amount estimated to exceed $18,632,500 will shift from LEAs to participating schools.

Assumptions relative to LEA fund retention:

 The BEP maintenance of effort requires that local government continue to fund their LEA at the same level year-to-year unless there is a decrease in enrollment.

 Participating students will continue to be counted in LEA enrollment numbers, and LEAs will be required to continue providing funding based on the enrollment numbers that include participating students.

 A majority of LEAs are currently funding their students above and beyond the BEP local match requirement. This amount varies widely by LEA, but according to DOE, the average amount that LEAs will retain in FY17-18 is $1,279 per pupil. This amount is estimated to increase at an average growth rate of 2.5 percent annually in each subsequent year.

 Each year, students leave and enter LEAs. As a result, LEAs adjust expenditures, teachers, facilities, and other items to meet the change in student population.

 LEAs will be able to use retained funding to offset any increase in local government expenditures or to use at their discretion for some other purpose.

CERTIFICATION: The information contained herein is true and correct to the best of my knowledge. Krista M. Lee, Executive Director

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 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.”