vouchers flounder

Once considered a sure thing, vouchers fizzle in Tennessee legislature

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville looks straight ahead after tabling his voucher bill in 2016.

A bill that until recently seemed assured to introduce school vouchers in Tennessee flew off the table Thursday morning after its chief advocate realized it would not pass.

Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville shocked allies and opponents alike when he announced on the floor of the House of Representatives that he would not bring the voucher legislation to a vote. The bill, which would have allowed poor students in low-performing schools to use public funding to pay private school tuition, had come closer than ever to passing after six years of review.

“There’s no reason to have four hours of debate if I don’t have the votes,” Dunn explained later.

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Lawmakers had arrived at the state Capitol in Nashville anticipating a long debate. Some even brought a bevy of snack foods to sustain them through the discourse.

But a tense exchange with a leading opponent early in the day revealed Dunn’s reservations. He rode the elevator to the House floor with Jim Wrye, the lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, which has fiercely argued that vouchers do not help students who use them while also draining money from public school systems.

Dunn, unsmiling, gauged opposition to the bill by asking Wrye how many legislators the lobbyist was still trying to convince to vote against it.

“I don’t know. Not many. You?” Wrye asked.

“Not many,” Dunn said, indicating that the vote would be close.

Moments later, Dunn announced to his colleagues that he did not feel comfortable bringing the bill to a vote.

“I’ve been carrying this bill I guess for four years,” Dunn said, voice strained with emotion. He indicted opponents of the legislation as uncaring. “In four years, I’ve received thousands of emails and phone calls, and they’ve all said, ‘Don’t take our money.’ But never once have they said, ‘Don’t take our kids.’”

The surprise decision leaves the future of vouchers in Tennessee in the air. The legislation enjoyed unprecedented momentum this year, making it to the House floor for the first time after being passed in the state Senate three out of six years.

That momentum shifted in recent days. Lawmakers filed last-minute amendments that would limit vouchers to Shelby County in Memphis and to introduce rules that would reduce incentives for private schools to accept the vouchers.

“The momentum’s not there,” Dunn told Chalkbeat later. Asked if the voucher legislation is off the table for the year, he said, “In my opinion, it is. … I don’t think people want to bring it back.”

Dunn attributed the tide shifting this week to “the lies from the other side that put doubt in other people’s heads.” He specifically cited the Tennessee Education Association, the state teacher association, also known as TEA.

“The whole path of this bill has been attacked by lies — lies that said there was no accountability when the bill actually said that there was,” Dunn said. “They said this had never worked before when there are dozens of studies that show that it has. So truth didn’t win out today.”

In fact, researchers haven’t reached consensus on the impact of vouchers on student achievement, which have been pushed by advocates of free markets and limited government since the 1950s, and have been implemented in some states since the early 1990s.

TEA Executive Director Carolyn Crowder said that “there are numerous studies that say it hasn’t (worked).” She said the bill’s seeming defeat was due to calls and emails from teachers, administrators, parents and “a broad coalition of public school supporters” to legislators asking them not to siphon off public school funding.

“The point is that the people of Tennessee did not want this legislation, and that’s why it went down,” she said.

While doubting that the bill will be resurrected this year, Dunn said it’s still possible if he can get the 50 votes necessary. “Technically, it is still alive on the desk and can be brought up,” he said.

Vouchers had never made it to the House floor before, although the proposal had become a fixture on the legislative agenda. The measure passed in the Senate last year during the first half of the legislative session, and Gov. Bill Haslam has said he would sign the legislation if it reached his desk.


Legislators from Shelby County were grateful for the turn of events. An amendment filed Wednesday to limit the program to Memphis caused an onslaught of calls and emails to their offices from constituents, concerned about the implications for Memphis schools.

“Obviously when you have a slew of amendments at the last minute that really change the bill, you really do need to slow things down,” said Rep. Raumesh Akbari, a Democrat. “I was surprised, but I am happy. Leadership in the Shelby County school system, legislators from Shelby County — I mean, we just got this amendment yesterday afternoon. We were still trying to digest it.”

“Being a 35-year teacher in Memphis City Schools, I know they are not failing schools,” said Rep. Barbara Cooper, another Memphis Democrat who has been a vocal opponent of vouchers. “Knowing that the people who make decisions do not live in Shelby County, have really had no contact with our children, … they shouldn’t experiment kids on Shelby County. That’s just not fair.”

But Dunn had a different perspective when asked whether Memphis students were being used as “guinea pigs” on education reform efforts.

“I feel sorry for the parents who have children in failing schools. All we did was try to help them and unfortunately for another year they’re going to be on the path to failure,” he said.

cooling off

New York City charter leader Eva Moskowitz says Betsy DeVos is not ‘ready for prime time’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz seemed to be cooling her support for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has been a lone voice of support for the controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But even Moskowitz appears to be cooling on the secretary following an embarrassing interview.

“I believe her heart is in the right place,” Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, said of DeVos at an unrelated press conference. “But as the recent interviews indicate, I don’t believe she’s ready for primetime in terms of answering all of the complex questions that need to be answered on the topic of public education and choice.”

That is an apparent reference to DeVos’s roundly criticized appearance on 60 Minutes, which recently aired a 30-minute segment in which the secretary admits she hasn’t visited struggling schools in her tenure. Even advocates of school choice, DeVos’s signature issue, called her performance an “embarrassment,” and “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at her.  

Moskowitz’s comments are an about-face from when the education secretary was first appointed. While the rest of the New York City charter school community was mostly quiet after DeVos was tapped for the position, Moskowitz was the exception, tweeting that she was “thrilled.” She doubled-down on her support months later in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

During Monday’s press conference, which Success Academy officials called to push the city for more space for its growing network, Moskowitz also denied rumors, fueled by a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten, that Success officials had recently met with members of the Trump administration.

Shortly after the election, Moskowitz met with Trump amid speculation she was being considered for the education secretary position. This time around, she said it was “untrue” that any visits had taken place.

“You all know that a while back, I was asked to meet with the president-elect. I thought it was important to take his call,” she said. “I was troubled at the time by the Trump administration. I’m even more troubled now. And so, there has been no such meeting.”

Civil action

Detroit school board to protesters: Please remain civil. Protesters to school board: You’re naive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore speaks with her supporters from the stage at Mumford High School. Her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to the meeting's abrupt ending.

A day after the Detroit school board abruptly ended a meeting that was disrupted by protesters, the meeting is being rescheduled, while the board president is making an appeal for civility.

“The board is extremely disappointed that the regularly scheduled meeting tonight was adjourned early due to extreme disruptive behavior from several audience members,” school board president Iris Taylor wrote in a statement issued late Tuesday, several hours after the meeting’s chaotic end.

“It is our hope moving forward that the community will remain civil and respectful of the elected Board and the process to conduct public meetings. We must be allowed to conduct the business the community elected us to do.”

The drama Tuesday night came from a large group of parents and community members, led by activist Helen Moore, who packed the board meeting to raise concerns about a number of issues.

Moore had sent the school board an email requesting an opportunity to address the meeting Tuesday on issues including her strong objection to the news that Taylor and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had attended a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and leaders of city charter schools to discuss the possibility of working together.

The mayor, in his state of the city address last week, discussed the meeting, calling it “almost historic,” and said district and charter school leaders had agreed to collaborate on a student transportation effort, and on a school rating system that would assign letter grades to Detroit district and charter schools.

When Taylor told Moore during the meeting that she would not be allowed to give her presentation Tuesday night, saying she had not gotten Moore’s request in time to put it on Tuesday’s agenda, Moore and her supporters angrily shouted at the board and proceeded to heckle and object to statements during the meeting.

The meeting was ultimately ended during a discussion about the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, a school whose classes are being relocated to other district buildings for the rest of the year because of urgent roof repairs and the possibility of mold in the building.

As Moore shouted over Vitti’s discussion about the school, Taylor ordered that the 81-year-old activist be escorted from the Mumford High School auditorium where the meeting was being held. That triggered an angry response from her supporters and ultimately brought the meeting to a close.

The current Detroit school board came into existence a little over a year ago when the state returned city schools to Detroiters after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The board’s swearing-in last January was heralded as a fresh start for a new district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — that had been freed from years of debts encumbered by the old Detroit Public Schools.

Since then, meetings have been interrupted by the occasional heckler or protester, but they’ve largely remained orderly, without a lot of the noise and drama that had been typical of school board meetings in the past.

In her statement Tuesday night, Taylor lamented that the new school board wasn’t able to get to most of the items on its agenda.

“Detroiters have fought long and hard to have a locally elected board to govern our schools,” Taylor wrote. “It would be shameful to have our rights revoked again for impediments. It sets a poor example for the students we all represent, and it will not be tolerated by this Board.”

Wednesday morning, Moore said she plans to continue her vocal advocacy, even if it’s disruptive.

“If that’s the only avenue we have to get our point across, when they don’t allow us to speak, then we must take every avenue,” Moore said. “Time is of the essence with our children. And they spend too much time with distractions, listening to the mayor, listening to the corporations, and not listening to people who have children in the public schools.”

Moore, who is active with an organization called Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition and with the National Action Network, said she fought for years for Detroiters to again have a locally elected school board. City residents did not have control of their schools for most of the last two decades.

“We worked like crazy,” Moore said, but she asserts that most school board members are “naive.”

“They don’t know the history,” she said. “They need to be educated and that goes for Dr. Vitti too. We need to educate them and that was a first start.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 12:30 p.m. Thursday at its Fisher Building headquarters where it can return to its unfinished business from Tuesday.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore waved to her fellow activisits from the stage at Mumford High School. She returned to the room after her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to a school board meeting’s abrupt ending on March 13, 2018.