moving on

Memphis voucher pilot plan clears first full House committee

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students, parents and activists against tuition vouchers fill a committee room at the State Capitol, where a House education committee later voted to advance a bill that would start a voucher program in Shelby County. Attendees included the children (above) of Stephanie Love, a member of the Shelby County Board of Education.

A bill that would use Memphis as a testing ground for tuition vouchers is one step closer to becoming law after clearing a key committee on Tuesday.

After a fierce, two-hour debate largely between Memphis-area lawmakers, the measure passed 8-5 in the House Education Administration and Planning Committee.

The proposal still has to clear the House Government Operations and Finance committees before heading to the House floor. Vouchers have never passed the full House before, although a different statewide voucher bill came close last year. In the Senate, which has approved a voucher program three times, the bill is awaiting consideration by the Senate finance panel.

This year, proponents hope that a more cautious rollout, which would pilot vouchers for students attending Shelby County Schools before going statewide, will help eke the measure through.

Tuesday’s impassioned debate likely foreshadowed showdowns in the coming weeks, pitting lawmakers who think more Memphis parents need private school options against those who are concerned vouchers would hurt public schools. The audience was packed with Memphis parents, students and teachers who had traveled to the Capitol for a second straight week to voice their opposition.

While the bill’s geographic focus might be a selling point for legislators elsewhere in the state, it has Shelby County lawmakers from both sides of the aisle irate. Most elected officials overseeing schools in Shelby County are on the record against a voucher bill, especially one aimed exclusively at their community.

“Now you want to come into my county and you want to institute some voucher program that you’re not sure is going to work,” said Rep. Ron Lollar, a Republican from Bartlett, a suburb of Memphis. “I would implore my fellow members that if you want vouchers, include your own county.”

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Senate sponsor Brian Kelsey (center) joins the crowd assembling before Tuesday’s House committee vote.

But voucher supporters said Memphis has the greatest need for more education reform tools because it has the highest number of the state’s “priority schools” in the bottom 5 percent.

Rep. Mark White, a Republican and one of the few Memphis lawmakers who supports the bill, said too many students are leaving local schools without the skills to support themselves and escape poverty.

“I think Memphis is the greatest city in the state,” White said, “but we cannot let our children come out of our schools with proper credentials, and that’s where we are.”

Rep. John DeBerry, a Memphis Democrat, spoke at length about his belief that more Memphis children could be lifted out of poverty if given the chance to attend a private school.

“With all due respect to my colleague, I don’t deal in anecdotes, I deal in facts,” said Rep. Raumesh Akbari, another Memphis Democrat. “And I’ve yet to see facts that vouchers are doing anything to help children. … I’ve always kept an open mind, but this is where I draw the line.”

Chairman Harry Brooks, a Knoxville Republican and the bill’s lead sponsor, said that while recent research has called vouchers into question, Tennessee has shown that it can be successful with bold education reforms, including Tennessee Promise, which provides high school students with two free years of community college.

“The reality is we have a track record of developing programs unique to Tennessee that are successful,” he said.

But third-grade student Da’Zyria Love, whose mother, Stephanie, is a board member for Shelby County Schools, said that public education in Memphis was being unfairly portrayed.

“I learn figurative language, brainstorming, and personification,” said Da’Zyria, who is in the district’s gifted program. “I have lived in a neighborhood infested with gangs, drugs and all types of crap, but I live in a home with a mother who makes sure I have what I need.”

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.”

Social studies switch

At 11th hour, lawmakers mandate a whole semester of Tennessee history, but don’t specify where it will fit

PHOTO: Malia, Flickr

Tennessee students will have to take a whole semester of state history after all — but no one knows in what grade.

In the waning hours of the legislative session, the House this week approved the change, only days after its sponsor had said he was going to wait until 2018 to hash out the details. The Senate already had passed the measure, which does not specify the grade level for the course.

Now, the state will have to adjust social studies standards that already have gone through a significant amount of review and are one vote from final approval by the State Board of Education. It’s uncertain what that will entail, but board leaders pledged their cooperation.

“The State Board of Education will partner with the Department of Education to ensure that the social studies standards are in full compliance with any new state law before they are heard on final reading at the Board’s July 2017 meeting,” said executive director Sara Heyburn Morrison in a statement.

The law will go into effect for the 2018-19 school year, the year before the new standards, which were supposedly finished, are scheduled to reach classrooms.

One of the reasons for the state’s social studies review, which began in January 2016, was the large number of standards that teachers were struggling to cover. The review panel worked to winnow those down to a more manageable amount and did not include a separate semester for Tennessee history.

To eke the bill through, House leaders amended another bill to include the mandate. Rep. Art Swann, the House sponsor, said Thursday that he was glad not to put off the measure until next year.

“We’re still going to have to wait for implementation, which will take a year or two to get done,”  said the Maryville Republican.

Swann said he didn’t discuss the changes with the State Department of Education. “The Senate sent me the language, and it was fine with me and that’s what we ran with,” he said.

Eight of the nine members of the Standards Recommendation Committee who vetted the proposed new standards believe they allow teachers to go in-depth on important historical topics. But member Bill Carey, who sells Tennessee history materials through his nonprofit Tennessee History for Kids, voted against some of the standards. He was mostly concerned with the reduction of Tennessee historical facts in grades 1-5.

Architects of the new standards say teachers still could cover such topics, but that decisions about how should be made at the local level.

Called the Douglas Henry History Act, the legislation mandating the course is named after the longtime state senator from Nashville who died in March.