Capitol Hill

Vouchers have dominated Tennessee’s ed debate for years, but won’t in 2018. Here’s why — and what could come next.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The State Capitol in Nashville is home to the Tennessee General Assembly.

When Tennessee lawmakers convene on Tuesday for the first time in 2018, one big issue isn’t expected to be on the education agenda: school vouchers.

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

For 11 straight years, Brian Kelsey has asked his fellow legislators to let parents use taxpayer money to send their students to private schools. But not this year.

Last month, the Republican state senator — himself a product of private schools — quietly told other Memphis-area leaders that he didn’t plan to pursue his voucher bill in 2018.

His co-sponsor in the House confirmed that he, too, was pulling the plug on their bill, considered the frontrunner this year. “The votes just aren’t there. That’s a simple fact,” said Rep. Harry Brooks, a Knoxville Republican who will retire from his seat this year.

The about-face comes after years of tweaking voucher proposals to make them more palatable to lawmakers from across the state — and coming close. Last year, for example, a bill that would have launched a pilot program in Memphis gained early support before stalling over disagreement about how to hold private schools accountable for academic results.

“We tried it statewide. We tried it in Memphis only. We tried it all kinds of ways. But it always falls flat,” said Rep. Roger Kane, a Knoxville Republican and voucher proponent. “I just don’t think anybody wants to champion it this year.”

What’s behind the dramatic shift? Here are four explanations — and a look at why the climate could change again next year.

1. Vouchers are no longer the only game in town when it comes to paying for private school with taxpayer money.

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have voucher programs right now. But discussion about starting new ones has slowed in most U.S. statehouses, said Micah Ann Wixom, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States.

Instead, Wixom said, momentum is shifting to other strategies.

“I suspect we’re going to see more movement in the future around education savings accounts and tax credit scholarships,” she said.

Both of those programs also would allow public dollars to flow to private education services, either by establishing state-funded education savings accounts for parents to manage, or using a tax incentive program to give parents more options.

Kane proposed one such approach last year, but it didn’t catch on. He said the appetite to pursue those ideas is diminished this year, too.

“No matter what name you want to give it, I don’t think we’ll be looking at vouchers this year,” he said.

Federal lawmakers might have just reduced pressure for local ones to act. That’s because the new federal tax law allows families to use education savings accounts known as 529s to set aside tuition money that is sheltered from federal taxes. Previously, those accounts could be used only for higher education costs.

2. Tennessee families have more options than they used to.

When voucher-like bills began emerging routinely in Tennessee’s legislature in 2006, the state hovered at the low end of national rankings and offered few options for parents who weren’t happy with their public schools.

But a lot has changed since then. Based on 2013 and 2015 scores on a national exam known as the Nation’s Report Card, Tennessee is considered one of America’s fastest-improving states in reading and math. And in cities like Nashville and especially Memphis, which has the state’s highest concentration of low-performing schools, a plethora of tuition-free options have emerged for families who previously felt stuck.

“Today, Memphis has a ton of charter schools and Innovation Zone schools,” said Kane, who chairs a key education subcommittee in the House. “Vouchers work great when there are no options, but I think they may have lost some of their allure.”

3. The research isn’t helping the case for vouchers.

A decade of debate in Tennessee has provided time for evidence to add up on vouchers’ effectiveness elsewhere. But the growing body of research is mixed, at best.

The underwhelming data has contributed to bipartisan opposition to vouchers in Tennessee, according to Rep. Mike Stewart, a Nashville Democrat and voucher critic. “It’s gotten pretty easy to argue against them,” he said.

Kane acknowledges that the evidence from other states suggests that vouchers are hardly a magic bullet to improve education.

“In Louisiana, it hasn’t done what it’s supposed to do,” he said. “Indiana has had better results, but nobody’s education system has just taken off with vouchers.”

4. Some voucher advocacy may be backfiring.

Some proponents thought having a powerful ally in charge in Washington would bolster their cause when President Donald Trump picked Betsy DeVos as his education secretary.

But even though DeVos has used her platform to lobby for voucher and choice programs, the Michigan billionaire’s unpopularity as a cabinet pick may have actually weakened the voucher movement instead of galvanizing it, according to Stewart.

“Secretary DeVos is essentially an avowed enemy of public schools, and I think her views are out of step with the views of most Americans,” Stewart said. “People pay taxes for expensive school facilities. Who wants to pay for a new gym and then have money siphoned away to private schools? People aren’t stupid.”

Kane said lawmakers heard those fears from people across the state last year, even though the proposal on the table at the time would have limited vouchers to Memphis, where local officials didn’t want them either.

“Even legislators who were truly conservative were split,” said Kane.

On the horizon

The legislative session that starts this week is the second half of a two-year General Assembly that started in 2017. When the next legislature starts fresh in January 2019, Capitol Hill will look very different.

Tennesseans will vote this year for a new governor and fill more than 20 open seats in its 132-member legislature. Voucher advocates say they hope whoever is elected will take up the mantle of legislation aimed at “school choice.”

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Rep. Harry Brooks, who chairs a education committee in the House, is retiring this year.

“I think it’s best left to the new governor and new legislature,” Brooks said last week as Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, a voucher supporter, began his last year in office. “There’s a freshness when you have a new administration.”

One thing that’s clear: Voucher advoctes such as Tommy Schultz say they aren’t giving up. His group, the American Federation for Children, is tuned in to what’s holding voucher legislation back in Tennessee — and what could change in the future.

“We know that any serious K-12 reform efforts requires thoughtful and deliberate consideration during a legislative session, and this upcoming one will simply be too abbreviated to entertain a robust discussion,” said Schultz, a national spokesman for the AFC, which DeVos once chaired and has helped to bankroll.

But he pointed out that school choice legislation can move forward under surprising circumstances — such as in Illinois last year where a legislature dominated by Democrats created a massive tax-credit scholarship program.

“We understand,” Schultz said, “that lightning can strike at any time.”

Education Inequalities

Is Michigan ready for a ‘grand bargain’ to improve its struggling education system?

PHOTO: Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat
Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of the Grand Rapids school district, speaks during a panel discussion that also featured, from left, Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and former U.S. Education Secretary John King.

A new political dynamic in Lansing has put Michigan in a position to potentially see the kind of education transformation that helped catapult Massachusetts to its status as the top-performing state in the nation, says a former U.S. Secretary of Education.

That bit of optimism from John King, who served as education secretary from 2016 to 2017 and is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, came after nearly three hours of sobering discussion during an event Wednesday about the need to address inequities in education in Michigan.

Several times, King used the term “grand bargain” to describe what Michigan needs. It’s a term many Detroiters will remember from the Detroit bankruptcy and the deal that was a key part of getting the city out of bankruptcy.

As it relates to education, the term “grand bargain” has been used to refer to the bipartisan agreement struck more than two decades ago in Massachusetts that had broad buy-in from business and education groups, teachers, and parents, to improve academic achievement. The gist: The state invested more money in schools. In return, standards and accountability were increased.

King said Michigan is poised to reach the same consensus and invest more money in education, in particular investing money more equitably so the highest-need students are getting the most funding. He said there needs to be a thoughtful approach to accountability, as well as more investments in teacher preparation and support.

He sees it happening because of new leadership at the state level, including Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and new Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

“This is a moment where the new leadership in Lansing could come together … and it could be truly transformative.”

The event Wednesday, which took place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was organized by the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education advocacy and research organization. The topic was inequities in education and the need to provide equitable opportunities for children regardless on where they live.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the organization, said Michigan ranks 43rd out of 47 states for the funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts.

“Students and families pay the price for this under-investment,” Arellano said.

She said the experiences of states like Massachusetts that have seen striking improvement provide hope for Michigan because they show transformation can happen over five to 10 years.

Michigan has been falling behind other states in performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam that tests a representative sample of students in each state. The state’s performance, in fact, has shown little to no improvement over the last decade.

“We rise and we fall together. In Michigan’s case, we’re falling together,” Arellano said.

The audience at the event’s two panel discussions also heard from speakers such as Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit school district. He said that often, when K-12 educators talk about the need for more resources, “you see the rolling eyes of lawmakers.”

But, Vitti said, “It takes funding to educate children. And it takes more funding to educate children who enter … with more challenges.”

Panelists agreed that Michigan is at a pivotal moment because of its new leadership. And they came up with solutions they think will make a difference.

Melody Arabo, outreach specialist at EdReports.org and former Michigan Teacher of the Year, said the state needs to address a lack of resources for educators. She said that in a classroom of 30 students, a teacher can have some reading at the kindergarten level and others “who can read better than I can.”

The materials that teachers have “are not meeting those needs. Teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week going online looking for resources.”

David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy, said Michigan should look at what successful states have done and adopt best practices. Just as important, he said:“Stick with it. Don’t change it every year.”

For King, the solution to improving schools is simple and starts at a young age.

“If Michigan is going to improve, it will need a surge in high quality early learning that prepares every child for kindergarten or beyond,” King said.

 

Accountable

New York is about to release a new list of struggling schools. Here’s what you should know.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School.

New York officials are gearing up to announce which schools are low-performing enough to need intervention from the state — the first time schools will be identified under a sweeping new accountability system.

Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, signed in 2015 by President Barack Obama, states got more leeway to figure out which schools are underperforming and how to support those that don’t measure up and even have some say in what metrics should go into that determination.

Now, after years of planning and incorporating feedback from educators, parents, and policy experts, state officials are finally about to say which schools are considered struggling under the new framework. A school’s standing with the state can have big implications: It can steer parents toward some schools or away from others and can result in more stringent oversight by the state and escalating consequences for schools — theoretically including closure, although this threat has seldom materialized — if they don’t show eventual improvement.

The state’s new approach is designed to emphasize criteria beyond test scores and graduation rates, factors that were weighted heavily under No Child Left Behind, the 2002 law that previously governed school ratings nationwide. Although those measures will still predominate, New York is now free to elevate several other metrics to capture a more nuanced portrait of schools.

New jargon will replace labels that once defined levels of performance — such as “priority” or “focus” schools. (New York City at one point assigned letter grades to individual schools, but the state never embraced such report cards, which it will continue to avoid.)

As the state is set to release the new ratings, here’s what you should know about the new system, the new terminology for schools that measure up or don’t, and how it could affect schools in the city and across the state.

How will schools now qualify as struggling?

One of the biggest changes is a greater emphasis on student growth. Under the old framework, the state focused primarily on absolute thresholds on state exams — such as whether a student was proficient in reading by the fourth grade.

Schools will now receive separate ratings for growth and proficiency on a 1-4 scale; if their combined rating on those measures is still considered a “1” — an indication the school is among the bottom 10 percent statewide — the school can be designated as needing extra intervention. (In addition to reading and math, science exams will now be included in the overall proficiency rating.)

The emphasis on growth is designed to encourage schools to consider the needs of all students — not just those on the cusp of proficiency, whom some schools used to concentrate on under the old system in hopes of inching these students over the proficiency threshold.

Schools will also get more credit for making progress even if students remain below the proficiency cutoff for multiple years, a recognition that students who start off substantially behind aren’t realistically going to hit targets immediately but should show continued improvement.

Depending on how schools perform on those academic measures, other new metrics will also kick in, such as how much academic progress schools are producing among English learners and rates of chronic absenteeism, defined as the share of a school’s students who miss 10 percent or more of the academic year; in time, New York also intends to factor in student suspensions.

For high schools, getting students to graduate is still the major benchmark. But state officials are placing less emphasis on the four-year graduation rate and will be looking instead at whether 67 percent of students graduate between four and six years. This threshold is significantly below the current citywide average. Schools that still can’t clear this relatively low bar will automatically face state oversight, which has raised concerns among alternative schools that serve students who are unlikely to graduate on time (though individual schools may appeal).

The state will also look at how prepared students are for college or career once they graduate, including how many earn an advanced diploma, career certificates, or take accelerated coursework.

What are the consequences of not measuring up?

State officials say that the new framework is meant to move away from severe consequences to support.

“This is not about naming and shaming schools,” said Ira Shwartz, an associate commissioner at the state’s education department.

As a result, ESSA is is introducing all new terminology, without the punitive connotations of the past, for the four new broad bands of school performance. At the bottom, representing schools that will receive the most oversight from the state, are Comprehensive Support and Improvement Schools, followed by those needing Targeted Support and Improvement.

Schools in these bottom two tiers will be required to submit self-assessments that explain the ways their schools are falling short and craft a plan, including “evidence-based” approaches — such as “looping,”  the practice of having the same teachers stay with a cohort of students for multiple years, state officials said — and additional teacher training. Schools in the bottom-most tier must also set aside at least $2,000, a fund that students and families can vote on how to use in a process known as “participatory budgeting.”

If these interventions don’t lead to progress, schools then have to submit more detailed information to the state and may receive help from outside organizations. After three years of insufficient progress, schools already in the bottom tier can end up in a separate, existing program known as Receivership. It gives districts more latitude to restructure schools by making staff changes that may involve sidestepping union rules, the only scenario under the state’s new framework that calls for potential personnel changes. And two years after that, schools that continue to miss their goals could face takeover or closure.

Schools in the “targeted” support category, or second-lowest rung, will face less direct oversight from the state and will be identified primarily on whether a specific subgroup of students — such as different racial groups, students with disabilities or English learners — are particularly low-performing. The idea is to coax schools to reduce the performance disparities that can exist between subsets of students. Local districts will primarily oversee the improvement plans of these schools (instead of the state). This year, only schools identified under the old accountability system are eligible for “targeted” support, state officials said, though schools across the state will be eligible next year.

Will any schools actually face severe consequences for not meeting New York’s ESSA goals?

Probably not.

Even under the old, more stringent system, officials were reluctant to pursue overhauls of specific schools. The state’s education department has steadily reduced the number of schools in the current Receivership program, for instance, and has moved to close just one school in New York City in recent years. 

Without big consequences will schools have an incentive to work to improve?

Some of the plan’s supporters insist yes, saying ESSA will nudge schools to pay attention to a wider range of factors, such as chronic absenteeism and student growth, that can have an impact on student performance, increasing the chances they will be addressed.

Ian Rosenblum, the executive director of the advocacy organization Education Trust-NY, who has followed the development of the new accountability system closely, thinks schools will respond. “When the state says that it is going to hold schools accountable for student achievement plus other important outcomes like college and career readiness and reducing suspensions and chronic absenteeism, it sends a powerful and valuable message about where schools and districts should focus their energy,” he said.

But given the new system’s complexity and unfamiliarity — all the new jargon and strategies educators must grapple with after more than a dozen years of No Child Left Behind, which was also greeted with optimism — it’s not clear if school leaders have an appetite for this new matrix of assessments. Also unclear: how long it might realistically take before schools can pinpoint and execute interventions that can help move the needle.

Al Marlin, a spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association, said in an emailed statement that “while the process for making these determinations is complex, it may need to be so in order to account for the broad variety of local circumstances and student needs in schools around New York.”

State officials plan to create a dashboard that summarizes a school’s benchmarks so parents understand how their school stacks up, but it is not clear when that will be publicly released.

What about schools that decide to boycott state exams?

It’s possible that schools where more than 5 percent of students sit out state exams over multiple years will eventually have to come up with a plan to boost test participation. But officials said there are no other consequences for high opt-out rates, and they would likely have little impact in New York City, where relatively few students boycott the tests.