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
Tennessee State Capitol

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.”

IPS School Board Race 2018

Indiana teachers union spends big on Indianapolis Public Schools in election

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
IPS board candidate signs

The political arm of Indiana’s largest teachers union is spending big on the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The group donated $68,400 to three candidates vying for seats on the board this November, according to pre-election campaign finance disclosures released Friday.

The three candidates — Susan Collins, Michele Lorbieski, and Taria Slack — have all expressed criticism of the current board and the leadership of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. Although that criticism touches on many issues, one particular bone of contention is the district’s embrace of innovation schools, independent campuses that are run by charter or nonprofit operators but remain under the district’s umbrella. Teachers at those schools are employed by the school operators, so they cannot join the union.

The trio was also endorsed by the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that has received funding from a national teachers union.

It’s not unusual for teachers unions to spend on school board elections. In 2016, the union contributed $15,000 to an unsuccessful at-large candidate for the Indianapolis Public Schools board. But $68,400 dwarfs that contribution. Those disclosures do not capture the full spending on the election. The three candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana — Mary Ann Sullivan, Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, and Evan Hawkins — are likely getting significant unreported benefits.

Stand for Children, which supports innovation schools, typically sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses. But it is not required to disclose all of its political activity because it is an independent expenditure committee, also known as a 501(c)(4), for the tax code section that covers it. The group did not immediately respond to a request for information on how much it is spending on this race.

The candidates’ fundraising varied widely in the reporting period, which covered the period from April 14 to Oct. 12, with Taria Slack bringing in $28,950 and Joanna Krumel raising $200. In recent years, candidates have been raising significantly more money than had been common. But one recent candidate managed to win on a shoestring: Elizabeth Gore won an at-large seat in 2016 after raising about $1,200.

Read more: See candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

One part of Stand for Children’s spending became visible this year when it gave directly to tax campaigns. The group contributed $188,842 to the campaign for two tax referendums to raise money for Indianapolis Public Schools. That includes a $100,000 donation that was announced in August and about $88,842 worth of in-kind contributions such as mailers. The group has a team of campaign workers who have been going door-to-door for months.

The district is seeking to persuade voters to support two tax increases. One would raise $220 million for operating funds, such as teacher salaries, over eight years. A second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements. Donations from Stand for Children largely power the Vote Yes for IPS campaign, which raised a total of $201,717. The Indiana teachers union also contributed $5,000.

Here are the details on how much each candidate has raised and some of the notable contributions:

At large

Incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan, a former Democrat state lawmaker, raised $7,054. Her largest contribution came from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which donated $4,670. She also received $1,000 from Steel House, a metal warehouse run by businessman Reid Litwack. She also received several donations of $250 or less.

Retired Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Susan Collins, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $16,422. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $15,000. She also received several donations of $200 or less.

Ceramics studio owner and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Joanna Krumel raised $200. Her largest contribution, $100, came from James W. Hill.

District 3

Marian University Executive Director of Facilities and Procurement and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Evan Hawkins raised $22,037. His largest contributions from individuals were from businessmen Allan Hubbard, who donated $5,000, and Litwack, who donated $2,500. The Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee contributed $4,670 and web design valued at $330. He also received several donations of $1,000 or less. His donors included IPS board member Venita Moore, retiring IPS board member Kelly Bentley’s campaign, and the CEO of The Mind Trust, Brandon Brown.

Frost Brown Todd trial attorney and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Michele Lorbieski, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $27,345. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $24,900. She also received several contributions of $250 or less.

Pike Township schools Director of Information Services Sherry Shelton raised $1,763, primarily from money she contributed. David Green contributed $116.

District 5

Incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an Indianapolis Public Schools parent, raised $16,006. Her largest contributors include Hubbard, who donated $5,000; the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which gave $4,670 and web design valued at $330; and the MIBOR PAC, which contributed $1,000. She also received several contributions of $500 or less, including from Bentley.

Federal employee and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Taria Slack, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $28,950. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $28,500.

Innovation zone

Two more Denver schools win additional freedom from district rules

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki/Chalkbeat
Alex Magaña, then principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, greeted students as they moved between classes in 2015.

Two more Denver schools this week won more flexibility in how they spend their money and time. The schools will create a new “innovation zone,” bringing the district’s number of quasi-autonomous zones to three.

The Denver school board on Thursday unanimously approved the schools’ application to operate more independently from district rules, starting in January.

The new zone will include Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver and Kepner Beacon Middle School in southwest Denver. The two schools are high-performing by the district’s standards and follow a model that allows students to learn at their own pace.

With just two schools, the zone will be the district’s smallest, though Beacon leaders have signaled their intent to compete to open a third school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood, where the district has said it will need more capacity. The district’s other two innovation zones have four and five schools each.

Schools in zones are still district schools, but they can opt out of paying for certain district services and instead spend that money on things that meet their specific needs, such as additional teachers or aides. Zones can also form nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors that provide academic and operational oversight, and help raise extra dollars to support the schools.

The new zone, called the Beacon Schools Network Innovation Zone, will have a five-member board of directors that includes one current parent, two former parents, and two community members whose professional work is related to education.

The zone will also have a teacher council and a parent council that will provide feedback to its board but whose members won’t be able to vote on decisions.

Some Denver school board members questioned the makeup of the zone’s board.

“I’m wondering about what kinds of steps you’re going to take to ensure there is a greater representation of people who live and reside in southwest Denver,” where Kepner Beacon is located, asked school board member Angela Cobián, who represents the region. She also asked about a greater representation of current parents on the board.

Alex Magaña, who serves as executive principal over the Beacon schools and will lead the new zone, said he expects the board to expand to seven members within a year. He also said the parent council will play a key role even if its members can’t vote.

“The parent council is a strong influence,” he said. “If the parent council is not happy, that’s going to be impacting both of the schools. I don’t want to undersell that.”

Other Denver school board members questioned the zone’s finances and how dependent it would be on fundraising. A district summary of the zone’s application notes that the zone’s budget relies on $1.68 million in foundation revenue over the next 5½ years.

Magaña said the zone would eventually seek to expand to four schools, which would make it more financially stable. As for philanthropic dollars, he said the zone would work to ensure any loss of revenue doesn’t hurt the schools’ unique programs or enrichment.

“I can’t emphasize enough that it won’t impact the schools,” he said.

Ultimately, Denver school board members said they have confidence in the Beacon model and look forward to seeing what its leaders do with their increased autonomy.