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Tennessee fast-tracks voucher rules, but concerns resurface about testing accountability

Under a 2019 state law, some students in Memphis and Nashville could be eligible to participate in Tennessee's new education savings account program beginning in the 2020-21 school year.
Under a 2019 state law, some students in Memphis and Nashville could be eligible to participate in Tennessee's new education savings account program beginning in the 2020-21 school year.
Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

The question of whether private Tennessee schools that accept publicly funded vouchers should be judged on the same state tests as public schools emerged Wednesday as proposed rules for the state’s new education savings account program cleared their first hurdle.

The state Board of Education gave preliminary approval to a gamut of rules governing the controversial program, slated to launch in Memphis and Nashville with the 2020-21 school year. At the same time, board members flagged several regulations that could stand in the way of final approval.

High on the list was deciding what annual test measurements to use to determine when a participating school should be suspended or terminated from the program due to “low academic performance” by voucher students.

Currently, the proposed rules don’t define what constitutes academic progress.

“There needs to be an actual measure there,” said board member Wendy Tucker. “I think that that’s a little blurry. I think if schools are going to participate in this, they need to know what that bar is.”

A bigger sticking point may be whether that academic progress will be gauged by state standardized test results or a “nationally normed assessment” already used by the school.

“My understanding is the statute would not allow” using a national test, said Tucker. “The statute requires the TCAP,” which is the name for the state’s standardardized testing program since 1988.

Under the law that narrowly passed this spring at the urging of Republican Gov. Bill Lee, all voucher students must take state tests each year in math and English language arts in order to track student performance in the program. But the law was not clear about whether national test results could also be taken into account to decide whether a participating school is helping voucher students show academic progress.

The issue could be “make-or-break” for many private school leaders considering whether to sign on, said Amity Schuyler, the deputy education commissioner tasked with developing education savings accounts in Tennessee.

Testing requirements for voucher students have been a sticking point for years in bills before Tennessee’s legislature, where several previous proposals stalled over the issue.

Some voucher proponents argue that more high-quality private schools will participate if they have the flexibility to administer and be judged by results from national tests instead of state assessments. But other leaders insist on an apples-to-apples comparison with public schools.

Meanwhile, groups representing public school teachers, which have consistently opposed voucher legislation, are incensed about any private education program that will drain millions of dollars from public education but wouldn’t require the same kind of accountability from those schools and teachers.

They’re also frustrated that the state’s voucher law requires voucher students to take tests only for math and English language arts — half as many as public school students, who also must take assessments in science and social studies.

After a decade of prioritizing test-based accountability, Tennessee appears ready to ease up with vouchers

“We are continuing to have conversations around the nationally normed assessment language,” Assistant Education Commissioner Elizabeth Fiveash said during the specially called meeting, which took place over a conference call. “It’s something that we’ve communicated with the attorney general’s office about as well.”

Fiveash said the Education Department hopes to have clarity on the testing issue before Nov. 15, when the board is scheduled to vote on the final rules. A public hearing also is set for Oct. 1 in Nashville.

The rules are being fast-tracked to start education savings accounts a year ahead of schedule. The governor has said he wants to expedite the program to provide more education choices as soon as possible for students in low-performing schools.

Staffs for the department and state Board are working together to accelerate the launch, developing 14 pages of proposed rules that also cover issues such as which students can participate and how to make sure voucher money isn’t being fraudulently spent.

The program is expected to start with up to 5,000 students from Shelby County Schools, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, and the state-run Achievement School District. It would cap out at 15,000 students by 2024, unless a future legislature decides to expand the program.

If enrollment caps are met, eligible families will be prioritized if their annual income does not exceed twice the federal income eligibility for free school lunch, or can provide proof that they qualify for federal assistance. They would receive up to $7,300 in state education money annually. That money can be used to pay for private education services once they withdraw their children from public schools and agree not to receive public education services while enrolled in a participating independent or parochial school or receiving other private education services.

Schuyler said the department will begin promoting vouchers in Memphis and Nashville as soon as possible online, through direct mail, and in person. The application process will be entirely online, she said, and is designed so it can be completed using a mobile phone with internet service.

Tucker urged the department to make the processes easy to use for parents of students from low-income families — and to establish a helpline for parents to call if they have questions.

“We definitely want to make this as user-friendly as possible,” Fiveash agreed.

Asked whether the department plans to use an outside vendor to run the program, Schuyler said maybe.

“In speaking with other states, many of them have partnered with a third-party nonprofit organization to implement,” she said. “Those programs were awarded primarily based on competitive bids. So that certainly is an option that we want to keep open as we get this first year under our belt, but it’s a little too soon to predict what that will look like for us.”

Correction: Sept. 19, 2019: A previous version of this story mischaracterized the scope of the testing rule at issue. State officials clarified Thursday that all voucher recipients must take state tests under the new Tennessee law, while it’s still being discussed whether participating private schools will be judged based on state test scores.

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