Future of Schools

Koch panel advocates for vouchers, elimination of Common Core

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Jonathan Butcher of the Goldwater Institute and principal Steve Perry were two panelists on a forum on school choice.

A group of conservative scholars and a charter school principal pushed for vouchers and urged Tennesseans to be wary of the Common Core standards during a forum Tuesday.  The program, whose attendees included legislators, representatives from conservative think tanks, and parents opposed to the rapid expansion of charters in the city, was held by a non-profit funded by Charles Koch, the controversial and influential conservative billionaire. It gave insight into the type of initiatives in Tennessee and across the country he might back this upcoming legislative session.

“Nashville is an ideal place to have this important conversation,” said Brennan Brown, a representative from the Koch Foundation who moderated the discussion. “Tennesseans realize the important link between education and opportunity.”

Panelists included representatives from right-leaning think tanks like the Friedman Foundation and the Beacon Center of Tennessee, and the principal of a charter school in Connecticut.

Charles Koch and his brother David Koch are co-owners and founders of Koch Industries, the second-largest privately held company in the United States, and are known to be among the most influential Americans. The billionaire brothers spend millions each year on statewide and national political campaigns that often directly promote libertarian principles, and are credited with bringing their libertarian values into the mainstream. Recently, the brothers have gained notoriety for their venture into education philanthropy. Koch-funded organizations bankroll civics courses that “reinvigorate the teaching of America’s founding principles and history” at universities ranging from Harvard University to the College of Charleston, and economics courses in public high schools.

Panelist Steve Perry, the principal of  Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Connecticut, said that reformers in Tennessee not willing to support vouchers were merely offering “reform-lite.”

“What they want to do, is they want to say what’s most politically palatable,” he said. Earlier in the discussion, Perry said he was astounded Tennesseans had not managed to pass a voucher program, since the state has a Republican governor and a super-majority of Republicans in the legislature. Although most aspects of the expansion of school choice in Tennessee are bipartisan, vouchers’ most visible proponents in the state and nationwide have been Republican. Perry said people in the room should be doing more to make vouchers a reality.

“You say you’re for it, you say you want choice, yet you don’t pull the lever to make the choice happen,” he said.

He and other panelists thought vouchers were among the best tactics to provide low-income students with the same high-quality options as children from wealthier families.

Throughout the panel Stephanie Linn, the lobbyist for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, repeated that no research has shown vouchers negatively impact student achievement. “There is no study that’s ever shown kids were harmed [by school vouchers],” she said. In fact, research on vouchers has offered conflicting verdicts about their efficacy. Regardless, as Chalkbeat reported earlier this month, many predict school vouchers will pass in 2015.

Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Republican from Germantown who sponsored the most expansive version of a voucher bill in 2013, attended the forum, as well as Rep. Steve McDaniels, a Republican from Parkers Crossroads.

Another topic panelists addressed that is expected to be revisited next legislative session is the removal of Common Core State Standards. Some Republican representatives have led a push in the Tennessee legislature to eliminate Common Core, a series of standards that determine what students learn in each grade. They feel the standards represent an overreach of the federal government, although the federal government did not create or enforce the standards.

Panelist Jonathan Butcher, the education director of the Goldwater Institute, said the standards represent a larger threat to the federal government’s interference in parental choice.  “We have to be realistic about what is being forced from inside the beltway,” he said. Right now, the Common Core State Standards are in effect statewide for math and reading, but opponents delayed their expansion to social studies and science, as well as the use of a statewide test to measure how well students learn those standards. The standards will most likely be a hot topic again during the next legislative session in the spring.

The panel was originally supposed to be moderated by Shaka Mitchell, who works for Rocketship Schools, a California-based charter management operator that is slated to open schools in Nashville, but according to a July 15 Tweet from the organization, he was unable to attend.

Clarification: Jonathan Butcher opposes the Common Core State Standards. An earlier version said he did not oppose them per se.

Why not Michigan?

As Michigan’s poorest 4-year-olds wait for classroom seats, free pre-K for all kids seems elusive

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
All New York City four year-olds — including these kids who attend school is in the city's education department headquarters — are guaranteed a spot in a city-funded pre-K. In Michigan, far fewer students have access to free preschool.

Michigan is the home to America’s most famous study on the benefits of early childhood education.

But when it comes to providing free prekindergarten for all children, other states and cities are leading the way.

Vermont, Florida, Washington, and the District of Columbia have public programs for all 4-year-olds, regardless of income. Seven more states have greatly expanded their pre-K programs, too, including Wisconsin, where free voluntary pre-K is in the state’s 1848 constitution.

But not Michigan. Not yet, at least.

The pioneering Perry Preschool Study began in Ypsilanti in 1962 and followed 123 study participants starting at age 3 through the age of 40. Among the study’s  findings: Those who went to pre-K were more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to repeat grades. They were also less likely to use drugs or commit crimes.

As they grew older, they were more likely to be employed and to have stable homes, savings accounts, significantly higher incomes, and report good relations with their families.

Skills such as cooperative play lay the groundwork for children to get along with others. In addition, learning to use fine motor skills and mastering shapes, colors, numbers, and the alphabet, contribute to future growth.

Further research has underscored the worth of pre-K, making it a rare realm of bipartisan support. In fact, funding for early childhood education has risen under the past three governors.

“I’ve been around long enough to see Democrats and Republicans in office, and early childhood education continues to be on the radar as a positive,” said Lena Montgomery, director of the Wayne County branch of the Great Start Readiness Program, a state funded initiative for 4-year-olds from low-income families.

But even though the governor’s own 21st Century Education Commission recommended that Michigan expand pre-K with $390 million in new investment, he chose instead to further study the impact of Great Start. In his most recent budget, he allocated $300,000 to do that research, and kept spending for Great Start flat at $245.6 million.

Momentum toward providing publicly funded pre-K, often called universal preschool, has been slowed by cost, teacher shortages, and family resistance, advocates say. They also note that there is no incentive for different institutions to pool their money to pay for a more comprehensive pre-K program in the state.  

Other states and cities have navigated similar challenges. But Michigan families face a patchwork of options. They may keep young children at home, pay for private childcare or pre-K, or, if they meet income or disability requirements, they can enroll them in Great Start or federally funded Head Start. Both are designed to support vulnerable children, including families with low-incomes.

But there aren’t enough seats, even for every child in need. Great Start’s Montgomery said she has 27 programs with qualified families on wait lists. It’s common, she said, for policymakers to say they support children. But some families are still falling into the gaps because more money is needed, she said.

About 133,000 Michigan children are not enrolled in any early childhood program.

Half of Wayne County’s 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in various pre-K programs, said Iheoma Iruka of Highscope, though she added that “we can’t vouch for the quality of these programs.”

The education plan of Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic nominee for governor, advocates for a universal program that expands Great Start until all 4-year-olds are eligible, similar to what the 21st Century Education Commission recommended. It would be paid for, according to her campaign staff, with anticipated increases in the School Aid Fund, which is mostly made up of sales, income, and property taxes. It would also use tax revenue from, among other things, the marijuana ballot initiative that’s expected to pass in November. Tax hikes shouldn’t be necessary, her staff said.

Bill Schuette, the Republican nominee, has an education plan that emphasizes third-grade literacy over pre-K. It mentions need-based transportation scholarships for preschoolers, and he said in a recent interview that universal pre-K was an option that he’d consider.

Hope Starts Here, the $50 million initiative created by the Kellogg and Kresge foundations to improve Detroit’s early childhood systems, has a number of suggestions to pay for universal pre-K. Among them: a dedicated tax proposal, a local sales tax on alcohol, coordinated philanthropic and corporate giving, and leveraging all federal grant money.

States and cities around the nation have experimented with other strategies. Georgia tied pre-K funding to the state lottery. New York City’s new universal program for all 3- and 4-year-olds comes from a mix of city, state and federal funding. Oklahoma, a pioneer in the field, discovered that school districts with half-day kindergartens were receiving state money meant for full-day programs. Lawmakers reformed the state aid formula so that those resources went into pre-K. (The districts had been spending the extra money on sports.)

Others have expanded access by combining different sources of money. North Carolina integrated pre-K with its K-12 schools and contributed part of the Title 1 money that’s allocated to school districts. Chicago is moving toward universal pre-K with a mix of state and district budget increases, and block grants. Washington, D.C. blends Head Start and local funding into its education formula.

A pilot model for blended funding in Michigan can be found in Flint, where the state’s only Educare program is based on the grounds of a former elementary school. The national Educare Early Learning Network draws from multiple revenue sources, including federal, state, and philanthropic dollars.

But regardless of where the money is coming from, opportunities to expand pre-K programs may be missed because of the statewide teacher shortage. In addition,  salaries are not as high as they are in K-12 schools. The median salary for Head Start teachers is $27,613, and for lead Great Start teachers, $37,440, according to a statewide advocacy organization.

To recruit and retain more teachers at all levels, including pre-K,  a new public-private initiative called Teach 313 launched in Detroit in August. Other places facing shortages or high turnover for its preschool teachers have turned to Teach for America to fill gaps, or provided scholarships for early childhood educators to obtain degrees that would raise their wages.

But before Michigan can explore other strategies and expand into universal pre-K, it needs to make the program it already has available to more families.

If you ask Montgomery from Great Start about her wish list, it begins with providing pre-K to all the children who are sitting on waitlists.

“It would be wonderful to to say to parents, ‘We have a spot for your child,’” Montgomery said. “ ‘You don’t have to wait for someone to drop out or leave.’ It would be wonderful to say to the people who want to run programs, or to expand their programs in their communities, ‘We have the funds for you set up and run a high quality program.’ ”


Who’s in and who’s not? Chicago board to announce new boundaries for popular Taft High

PHOTO: Tim Boyle / Getty Images
Taft High School is one of Chicago Public Schools' most overenrolled campuses. In 2019, it will spin off its freshman class to a separate campus.

The Chicago school board will announce much-anticipated new attendance boundaries on Tuesday for one of its most crowded schools, William Howard Taft High School on the Northwest side.

Starting next school year, Taft will spin off one grade level to a new campus, the Taft Freshman Academy, which is expected to enroll 1,000 freshman. Chicago Public Schools will give those living within the new attendance area priority in enrollment.

“I look forward to what CPS has to say about the new campus,” Taft Principal Mark Grishaber told Chalkbeat Chicago. “This is good for every kid on the Northwest side.”

A community meeting on the new boundaries will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Wilbur Wright College, 4300 N. Narragansett Ave.

At its regular monthly meeting at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, the board will discuss the Taft boundaries and also what to do about its underrolled schools, which are primarily neighborhood schools.  A state law signed in August requires Chicago to make a plan for intervening in schools that do not have enough students.

The Chicago school district faces a critical decline in enrollment, but still plans to invest $1 billion to shore up existing schools and build new ones.