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.

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.