Heating up

Chalkbeat explains what school vouchers could mean for Tennessee

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
From left: Shelby County Schools Board of Education members Stephanie Love and Mike Kernell speak at an anti-voucher rally that was attended by supporters of the pro-voucher group Black Alliance for Educational Options.

In an impromptu public debate over using public money to pay for private schooling, Shelby County Board of Education member Stephanie Love stood practically toe-to-toe Monday with voucher advocate Roxie Nunnally while impassioned opponents of vouchers — mainly public school teachers, parents, and community organizers —  congregated in front of the district’s central offices in Memphis.

Voucher advocate Roxie Nunnally speaks with voucher foe Stephanie Love.
PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Voucher advocate Roxie Nunnally speaks with voucher foe Stephanie Love.

The discourse during an anti-voucher rally highlighted the intensity of emotion around Tennessee’s school voucher debate — especially in Memphis, the city that would be most impacted by a voucher bill advancing through the state legislature.

As the House Finance Committee prepares for a possible vote on the proposal on Tuesday, here’s our primer on school vouchers and the legislation under consideration:

Who would be eligible to receive vouchers?

The current bill would target students zoned to the bottom 5 percent of schools in Tennessee — most of whom are in Memphis and Nashville, with some in Hamilton, Knox and Madison counties. It would impact 5,000 students in the program’s first year and reach 20,000 students annually in two years. If any vouchers remain after all eligible students receive them, they can be awarded to students who reside in a district that contains at least one school in the state’s bottom 5 percent — meaning potentially students zoned even to high-performing schools in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga and Jackson could cash vouchers out at a private school. Several Republican lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga, have said they hope the program would expand to even more students in the future.

How would vouchers impact student achievement?

That question strikes at the core of the debate.

Proponents say vouchers drive competition, and that competition makes all schools better and increase student achievement. They argue that anything would be better than the current situation for students who attend Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools.

Opponents say there’s no guarantee that a private school accepting a voucher would be of better quality than a public school, especially since private schools are less regulated. That’s what happened in Milwaukee, home of the nation’s oldest voucher program, where a crop of financially mismanaged and low-achieving private schools popped up after a 1992 school voucher law passed. Tennessee’s proposed legislation somewhat mitigates that concern by mandating that voucher-accepting schools be fully accredited by the State Department of Education or an agency approved by the state at least two years before they can accept voucher payments. Opponents also worry that private schools have no obligation to offer the same level of special education programming or afterschool care as public schools.

Researchers haven’t reached consensus on the impact of vouchers. A working paper by Duke, MIT and Harvard researchers for the National Bureau for Economic Research shows attendance at a voucher-eligible private school in Louisiana lowered scores on statewide math assessments and increased students’ likelihood of a failing score by 50 percent. Other studies have found that voucher programs have improved public schools and increased the likelihood of college enrollment.

How would vouchers impact public school funding?

Again, that’s unclear. Opponents say vouchers would leach much-needed funding from public schools, while proponents say the program wouldn’t overburden districts because public schools would be relieved of educating students now receiving vouchers. The bill’s current fiscal note predicts vouchers would cost districts with schools in the bottom 5 percent: $17 million in 2016-17; $26 million in 2017-18; $36 million in 2018-19; and more than $71 million in 2019-20 and subsequent years. It would cost state government $185,000 to pay for personnel to administer the program.

How much would vouchers be worth for each recipient?

In most districts, just under $7,000, although the amount varies based on local funding.

Would students use vouchers at any private school?

Probably not. Most students who use vouchers in states with programs that extend beyond special education go to previously established religious schools. In Indiana and Washington, D.C., more than half of these schools are Catholic, although in North Carolina, an Islamic school was the most popular school for parents using vouchers when the state launched the program in 2014.


Do private schools have to accept vouchers?

Plenty of private school administrators have said they won’t. In 2014, Vanderbilt researchers found that most Memphis-area private schools either could not or would not accept vouchers for reasons ranging from financial to ideological concerns. Private schools could not charge more than the voucher amount, which is a fraction of what some schools charge (nearing $30,000 annually at the most expensive private schools in Memphis and Nashville). Private schools might also be opposed to the amount of government regulation that comes with accepting vouchers. For instance, voucher recipients would be required to take state TNReady assessments or a nationally recognized test at the end of each school year.

If the House approves the voucher bill, would it likely become law?

The legislation would have to be signed by Gov. Bill Haslam, who has indicated his support. Currently, the proposal has reached the farthest it’s come in six years of legislative debate, passing in the Senate three of those years. Because Tennessee’s Senate approved the bill during the first half of the current 109th General Assembly, it needs only House approval to go to the governor’s desk.


Chalkbeat Memphis reporter Micaela Watts contributed to this report.

The New Chancellor

Tell us: What should the new chancellor, Richard Carranza, know about New York City schools?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A student at P.S. 69 Journey Prep in the Bronx paints a picture. The school uses a Reggio Emilia approach and is in the city's Showcase Schools program.

In a few short weeks, Richard Carranza will take over the nation’s largest school system as chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

Carranza, who has never before worked east of the Mississippi, will have to get up to speed quickly on a new city with unfamiliar challenges. The best people to guide him in this endeavor: New Yorkers who understand the city in its complexity.

So we want to hear from you: What does Carranza need to know about the city, its schools, and you to help him as he gets started April 2. Please fill out the survey below; we’ll collect your responses and share them with our readers and Carranza himself.

The deadline is March 23.

buses or bust?

Mayor Duggan says bus plan encourages cooperation. Detroit school board committee wants more details.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Detroit’s school superintendent is asking for more information about the mayor’s initiative to create a joint bus route for charter and district students after realizing the costs could be higher than the district anticipated.

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a school board subcommittee Friday that he thought the original cost to the district was estimated to be around $25,000 total. Instead, he said it could cost the district roughly between $75,000 and a maximum of $125,000 for their five schools on the loop.

“I think there was a misunderstanding….” Vitti said. “I think this needs a deeper review…The understanding was that it would be $25,000 for all schools. Now, there are ongoing conversations about it being $15,000 to $25,000 for each individual school.”

The bus loop connecting charter and district schools was announced earlier this month by Mayor Mike Duggan as a way to draw kids back from the suburbs.

Duggan’s bus loop proposal is based on one that operates in Denver that would travel a circuit in certain neighborhoods, picking up students on designated street corners and dropping them off at both district and charter schools.

The bus routes — which Duggan said would be funded by philanthropy, the schools and the city — could even service afterschool programs that the schools on the bus route could work together to create.

In concept, the finance committee was not opposed to the idea. But despite two-thirds of the cost being covered and splitting the remaining third with charters, they were worried enough about the increased costs that they voted not to recommend approval of the agreement to the full board.  

Vitti said when he saw the draft plan, the higher price made him question whether the loop would be worth it.

“If it was $25,000, it would be an easier decision,” he said.

To better understand the costs and benefits and to ultimately decide, Vitti said he needs more data, which will take a few weeks. 

Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, said the district’s hesitation was a sign they were performing their due diligence before agreeing to the plan.

“I’m not at all deterred by this,” Wiley said. She said the district, charters, and city officials have met twice, and are “working in the same direction, so that we eliminate as many barriers as we can.”

Duggan told a crowd earlier this month at the State of the City address that the bus loop was an effort to grab the city’s children – some 32,500 – back from suburban schools.

Transportation is often cited as one of the reasons children leave the city’s schools and go to other districts, and charter leaders have said they support the bus loop because they believe it will make it easier for students to attend their schools.

But some board members had doubts that the bus loop would be enough to bring those kids back, and were concerned about giving charters an advantage in their competition against the district to increase enrollment.

“I don’t know if transportation would be why these parents send their kids outside of the district,” Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said. “If we could find out some of the reasons why, it would add to the validity” of implementing the bus loop.

Board member LaMar Lemmons echoed other members’ concerns on the impact of the transportation plan, and said many parents left the district because of the poor quality of schools under emergency management, not transportation.

“All those years in emergency management, that drove parents to seek alternatives, as well as charters,” he said. “I’m hesitant to form an unholy alliance with the charters for something like this.”