Future of Schools

Meet the Memphis lawyer who’s so upset about vouchers he’s running for office

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Voucher supporters in Memphis held up StudentsFirst Tennessee signs at a rally this spring. StudentsFirst Tennessee will now be called TennesseeCAN.

When R. Price Harris, a Memphis attorney, headed to a rally against school vouchers Monday that his wife had told him about, all he wanted to do was show his support.

By the end of the day, he had decided to run for office.

In between, Harris heard local parents express deep fears about the effects of allowing families to use public funds to pay for private school tuition, saw paid advocates offer an opposing view, and got what he said was the cold shoulder from a local lawmaker with influence over a bill that would allow vouchers for the first time in Tennessee.

“The voucher bill will take more money out of this school system, and it will make them do more with what little bit that they have, and even less if this bill passes,” Harris said Tuesday after picking up a petition from the Shelby County Board of Elections. A resident of the Memphis area since he was 4, the 49-year-old is the father to a seventh-grader and high school senior who attend Germantown public  schools.

His experience suggests that debate over vouchers — the dominant education policy conversation in the legislature this year — is unlikely to abate even if the bill becomes law.

That debate centers on questions about whose interests vouchers serve.

Harris announced his candidacy on Twitter.
Harris announced his candidacy on Twitter.

Voucher proponents say giving new options to low-income students zoned to the state’s lowest performing schools — most of which are in Memphis — will help the students achieve more.

Critics charge that vouchers would drain funding from public schools — a crucial issue in Memphis, where local schools face yearly budget and enrollment pressures amid state-led efforts to overhaul low-performing schools. They also note that because private schools would not have to accept vouchers or provide transportation, vouchers would provide false hope for many families.

Harris, who already followed anti-voucher as well as anti-testing advocacy groups like “Momma Bears” on Twitter, said he was moved by parents and public school teachers at the rally who insisted that vouchers would harm their fragile school district — and disturbed by the presence of representatives from Black Alliance for Educational Options, a national nonprofit group that advocates for school choice, including vouchers.

Those representatives — about half a dozen, compared to about 30 anti-voucher activists — wore matching yellow scarves and held signs printed by the California-based advocacy group StudentsFirst.

“I was looking at the slick signs and the matching scarves and I thought, ‘What’s wrong with this picture? How many of those people actually have kids in public school? Do you have children?'” Harris said on Tuesday. “They’re not a parent. They’re not on the ground. If they had kids, they didn’t mention it.”

That’s a common critique, says Tennessee BAEO director Mendell Grinter. But he said his group had brought parents from low-performing schools to the rally — to listen, not debate.

“We try to give parents as much information as possible to help them make a decision (about schooling),” he said. “We never make a decision for them.”

Harris, who is white and has two children in Germantown’s school district, a more affluent district that exited Shelby County Schools in 2014, said he left the rally “feeling empty” after listening to impassioned community members talk about their opposition to vouchers, their fears on the impact of vouchers on public schools — and their fears that no one was listening.

He then tried to call his local representative, Steve McManus of Cordova — who serves on the panel deciding today whether vouchers should advance — and got no response. That’s what inspired him to file papers to run against McManus in the Republican primary this August.

“I can at least call people back,” Harris said.

Future of Schools

These 29 Indianapolis administrators could lose their jobs

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indianapolis Public Schools has identified dozens of principals, deans and other administrators who could lose their jobs at the end of the year, many because of the decision to close high schools.

As the district pursues plans to close three of its seven high schools, the superintendent recommended that the board cancel the contracts of 29 administrators effective July 1.

The list of administrators includes two high school principals and several assistant principals and deans whose contracts could be canceled because of the high school closing plan. Several high school athletic directors could also have their contracts canceled because the district is changing the job description and requirements for those positions, according to IPS spokesperson Carrie Cline Black.

They were all invited to apply to other open positions in the district, but the district is canceling their contracts because state law requires districts to notify certain administrators by March 1 if their contracts will not be renewed, according to Black.

The recommendation, which is included in the district’s monthly personnel report, is not entirely surprising, since the district anticipated having fewer administrators once it consolidates campuses. But the district had not previously revealed which staff members could lose their positions.

This is just the latest sign of the upheaval caused by the high school closings. Hundreds of high school teachers were required to reapply for their jobs, and students were required to select new high school programs for next year.

Here is the full list of staffers the superintendent recommended canceling contracts for:

Arlington High School

  • Debra Barlowe, dean
  • Arthur Dumas, dean
  • David Tuttle, assistant principal
  • Debra Ward, assistant principal
  • Danny Wilson, athletic director

Arsenal Technical High School

  • Anne Deckard, dean
  • Sheldon Floyd, assistant principal
  • Steven Glenn, dean
  • Thomas Starnes, athletic director
  • Roslyn Stradford, assistant principal
  • Lisa Williams, dean

Broad Ripple High School

  • John Edge, assistant principal
  • Robert Moses, interim assistant principal
  • Rachel Norwood, magnet coordinator
  • Vickie Winslow, dean

Crispus Attucks High School

  • Kenneth Roseman, athletic director
  • Joshua Varno, athletic director

George Washington High School

  • Emily Butler, principal
  • Zachary Ervin, dean
  • Patrick Kennison, assistant principal
  • Charonda Woods, assistant principal

Northwest Community High School

  • Moshfilay Anderson, athletic director
  • Eileen Bell, assistant principal
  • Michelle Brittain-Watts, principal
  • Martha Lince, dean
  • Alan Smith, assistant principal
  • Albert Young, dean

Positive Supports Academy

  • Kevin Brown, dean

Shortridge High School

  • Kathy Langdon, athletic director

What do you think?

Detroiters react with praise — and fury — as district changes how it will decide who gets into Cass Tech and Renaissance

A student wearing a Renaissance High School t-shirt competes in a robotics competition.

Reaction was swift and strong last week when Chalkbeat reported that Detroit’s main school district is changing the way students are admitted to Cass Technical High School, Renaissance High School and two other selective schools.

Some parents, teachers, students and members of the schools’ devoted alumni associations praised the district’s decision to reduce the role of testing in admissions decisions. But others expressed anger and concern about how the changes will affect the schools and how decisions about the changes were made.

Instead of basing admissions decisions primarily on the results of a single exam, the district will this year turn the process over to an admissions team comprised of teachers and staff from the schools, as well as administrators in the district’s central office. They will use a score card to decide admissions with just 40 percent of a student’s score coming from the high school placement exam. The rest of the points will come from grades, essays and letters of recommendations. Students currently enrolled in the district will get 10 bonus points that will give them an edge over students applying from charter and suburban schools.

The news turned into one of the most talked about stories on our site this year — and readers’ reactions ran the gamut. Read some of what our readers had to say below.

Some thought the change was problematic:

Others applauded the changes:

A current Cass Tech teacher said she agreed the admissions process needed to change, but was concerned that the district did not ask for her input on the new system:

How do you feel about the new admissions process? Tell us below in the comments or weigh on on Facebook or Twitter.