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Despite being located in one of the fastest growing parts of the city, a Denver middle school faces an enrollment crisis that threatens its future.
Denver Discovery School opened five years ago in the middle-class northeast neighborhood of Stapleton. Enthusiasm was high, and parents raised tens of thousands of dollars to support a rich academic program. But in the past two years, the school has churned through principals, leading to a cascade of problems, including high teacher turnover, sinking community confidence, and families transferring their children out.
“When things got tough, they didn’t stick it out,” said parent Mikhail Vafeades, whose eighth-grade daughter has been at Denver Discovery since sixth grade.
While the student body was mostly white when the school opened, it is now mostly students of color, a reality that is forcing a hard conversation about the role of race in school choice and school closure — as well as inspiring a new vision for what Denver Discovery could be, if teachers and parents can find a way to save it.
District officials are projecting the school will only have about 135 students next fall, which would make it nearly impossible to sustain financially. Denver schools are funded per pupil, and fewer students means less money to pay for teachers, activities, and supplies.
The district subsidizes schools with fewer than 215 students, and it could do the same for Denver Discovery. But there are other scenarios on the table, too, including closing the school.
That’s something the parents, teachers, and students who gathered this week for a series of meetings in the school library don’t want to see happen. School board member Jennifer Bacon, who represents northeast Denver, said it doesn’t have to come to that.
“There is a way to keep this school open,” Bacon said. But within each of the potential scenarios for the school’s future, she said, “there are different questions we need to answer.”
For example, if the school stays open next year with just 135 students, how will it afford the project-based learning and rich extracurriculars that were once its trademark? If it closes, where will those 135 students go, given that every other middle school in the region is full?
And if the school pursues a hybrid of those two options — closing the sixth grade next year, keeping open the seventh and eighth grades, and spending the year reinventing itself — will it be able to convince enough families to give the school another shot in the fall of 2020?
“This is an opportunity to have a middle school for black and brown children,” said teacher Dawnyle Ashemu, who was one of the few staff members to return this year. “The empowering part is this will be the first opportunity for the district not to tell us what to do.”
Enrollment up, then down
Opened in 2014 in response to a need for more middle schools in Stapleton, Denver Discovery was never meant to serve that neighborhood alone. From the beginning, it was part of a large “enrollment zone” that included Park Hill, which is home to more working-class families of color. Such zones are meant in part to diversify enrollment at the schools within them by drawing bigger boundaries that span racially and economically segregated neighborhoods.
Nevertheless, the first few classes of students were mostly white and from wealthier families. Minutes from early parent-teacher association meetings show families raised upwards of $100,000 a year to support the school’s deep roster of electives and class trips.
The vision for the school, whose motto is “Large enough to serve you, small enough to know you,” was largely the brainchild of its founding principal, Kristen Atwood. With help from parents, Atwood wrote an “innovation plan” that afforded Denver Discovery extra freedom with scheduling, hiring, and curriculum.
It was Atwood’s passionate pitch that convinced Jennifer Shermer to enroll her son at Denver Discovery for the fall of 2017. Her son was excited about the clubs and activities, and Shermer was impressed when Atwood visited their home over the summer to walk around the block with her son and get to know him.
But shortly before school started, Shermer got an email that Atwood was leaving. Her departure was precipitated by several factors, including that she overspent her budget by about $250,000 the year before, a figure confirmed by Erik Johnson, the district’s finance director. According to Johnson, Atwood had been counting on parents to raise more money than they did.
The district brought in an interim principal, but Shermer’s son began coming home with stories about fights in the hallways and disruptions in class. In the absence of stable leadership, teachers said the culture of the school shifted from one focused on academics to one focused on discipline. For the past two years, the school has referred more students to a behavior management program than most other middle schools in the district. The school’s rating within the district accountability system also declined, from green to yellow to orange.
Shermer said her concern about Denver Discovery grew as emails about teacher departures began filling her inbox. By the end of her son’s first semester there, seven of his nine teachers had left, she said, and a second interim principal had replaced the first.
Shermer applied to transfer her son to McAuliffe International School, a wildly popular and much bigger middle school in the region. He got in, and left Denver Discovery after winter break.
“He was being taught primarily by substitute teachers,” Shermer said. “For us, we just felt like he wasn’t getting the education we wanted him to get.”
Shermer wasn’t alone. When her son started at Denver Discovery, he was one of about 450 students, which was larger than the school was ever meant to be. By last fall, the population had dwindled to 265 students, requiring a cash infusion from the district to keep it afloat.
While staff turnover was a factor, some parents and teachers point to other reasons, as well.
The school previously had honors classes filled with mostly white students, and traditional classes where more students were black and Latino. Parents and teachers said one of the first things the new principal did was get rid of most honors classes to better integrate the school. That concerned some parents, who felt their children had been isolated in the honors classes from what one mother called “the worst behavior problems.”
“There’s a lot being talked about in coded terms,” Hasira Ashemu, a community activist whose wife is a teacher at the school and whose children are students, said in the library this week.
What most people aren’t saying, he said, is that race has played a role in Denver Discovery reaching this point. “To pretend it hasn’t,” Ashemu said, “would be disingenuous to our children.”
At this point, the fate of Denver Discovery is unknown. The new principal, the fourth in five years, has announced she won’t be back next year. Only 20 sixth-graders selected Denver Discovery as their first-choice school for the fall. Accounting for new students who will likely move in over the summer, the district is projecting a sixth-grade class of 30.
Meanwhile, about 30 percent of current sixth- and seventh-graders have requested transfers to other schools, meaning next year’s seventh- and eighth-grade classes will be small, as well.
And in a move that some parents and teachers say makes things worse, the district is planning to open a new middle school just five miles away for the same reason it opened Denver Discovery, to serve a growing population of students in the area.
While Denver Public Schools has policies about closing schools that are failing academically, it does not have a policy for what to do when a passing school is underenrolled.
“The position that Denver Discovery School is in right now is honestly something that is unique in DPS,” said Bacon, the school board member for the area.
It is ultimately the school board’s decision whether to close the school, but Bacon said she and her fellow board members want to hear from students, parents, and teachers first. She laid out a tentative timeline, giving the community until the end of April to come up with a plan for next year, and until November to present a proposal for sustaining the school long-term.
Bacon pledged to support whatever plan the community comes up with, as did board member Carrie Olson. Other board members who attended meetings in the library this week were less willing to give an emphatic yes before seeing the proposal.
“This is a problem-solving moment for us,” Bacon said.
Parents and teachers already have some ideas. They envision a school where black and Latino students, who make up 75 percent of the Denver Discovery population this year, are immersed in culturally relevant project-based learning, and where teachers work to understand the reasons behind student behavior rather than resort to doling out consequences.
“What I see are not only pretty run-of-the-mill middle school behaviors that are blown out of proportion or demonized, I see our kids being put under a microscope,” said Daniel Crowley, who teaches eighth-grade language arts at the school. “We have passionate kids invested in their learning that have been given inconsistent access to that learning.”
Teachers and parents are also exploring the idea of a “community school” that is open seven days a week, providing after-school activities to students, and classes and services to families.
They plan to meet in the library every Wednesday evening to solidify the plan.
“We have an opportunity to build a school like no other in Denver, Colorado,” Hasira Ashemu said.
Interim superintendent Joris Ray put dollars to his priorities for Shelby County Schools with a $1.03 billion budget outlook given to school board members on Thursday.
District staff previewed Ray’s priorities at a school board committee meeting, including adding new schools to the district turnaround zone, universal screening for a gifted student program, and adding advance courses for high schoolers.
“First we have to talk about where we are,” Lin Johnson, a deputy superintendent, told board members. “Then we have to drill down to what the root causes are. And then I think it’s that development of a strategy to align resources to that root cause.”
Even though the board is about to hire a national search firm to look for a new superintendent, Ray has not been shy about pushing through initiatives that he believes will improve academic performance in Memphis schools. His other priorities include giving nine high schools laptops for every student, and improving literacy by holding back second-graders who are not reading at grade level.
Ray is considering spending about $50 million less, or almost 5 percent less, than was requested in this year’s budget. Lin Johnson, a deputy superintendent, said district staff plan to clarify priorities in conjunction with the board.
The board is mulling a policy to hold back second-graders who don’t meet reading benchmarks. About 27 percent of third-graders in Shelby County Schools are proficient in reading based on state tests — a six-point jump from the previous year. But the district is still not where it should be to meet its goal of 90 percent of its third-graders reading at grade level by 2025.
Board member Stephanie Love said none of the district’s goals are possible without finding better ways to reach parents.
“That’s how we start the process of moving academic success because if the parent doesn’t understand, he or she can’t help you,” she said during the meeting. “Teachers are frustrated so they’re banging their heads against the wall, the child still can’t read and our ACT scores are 23 percent,” ready for college.
The budget preview also listed “additional social-emotional learning support and services,” such as psychologists, counselors, and social workers, but did not provide specifics.
In the past two years, Shelby County Schools has consistently added counselors after years of slashing staff. The district also brought back behavior specialists to prevent out-of-school suspensions and work with students to improve behavior.
The school board will meet again Monday to discuss budget priorities. Johnson did not have an expected time frame for presenting a proposed budget.
New York City’s education department erroneously sent letters to some parents telling them they had the right to transfer their children to higher-performing schools, Chancellor Richard Carranza acknowledged in a Friday afternoon tweet.
The letters were sent to parents at schools that were recently designated as struggling by the state, but the students won’t actually be able to transfer purely because their school is low performing, city officials said. It was not immediately clear how many were sent out.
“We know the way to lift up students is to invest in schools & keep communities strong — not to discourage enrollment,” Carranza wrote. “We apologize to families who recently received a letter that incorrectly suggested otherwise.”
Carranza added that “families who received this letter will hear from us again very soon.” Officials said resources would be available to help parents take advantage of different transfer options if they are interested.
Under the state’s new rules governing struggling schools, local districts were given more flexibility about whether they had to give parents at low-performing schools the option to transfer to more successful ones.
Districts are only required to offer parents this option if they attend one of the state’s lowest-performing schools and the school sees student achievement slip for two consecutive years, according to the state’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. It was not immediately clear why the letters in New York City went out.
Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the state’s education department, declined to comment Friday.
Historically, few New York City parents have taken advantage of their right to transfer out of struggling schools. Will Mantell, an education department spokesman, said 200 students transferred using that option last school year, or about 1 percent of those who received letters.
Driving families away from certain schools can have long-term consequences, since the education department has previously cited low enrollment as one reason for school closures.
The Denver school district employee who sent an email mocking students’ names has resigned, according to a spokesperson for Denver Public Schools.
Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the email, in which the employee lists more than two dozen student names, including several sets of siblings. Though the email characterizes the names as “creative,” the tone of the message is mocking.
Some of the names are traditionally African-American names. Others are more common names with unique spellings. Some names are drawn from food or nature. “I think my next child will be Tequila Ridgeback...what do you think?” the employee wrote.
In the email, the employee identifies as a member of the choice and enrollment office, which is responsible for matching students with schools and helping them enroll. The district spokesperson declined to identify the employee by name.
In a statement released earlier this week, the district said it is “committed to ensuring all members of the DPS community are treated with dignity and respect.”
Some charter schools could soon have access to special education services from Indianapolis Public Schools, allowing them to tap in to the expertise of the state’s largest district.
Indianapolis Public Schools is considering launching a cooperative that would allow a handful of innovation schools — which are run by outside operators, including charters — to pay the district to help educate special needs students. The move would be a significant step in the district’s development as a service provider to schools it doesn’t manage.
Although the details are not yet solidified, the cooperative could launch as soon as next school year, and five innovation schools are interested in participating. The plan is still in early development, but the board is expected to consider the final proposal sometime this spring.
While small charter schools may not be equipped to handle intense student needs, the district has the expertise and resources to help, said interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson.
“It just makes sense for us to figure out ways in which students and families can access those services,” she said. “They are our students, so we need to make sure they are served well across all of our schools.”
The aim is to create a system where students get comparable special education regardless of their schools and costs are cut by sharing specialized educators, said Brent Freeman, who oversees special education for the district.
Some innovation schools already receive special education services directly from the district, such as the schools that voluntarily converted. But charter schools in the network are largely responsible for providing those services themselves. If the district begins offering special education services, it would be part of broader set of basic services such as food, busing, and custodians already available to certain innovation schools.
For some schools, providing special education services can be a challenge, Freeman said. If a student at an independent charter school needs to be in a life skills setting, for example, the school may have to build a setting specifically for that student. With a cooperative, the student would be able to attend an existing Indianapolis Public Schools life skills program, he said.
As school choice proliferates, there are questions around whether all schools are serving students with special needs. Like all public schools, Indiana charter schools are required to educate children who need special education services. But critics of charter schools often argue that they push out students with special needs, boosting their own test scores and avoiding costly interventions.
While some charter schools say they can better cater to individual students, some critics wonder whether standalone charter schools can afford to provide the level of special education services that larger districts have historically provided.
Indianapolis Public Schools has not yet settled on precisely which services the cooperative might cover. Some services could include placements in therapeutic mental health settings or classrooms for students with intensive emotional or cognitive disabilities, Freeman said.
“Then we’re talking about services like audiology that are more obscure and hard for a single site to provide, but in a district of our size we can provide,” he added. Audiologists work with students with hearing problems.
Just how schools will pay for the services the district provides is also uncertain. One option would be for them to pay a set fee, like health insurance, where the cost of expensive services are shared across the schools. Another would be for schools to only pay for the services they need. The most likely option, Freeman said, would be a hybrid model with a base fee and additional costs for intensive services.
These are the schools that are interested in joining the first year:
Teenagers in Jeffco schools will not have later school start times this fall, despite a community group’s recommendations last month.
Jeffco Public Schools had tasked a group of parents and community members with gathering input, looking at research and how other school districts have already changed start times, and then creating recommendations. But Superintendent Jason Glass said concerns from the school board and from principals convinced him not to follow through on immediate changes.
In February, the 50-member group presented three recommendations to the board including to move all school start times 30 minutes later this fall and to have the board commit to not having any middle schools start before 8 a.m. and no high schools start before 8:30 a.m. by 2020.
“We’re going to keep working on it,” Glass said. “We’re not saying no to this idea.”
Currently, Jeffco schools start at various and staggered times. Some schools that have more autonomy have already created later start times while some high schools start as early as 7:15 a.m.
School districts across the country have created later start times for middle and high schools to enable teens to get more sleep. Research shows students need that extra time in the morning to better function and be ready to learn.
Glass did accept one recommendation from the task force, and is proposing to hire a consultant to do more analysis and outreach and better plan for a possible change in start times in the future. To do that, he has requested $70,000 in next school year’s budget.
Task force leaders explained that recommendation to the board last month acknowledging that the complex issues in changing start times would require an expert to examine the different impacts. Even without those details worked out, the group proposed the 30-minute change for this fall, knowing it wouldn’t accomplish what research recommends at all schools, but would be an interim step, leaders told the board.
“I get that there are a lot of factors at play here, and that the logistics of changing start times is complex. But isn't it really a matter of priorities?” one mother posted.
“I’m also incredibly disappointed that the hard work of the task force had been so easily dismissed,” another said.
Among the concerns, Glass said, is the increased cost of busing. If the number of routes the district runs has to be compressed into a shorter period of time to eliminate early runs, then the district might have to buy more buses and hire more drivers.
Jeffco board members also voiced their concerns at that time but said they might agree with hiring a consultant rather than supporting the other recommendations.
“I honestly don’t think we can responsibly make any decision unless we know what the real costs are,” board member Brad Rupert said. “I need to know: Are we going to need to hire more bus drivers and have more buses? Are we going to spend more for the facilities for after-school projects? You can’t make a decision like this without asking what the real costs are and how that fits into our ongoing budgets. It’s not ready for a decision.”
A task force there in 2016 recommended the district start high schools later, but the work was shelved over similar logistical concerns about busing, after-school programs and costs. Last year the district’s school board revisited the issue and two months ago it finally voted to push high school start times to 8:30 a.m., starting this fall.
Glass said he personally hasn’t looked closely at other districts’ work yet, though it was something he asked the task force to do. He said he believes the issue of starting school later in the morning is about a community’s values.
“I think it is the case that if we could find a way to do this we would,” Glass said. “Our community is there, it’s just not prudent or wise if we haven’t really solved the logistical issues and have a plan for the cost impact.”
The Indy Chamber and Indianapolis Public Schools have put a number on how much the district needs to cut or make up in new revenue over the next eight years: $328 million. But just what sacrifices families and educators will have to make is still uncertain.
In the first update since the local chamber of commerce and the district formed an unusual partnership last year, the district outlined its goal for savings that would come from several areas, including reduced transportation and facilities costs.
Making such significant cuts to the budget will likely include closing schools, former Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said last year when the district forged the partnership with the Indy Chamber in order to gain support for a referendum.
But at a press briefing Tuesday, interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson avoided discussing the timeline for potential school closings. “We are not there,” she said, adding that the district needs to draft a facilities master plan, in addition to reviewing the implications for district debt and lobbying for legislative changes.
The school board will likely vote on many of the decisions, and district officials have said they are leading the work with assistance from the chamber. The district or Indy Chamber can withdraw from the partnership at any time, according to an agreement outlining their partnership in September.
Indianapolis Public Schools has sold several buildings in recent years. But as the cash-strapped district tries to unload property, it has been hampered by a law that requires it to make empty school buildings available to charter schools for $1 before selling them on the open market.
The district has a goal of $97.2 million in cuts to spending on facilities over eight years, phased in over 2021–22 and 2022–23 according to a district presentation, but Johnson said it was not yet clear whether that timeline is achievable.
“There are still lots of things we need to figure out to see if that is realistic, to see if those numbers bear out, to see if that is in the reality of the context we are in now even feasible,” she said.
The largest chunk of the savings, $111.2 million over eight years, would come from transportation spending. The district has already begun saving on transportation, primarily by reconfiguring the busing schedule and improving routes. But the long-term goal is to cut back by having most high school students take public buses, rather than school buses.
Board member Venita Moore raised concerns that the district may not be able to make the cuts on the ambitious timeline planned, particularly if the city’s public bus system, IndyGo, is not able to meet the transportation needs of high schoolers.
IndyGo is in the middle of an expansion, and the system’s ability to serve the district’s high schoolers hinges on the success of that growth, officials say. Busing thousands of students at the same times will be a “heavy lift,” said Bryan Luellen, vice president of public affairs for IndyGo, but “we are committed to making this partnership work.”
The chamber’s unusual involvement in the school system was born out of district leaders’ efforts to get taxpayers to boost funding. After the district struggled to gain support for its initial referendum proposal, it began working with the chamber to craft a request that would increase school funding without raising taxes beyond what the business community would support. The sometimes adversarial negotiations ultimately led the district to drastically reduce its funding request to about $220 million over eight years, which voters approved in November.
As part of the deal, Indianapolis Public Schools and the chamber agreed to work together on a plan to substantially cut spending so the district would be able to boost teacher pay while also shrinking its tax request.
Mark Fisher, the Indy Chamber chief policy officer, said the district was making progress on the budget goals.
“We’ve been very pleased with the buy-in of both the board and the administration,” he said. “These are not going to be easy paths or easy decisions, but they are necessary.”
Classes would begin before Labor Day for the coming school year in the Detroit school district — part of a proposal that would mark the first time in years students in the district would head back to class in August.
It’s a big shift in the district for a number of reasons. It could disrupt the late August vacation plans of teachers and parents and mean a shorter summer break for students. But it could result in a jump start on learning, and align Detroit with a growing number of school districts and charter schools statewide starting early.
The first day of school would be Aug. 26 for students. Teachers would be required to begin reporting on Aug. 19.
The finance committee of the Detroit school board approved the academic calendar for the 2019-20 school year. It would still need approval from the full school board.
And, the Michigan Department of Education would have to approve the district’s request for a waiver that would allow it to start before Labor Day.
State law bars schools from starting the school year until after Labor Day, which falls on Sept. 2 this year — part of an effort to boost tourism in the state. Increasingly, though, school districts and charters have gotten waivers from the state education department.
The number of waivers grew from 26 for the 2012-13 school year to about 150 for the upcoming school year, according to an August Detroit Free Press story. So far, 163 have been granted for the 2019-20 school year, and another six waiver requests are pending approval.
Michigan has about 550 school districts and 300 charter schools.
District officials said the calendar was developed in collaboration with seven unions that represent school employees, including the largest — the Detroit Federation of Teachers. Officials from the teachers union declined to comment Friday until after the proposal could be presented to union members and voted on.
The district also sought input from parents, students, educators, and community members.
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said there are a number of reasons the district is moving to start school early.
“One, we want to start teaching and learning earlier, because you just have more instructional time in anticipation of state assessments,” Vitti said.
Starting earlier would also mean the school year would end earlier — and there would be less time between when the state exams are given in the spring and the end of the school year.
“I’m trying to create a shorter window between testing and the end of school. After testing, the relevancy of the day-to-day instruction declines.”
Days after new statistics showed the city’s elite high schools continue to admit few black and Hispanic students, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the admissions system “has perpetuated massive segregation” — a remarkable shift in rhetoric for a mayor who has avoided the word “segregation” to describe the city’s schools.
“People want to see change,” de Blasio said in response to a question about admissions to the city’s specialized high schools on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show. “That’s why we’re doing something bold here, and we’re saying we’re not going to live by this old system that has perpetuated massive segregation — not just segregation, massive segregation.”
The dramatic shift in tone comes amid renewed debate about his plan to overhaul admissions at eight elite high schools, which currently admit students based on a single exam. On Monday, new data showed that just over 10 percent of offers to the elite schools this year went to black or Hispanic students, even though they represent roughly 70 percent of the city’s enrollment. Just seven black students, out of 895 offers, got into Stuyvesant High School, a statistic that has captured national attention.
For years, de Blasio has avoided the words “integration” or “segregation” — even though the city’s schools are among the most segregated in the country. Those words can’t be found in the mayor’s “diversity” plan, released in June 2017. And de Blasio has suggested segregation is an intractable problem — once saying he can’t “wipe away 400 years of American history.”
So why the sudden shift in language?
One clear reason is the mayor needs to ratchet up pressure on state lawmakers, who have control over the plan’s fate, but have demonstrated little interest in taking action. Even some of the mayor’s supporters say it has dim chances in Albany. (Though for the first time, after the new numbers were released, lawmakers called for hearings and community forums on the issue.)
Under the mayor’s proposal, the top 7 percent of students citywide would gain admission to a specialized school, scrapping the test entirely. De Blasio’s use of stronger language could create more pressure on lawmakers to act, since the the single-test admissions process is written into state law. A “massive segregation” problem is harder to ignore than a “diversity” plan.
He’s also mulling a run for president and may sense an opportunity to be seen fighting for integration during a Democratic primary where racial equity and class are broad themes. There could be a big political upside in being on what de Blasio sees as the right side of a civil rights issue.
Still, adopting stronger language could create more pressure on the mayor to address segregation beyond eight of the city’s 1,800 public schools. Whether he has the appetite to wade into a broader debate about the system as a whole remains to be seen.
Last month, a task force convened by de Blasio issued a series of modest recommendations on how to integrate the city’s schools. The mayor has yet to comment on them.
Gov. Bill Lee's pledge to help low-income students in districts with failing schools is falling flat on some ears in Tennessee, where two of his signature proposals could instead end up benefiting middle-class families and changing the landscape of school systems that are doing just fine.
In his State of the State address earlier this month, the new Republican governor told the legislature that “low-income students deserve the same opportunities as other kids.” He unveiled two initiatives aimed at giving parents more education choices for their children, in accordance with a frequent promise on the campaign trail.
“We need a bold plan that will help level the playing field,” Lee told legislators.
One of his proposals would create a new type of voucher program that gives taxpayer money to some families to pay for private education services for children who are pulled from public schools or starting kindergarten.
But the way the legislation is written, the program could provide an average of $7,300 annually to a family of three who makes up to about $77,000, or a family of four who makes up to about $93,000 — double the annual income under federal eligibility requirements for receiving free and reduced-price lunches.
The other proposal would create a new state commission to hear appeals from organizations whose applications to open charter schools were denied by local school boards.
But the legislation also would empower the new entity to open a new charter school in any Tennessee district that refuses to comply if its local decision to deny an application is overturned. That’s different from current state law that restricts the Tennessee Board of Education, which is the state’s current appellate authorizer, to opening new charter schools only in districts with schools in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent.
Fast tracking legislation
Both the voucher and charter bills were approved by key legislative committees this week, prompting Lee to again call for help for “low-income students.”
“With the legislature’s hard work, school choice has momentum, and we are working together to put students first and strengthen our public education system,” the governor said in a statement issued after the votes.
Others question that.
“I want to take Gov. Lee at his word that he wants to help low-income students who are attending underperforming school,” said Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville, who chairs the legislature’s outnumbered Democratic caucus.
Democratic legislative leaders discuss the governor's voucher and charter initiatives during a news conference. From left are Rep. Karen Camper of Memphis, Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville, Sen. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis, and Rep. Mike Stewart of Nashville. (Photo by Marta W. Aldrich)
“But any rigorous analysis of this legislation, and any genuine consultation with the schools affected, would conclude that the people he says he’s helping would, in fact, be harmed.”
Democratic leaders blasted Lee’s administration on Thursday for his voucher bill that they say is intended to help families that already plan to homeschool or send their kids to private or parochial schools.
“The governor needs to do more homework on vouchers,” Yarbro told reporters. “Whenever vouchers have passed in states like Indiana or Wisconsin, they say it’s to help poor kids in failing schools. But when you look at the reality, most vouchers across the country end up going to higher-income families who never had plans to go to public schools in the first place. And this bill goes out of its way to make upper-income families eligible for vouchers.”
Veering on vouchers
Lee’s proposed program would put an average of $7,300 in education savings accounts for students in districts with three or more low-performing schools, which currently would affect five communities. His advisers say families with low incomes would get priority over more affluent applicants, and the governor drove that point home in his State of the State address.
“ESAs will enable low-income students from the most underperforming schools to attend an independent school of their choice at no cost to their family,” Lee told lawmakers.
"ESAs will enable low-income students from the most underperforming schools to attend an independent school of their choice at no cost to their family."Gov. Bill Lee, State of the State
But the legislation also allows private schools to charge full tuition to those students. In cities like Memphis or Nashville, the price tag for a private education is typically at least twice the amount that the state would offer to participating families.
“If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, a voucher that lowers the cost from $16,000 to $9,000 is worthless,” Yarbro said. “The cost might as well be $9 million.”
A spokeswoman for Lee did not immediately respond when asked whether his proposal could end up bypassing low-income families. But Rep. Bill Dunn, who is carrying the education savings account legislation for the governor, said nothing prevents private schools from providing scholarships or students from participating in work-study programs to offset the full cost of tuition.
The larger intent, he said, is that the program would give students an opportunity to get an education that is better tailored to their needs.
“This isn’t a welfare program,” the Knoxville Republican said. “This is a program to allow families and students to figure out how best do we get the most out of our educational experience.”
Stepping up charters
Lee said the intent of his charter school proposal is to open more high-quality charters and close lower-quality ones. In making his case, he frequently cites a young man he mentored who was profoundly and positively affected by a charter school education.
Rep. Mark White, the Memphis Republican who is shepherding the governor’s legislation, said the bill essentially would transfer to a new commission the same appellate power now given to the State Board of Education.
The measure has the support of the state's charter sector.
“We believe that establishing a high-quality independent statewide appellate authorizer, founded on best practices, will ensure that decisions to open charter schools in Tennessee are based on what is best for students, not politics,” said Maya Bugg, CEO of Tennessee Charter School Center, a nonprofit group that seeks to develop and support high-performing charters.
Not so, said Rep. Mike Stewart, a Democrat from Nashville, where the local school board has fought charter growth tooth and nail.
“The State Board of Education has not — to the great disappointment of charter zones — just rubber-stamped every appeal,” Stewart said of three out of 21 appeals overturned since 2014. “So now the administration plans to create a pro-charter board designed to proliferate charters in every county in this state, and that’s the point of the charter bill.”
Gov. Bill Lee (right) talks with members and staff of the State Board of Education, which currently hears charter appeals in Tennessee.
Rep. Jason Hodges, a Democrat from Clarksville, worries that charter schools — which are publicly funded but independently operated schools — could be introduced to his community and would start to drain funds from Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools.
“Why would we change things and force communities that don’t want charters to have them, especially when their school districts are successful?” Hodges asked.
Lee’s advisers counter that any school district that is performing well would not lose students to charters. In fact, Tennessee’s education savings account program for students with disabilities has enrolled only 137 out of 42,000 eligible students in its third year, leading some to believe that most parents are happy with the public schools their kids are attending and not interested in waiving their federal rights to a free and appropriate education.
The governor’s supporters point out that Lee is proposing significant investments in traditional public schools at the same time that he is pressing for more education options for families who want them. Those investments include $71 million more for teacher pay, $30 million toward school security needs, and another $30 million to beef up career and technical education.
The governor also wants to help districts offset any funding losses that might occur if families opt to leave public schools and accept education savings accounts in the first three years of the program. After that, he’s proposed $25 million in recurring grants to help improve struggling schools.
“From pay raises for teachers, support for rural school leaders, investment in CTE and STEM, more choice for families with accountable charter schools and education savings accounts, Gov. Lee is spurring innovation so that all our schools improve in preparing every student for the jobs of tomorrow,” said Marlon King, director of schools in Fayette County, who served on Lee’s campaign advisory council on education.
“The governor is trying to put children first,” added Dunn, who has long promoted voucher legislation in Tennessee. “And if Democrats are serious about helping poor children out of failing schools, they should step forward and help us."