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VOL. 43 | NO. 12 | Friday, March 22, 2019

Betting our schools on Lee’s voucher plan

Education savings accounts offer choice, little evidence of improving outcomes

By Sheile Burke

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State lawmakers who want school vouchers in Tennessee have watched their plans go up in flames for years after clashing with public school advocates in both urban and rural districts. But Gov. Bill Lee has brought new life to the idea by pushing for a voucher-like program known as education savings accounts.

It’s part of Lee’s K-12 improvement plan, which his administration says would cost $125 million over five years. The ESA plan would start in the fall of 2021 with as many as 5,000 students from underperforming school districts.

Lee is asking for $25 million in this year’s budget and $25 million in each of the next two budgets to build a $75 million fund for the fall 2021 launch.

However, the state could end up spending much more if all of the annual caps are met – 5,000 students in first year, 7,500 in second year, etc.

Lee’s office says it’s much more likely the caps won’t be hit each year and anticipates perhaps 75 percent of the 5,000 available ESAs will be used in the first year.

ESAs are the latest iteration of the voucher movement and are gaining traction around the country. They’ve been championed under the Trump administration by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and supporters say they give parents the opportunity to truly customize their child’s education.

Opponents call them vouchers on steroids.

With traditional vouchers, parents get a taxpayer-funded coupon to pay for the entire cost or a portion of tuition at a private school. But ESAs give more flexibility on how those tax dollars can be spent.

In addition to paying for private schools, the education accounts allow parents to use funds to pay for home schooling, tutoring, online study courses and other educational programs and services.

Parents also could bank some of the money they don’t use and pay for future education expenses or college tuition.

“My ESA plan will strengthen public schools and provide choices for parents at the same time,” Lee said when he announced the program during his state of the state address. “Creating competition will provide a new incentive for schools to improve and provide new opportunities for thousands of students.”

Vouchers have been a hard sell in the Republican-dominated General Assembly. They could never pass in the House because there were too many rural lawmakers who were hesitant to go against the wishes of employees in their local school districts.

The governor is hoping that a new batch of lawmakers, combined with strong support from House Speaker Glen Casada, will help him carry the day.

Lee is pushing for passage of a bill that would allow students in districts with at least three schools in the bottom 10 percent academically to have ESAs. Districts that fit that criterion include Davidson, Hamilton, Jackson-Madison, Knox and Shelby counties.

Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn, center, presents her department’s proposed budget to the Senate. The Senate voted to add $1.4 million to the budget for early reading programs.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

It also includes the state-run Achievement District, which is tasked with turning around the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state.

Students in those districts would be able to get an average of $7,300 each school year to go toward private school tuition or to pay the costs of homeschooling or online schooling.

“Education Savings Accounts, broadly, are just another vehicle being used to give families more educational options,” says Shaka Mitchell, Tennessee director for the American Federation for Children, which favors ESAs.

But public school officials say they are concerned with already underfunded schools losing money on a voucher program that hasn’t proven itself.

“I think if anybody does their homework and research on what’s happened across our country with the vouchers, you will see that there is not a body of evidence out there that shows that it’s been successful, says Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

There is little research on the effectiveness of ESA programs, despite their growth around the country, says Oscar Jiménez-Castellanos, a professor and director of Education Leadership at Santa Clara University. The programs often lack transparency and that proves challenging in getting good data, he says.

“That’s the worrisome part from a researcher perspective,” Jiménez-Castellanos adds. “These ESA programs are not only enacted, but expanding, such as what Tennessee is trying to do, but without any data to support that they’re actually even working.”

Mitchell, however, says parents need relief now.

“If you’re a parent whose kids are zoned for a series of some of the lowest-performing schools in the state, how are we going to give you some better options right now, because you don’t have time to wait another five or 10 years,” he says.

There have been some concerns about potential fraud in the program after an audit discovered more than $700,000 in misspent funds in the Arizona ESA program.

The audit found that parents used their debit cards to purchase supplies from beauty supply shops and sports apparel stores. They also tried to make cash withdrawals.

The ESA bill moving through the legislature would require the state to set up ways for people to make anonymous reports of fraud in the program. And private schools and providers could be terminated from the program.

The governor is trying to counter concerns that public school systems will lose money when students leave by setting up a reccurring $25 million fund beginning this year. School systems that lose students to the ESA program would be reimbursed with this fund for the first three years of the ESA program.

After three years, the annual $25 million would go to the worst school districts in the state in the form of school improvement grants.

Under the legislative proposal, children in those six school districts would be eligible to take advantage of the program only if their parents made up to double the income qualifications for free and reduced-lunch programs. That would put the income limit up to $92,870 for a family of four and $76,886 for a family of three.

If the legislation passes, as many as 5,000 students would be eligible to use ESAs beginning in the 2021-22 school year. Enrollment would be capped at 15,000 students by the fifth year. An additional 1,000 students could be added to the program annually beginning in the sixth year.

Based on other states, the governor’s office states, enrollment is likely to be no more than 75 percent of the cap.

Students using ESAs would have to take the same standardized tests for math and English as children in the public school, unless they are otherwise exempt from state law.

Parents would be able to choose from private schools or educational services approved by:

• The State Department of Education

• A private school accrediting agency that has been approved by the Tennessee State Board of Education

• Regionally accreditation bodies such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools

Six states – Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina and Tennessee – have passed education savings accounts programs. Nevada’s program is inactive after the Nevada Supreme Court declared the funding mechanism unconstitutional.

Tennessee passed a law in 2015 allowing a limited ESA program for students with certain disabilities. There are 137 students enrolled in the program this school year, Chandler Hopper, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, states.

Parents utilizing ESAs must use the money on state-approved education expenses, which include:

• Tuition or fees at a participating school

• Textbooks required by a participating school

• Tutoring services provided by a tutor or tutoring facility that meets the requirements established by the department and the state board

• Payment for purchase of curriculum, including any supplemental materials or instruments required by the curriculum

• Fees for transportation to and from a participating school or educational provider paid to a fee-for-service transportation provider

• Tuition and fees for an eligible nonpublic online learning program or course that meets the requirements set by the department and the state board

• Fees for early postsecondary opportunity courses and examinations required for college admission

• Services provided under a contract with a public school, including individual classes or extracurricular activities or programs

• Computer hardware or other technological devices approved by the department, if the computer hardware or other technological device is used for the student’s educational needs

• School uniforms, if required by a participating school

• Tuition and fees for summer education programs and specialized after-school education programs, which do not include after-school child care

• Tuition and fees at an eligible postsecondary institution

• Textbooks required by an eligible postsecondary institution

• Contributions to an eligible college savings educational investment trust account

• Educational therapy services provided by therapists that meet the requirements established by the department and the state board

• Fees for the management of the ESA by a private or nonprofit financial management organization, as approved by the department.

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