behind the scenes

Trump’s nominee for ed chief already has influenced Tennessee’s voucher debate

PHOTO: YouTube / American Federation for Children
Michigan Republican Betsy DeVos in President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for U.S. secretary of education.

While many Tennesseans are still unfamiliar with President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to oversee the nation’s schools, Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos already has quietly influenced the state’s contentious tug-of-war over a school voucher program.

This election cycle alone, advocacy groups founded and led by DeVos helped to oust at least one outspoken voucher opponent — and elect two new supporters — in Tennessee’s House of Representatives, the key arena for the state’s voucher debate.

From the helm of groups including the American Federation for Children and the Alliance for School Choice, DeVos, a staunch Republican, has contributed millions of dollars nationally to state legislative candidates in favor of vouchers and against those who do not, regardless of political party.

In Tennessee, most of that work has been done through the state’s affiliate of the American Federation for Children, which launched in 2012. The group has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, reaching more than $600,000 for races in 2014. This year, organizers spent at least $169,777 on House races.

Vouchers, which allow the use of taxpayer money for private school tuition, have been a hot potato issue in Tennessee in recent years. Three times since 2011, a voucher bill for low-income students has been approved by the state Senate, only to be shot down in the House, where lawmakers responded to constituent concerns about undermining public schools. But the votes have been increasingly close. During the most recent session, the proposal was only two votes shy of the necessary 50 to become law.

This year, the Tennessee Federation for Children targeted several seats aimed at tipping the balance. Republican Paul Sherrell, who received a $5,000 contribution, defeated Democratic incumbent Rep. Kevin Dunlap for a seat representing Warren, Grundy and White counties. A public high school teacher, Dunlap virulently opposed vouchers during both years of his term serving on a House education panel.

The group also spent nearly $6,000 in support of Republican Michael Curcio, who won the Dickson-area district seat held by Democrat and voucher opponent David Shepard before he retired this year.

This summer, Tennessee Federation for Children was active during the summer’s Democratic primaries in Memphis, where the latest voucher proposal would have the largest impact. There, the affiliate spent $54,466 in support of school choice candidates — and a combined $25,144 against incumbents Antonio Parkinson and Johnnie Turner, who consistently have voted against voucher bills. Parkinson and Turner retained their seats, and only one candidate supported by the Tennessee Federation for Children won: Rep. John DeBerry, a passionate believer that vouchers would improve outcomes in his city.

The Tennessee affiliate is funded in part by DeVos’s philanthropic foundation, the Alliance for School Choice, receiving $200,000 in 2014. The same year, the foundation awarded $100,000 to the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank that encourages lawmakers to embrace school choice legislation including vouchers.

It’s not yet clear if the Tennessee House’s pro-voucher contingent gained sufficient ground as a result of spending in this year’s elections, though the lead sponsor of last year’s voucher bill is optimistic.

“The elections definitely benefitted those who believe parents should have a choice in where the students go to school,” Rep. Bill Dunn said this week.

The Knoxville Republican noted that support for vouchers has steadily increased in Tennessee since he was first elected to the legislature more than 20 years ago. While he believes that support needs to grow to clinch the voucher vote, he attributes the gradual rise in part to groups like Tennessee Federation for Children.

“I’m very, very happy that people have gotten involved and said they’re willing to support this,”  he said.

Want to know more about how Tennessee’s most recent voucher proposal would impact schools? Read our explainer here.

Building Better Schools

How one Indianapolis neighborhood says they can save their struggling school by taking control

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Kindergarten students at School 15 were stuck inside for recess because of damp and rainy weather.

Residents on the near east side of Indianapolis have worked hundreds of hours, held dozens of meetings and spent over $100,000 in the last year on an ambitious project: Planning a new future for their struggling neighborhood school.

Now, leaders are on the cusp of finding out whether their plan will be approved by the Indianapolis Public Schools board. If it wins support, it could be the first neighborhood-led effort to create an IPS innovation school, offering a model for other community groups across the city.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 15 has long struggled with low test scores, but community leaders say they have a plan to help turn the school around.

Neighbors who have a stake in the success of School 15 would have control, said James Taylor, CEO of the John Boner Neighborhood Centers, which is one of the community groups behind the plan.

“That really creates a different kind of context when you are making decisions in terms of staffing, in terms of the structure of the school,” he said. “There is a direct accountability that we all hold.”

Their vision for the school includes new staff, a longer year and more support for struggling families. But at its core, the planners are looking to create a traditional, thriving neighborhood school, where families can walk and parents play an essential role.

School 15 has lots of challenges. Last year, 32 percent of students were learning English and 87 percent were poor enough to get subsidized meals. Many families at the school have unstable housing, so students leave and new kids enroll throughout the year. The school has struggled academically for years, and it received an F from the state in 2016.

Community leaders are betting, however, that they can turn the school around by improving academics, making life more stable for current families and drawing in neighborhood parents who are choosing other schools.

If the proposal to convert School 15 to an innovation school is approved, it would be led by Principal Ross Pippin, a long-time teacher who took the helm last spring. But it would be overseen by a new nonprofit that would make decisions on everything from spending to the calendar and curriculum. The nonprofit would also employ most of the teachers, who would not be part of the district union.

“You get ultra-local control of your school, and so you can really be responsive to every detail of your school,” Pippin said. “That’s really to me the biggest excitement about innovation schools.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Principal Ross Pippin took over leadership at School 15 last spring. He joined the school as a teacher in 2008.

Innovation schools have most of the independence of charter schools but they are still considered part of the district. Since the Indiana legislature created innovation schools three years ago, the district has converted a handful of schools to innovation status. But most of those are managed by outside charter operators. School 15 would be the first innovation school planned by local leaders — notably from the Boner Center and Englewood Christian Church, which is active in community development.

One reason Taylor and others embraced the idea of creating their own innovation school was precisely to avoid a school “restart” led by an outside manager. School 15 has grappled with low test scores for several years — even landing on a federal warning list over a decade ago — and as IPS moves to radically overhaul failing schools, its future is uncertain, Taylor said.

“A lot of the most strongly pro (traditional) public school advocates that we have in our neighborhood are the ones that are driving this planning on the innovation school because they knew change was coming,” Taylor said. “Either we lead and help guide and help shape what that change is going to look like or it’s going to happen to us.”

Their plan for improving the long-struggling school includes extending the school day, creating new blocks of time for teachers to collaborate and adding a second educator to many classrooms. There will also be on-site staff from the Boner Center — the community center already provides services to many families in the area — who will help parents with challenges like finding jobs or getting stable housing.

Shiwanda Brown, a member of the nonprofit board, said that she hopes a neighborhood innovation school will attract staff who are more committed and that there is less teacher and principal turnover. Brown sent two daughters to School 15, her youngest finished last year, and she said keeping staff has been on ongoing challenge.

“(We want to) make sure the teachers that come on board are … there because they want to be there — they are there because they love to do what they are doing,” Brown said.

Creating a community-led school is a steep challenge. Over the past year, the group has spent hundreds of hours and about $100,000 in grant funding on forming a nonprofit, applying for federal funding and reaching out to families, Taylor said. But the near eastside neighborhood around School 15 is unusually well prepared for this kind of work, and several leaders involved with the effort were already working together on plans to revitalize the neighborhood.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
A mural brings a spark of color to an empty lot across the street from Englewood Christian Church. The church runs a community development corporation that has been instrumental in revitalizing the neighborhood around School 15.

It’s also a diverse community, with many stable, middle-class families that could help School 15 thrive. But as it stands, those parents often aren’t choosing their neighborhood school, instead opting for magnet or charter schools. The hope is that as an innovation school, it will be able to attract some of those families.

Taylor said that School 15 will be a “much healthier” school regardless of whether it is able to attract those families. But the aim is to create a school that is so successful that all kinds of families want to enroll.

“Our belief is that if we do our work well and if we do it right, those issues will take care of themselves,” he said.

The proposal for School 15 is already attracting interest from local parents — and sparking conversation.

Principal Pippin, who become involved when leaders were first fleshing out the idea of a neighborhood-run school, said that parents who don’t currently have kids at the school have been contacting them to learn about the proposal and stopping by for tours.

“For some reason, they didn’t think Thomas Gregg (School 15) was an option, but they see innovation as suddenly, now the school becomes an option for their family,” Pippin said. “The neighborhood’s excitement about the potential has really been not just surprising but exciting to me.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Kindergarteners serve paper breakfast at School 15.

April Adams, a teacher who lives in the neighborhood and worships at Englewood Christian Church, said that fellow congregants have started to ask for advice on whether to choose School 15. Although they are interested, they are also afraid that there might be better options for their children.

But Adams, who is pregnant, said that she and her husband are already planning on sending their children to School 15. She also hopes to work at the school eventually.

“It can’t just be one type of family that’s going to School 15,” Adams said. “If we are going to make this a community school, then the community needs to be invested.”

drilling down

Five takeaways from the NAACP’s charter school hearing in Memphis

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Alice Huffman, chairwoman of the NAACP's National Task Force for Quality Education, speaks during a public hearing in Memphis.

Declaring their desire to understand the nuances of charter schools in cities like Memphis, members of a national NAACP task force dug in this week to the nitty-gritty of the education reform tool and how it’s impacting everything from funding to equity.

The group’s National Task Force for Quality Education heard more than four hours of presentations Tuesday night from Mid-South education leaders invited to share their insights in the wake of last fall’s call from the civil rights group for a moratorium on charter school growth.

The NAACP has come under fire for its position, with some other civil rights organizations pointing out that charter schools offer options and innovations aimed at educating low-income minority students. The task force was created to drill down on issues such as school accountability, transparency and discipline before sending its report to the board in May.

About 200 people attended the hearing that ended with a public comment period in which about a dozen teachers and parents from Memphis and Chicago spoke.

Here are five themes that dominated the discussion:

Charter schools are not a silver bullet in solving inequities in education.

“The original charter schools were set up to help all of us learn,” said Carol Johnson, who served as superintendent of the former Memphis City Schools. “Too often, they have operated as a singular solution, a stand-alone effort, the one magic bullet that will close all achievement gaps.”

While there’s much division about charter schools, there was consensus that more collaboration is needed among traditional and charter schools to figure how best to address decades of inequities in educating America’s black children.

The NAACP’s call for a charter moratorium does not excuse low-performing traditional schools.

Task force members emphasized that traditional schools need to step up their game, too.

“If we stopped all charter schools today, we’d still have a huge problem,” said Scot Esdaile, a task force member from Connecticut. “There are schools in our communities that have not been performing for a long time. We have to come up with a comprehensive plan to put an end to those schools in our communities also.”

State funding for education is insufficient, no matter what kind of public school it is.

One of the elephants in the room was not actually in the room: state government.

Many presenters jabbed at state leaders for funding that they said is inadequate to oversee Tennessee’s growing charter sector.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
About 200 people attended this week’s hearing in Memphis.

But even before the state legislature passed a 2002 law opening the door to charter schools, district leaders complained that Tennessee wasn’t allocating enough money for traditional schools — a charge that has sparked a new round of funding lawsuits in the last two years.

By the same token, charter leaders have lamented the lack of local or state funding for facilities, even though they are part of the public school system, too.

A charter advisory committee in Memphis has made strides in coming up with potential solutions to issues related to charter accountability, including a voluntary fee that charters would pay the district to provide better oversight.

But the money drained from students leaving traditional schools for charters has yet to be addressed, said Teresa Jones, a member of the Shelby County Schools Board of Education.

“The funding model is antiquated and inadequate. It actually pits charters against the local school district,” she said. “I’m not saying charters have no place. … I think the state did not really address that at all and is continuing to not address the funding impact on the local school district.”

The conversation is becoming increasingly important as the United States prepares for a new administration.

President-elect Donald Trump supports school choice programs such as charter schools and tuition vouchers that allow families to spend taxpayer money to send their children to private schools. He’s nominated Michigan’s Betsy DeVos, a proponent of both, to be his secretary of education.

With growing uncertainty on how educational systems will change under a Trump administration, task force members said facts must be established on the impact of charter schools on the education of minority students.

Though Trump hasn’t laid out a detailed plan, his selection of DeVos suggests he’ll aggressively seek to reshape the nation’s public education system.

The NAACP is open to learning about the nuances of charter schools across the nation.

When the NAACP board passed its resolution resolution calling for a pause in charter growth, many charter leaders feared the civil rights organization would generalize charter schools at the expense of those that are working well.

But participants walked away from Tuesday’s hearing saying they felt better as task force members softened their language while learning about the education landscape in Memphis and about Tennessee’s charter law. The state only allows nonprofit operators that are authorized by local school districts or the state.

“When I measure what they’ve done in Tennessee and what the legislation has been, what the laws and standards have been in Tennessee, it’s better than a lot of places, but it still needs a lot of work,” said Gloria Sweet-Love, president of the NAACP’s Tennessee State Conference.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Achievement Schools Superintendent Malika Anderson speaks to the task force.

Task force members learned about Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which relies mostly on charter networks for its school turnaround work. They praised the state-run district for addressing Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools and confining enrollment mostly to neighborhood zones, even as the ASD has begun to lose charter networks and plans to close at least one school.

ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson was asked whether charter schools contribute to segregation in Memphis, where decades of white flight was underscored by the 2014 exit of six white suburban municipalities from the urban district serving mostly poor black students.

“I think there are systemic inequities in public education. Period,” Anderson said. “The systemic inequities that exist in housing, in the job market and in zoning of schools … is creating the kinds of failure that we see in predominantly black neighborhoods. We go where the need is. I don’t think it’s discriminatory to go where this is needed.”

The hearing was the task force’s second of seven planned across the nation. Other hearings are scheduled for Detroit, New York City, Los Angeles, New Orleans and Orlando.