Vouching for Winners: More "Education Reform" is Coming, But Proponents Have Shaky Success Records

On Monday, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush came to Nashville for a press event with Gov. Bill Haslam.

"This is a time of great importance for our country, and this is the single most important thing we can be doing," Bush stated at one point.

What was this matter of such urgency? Did it involve national security? A fiscal crisis? The battle over gun control?

None of the above. Bush was referring to school vouchers (and, by default, education reform in general). In a brief media avail after the event, Haslam announced that he would indeed be introducing legislation to enact a limited voucher system in Tennessee.

Monday's announcement followed several days of a whirlwind media tour by Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the District of Columbia's public-education system who now runs StudentsFirst, a non-profit dedicated to "transforming" public education at the state level. The organization is active in 17 states, including Tennessee.

Like Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education, StudentsFirst supports the use of vouchers, charter schools, and limitations on teachers' unions, among other methods, to improve the public education system. Like Bush's organization, Rhee's non-profit is gaining ground as a political powerhouse. And like Bush, Rhee's widely publicized reforms have a mixed record of success, at best.

According to an investigative report that aired on PBS' Frontline last week, some of the D.C. schools that saw a rise in test scores under Rhee's tenure may have only done so through cheating—a large number of schools had suspiciously high erasure rates on standardized tests.

Rhee denies the cheating; in the documentary she says, "I can point to dozens and dozens of schools where they saw very steady gains over the course of the years we were there or even saw some dramatic gains that were maintained." But according to the Washington Post's Jay Matthews, who examined the year-by-year test results at 115 D.C. schools from 2008 to 2012, there are only 13 schools with the results Rhee claims. And despite the highest per-pupil amount of spending in the country, D.C. schools remain the lowest ranked in the country.

Yet Rhee has big plans for her new home state. Rhee splits her time between Nashville and Sacramento, Ca., where her husband, former NBA player Kevin Johnson, is mayor. (The pair were married at Blackberry Farm in 2011.) Rhee's two daughters attend school in Nashville. Although she told the Nashville City Paper earlier this week, "I am a public school parent," her oldest daughter Starr apparently attends the private girls school Harpeth Hall, according to a press release on the school's website from last spring.

Rhee's ex-husband is the state's Commissioner of the Department of Education, Kevin Huffman. The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported Sunday that Rhee and Huffman usually talk daily, mostly about their children, but not always.

"We do talk about education policy sometimes in that I've known this man for the better part of our adult life, and we've always provided a lot of input to one another's careers," the paper quotes Rhee saying.

According to a blog post last week by state Sen. Stacey Campfield, a member of the Senate education committee, Rhee is planning to suggest changes to the state's Basic Education Program (BEP) formula.

"Rhee said she had studied our spending model and called it probably the worst in the nation if not about the worst she had ever seen. She said she was going to be coming out with some proposed changes to make the formula better fit for the direction we were going and more in line with what most other states do," Campfield wrote.

And in line with what "other states do" could mean Florida. While Bush was governor, from 1999 to 2007, the state instituted a series of educational reforms like a statewide voucher system, distance learning, and a universal pre-K program (for which vouchers could be used to send one's children to church-run preschools).

On Monday Bush said the state had made the "greatest learning gains in the country" thanks to his reforms, which have now become the basis for his non-profit work. But several reports have called those gains into question. A Reuters investigation last fall pointed out that the test scores, which dramatically increased while Bush was in office, have dropped in recent years, and high-school graduation rates still lag behind other large, diverse states such as California and Ohio. Critics also note that studies commissioned by the state have not shown low-income students who use vouchers to attend private schools to have higher test scores than their peers.

Despite that, Bush stated confidently on Monday, "All schools do better when there's competition." He compared the use of vouchers to a grocery store with multiple kinds of milk. "World better because of choices [sic]. Radical idea," Bush said.

Still, Florida's voucher program was originally found unconstitutional, as it allowed state education funds to be spent at parochial schools. That program is now funded by corporate donations, but Haslam aims to finance his voucher plan through BEP funds. He hasn't released the full legislation yet, but Knoxville Rep. Bill Dunn, a member of the House education committee, says he doesn't see a problem with the plan.

"What the governor is proposing is not that different from the HOPE scholarship," Dunn says. When it was pointed out that the HOPE funds come directly from lottery sales, Dunn says, "Those are still state dollars. We are still passing legislation directing how they are sent."

Dunn, for his part, says he'd even support a full voucher program, not just the limited one Haslam is suggesting for low-income students in failing schools.

"I think the tax dollars belong to the citizens of Tennessee," Dunn says. He predicts the voucher plan will pass with wide bipartisan support and points to Florida as a place where vouchers have had great success.

Of course, it's possible some of that bipartisan support will have been helped along by StudentsFirst. The organization's lobbying arm donated about $427,000 to both Democratic and Republican campaigns in Tennessee last year, including $165,000 to members of the House and Senate education committees. (Neither Dunn nor Campfield have received donations from the PAC, according to the most recent data available.)

Other education reform measures likely to be introduced this session include a statewide charter authorizer, which would give the state the ability to create a charter school in a district even if the school board opposes it, and a "parent trigger" bill that would allow a majority of parents at a failing school to choose how to turn it around, including firing administrators, closing the school, or converting it to a charter academy.

The first measure seems to have widespread support, but it's unclear how much backing the second has. And other reform measures are likely, including a reintroduction of Campfield's legislation from last session that would tie the amount of a parent's state benefits to his or her child's performance in school (a bill that he claims Rhee is interested in helping him get passed). Yet it remains to be seen whether any amount of education reform can make a difference when Tennessee remains in the bottom five of per-pupil spending in the country.