The Voucher Fight in Tennessee

In this piece for The Progressive, I detail the persistence of those interests seeking to privatize our public schools — not just in Tennessee, but around the country.

When a popular governor passes a top legislative priority in his first year in office, one might anticipate that the initiative enjoys broad public support. Not so in Tennessee, where Republican Governor Bill Lee secured passage of a school voucher scheme, referred to as Education Savings Accounts. In fact, recent polling suggests only 40 percent of Tennesseans support school vouchers. Five previous attempts to pass some sort of voucher plan have failed, opposed not only by the handful of Democrats in the General Assembly, but also by a significant number of Republicans (mostly representing rural districts).

How did such an unpopular idea become a top priority of a popular governor? Why did the legislature give approval to the use of public money for private schools in 2019 when a bipartisan group of lawmakers had blocked such legislation in the past?

The answer is shockingly simple and unsurprising: money. The details, though, reveal an unrelenting push to dismantle America’s public schools. Yes, this story includes familiar characters like Betsy DeVos and the Koch brothers joining forces with a Tennessee cast to advance their vision for our nation’s schools. That vision: Public money flowing to private schools with little regard for the impact on students. In fact, the evidence is pretty clear—vouchers simply don’t achieve their stated goal of helping kids improve academic outcomes. Tennessee’s plan could result in taking more than $300 million away from local school districts to support private entities.

Prior to 2019, there were five consecutive attempts by voucher advocates—including DeVos’s American Federation for Children—to pass privatization schemes in Tennessee. All five of those attempts were met with defeat. In fact, the losses were so bad that a number of contract lobbyists hired by Team DeVos quit.

Despite these setbacks, the privatizers were undeterred heading into 2019. Their secret: Incoming Governor Bill Lee.


Prior to his election to the state’s highest office, Lee ran his family’s HVAC company, one of the largest in middle Tennessee. He was a reliable contributor to GOP campaigns and also a strong supporter of the Tennessee arm of American Federation for Children. The signs he’d be making an aggressive voucher push were readily apparent with his early staff hires. Both his policy director and his legislative director had been former staffers of pro-voucher groups.

While Lee was clearly in the pocket of DeVos, he’d need help to convince the legislature to pass an unpopular plan that had failed so many times before. Enter new House Speaker Glen Casada. Casada, a vocal supporter of vouchers, seemed likely to give Lee the legislative victory he wanted, and apparently, he was willing to do so at any cost.

At the time the voucher plan reached the house floor, it appeared to be in trouble. Contentious committee debates indicated faltering support. It was unclear the bill had the needed fifty votes to advance. In fact, when the bill was finally voted on, only forty-nine members voted in favor. It appeared vouchers would again be defeated, even with last-minute tweet-support from Donald Trump. Then, Casada made the unprecedented move of holding the vote open for more than thirty minutes while he conducted “conferences” with members of his caucus who had been recorded as voting against the measure. Finally, Knox County’s Jason Zachary switched his vote and the bill passed, 50-48. Zachary indicated he’d been assured Knox County would be taken out of the final bill.

Zachary’s comment was a familiar refrain among lawmakers who had campaigned in opposition to vouchers but voted in favor. Time and again, rural Republican legislators would announce to constituents that while vouchers were “not right” for their districts, the bill would only apply to Memphis and Nashville. Interestingly, the legislative delegations from those two cities were strong in their opposition to vouchers.

Casada’s strong-arm tactics weren’t the only tools being used to sway votes. Pro-voucher groups backed by funds from Americans for Prosperity ran Facebook ads attacking Republican lawmakers who voted against voucher legislation during the committee process. The ads included text that listed the lawmaker’s name and said they “failed to stand with Donald Trump and Gov. Bill Lee, siding against Tennessee families and their right to access a high-quality public education.”

The FBI is now investigating the house vote that led to the passage of the voucher bill. There’s also an FBI investigation into the campaign finances of the senate sponsor of the bill. And Casada? He’s announced his resignation due to a scandal that earned the attention of John Oliver.

But no matter the outcome of these investigations, backers of school privatization can claim public policy victory. It took a new governor, an unscrupulous house speaker, and untold dark money dollars, but after six attempts, Tennessee now has a school voucher plan—one that could shift more than $300 million away from public schools in the state.

The lesson from Tennessee is clear: Advocates for public education face privatization forces with vast resources and patience. The fight is going to be a long one.

Read this story and more about the fight for America’s public schools at The Progressive.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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MNEA Backs Clemmons for Nashville Mayor

From a press release:

This week, the Metropolitan Nashville Education Association Political Action Committee for Education (MNEA-PACE) endorsed State Representative John Ray Clemmons to be Nashville’s next mayor. MNEA represents hundreds of Metro Nashville Public School teachers, amplifying their voices and advocating for their needs.


Regarding this endorsement, Rep. Clemmons released the following statement:


As a proud MNPS parent, I am honored to receive the endorsement of Nashville’s teachers. As both a parent and public servant, my strong support for our public schools has never wavered, and education will be our city’s top priority while I’m mayor. I am prepared to lead and make the tough decisions necessary to fully fund our schools, support our educators, and provide every child across Nashville with a high-quality education. I am truly thankful for the support of MNEA and look forward to working together for the benefit of all students in the years to come.

MNEA is the latest organization to endorse Rep. Clemmons for mayor of Nashville. He has also received the endorsement of the Central Labor Council of Nashville & Middle Tennessee, the Nashville Building and Construction Trades Council, Communications Workers of America Local 3808, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 429, Heat and Frost Insulators Local 86, and United Brotherhood of Carpenters Local 233.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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4% for Knox Teachers

The Knox County Board of Education approved a 4% raise for teachers at a recent meeting, according to WBIR-TV in Knoxville:

BOE members voted in favor to give teachers a 4%, which is up from a 3.5% raise in 2020 education budget the BOE passed in April. 

Board Chair Patti Bounds said that’s the largest raise for Knox County teachers in at least a decade and said teachers deserve it. She also said it will help the county retain good talent.

The move comes even as Governor Bill Lee’s education budget only included a 2.5% increase in the state allocation to districts for teacher salaries.

Many districts around the state are looking at actual raises for teachers in the 1-3% range as the state’s school funding formula continues to suffer from a significant deficit in funding.

Tennessee teachers earn well below the national and even regional averages for teacher salaries, with teacher salaries in Tennessee increasing at less than half the national rate over the past eight years.

Overall, Tennessee ranks 44th in education funding in the country.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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TC and Dr. Battle

Nashville education blogger TC Weber sat down recently with MNPS Director of Schools Dr. Adrienne Battle to talk about her experience as both a student in MNPS and now as the district’s top official.

Here’s how it got started:

It’s an amazing and humbling opportunity for me because as you’ve mentioned, just being a student here in MNPS, I’ve experienced many of the same things that our students are experiencing. I’ve sat in the same seat. Along the way, it’s a positive opportunity to reflect back upon. I really do attribute a lot of my opportunities and my success to the experiences I had right here in MNPS. I had loving, caring, talented teachers around me every single day. As a matter of fact, I knew very early on I wanted to be an educator because of those teachers. They were my heroes. I witnessed every day what they were doing to pour knowledge into me and other students. It was just a powerful thing that instilled in me a desire to do that for others as well. So this is very surreal and also a great opportunity, one that I don’t take lightly.

READ MORE about Dr. Battle’s journey through education in MNPS.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

Mayor of Vouchers

Is Nashville Mayor David Briley a supporter of school vouchers? His actions certainly don’t indicate he opposes them. In fact, while Governor Bill Lee’s “Education Savings Account” voucher scheme was advancing in the legislature, Briley was working closely with a lobbying firm pushing the plan.

Here’s more on what Briley has said, done, and not done as legislation with a devastating financial impact on Nashville ultimately became law.

You might be asking how the mayor of Tennessee’s largest city ended up working with a prominent law firm that led the charge to undercut and underfund Metro Nashville Public Schools. That’s a great question and one voters may be asking as elections approach in August. Here’s a timeline of Briley’s “Disappearing Dave” act when it comes to fighting for MNPS at the General Assembly.

On January 31, 2018, Nashville was caught off-guard by the biggest mayoral scandal since Bill Boner as Megan Barry admitted to having an affair with her Metro Police bodyguard. 

A little more than a week later, on February 8, Metro entered into an amended “intergovernmental relations” contract with the law firm of Adams & Reese. The firm’s first public work? Its Memphis-based partner Lucian Pera questioned the ethics of the District Attorney Glenn Funk for investigating Barry on February 23Nate Rau of The Tennessean noted on February 28 that Adams & Reese pay from Metro Nashville jumped by 58% just prior to the firm’s interjection into the Barry scandal.

The Barry brouhaha reached its climax on March 6 as she pled guilty to felony theft and resigned from office. Vice Mayor David Briley succeeded Barry as Mayor of “It City.”

On April 30, Briley had his first “State of Metro” address and proclaimed that education is the “biggest key to Nashville’s success.” … then quickly disappeared from education policy discussions.

Meanwhile charter school advocates TennesseeCAN, represented by Adams & Reese, in their 2018 Legislative Report congratulate the Tennessee State Legislature for providing charter schools with more access to public school tax dollars and then call for more money in the future, at the expense of public schools.

The following February, Gov. Bill Lee’s “Tennessee Education Savings Account Pilot Program” — (voucher scheme) is introduced in the Tennessee General Assembly. The bill was strongly supported by TennesseeCAN (among others) and their Adams & Reese lobbyists — TennesseeCAN is located in the Nashville offices of Adams & Reese. Briley issued a strong statement on how this legislation will have a devastating economic impact on Nashville schools. You might think that with such a big gun pointed at Nashville, he would direct the city’s lobbyists to fight against the bill like Memphis and Knoxville did. Instead, Briley did nothing.

On March 29Mayor Briley angrily appeared on television  and threatened the school board, telling them to “get their house in order,” and that future Metro money will come with strings attached.

Meanwhile, the anti-public education forces were on the march at the Capitol. The state House Government Operations Committee approved Bill Lee’s voucher bill on April 1. Briley was quiet.

Three days later, Briley and his staff hosted the “Mayor’s Legislative Reception” at the Bridgestone Arena on April 4. Adams & Reese was the primary sponsor of the reception. Among the attendees are Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, Senate sponsor of Lee’s voucher bill. Number of comments made by Briley about vouchers? Zero.

Metro Councilman Dave Rosenberg on April 9 questioned how Adams & Reese can be lobbying for legislation that is contrary to the will and need of Metro Government’s citizens. Briley’s office said in response they support the firm and added, “vouchers were not discussed during contract negotiations with Adams & Reese.”

Speaker of the House Glen Casada held the House vote open for 30 minutes on April 23 so he could twist one arm enough to pass Gov. Lee’s voucher bill and, in doing so, Knox County was exempted from voucher legislation. Only Memphis and Nashville remained in Casada’s crosshairs.

The same day, Briley held a media availability promoting the “Mayor’s Blood Pressure Check Up.” The photo op is in his office. He made no public statement on vouchers.

At his second State of Metro address, on April 30, Briley states “Education will always be priority number one. There are few things more essential to building a strong Nashville than having great public schools.” He then adds, “While the state of Tennessee will be putting more than $100 million of new money into K-12 schools across the state this year, Metro will get just $587,000 of that.” Maybe having lobbyists who shared the city’s interest in public education would have helped.

(By contrast, when Briley needed to stop the state from preempting his plan to sell off Nashville’s parking meters, he sent his chief of staff, in-house lobbyist, and chief strategy officer.)

On that same day, the Tennessee General Assembly appointed a conference committee to resolve issues on the voucher bill and how it would affect the state’s most populous counties. No one from Davidson County was appointed. Briley was silent.

Gov. Bill Lee signed his voucher bill into state law on May 24, a law that only affects Nashville and Memphis. A law that the city of Nashville was oddly quiet on, yet one that will have a significant impact on the city’s budget for years to come. Briley celebrated the one-year anniversary of his special election victory on the same day instead.

While the state makes preparations to take money out of public schools, the lobbying firm responsible for vouchers continues to cash checks from Metro. All the while, Disappearing Dave says nothing.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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Stuck in the Middle

Nashville teacher and education blogger Mary Holden talks about her transition from teaching high school to teaching middle school — and about being the middle of her teaching career.

Here are some highlights:

There are many weird things that happen in middle school that I never experienced as a high school teacher. Boogers. Penises drawn in weird places. Bad smells, especially after PE on a hot day. Excessive bottle flipping. Weird dance moves that kids break into constantly and at the most random times.

One thing that helped me maintain my spark was the amazing group of teachers I worked with this year. In high school, of course I worked with other teachers, and some are still great friends of mine. But generally speaking, teachers don’t have the chance to really bond like they do when teaching middle school.

In middle school, my grade level team worked together all year long. We ate lunch together every day. We bitched, we gossip, we laughed, we shared joys, sorrows, and hard times. We wore matching Sixth Grade Squad t-shirts. We wore #RedforEd on Tuesdays. We celebrated each other’s successes, birthdays, weddings, and a retirement with potlucks and parties during lunch time. And we had Chick-fil-A Fridays on paydays. We still have an ongoing text thread that will live on in infamy! We were there for each other in a way I have never experienced in my career. I have never felt that level of support.

Check out her post (and all of her blog). It’s a great firsthand account of teaching.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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The Underperforming ASD

Tennessee’s Achievement School District continues to struggle even as a new leader pushes for more accountability.

Chalkbeat has the story of Sharon Griffin seeking greater control over day-to-day operations in light of consistently poor performance among ASD schools.

The district promised to raise the state’s lowest performing schools into the top 25% percent academically within five years. But the district hasn’t produced large academic gains. It’s struggling to attract students and retain high-quality teachers. And the local districts in Nashville and Memphis, where the schools are located, historically haven’t collaborated well with the achievement district because it took over their schools without local permission.

In English and math exams taken in 2017, not a single Achievement School District elementary, middle, or high school had more than 20% of students scoring on grade level, according to Tennessee school-level test data released last summer. Not one of the six high schools in the achievement district had more than 7% of students scoring on grade level.

The ongoing challenges faced by the ASD could be a result of mission creep or simply a lack of any real accountability.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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An Interview with John Ray Clemmons

Nashville Mayoral candidate and current state representative John Ray Clemmons took the time to answer some questions about how he views the Mayor’s Office as it relates to education in Nashville. Here are his responses:

What are your top priorities for MNPS?

  1. Increase school funding to: increase pay for our teachers and para-professionals; fill vacancies with high-quality teachers; hire counselors, ELL specialists and a community partnership coordinator for every school; purchase new textbooks and classroom resources; and, fund our schools at the recommended level of $15,000 per student per year.
  2. Build a strong partnership with MNPS leadership to provide full Metro support to achieve a shared vision and create an environment more conducive to stability and longevity in the Director of Schools’ office.  
  3. Take more responsibility for the direct impact Metro has on student performance inside the classroom by working to address significant challenges facing students outside of our schools (adverse childhood experiences, hunger, homelessness/housing instability, access to transportation, traumatic events, etc.).
  4. Facilitate more budgetary transparency.
  5. Increase socio-economic diversity in our schools.
  6. Work to increase parental involvement and private partnerships.

As a public school parent of three young boys and elected official, I have had the opportunity to observe amazing things happening in schools across our city, and I cannot wait to see what our educators will accomplish with our full support and adequate resources.


What is your plan for addressing the teacher shortage in Nashville?
I would like to first review all school-based budgets submitted by the schools to gain a better understanding of and evaluate the biggest areas of need. Next, I would follow up by communicating with educators and administrators to create a priority list. Then, I would work with MNPS to draft a strategic recruitment plan and create a realistic budget to execute the plan.  

I fully recognize that our pay must be more competitive to attract high-quality teachers.

I also recognize that every school faces its own unique challenges and has varying needs. Those challenges need to be reflected in the way we budget more responsibly.  

What can be done to address chronic underfunding of Nashville schools?

First, we should start by making public education our number one priority and using clear, reliable data to demonstrate the real need for more funds in our school system.  While there are various factors limiting the pool of available revenues to invest in education, we must start by protecting our property tax base and restoring Metro’s fiscal integrity. We should also ask more of our entire community via public/private partnerships, technology/resource exchanges, volunteerism, and other means. Everyone is impacted by the quality of our public school system, either directly or indirectly.  I would also tap MNPS employees, including unions, to provide much-needed perspective and help with issues concerning pay competitiveness, training, and recruitment.

What role can the Mayor’s Office play in shaping state education policy?
Nashville is the economic engine of the state and produces a larger percentage of our workforce than any other city. The mayor has the ability to use these facts as leverage to advocate for policy, as well as fight state overreach and ensure that Nashville gets its fair share of state resources. Unlike the current mayor who remained completely silent on Gov. Lee’s voucher bill, Nashville’s mayor has a large platform that can and should be used when appropriate to demonstrate the problems with ill-conceived state policy.  Nashville needs and deserves a mayor who will not hesitate to act in the best interests of Nashville and fight to protect those interests.

How do you envision the relationship between the Mayor and the MNPS school board?
As mayor, I will work to build a strong partnership with MNPS leadership to provide full Metro support to achieve a shared vision and create an environment more conducive to stability and longevity in the Director of Schools’ office.  Rather than threaten to take over the schools or continue the finger pointing, I would seek to serve as a partner with the school board and the director of schools to ensure that all stakeholders are working toward the same goal. We would maintain an open door policy with school officials and maintain an open line of communication to stay apprised of how we can collaborate to achieve strategic objectives and improve student performance.  I would also like to appoint someone from the public or private sector with relevant expertise or knowledge to each school board committee to simply act as a subject-matter resource for board members. Ultimately, we must work together to bridge divides, build trust, and maintain mutual respect to ensure that our educators and students succeed.

If you are elected, what message would you send to MNPS teachers and staff?

I am in awe of your commitment to our children, and I am always available to listen and learn how I can help. No one has a more direct impact on the future of this city than our educators and staff, and I openly recognize that. I have your back.

What would you tell families moving to Nashville about MNPS?

I would tell them that I believe in MNPS so strongly that I proudly send my own children to an MNPS school every day with total confidence that they are receiving a quality education.  I would then encourage them to get engaged and stay engaged in their child’s school.  The diversity, educational opportunities, students and educators in MNPS make it truly special.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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Portfolium Responds

On Monday, Tennessee a group of Tennessee teachers gathered in Lebanon to grade Pre-k and K portfolios. The process didn’t go all that well last year, and this year, it was more of the same.

Now, the founder of Portfolium has responded in the comments on this blog. I’m publishing his response here for all to see:

As the founder of Portfolium, I sincerely apologize that several technical issues caused the problems reported in this article and that it created such a challenge for this first day of the statewide portfolio scoring event. We need to, and will, continue to improve to ensure that our customers and partners don’t experience this again. We have since fixed the issue that caused the interruption. We have heard your feedback and welcome more of it. Please email support@portfolium.com with your feedback and ideas. I’m happy to also connect live with the team that was leading the event. Best, Adam Markowitz

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

Hotel Portfolium

Today and tomorrow, the Wilson County Expo Center in Lebanon is hosting the statewide Pre-K/Kindergarten portfolio scoring event.

Well, they were. That is, until 350 teachers who were also trained peer reviewers showed up and the Internet didn’t work. At all.

Teachers present reported that some were able to access the Internet via cell phone hotspots. But … Then, the Portfolium platform didn’t work. At all.

Teachers who had traveled to Lebanon from outside middle Tennessee were advised to return to their hotel rooms and use hotel WiFi to attempt to access the evaluation platform. That also didn’t work.

Finally, teachers were advised they could just return home and attempt to assess portfolios. Or, they could spend another night in a hotel and return to Lebanon tomorrow. All at state expense.

Teachers who chose to be evaluators were told they would receive $750 stipends PLUS reimbursement from travel expenses for the statewide scoring event.

An email sent to teachers after today’s event indicated that teachers now MUST complete assessment of at least 10 collections by June 10th in order for the first wave of funds ($300) is released to districts. Upon final completion of 40 collections (roughly 60 hours of work), the final payment will be issued. So, to be clear, evaluators are paid a paltry $12.50 an hour to do this work.

Readers may recall that a similar scoring event in Lebanon last year was also met with problems.

It’s also worth noting that Portfolium has an interesting background:

Portfolium is a startup company designed to provide college students with a way to highlight accomplishments and work samples for future employers. Yes, you read that right: The new evaluation platform is a startup company that was founded in 2013 and just three years ago, began raising a small amount of capital to launch:

Portfolium, a Web-based social network for students preparing to start their careers, said it has closed on $1.2 million in new venture funding, bringing its total funding to $2.1 million since 2013, when the San Diego-based startup was founded.


It’s nice to know that even with a new vendor and a new Education Commissioner, the same rank incompetence can be expected from TDOE.

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