Wish List

Nashville attorney Jamie Hollin takes on the Chamber of Commerce as he discusses the “Adopt-a-Teacher” program. Here are some highlights:


Our elected officials have chronically underfunded public education in Tennessee at virtually every level. The fact we rank near the bottom in the U.S. in per-pupil spending should surprise no one.


But governments have accomplices, and one of them here is the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, which has consistently advocated for policies that undercut our public schools.


When Mayor Karl Dean proposed a modest 53-cent property tax increase in 2012, largely to increase pay for early career teachers and make Metro schools more competitive, the Chamber had to be dragged into supporting it. When the school board joined a lawsuit to force the state to live up to their promises and fully fund schools, the Chamber was and has been silent.

The Chamber has been vocal about supporting charter schools, though, and unabated charter growth now accounts for $130 million that could be going to traditional public schools. The Chamber has also supported vouchers in the past and now Gov. Bill Lee’s plan looks like it will take another $330 million out of public schools in Davidson and Shelby counties by 2024.

Read more from Hollin about the Nashville Chamber and the current “budget crisis” that may prevent further investment in Nashville’s public schools.

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Charters: The God that Failed

In 2002, the Tennessee General Assembly passed the Tennessee Public Charter Schools Act. The law allowed for local school districts to authorize charter schools — schools that would operate independently from district control and be run by private, non-profit boards. The move was hailed as a way to improve educational opportunity, especially for students in districts with high concentrations of low-income families. Then, in 2011, the legislature lifted the cap on charter schools, allowing for further proliferation of the publicly-authorized, privately-run entities.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools notes that Tennessee has 112 charter schools serving more than 40,000 students.

Governor Bill Haslam created a charter school capital fund and Governor Bill Lee moved to double this slush fund in his first legislative session. Additionally, Lee created a state charter commission, designed to allow charter operators to circumvent local school boards in seeking authorization. In fairness to Lee, Democrats nominated Karl Dean for Governor in 2018. Dean was an avid charter advocate, bringing the Charter School Incubator to Nashville.

Since charters are (for now) embedded in Tennessee’s education system, a recent report from the Network for Public Education should be of interest. The report notes that more than $500 million in federal spending was wasted on charter schools that are either now defunct OR never even opened. In Tennessee, 49% of the schools that received grants are now closed or never even opened. Here’s more from the report:

One hundred and twenty-one grants were given to open or expand charter schools in Tennessee from the federal charter schools program between 2006-2014. At this time, at least 59 (49%) of those charter schools are now closed or never opened at all. Forty-three of the 59 grant recipients never opened at all.


Of the 43 that never opened, 38 did not even have a name. Only a grant amount was listed

In total, $7,374,025.00 was awarded to Tennessee charter schools during those years that either never opened or shut down.

This report comes as the charter-dominated Achievement School District is under fire for failing to produce results.

Those pushing charters as the savior to our state’s education woes would do well to remember the parting words offered by the ASD’s first Superintendent, Chris Barbic:


In his email early Friday, Barbic offered a dim prognosis on that pioneering approach. “As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results,” he wrote. “I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.”

In other words, poverty matters. And, making the investments to combat it matters, too.


In other words, money matters. Districts with concentrated poverty face two challenges: Students with significant economic needs AND the inability of the district to generate the revenue necessary to adequately invest in schools.

But, by all means, let’s continue to worship at the feet of the Charter God hoping that our faith in “free markets” will be enough to move the needle for the kids who most need the opportunities provided by public education.

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Faison Pushing for Teacher Pay Raise

House Republican Caucus Chair Jeremy Faison of Cosby has indicated he’ll be pushing for a significant pay raise for Tennessee teachers when the legislature reconvenes in 2020. WJHL has more:


“Our teachers are some of the hardest-worked people in Tennessee and I definitely see a raise coming in,” says House Republican Caucus Chair Jeremy Faison who was voted into the leadership position this past August.


Few doubt the K-12 teachers’ low pay compared to other states, but Representative Faison says the issue is especially acute in those districts away from urban areas.


“Our teachers in rural Tennessee are struggling,” said Faison in a recent interview. “If you are a single parent and you are a teacher and you have two kids, that’s like poverty wages.”

A recent analysis indicates that over the last 10 years, Tennessee has seen inflation-adjusted revenue growth of 7%. Over that same time period, teacher pay is down by 2.6%. That’s not surprising, given that Tennessee receives an “F” on a rating of funding effort for schools according to the Education Law Center.

In fact, Think Tennessee highlighted two important numbers relative to school funding in our state:

So, we’ve got some work to do — both in teacher pay and in overall investment in schools.

Back in 2014, I wrote about the state’s broken school funding formula, the BEP. The fact is, it’s still broken today. The solution propose then would also work now:


There’s an easy fix to this and it has been contemplated by at least one large school system in the state. That fix? Moving the BEP instructional component to the state average. Doing so would cost just over $500 million. So, it’s actually NOT that easy. Another goal of those seeking greater equity is moving the BEP instructional match from 70% to 75%, essentially fulfilling the promise of BEP 2.0. Doing so would cost at least $150 million.

The state should absolutely make a significant investment in teacher pay in 2020. We can afford it, with billions of dollars in surpluses coming in over the last five years. Frankly, we can’t afford NOT to do it. Ignoring the problem will just further exacerbate a growing teacher shortage.


For the past five years Tennessee has been running huge revenue surpluses as education needs go unmet. Over this five-year span the state collected nearly $3 billion more in general fund revenue than it anticipated. Last year alone the state general fund had a $580 million surplus. These are millions that could have gone to classrooms. 

Combining an improvement in teacher pay at a level of 5% or more with a move toward full funding of BEP 2.0 (a cost of some $500 million) would go a long way toward giving Tennessee teachers both the pay and resources they need. We have the money. The only question is will lawmakers like Faison find the collective political will to make the investment.

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THIS IS EVERYTHING

This tweet explains everything.

Teacher salaries so low a payday loan is the answer?

Lack of adequate funding to provide school supplies?

A misplaced emphasis on standardized test scores?

A desperate need for proper funding to help vulnerable kids?

This ad is THE ENTIRE problem with public education and the value society has been/is currently willing to place on our children.

IF we valued kids and outcomes for kids, THIS WOULDN’T BE A THING.

Ok, rant over. See tweet:

Closeup portrait Angry young Boy, Blowing Steam coming out of ears, about have Nervous atomic breakdown, isolated grey background. Negative human emotions, Facial Expression, feeling attitude reaction

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ALEC’s Value-Added Lawmakers

News on the delay of implementation of the state’s A-F Report Card for schools was greeted with relief by public education advocates earlier this year. At the time, Chalkbeat noted:


Tennessee has delayed for a second year its plan to start giving A-F grades to its 1,800 public schools — another reprieve for schools that are expected to receive poor ratings.


Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn informed district leaders on Monday that her department will wait until after next school year to launch the system, which is designed to increase public awareness about the quality of K-12 education in Tennessee.


Just as last year, the delay is rooted in two emergency state laws passed in 2018 after days of online testing problems called into question the reliability of scores on the annual student assessment known as TNReady. Legislators ordered schools shielded from any “adverse action” from those scores, including assigning letter grades to schools. 

While the current delay is directly tied to the failure of the state’s TNReady testing system, a recent story out of North Carolina should give lawmakers reason to reject the whole idea. The story details software giant SAS’s cozy relationship with ALEC — the American Legislative Exchange Council. SAS is the company that provides Tennessee’s TVAAS scores. ALEC is the Koch-funded right-wing group responsible for pushing state legislatures to privatize public schools by way of vouchers and charters.

Here’s more on how the A-F Report Card issue has been playing out in North Carolina:


North Carolina’s School Report Cards assign each school a single A-F letter grade representing its overall performance. The report cards have been controversial since state legislators introduced them in 2013 as the grades are highly correlated with levels of poverty and sometimes have the effect of pushing families away from traditional public schools.


Probably not by coincidence, ALEC has been peddling its “A-Plus Literacy Act” to lawmakers since early 2011.  The model bill recommends a statewide A-F school report card system with a special focus on reporting results for students who score in the lowest 25th percentile, and it refers to the grading system as a “lynchpin for reforms.”  One such reform is also included in the bill, as ALEC recommends students who attend F schools be given an opportunity to enroll in private schools instead.

So, to be clear, the company responsible for the data that assigns Tennessee schools (and teachers) “growth scores” is also buddying up with the advocacy group pushing a privatization agenda. How is it decided which schools (or systems) end up on the list of those to be privatized? Low growth scores — you know, the scores generated by SAS. So, the more successful ALEC is in advancing its agenda, the more likely SAS is to make money.

Oh, and about those TVAAS scores generated by SAS (for which they are paid millions in Tennessee taxpayer dollars each year):


Using administrative student data from New York City, we apply commonly estimated value-added models to an outcome teachers cannot plausibly affect: student height. We find the standard deviation of teacher effects on height is nearly as large as that for math and reading achievement, raising obvious questions about validity.

Of course, data validity doesn’t matter when everyone is getting paid and lawmakers get taken on fancy trips.

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Teachers are Being Burned

Adam Jordan and Todd Hawley take on teacher attrition in a recent piece in the Bitter Southerner. Here’s some of what they have to say:


Teachers are not burning out. They’re being burned. Teachers are not quitting the profession because they don’t love teaching. They quit because their profession is being devalued by exploitative public policies and a lack of fundamental investment — both monetary and societal. Teachers are not failing. The public is. We are.


Our problem is not burnout. Our problem is lack of political action. Government’s neglect of education has so soured the soil that newly planted teachers cannot flourish. We act as if teachers are to blame because they do not persist, despite the ridiculously bad conditions. We act as if teachers should just “focus” their way out of situations in which they cannot thrive.


Listen. To. Teachers. Ask them to talk about why they or their colleagues leave the profession. They will tell you. And when you finish listening, act. Write the letters and make the phone calls until those you elect understand that you intend to hold them accountable for what they do — or fail to do — to keep our teachers in the classroom.

Exactly.

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We’re #1

A new report indicates Tennessee is a national leader in at least one education category. Jason Gonzales in the Tennessean notes that Tennessee has one of the lowest investments in the nation in rural schools.

Specifically, the report states:


For example, the report said: “22 states have decreased their state contributions for every local dollar invested in rural schools. Tennessee has seen the greatest drop ($1.68, down from $2.11 per local dollar).”

So, six years ago education officials touted the “fastest-improving” NAEP scores — which turned out to be an outlier. Now, we’ll see how (if) they do anything to improve funding for rural schools.

We’re already in a state where teachers earn less than similarly-trained professionals and we’re at the bottom in both overall investment in schools and funding effort relative to ability. In fact, another recent report gave Tennessee a grade of “F” in funding effort:


The report notes that Tennessee is 43rd in the nation in overall funding level and 47th in effort. The effort category is of particular interest because it indicates that Tennessee has significant room for improvement in terms of funding level. That is, there are untapped resources Tennessee is NOT using to fund schools.

Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Lee is out finding a new plaid shirt for this weekend’s faux farmer update. He’ll post to Twitter and pretend he cares about rural schools while pushing an aggressive privatization agenda.

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Virtual Profits

When a company is essentially stealing from taxpayers by failing to provide promised services, and when those services are for kids, well, surely the state would not invest in said company, right?

Wrong.

The Tennessee Treasury Department has INCREASED its stake in problematic virtual school operator K12, Inc. The news comes from a report from market analysts:


State of Tennessee Treasury Department purchased a new stake in K12 Inc. (NYSE:LRN) in the 3rd quarter, according to its most recent filing with the Securities & Exchange Commission. The fund purchased 12,460 shares of the company’s stock, valued at approximately $329,000.

The report indicates this investment is a “new” stake in K12, meaning the State of Tennessee is ALREADY investing in a company that has demonstrated little concern for taxpayer dollars or for the kids it is supposed to educate.

Here’s a bit of history on K12, Inc., the operator of the Tennessee Virtual Academy:


Here’s the portion of the Education Week piece focused on the Tennessee experience:


Those issues are not unique to online charter schools—full-time online programs run through school districts have run into many of the same problems. And especially for a small, rural school system, the opportunity to enroll students in their district from across the state can offer a powerful financial incentive.


Take, for example, Tennessee, where K12 Inc. has spent between half a million and $1.1 million hiring lobbyists over several years. One of them was chief of staff to former Tennessee governor and current U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who is the chairman of the education committee in the Senate.


The state passed a virtual school law in 2011 that mirrored model legislation written by The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, an influential conservative think tank. A few schools opened up, including one run by K12 Inc. through a poor, rural school district in the northeastern part of the state.


Since then, K12’s Tennessee Virtual Academy, whose enrollment at one point ballooned to nearly 2,000 students, has been one of the worst-performing schools in the state ever since, but has so far managed to avoid being shut down.


Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have proposed bills that would have shuttered failing virtual schools. One, sponsored by a Democrat in 2013, was killed in committee, even after the lawmaker produced a leaked email from a K12 Inc. staff member that appeared to instruct teachers to change students’ grades. Lawmakers did go on to approve a bill that session that gave the state education commissioner the power to close a failing virtual school after three consecutive years of poor performance, but they struck language from the bill that would have capped enrollment.


Republican state Senator Dolores Gresham—who sponsored the original legislation to allow virtual schools—introduced a bill in 2015 that would have also cracked down on failing virtual schools, but it never came to a vote.


That same year, Gresham also sponsored a bill to extend the state’s virtual school program through 2019.


That one passed.


When Kevin Huffman, a former state education commissioner, tried to shutter the Tennessee Virtual Academy with the authority given to him under that 2013 legislation, it devolved into a years-long saga. Parents sued state officials to keep the school open and a judge ruled in their favor. The school could stay open through the 2015-16 academic year.
Then K12 Inc. caught another break.


A botched roll-out of Tennessee’s computerized testing system in 2015-16 forced officials to toss out all student testing data. That extended the life of the Tennessee Virtual Academy another year.


K12 Inc. said the school has persisted not because of lobbying on behalf of the management company, but because it should never have been targeted for closure in the first place. Although company officials acknowledge that the Tennessee school has struggled academically, they say the school was unfairly singled out by state education officials.
The experience led Huffman, a staunch supporter of charter schools who is now a fellow at New America, a Washington-based think tank, to shift his stance on full-time online schools and for-profit companies that run them.


“I don’t see evidence of for-profit models that work,” he said in an email to Education Week. “Theoretically, a for-profit operator could run effective schools, but in practice, the top charter school operators are all non-profits, and I don’t think it’s accidental.”

MORE on the failures of K12, Inc. in Tennessee:

An Actual Failure

Cash vs. Kids

So, let’s be clear. Tennessee State Treasurer David Lillard and his staff are well aware that K12, Inc. is not living up to its promise AND is actually harming kids. Still, they not only continue to hold stock in the company, they actually expand their position.

Of course, this is the same Treasury Department that has chosen to expand investment in private prison profiteer CoreCivic.

David Lillard doesn’t give a damn about whether or not taxpayers lose … and he sure as hell doesn’t care about Tennessee kids. As long as his investment positions make money, he’s good.

To be sure, Tennessee’s Treasury Department could make money by investing in businesses that don’t defraud taxpayers or hurt kids — so, one wonders why Lillard allows these actions to continue.

Lillard is elected by the Tennessee General Assembly to hold a position that pays more than $200,000 a year. Perhaps it’s time legislators heard that we need a new state treasurer — one who puts people first.

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The Bottom Line

While Governor Bill Lee continues to fast-track his sketchy voucher experiment, more and more voices are raising concerns about the program.

The latest comes from Tonyaa Weathersbee in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Her argument highlights a key fact lawmakers would be wise to take into account as they consider repeal of the voucher scheme in 2020:

Mainly, in their rush to inflict vouchers on one of the poorest, mostly African American counties in the state, they have chosen to overlook the success of Shelby County schools’ Innovation Zone program in favor of an ideological approach that has shown few triumphs in boosting poor students’ academic performance.

That’s paternalism, not improvement.

Recent data from the non-partisan Brookings Institute, for example, shows that four rigorous studies done in Louisiana, Washington, D.C., Indiana and Ohio found that struggling students who use vouchers to attend private schools perform worse on achievement tests than struggling students in public schools.  

Vouchers don’t work. In fact, they actually set students back. Legislators will have an opportunity to support a bipartisan voucher repeal effort in 2020 to correct this egregious mistake. Gov. Lee won’t be happy, but doing what’s best for Tennessee’s kids is more important than pleasing the Plaid Privatizer.

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