Vouchers and School Budgets

At a time when the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is creating uncertainty for school budgets, Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher scheme received full funding in the state budget that passed just before the General Assembly left town on recess.

Williamson County School Board member Eric Welch makes this point succinctly in a tweet expressing frustration over the impact of the revised state budget on the district’s plan to invest in teachers:

Yes, with the coronavirus crisis wreaking havoc on local economies and school system and county budgets, Lee chose to stand with the Betsy DeVos agenda he’s long supported.

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COVID-19 and School Budgets

Even as the coronavirus highlights the value of public schools to our communities, school systems are facing significant budget uncertainty. Chalkbeat reports on how schools in Memphis are looking ahead and what COVID-19 might mean in 2020-21 and beyond.

Before a global pandemic closed Memphis schools indefinitely, Shelby County Schools was already planning staff cuts in its central office and in schools.

As of Saturday, Superintendent Joris Ray’s administration was expecting to eliminate 139 central office positions and 115 teacher positions, according to budget documents Chalkbeat obtained. Anticipated teacher raises would be 1% after state funding cuts last week. Overall spending for the $1 billion budget would be down $11.5 million, or about 1%.

Now as the new coronavirus spreads, the proposed 2020-21 budget is constantly changing as federal, state, and local governments adjust their spending plans for education.

And county officials, who provide local funding for schools, are researching what it would cost to get virtual classrooms fully functioning while also calculating an expected decline in sales tax money as households spend less on businesses that had to close or cut back operations during the pandemic. State officials rely on sales tax money for schools and are anticipating a significant drop in revenue.

“This is going to force us to be disciplined about what we invest in,” said Michael Whaley, who leads the county commission’s education committee. He added poverty should not be the reason students do not have access to online learning. “That’s just not fair to those students. I think this lights a fire to figure out how to do this.”

Funding is down under a recently approved barebones emergency budget, including money for teacher raises and other initiatives. Gov. Bill Lee has not yet earmarked money for districts to purchase equipment to launch online classes, so only districts that already had enough laptops for every student are fully switching to digital learning.

While state funding for investments in public school decreased from Gov. Lee’s original proposal, the budget does include more than $40 million to fund vouchers.

The legislature is slated to reconvene in June and it’s possible they could address long-term budget concerns for school districts based on the impact of the COVID-19 shutdown.

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COVID-19 and the Value of Public Schools

Donald Cohen of In the Public Interest talks about how the COVID-19 outbreak underscores the value of our nation’s public schools.

The worst of the COVID-19 outbreak is likely yet to come. But it’s worth taking a moment to think about why it took so long to close the nation’s public schools.

School districts nationwide finally began to close brick and mortar schools at the end of the second week of March, a full week after many college and universities sent students home.

Students, teachers, and parents are now embarking on the largest experiment in online instruction this country has ever seen—and many important questions remain. Will there still be standardized testing? What about kids who don’t have reliable internet access? How will districts ensure data privacy for students and families?

Another question: why’d it take so long to begin the experiment?

It’s simple. Public schools are public goods. They provide basic educational, social, emotional, and even physical needs to not only students and families but also entire communities. Closing them has effects that ripple out beyond school doors. As Erica Green wrote in the New York Times, mass school closings could “upend entire cities.”

Just look at the numbers:

The nation’s public school system serves more than 50 million students, many of whom have parents who work and need childcare during the day.

The federal National School Lunch Program serves food to over 30 million kids annually. Many families rely on school to feed their children meals throughout the school year.

There are more than 3.1 million public school teachers, many of whom are already struggling to get by. Teachers, paraprofessionals, front office workers, bus drivers, janitors, and other school staff rely on public school jobs to make ends meet.

But perhaps most importantly, public schools provide kids with the opportunity to learn alongside their peers. Schools are where the community comes together to learn and grow regardless of skin color, income level, sexual orientation, or any other difference.

Only public institutions—not private markets—can make sure that these basic needs are available to everyone.

The next few days, weeks, and months are uncertain, but one thing’s for sure: we’ll be learning how much public schools really matter to all of us. Some—teachers, administrators, and school staff—already know how important they are.

Chicago Public Schools has already handed out more than 90,000 meal packages including three days’ worth of breakfast and lunch.

Teachers in Noblesville, Indiana, decorated their cars and drove through students’ neighborhoods to honk and wave.

Bus drivers in Washington State’s North Mason School District are delivering bagged breakfasts and lunches to bus stops throughout the rural district.

(The Network for Public Education is compiling stories of how the public school community is serving the nation during the outbreak.)

Public schools matter because we all benefit from them regardless of whether we have a kid in school. Public schools matter because they’re public goods.

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Lamar Alexander vs. IDEA

The American Foundation for the Blind notes in a recent blog post that Tennessee U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander has suggested waiving IDEA requirements in light of COVID-19. Here’s more from their post:

During this national period of quarantine due to the novel coronavirus, many US schools have instituted distance learning programs that allow students to continue their education at home. This change should prevent students from losing important academic skills—for example, in reading and math—and ensure that they are prepared to advance to the following grade in the fall.

Last week, Senator Lamar Alexander stated that the Department of Education should consider allowing states to choose not to educate students with disabilities during the quarantine. Specifically, he proposed that the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) issue waivers to states that would allow them not to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for one year.

However, the IDEA does not permit them the authority to waive these requirements. Therefore, some Republican leaders in Congress are trying to get language in the upcoming COVID-19 relief package that would ask the Department of Education to send a report to Congress listing waivers they would like the authority to grant.

The American Foundation for the Blind strongly opposes any efforts to undermine the rights of students with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like their peers without disabilities, students with disabilities need to retain important academic skills, such as reading and math, so that they don’t fall behind and are ready to pick up their education where they left off. For students with visual impairments, access to academic subjects often requires the use of braille, assistive technology, and alternative teaching methods. In addition, there are specialized skills that students with visual impairments need to develop such as how to use their remaining vision efficiently, how to travel safely in the environment (orientation and mobility), and how to use specialized technology such as screen reading software that allow them to access the curriculum. Students with disabilities already face many barriers to education, such as low expectations and inaccessibility. Allowing states to choose not to educate these students during this time will only widen that gap and put students with disabilities at an even more significant disadvantage to achieving academic success and eventually entering the workforce.


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April 24th

Today, Governor Bill Lee announced he’s recommending schools in the state remain closed through at least April 24th in light of the COVID-19 crisis. Here’s a tweet from Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn:

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Voucher Mail

The American Federation for Children is sending targeted mailers to families in Nashville and Memphis advertising for the state’s voucher program that is slated to start in the upcoming school year. The voucher plan, once thought to be in doubt due to a range of problems, was funded in Gov. Bill Lee’s amended COVID-19 budget.

The American Federation for Children (AFC) is an organization previously headed-up by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. DeVos and Lee have a long-standing relationship, with Lee providing financial support to AFC.

Here are those mailers:

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Trump vs. TNReady

While the Tennessee General Assembly voted to give Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn broad powers to waive TNReady testing, President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made clear that standardized testing will not be required this year in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. More from Chalkbeat:

Schools will not have to administer federally required tests this year, President Trump and the U.S. Department of Education announced Friday — an unprecedented but unsurprising move in the wake of widespread school closures due to the new coronavirus. 

“Students need to be focused on staying healthy and continuing to learn. Teachers need to be able to focus on remote learning and other adaptations,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a statement. “Neither students nor teachers need to be focused on high-stakes tests during this difficult time.”

The education department said that, “upon proper request,” it would grant a waiver to any state not able to assess students because schools are closed due to concerns about the new coronavirus. The department directed states to fill out a “streamlined” application form on its website.

To be clear, the legislation passed in Tennessee allows local school districts to request waivers from TNReady. They may also administer the tests if they so choose, though so far, no district has openly suggested they plan to administer the tests.

In fact, Hamilton County Schools are closed through April 13th and Montgomery County announced closure through May 1st. Both of those dates make TNReady testing virtually impossible. At the least, they’d render any test results of little to no value.

Is your district planning to use TNReady this year? Let TNEdReport know!

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Clarksville Schools Closed Until May 1

Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools announced today they will be closed through May 1st. This marks the latest date of closure so far announced by any Tennessee district. Hamilton County previously announced closure through April 13th.

The Clarksville-Montgomery County School System values the health and well-being of our students, staff, and families….

Posted by Clarksville-Montgomery County School System on Thursday, March 19, 2020

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Vouchers vs. Teachers

There’s a budget showdown looming this afternoon pitting Tennessee teachers versus Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher scheme. Erik Schelzig has more:

Tennessee lawmakers are gearing up for a long day Thursday in which they hope to come to an agreement over deep budget cuts before going into recess until the coronavirus crisis subsides.

One of the biggest sticking points is Gov. Bill Lee’s plan to keep funding in the budget to launch his school voucher program this fall while cutting a planned 4% teacher pay raise in half.

More on vouchers, teacher pay, and Lee’s amended budget>

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Public School Advocates Push Back on Vouchers in Tennessee

Even as Gov. Bill Lee’s amended budget cuts planned improvements to teacher pay while maintaining funding for a voucher scheme, this article details the persistence of public school advocates in Tennessee. Here are some highlights:

Another factor making it difficult for vouchers to move smoothly through the process in Tennessee has been grassroots resistance. Ahead of the voucher vote, parent groups and civil rights organizations joined together to express opposition. But those groups didn’t stop just because a group of powerful white men got their way the first time around. 

Rather, they kept organizing. Using social media to stay connected, groups like Tennessee Teachers and Parents Against School Vouchers and Tennessee Strong focused on the long game—stopping implementation of a voucher plan expected to cost as much as $335 million.

The unrelenting focus of grassroots activists helps keep every single misstep of the voucher scheme in the public eye. Whether it’s the no-bid contract for the vendor overseeing administration of the program, or how the scheme’s rules were written in a way that allows for discrimination, no bad voucher deed goes unreported. 

Read MORE about the voucher fight in Tennessee.

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