Voucher Sponsor Facing FBI Probe

As Governor Bill Lee signed controversial voucher legislation into law this past week, revelations emerged that the FBI is investigating potentially illegal campaign activity by the Senate sponsor of Lee’s plan.

The Daily Memphian reports Senator Brian Kelsey’s failed 2016 congressional campaign faces an investigation into illegal use of state campaign funds for a federal race.


The Tennessee Journal is reporting the Department of Justice talked recently to state lawmakers about alleged “straw donations” into state Sen. Brian Kelsey’s 2016 congressional campaign.


Kelsey, a Germantown Republican who represents East Memphis and Cordova, came in fourth in the Republican primary three years ago. But reports have raised questions about whether money was funneled from his state accounts into his congressional fund, which is illegal.


During the 2016 campaign, his state political action committee, Red State PAC, contributed about $20,000 to state legislators who then gave funds to his congressional race, according to the Tennessee Journal article.

The FBI is also investigating the House vote on voucher legislation to determine if any improper benefits were offered in exchange for votes in favor of the bill.

All of this comes amid the controversy surrounding soon-to-be former House Speaker Glen Casada, who will resign from his leadership role following a months-long scandal which began with the framing of an African-American political activist and included Casada’s appointment of an admitted sex offender to a key leadership role.

Just to be clear: Governor Bill Lee signed a bill that is currently facing an FBI investigation due to alleged impropriety in securing votes. The lead sponsor of that bill in the Senate is ALSO under an FBI investigation.

Rather than wait for the outcome of these investigations, Lee moved forward and signed the bill into law. Lee is so determined to privatize our state’s public schools that he partnered with the nefarious Glen Casada, ignored a potentially illegal vote, and relied on a Senate sponsor who seems to have displayed blatant disregard for campaign finance law.

Make no mistake: Lee is a win at all costs governor. His prize: Taxpayer dollars funneled to private entities with a record of failing to achieve results.

The losers in Lee’s dangerous, morally bankrupt game are the citizens of Tennessee and especially the students and families impacted by a voucher scheme that both fails to help kids and also sucks money from our chronically under-funded public school system.

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Like a Dad Out of Hell?

Back in April, conservative commentator Steve Gill, who publishes the Tennessee Star, wrote an attack piece on Knox County teacher Lauren Sorenson. Gill’s beef with Sorenson seems to be that she had the gall to stand up and speak out for her fellow teachers and also advocate on behalf of students across the state. Gill used Sorenson’s affiliation with the “Badass Teachers Association” (BATs) to label her a “BAT out of Hell.”

Like so many in leadership roles in our state, Gill apparently prefers that teachers keep their voices quiet rather than highlight the unpleasant facts about the teaching profession and our state’s chronically under-funded schools.

Gill has been a consistent supporter of using public money to support private schools by way of voucher schemes. More recently, he’s come to the defense of embattled (and soon to be former) House Speaker Glen Casada. He’s even backed admitted sex offender David Byrd.

That’s why it is so shocking to learn that while Lauren Sorenson is busy fighting for all kids and educating young minds in Knox County, Gill is failing to live up to his parental responsibilities.

The Tennessean has more:

Conservative commentator and former political candidate Steve Gill must pay his ex-wife $170,000 in 10 days or go to jail, a Williamson County judge has ruled. 

In a ruling entered into the court on Sunday, Judge James G. Martin sided with Kathryn B. Gill, who was seeking nearly $236,000 for various expenses related to the divorced couple’s sons. 


Kathryn Gill was seeking $86,000 in child support from Steve Gill, in addition to $4,400 in medical expenses, $133,000 in college expenses and another $11,000 for a car she purchased for the children’s use.

Or, maybe it is not at all surprising that a guy who defends Glen Casada and David Byrd would attack a strong woman fighting for a better future for our state.

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Success in Education

JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, offers thoughts on how to “keep public education a success.”

I struck up a conversation with a graduating senior. “What do you want in life?” I asked. “To be successful,” he replied. To which I asked the question: “What is success?” “I don’t know,” he said as he walked away. We all want to be successful. But how can you be successful if you cannot even define it?

The World Economic Forum estimates 65 percent of children today will end up in careers that don’t even exist yet and for which schools are not preparing them. Let that sink in for a minute: the vast majority of children in school will end up in careers that do not even exist today.

One of the organizations I like to keep up with is The Future Project. They argue that “the future is not fixed—and that people, working together, can shape it for the better.” I share their optimism. I think the same is true of the teaching profession: people working together, can shape it for the better.

Too often I see the education community put up walls. Walls between school systems and communities. Walls between school administration and teachers. Walls between teachers and other teachers. Walls between teachers and students. It is time to tear the walls down. It is time that we create the change that our schools, teachers, and students need. I recommend three steps for policymakers to consider at the state level that can create success for our schools in the future:

  1. Embrace Innovation. Governor Bill Lee said: “In order to improve, you have to be willing to innovate and challenge the status quo. That’s true whether it is in business or education.” This means at the state level the focus must be on providing the flexibility and freedom for educators and education leaders at all levels to try new things that will help improve student achievement and success. Our goal as a state should be to give every child the opportunity to receive a high-quality education, in order to build a skilled workforce for the 21st Century global economy.
  2. Update the Funding Formula. At the state level, the Basic Education Program (BEP), is how Tennessee funds our K-12 public schools. The BEP provides over $4.7 billion of state funding for education. We must update our K12 funding formula to reflect changing 21st century needs. It is time for the state to push for a new funding plan and formula that reflects our modern educational mission, priorities, and strategies. Yes, there are lawsuits under the current system, and it will be a challenge to make everyone happy, but it is past time to address the funding issue. We must also make sure dollars that are earmarked for salary increases end up in the pockets of teachers, and that all state mandates are fully funded.
  3. End Social Promotion. We must ensure that all students will be able to read proficiently by the end of the third-grade. Children who do not read on grade level are more likely to drop out, use drugs or end up in prison. Research shows that reading abilities in the third-grade act as a tell-tale barometer for later school success. We cannot keep sending Tennessee students onto the next grade if they lack basic reading skills. Social promotion does more harm than good. We can no longer ignore the issue of social promotion. We must eliminate the practice of advancing students because of their age rather than their knowledge. The decision to have a student to repeat a grade should not be made lightly or without considering a student’s unique situation. The evidence for focused retention strategies points toward real benefits for those students who arrive at school lacking some of the building blocks of literacy. These students need some extra time to catch up. We cannot give up on teaching our children how to read. The best solution, of course, is to remediate struggling readers during the school year, to get them the extra help they need to stay on track. However, we cannot simply to continue to move these students through the system. Social promotion hurts our kids, kills our workforce, and fills up our prisons.

We can change the path we are on, and give every child a better chance of success—even if they don’t know what it looks like at this point in their life. Success is not left to chance, it’s a matter of choice. We have tough choices to make in public education, and that will include changes. We must make the choices that benefit our state, our communities, our schools, our educators and especially our children.

We must make sure public education is viewed as a significant part of the choice that parents will make for their children moving forward. The best and brightest students in our communities should know that our public education system will work for them. The underserved and poor in our communities should know that our public education system can work for them. Every parent in our communities should know that they have a role in making sure our public education system works for their children. Part of our role has to be keeping K12 education at the forefront of every discussion in public policy across Tennessee. That is the success we should seek.

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JC Bowman on Leadership

JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, offers thoughts on district leadership as the “summer of change” approaches.

It’s that time of year when we see changes in leadership across the state in our schools.  Superintendents will leave and be replaced.  It matters to all of us whomever a school board places in leadership.  In some cases, you will see districts go outside their district and pick new leadership while others will promote from within.  There are good choices and there are bad choices out there.  So, to all school boards we say: choose wisely.  In my circle we call this time of the year the Dance of the Lemons and/or the Parade of Favorites.  

A school district must have competent leadership managing the daily operations of the school district. A good superintendent leads the districts educational, financial and administrative performance; facilitates the performance of all personnel; and responds to and informs stakeholders and policymakers about the performance and leadership of the district.  Probably one of the most important duties of the superintendent is to make sure district students are learning and achieving at the highest level possible.

A superintendent must understand effective academic practices and be supportive of the teachers and administrators in the district. Leadership, vision, and strategic thinking are critical skills for every superintendent. A successful superintendent should also be an effective and excellent communicator. If the only voice a superintendent will listen to is his/her own, or a few members of the school board, public education will eventually lose community support. Does that mean that we simply accept decisions from superintendents, without challenging them? Of course not!

Stakeholders and policymakers must particularly hold Superintendents accountable in regard to educational, financial and administrative performance. However, we should provide them latitude in regards to leadership, vision and strategic thinking on how to address the performance in those areas. And we must expect them to communicate effectively to ALL stakeholders.  

Superintendent, like principals, must also demonstrate a keen understanding of teaching, learning and what works for students. As a change leader, a successful superintendent should emphasize the efficient use of resources, personnel, and data to break down resistance and drive systemic change; empower board and personnel to set goals, measure results, develop accountability, and support planning, evaluation, and resource allocation.

As far as degrees and experience go, that really depends on the person.  Practical knowledge is likely more important than theoretical knowledge.  We have all seen people with advanced degrees who were unable to apply that knowledge to the real world.  I think executive experience might be critical in a larger district.  Keep in mind that education is a business, as much as it is a service.  In most districts, the school system is one of the largest employers in the community.  Teaching experience and some building-level administrative experience is strongly suggested, because it gives the person in charge at least a background in what the educators in the schools face on a daily basis.       

In my own experience, I am never concerned with the WHO in a position.  I would look at the philosophy of the person, their background and their vision.  A smart school board would not focus on what an applicant would do similar to continue the work of the exiting predecessor, but rather how he or she would differentiate from the previous occupant. You must have a plan to build on the work of the previous administration, not merely maintain the status quo.    

Probably the greatest weakness by some superintendents, in my opinion, has been the lack of empathy toward educators.  It is one thing to be relentless in support of excellence for children, it is another to manage completely by fear.  Personnel drives policy.  How you treat your employees is also a reflection of character.   Several districts are well-known for unnecessarily treating educators harshly.  These districts must understand that schools are not factories, students are not widgets, and personnel are not simply interchangeable on a whim. 

Certainly, some educators have been forced to leave their school system for subjective reasons, rather than objective reasons.  Actions speak louder than words.  In some cases, dismissal may have been warranted, but in many cases, it appears circumstances were little more than personality conflicts and people not fitting into a certain educational or political environment.  We have lost some good educators in our state because of this subjectivity, and I would argue many of these educators deserve another chance to keep their career going.  

No matter who your district hires—whether from within or bringing in an experienced educator from outside—give that new leader a chance.  Don’t be afraid to hold them accountable.  Make sure that your local school board has fully vetted the candidate, and takes the time to select the best person for the children, educators, parents, and taxpayers in your community. 

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The Looney Letter

Williamson County Director of Schools Mike Looney, who will depart this summer for a Superintendent job in Atlanta, penned this letter to his community:

As I contemplated penning my final message as the school superintendent for Williamson County Schools, I found inspiration in Walt Whitman’s words, “Keep your face always toward the sunshine and shadows will fall behind you.”

I had the great honor of interviewing for the Williamson County Schools superintendent position in the Fall of 2009. At that time, the Williamson County School Board was chaired by the ever-graceful Ms. Pat Anderson. If you’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Pat, she is a must meet. She has an uncanny knack for being Southern-style, gentle and strong at the same time. She and 11 other smart, passionate and engaged school board members took a risk and hired me as WCS’s next superintendent.

Wow, that was nearly ten years ago! The Board had a common vision: advance student outcomes in an already high-performing school district.

We were relentless in our pursuit. We focused on increasing rigor in all classrooms, worked on building more effective relationships with our students and refined our curriculum to ensure student learning expectations were relevant. It worked. Our students and teachers leaned in, worked hard and our community began reaping the benefit. We struck academic gold.

For the past decade, our students, with the support of their parents and teachers, have shattered every conceivable district academic record. We have expanded arts education, won countless athletic titles and changed the trajectory of lives one student at a time. It’s been incredibly rewarding to watch it unfold and to have been a small part of it all.

This line of work isn’t for the faint of heart, as not everyone welcomed the district’s new direction. One might say that we had our moments. During the last decade, there have been thousands of vocal supporters lending a hand and at times seemingly as many fierce critics all who have taken the time to engage. Frankly, I wouldn’t have wished for it to be any other way.

Our schools are better for everyone’s involvement and for that I am deeply thankful.

Most of all, I am grateful for the students even in the times when they harassed me about snow days, didn’t study properly for exams or did something mischievous. I have loved being a small part of their lives. They’ve made me smile with joy, grit my teeth out of frustration, but most of all inspired me in indefinable ways.

I will end as any Marine would by fighting like hell to the end for this community’s children. Far too many neglected, abused and fragile children still need help in our community. Everyone knows it, but lack of funding and divisive politics continues to hold us back from making progress on these battle fronts. Schools should be accountable for results but also must receive adequate funding at all levels.

Williamson County needs state leaders who value public education and make decisions based on research and reputable sources, rather than being influenced by campaign donations from PACs or lobbyists. This community needs its elected officials to move beyond the vitriol and divisive politics of our day. Disagreement is good but not at the expense of decency.

For those who think they know better than the teacher, no you don’t. They are professionally trained. Let them teach, support them and give a little grace when all doesn’t go as planned.

“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1 KJV)

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Vouchers Already Impacting Teacher Pay, School Resources

A story out of Coffee County explains how Governor Bill Lee’s voucher scheme (currently under investigation by the FBI), is already impacting teacher pay raises and resources dedicated to public schools:

The day it passed in the senate, April 25 (May 1 for an amended version), the Coffee County Board of Education expressed their concerns and decided it would be more frugal to give their faculty a 1 percent raise instead of a 2 percent raise. This decision had multiple factors involved, including balancing the budget, but the uncertainty of the vouchers was part of the discussion, Aaron explained.

In Manchester, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen did not pledge money in their 2019-20 budget to assist College Street Elementary School with renovations due, in part, to the uncertainty of the voucher program as well. Alderman Ryan French pointed out the program has the potential to decimate Average Daily Attendance (a facet of BEP), which will reduce funding and therefore put more strain on the local population.

It’s still unclear what the total cost of Lee’s voucher scheme will be should it be fully implemented. Some estimates put the cost at more than $300 million. That’s a significant hit to the state’s school funding formula. Even at the conservative end of the scale, a total cost of around or just above $100 million would mean a significant loss to all districts across Tennessee. To put that amount in perspective, $100 million would fund a four percent raise for all of Tennessee’s teachers.

Lee has already demonstrated he prefers to spend money on voucher schemes and charter schools instead of teacher salaries. His initial budget proposal provided a big boost for charter school facilities while offering only a minor increase in funding for teacher salaries.

Previous analysis indicates that even if the voucher program grows only modestly, the impact to all school systems will be significant:

Nearly 15,000 students who never attended public school suddenly receiving vouchers would mean a state cost of $98 million. That’s $98 million in new money. Of course, those funds would either be new money (which is not currently contemplated) or would take from the state’s BEP allocations in the districts where the students receive the vouchers.

In other words, don’t believe the lie that just because your school district isn’t in the current voucher plan, vouchers won’t impact your schools. They absolutely will. Taking $100 million off the table means a big hit to the BEP formula, a plan that already struggles to meet the needs of our state’s schools.

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Scary Moon

While Governor Bill Lee’s signature legislative victory, a school voucher plan, faces FBI scrutiny, legislators who backed the scheme are now facing the wrath of voters. Sure, one newly elected state Senator wasted no time in demonstrating his capacity for lying to constituents. Now, a retired teacher from Maryville takes Rep. Jerome Moon to task for his campaign lies:


I worked 34 years as a teacher in Maryville City Schools. I am horrified the voucher bill passed. I live in District 8. I am a constituent of state Rep. Jerome Moon. I hold Moon responsible for killing public schools in Maryville and in Tennessee.
He told representatives from the teachers’ union and school superintendents that he’d vote against the voucher bill, but then voted for it. He was dismissive of educators’ concerns, dodged emails, phone calls and pleas for conversations from his constituents and refuses to be held accountable. I want to know why?

The story told here about Moon is a story heard time and again across Tennessee. Yes, Jason Zachary pledged to be a voucher opponent. That is, until embattled Speaker Glen Casada needed a key vote. Then, there’s state representative Matthew Hill. Until this legislative session, Hill was a staunch opponent of school vouchers. Enter Glen Casada and his regime of lies, racism, backstabbing, lewd sexual conduct, and shady deals. This session, Hill became one of the most ardent supporters of vouchers, likely confusing his constituents while pleasing his new leader, Speaker Casada. How much did Hill’s soul cost? Was it more ore less expensive than Zachary’s?

What about your representative? Did they sell out your local schools? Are you represented by someone who was once a voucher opponent and now shifted their views? If you have a voucher story to share, email me at andy@tnedreport.com.

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Secret Voucher Man

So we know Governor Bill Lee’s controversial voucher plan narrowly passed after gaining the support of Lee’s besties Lee Beaman and Betsy DeVos while earning opposition from Tennesseans across the state. So much opposition, legislators representing 93 counties opted their districts out of the bill.

Now, we also know the FBI is investigating whether anything improper occurred in the backroom dealings that led to the bill’s passage. We saw at least one lawmaker change his vote at the last minute after arm-twisting by House Speaker Glen Casada. Other lawmakers reported receiving offers from Governor Lee or Speaker Casada in order to switch their votes.

Here’s what Nashville’s NewsChannel 5 is reporting:


FBI agents have begun interviewing Tennessee lawmakers about whether any improper incentives were offered to pass Gov. Bill Lee’s school vouchers bill in the state House, NewsChannel 5 Investigates has learned.

It’s also interesting that in light of all the recent revelations about Glen Casada, Bill Lee has been reluctant to call on Casada to resign. It seems likely that without Casada’s help, Lee would have failed to achieve many of his legislative goals this session. Now, Casada’s true character is coming to light and Bill Lee is refusing to take a clear stand.

But hey, at least we have vouchers and a state charter authorizer, and as an added bonus, Lee signed the legislature’s bill that criminalized voter registration so that even if some Tennesseans are now motivated to vote Lee and his allies out, they’ll find it harder to get that done.

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Teacher Appreciation

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week. It’s a time to provide lunches and gift cards to teachers in lieu of the salaries and support they deserve. Sure, gratitude is nice, but it doesn’t pay the mortgage.

Here’s what else happened in Tennessee this week: We learned that the Speaker of the House gave a $130,000 raise to an individual who had used cocaine while on the job and who had also exchanged sexually-explicit messages with the Speaker. He also has a history of racist text messages and social media posts.

Before his nearly $200,000 year a job as Speaker Casada’s Chief of Staff, Cade Cothren earned around $61,000 a year as a legislative employee.

It’s worth noting that many of Tennessee’s more than 70,000 teachers will NEVER see a salary of $61,000 a year in the course of their career.

For full disclosure, I’m married to a Tennessee teacher. She’s been teaching for nearly 20 years now. She’s been at the same school in the same job since 2003. She STILL doesn’t make $60,000 a year despite assurances from district leadership year after year that “we *wish* we could do more.”

My wife doesn’t do cocaine at her desk. She’s not in the habit of sending sexually explicit messages about who she f***d in the bathroom at a hot chicken restaurant. She shows up every single day and takes care of other people’s children.

Let’s be clear: If the text exchange between Cade Cothren and Glen Casada had been between a Tennessee teacher and her principal, there would be no question, both would be fired.

So, let’s be honest: Tennessee teachers are NOT appreciated. White men of any age at the highest levels of state government engage in abhorrent behavior and earn promotions and high salaries. Tennessee teachers, mostly women, take on the responsibility of caring for our state’s children and educating them every single day and receive little more than a “thank you” during a designated week of the year.

This year, instead of a larger raise for teachers, Governor Bill Lee proposed and the General Assembly passed legislation creating a new school voucher program. Instead of a minimum of a four percent increase in teacher raises, teachers will see 2.5%. When white men in Tennessee ask for something, they get it — whether it is school privatization or sex with a lobbyist in a Nashville restaurant. Meanwhile, the women who toil tirelessly in under-funded schools are told to “keep going” for the sake of “the kids.”

When teachers in Tennessee threaten to “strike” or engage in a “sick out” they are told it’s “against the law” and that they should “think of the kids.” At the same time, white men prey upon female interns and lobbyists at the Capitol and our supposedly Christian Governor can’t be bothered to comment. Even an admitted sex offender earns a top post on education policy while teachers remain short-changed when it comes to pay and respect.

It’s no accident that a profession dominated by women receives so little respect from our legislature and Governor. These are white men who have demonstrated time and again they care little for the women around them. Even those not directly involved are complicit by way of their silence. Both in policy and in personal practice, Tennessee’s elected leaders demonstrate they don’t care about teachers, about women, or about a truly better future for ALL of our state.

When you see Governor Lee trot out a resolution appreciating teachers — when Glen Casada or Randy McNally issue a proclamation about the importance of educators — it’s time to call BS. They don’t believe it. The evidence is clear.

Today, teachers across our state are showing up, teaching kids, and NOT doing cocaine or soliciting sex. They’re not asking for a reward, they’re just doing what’s right. It’s time our lawmakers looked to our teachers for leadership.

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