All the Money, None of the Work

Private school advocates attempting to secure public funding from Governor Bill Lee’s Education Savings Account (ESA) voucher scheme made clear this week they want taxpayer cash without any real accountability. Specifically, Chalkbeat reports these groups, including Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children, are resisting proposed rules requiring strict background checks on school employees.


Leaders of the Tennessee-based Beacon Center, the Florida-based ExcelinEd, and the Washington, D.C.-based American Federation for Children say the rule is unclear as written and could force private schools to run background checks that are far beyond the requirements for public schools. Such a mandate, they say, could place an “undue burden” on private schools wanting to participate in Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account program, as well as on their employees. 


Voucher supporters say they want participating private schools to face the same requirements as their public counterparts when it comes to employee background checks. At the same time, they don’t want private schools to be judged academically using the same state tests used by Tennessee public schools.

While voucher advocates, eager for taxpayer cash, expressed concern about having to follow the rules, a Department of Education representative indicated the rules are clear:


Deputy Education Commissioner Amity Schuyler, who is developing the program on behalf of her department, added that the state’s new law is clear that participating schools must conduct criminal background checks through the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

The resistance to employee background checks from voucher advocates comes just months after a horrifying story out of a Nashville charter school in which a student was in a class taught by a substitute teacher who was also the woman who killed that student’s brother:


But that feeling of safety was shattered Friday when the twins had a substitute teacher in their math class. It was Khadijah Griffis, the same woman who had shot and killed their older brother last month.

This incident happened at RePublic Charter School. The school was using a New Orleans-based firm to source substitute teachers.

Additionally, voucher proponents are attempting to avoid accountability when it comes to state tests:

On the testing issue, the proposed rules would allow either Tennessee’s standardized tests or “any nationally normed assessment” already in use when the state determines if a school will be suspended or terminated from the program for poor results by voucher students. The inclusion of national tests was a concession to private schools, which don’t administer state tests. Board member Wendy Tucker expressed concerns last month that the accommodation wasn’t in keeping with the spirit of new voucher law, which requires all voucher students to take annual state tests in math and English language arts to track student performance.

The voucher vultures are making it clear: They want Tennessee taxpayer dollars and they want minimal accountability. While Bill Lee attempts to fast-track this ill-conceived initiative, perhaps the antics of the money hungry DeVos devotees will boost the chances of a budding repeal movement.

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Bill Lee’s Impact Fee

Governor Bill Lee is responsible for a fee increase that passed in Williamson County last night. The Tennessean reports that the Williamson County Commission passed an increase in the Education Impact Fee assessed on new homes.

One of the reasons cited for passing the impact fee increase was the “BEP deficit.” More on that:

Story also cited the state’s minimum contribution the the county’s portion of the state’s Basic Education Plan formula, pointing out that the state pays approximately 40% of Williamson County Schools cost per pupil, while the county picks up the rest.

“Every child that comes in, expands that deficit in terms of how much we have to pay.”

It’s worth noting here that the Republican Comptroller of the Treasury notes Tennessee underfunds public schools by at least $500 million.

It’s also worth noting that if Phil Bredesen’s BEP 2.0 were fully-funded, Williamson County would receive at least $1.6 million more in state funds each year.

Bill Lee’s failure to address the BEP deficit is, at least in part, responsible for the Williamson County impact fee increase. Instead of adding funds to the BEP, Lee is trying to fast-track an unproven voucher scheme.

I just hope all those realtors who showed up with stickers at the Williamson County Commission will vote against the guy (Bill Lee) who made the impact fee necessary.

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Repeal Push Gains Support

An effort to repeal Governor Bill Lee’s signature legislative initiative — vouchers — is gaining some support. Frank Cagle offers his take on this effort and on those who constantly criticize public schools (which is much easier than actually funding and supporting them):


I suspect that most of the critics of public education have not been near a public school since they graduated from one. You won’t find the critics running the concession stand on Friday night to raise money for the school. They won’t be out selling coupon books to keep the lights on. I doubt they personally know a teacher who spends her own money to buy school supplies for her classroom. In Tennessee, railing against the abstract notion of union-corrupted government schools is a paranoid delusion.

He might be talking about Governor Bill Lee here — you know, that guy who wears plaid shirts and pretends to care about rural Tennessee while taking money from public schools.

Cagle also warns against the dangers of “crony capitalism:”


A conservative should be wary of public money and public regulations coming to private schools. A conservative should also be wary of crony capitalism in which public money is handed over to private schools. I would urge you to spend some time on the internet examining former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his buddies who operated for-profit schools on the taxpayer’s dime.

The real question: Will any so-called conservative legislator actually take Bill Lee on and stand up for our public schools?

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18%

Groups representing teachers in Memphis are seeking a salary increase of up to 18%, according to a story in Chalkbeat:


Shelby County Schools teachers would be able to earn up to $86,000 annually under the highest of three proposals from the district’s two teacher associations.

That would be 18% more than the current maximum salary of $73,000.
The associations want up to a 16% boost to the district’s $43,000 minimum salary for new teachers. But Cheronda Thompson, who represented United Education Association of Shelby County, said increasing the maximum is more important.
“It’s not about how we start, it’s about how we finish,” she said during negotiations Friday afternoon. “We want to retain people. They already start good.”

The move comes as districts like Nashville struggle with teacher retention and pay significantly less than other urban districts. Additionally, suburban districts like Sumner County have moved to make meaningful improvements to teacher pay.

Teacher pay is a national crisis, but particularly problematic in Tennessee, as Chalkbeat notes:

Research shows that teachers make the most difference in a student’s academic success, but districts nationwide are struggling to recruit and retain effective educators. An often cited reason is salary, especially in states like Tennessee where the average teacher salary trails both regional and national numbers.

It’s worth noting that Governor Bill Lee has done nothing to address the teacher pay crisis, and in fact has worked to divert funds to voucher schemes and charter schools.

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Integrity

The Republican State Superintendent of Schools in Indiana is campaigning with a Democratic state Senator who hopes to become the state’s next Governor, Chalkbeat reports. The move comes as Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick finds herself at odds with the state’s Republican Governor and with the GOP Supermajority in the legislature. The move raises the question: Would any Tennessee Republican leader go so far as to back a Democrat in order to stop Governor Bill Lee’s school privatization agenda?

Here’s more on McCormick and her differences with her own party on education:


After years of public clashes between former superintendent Ritz and then-governor Mike Pence, some expected McCormick to work more smoothly with the Republican supermajority. But McCormick differentiated her education policy through her skepticism of diverting dollars from public schools, her calls for more accountability for charter schools and private schools accepting taxpayer-funded vouchers, and her push to change the state’s A-F grading system for schools.

For his part, state Senator and gubernatorial candidate Eddie Melton has outlined an aggressive defense of public schools as a key part of his campaign platform:


Melton, a first-term senator from Gary, Indiana, and a former State Board of Education member, also said Tuesday that the state needs to fully fund schools, put an end to high-stakes testing,  and end the “aggressive expansion” of vouchers, among other calls. He’s repeatedly said that education should be a bipartisan issue, including when he launched the listening tour with McCormick.

Will 2022 see Tennessee with a Democratic candidate for Governor who staunchly defends public schools — and earns the support of top Republicans?

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Player-Peters Gains Support for School Board Seat

With School Board member Will Pinkston finalizing his resignation, the Metro Council will select a replacement. It seems Freda Player-Peters is gaining traction as a candidate for the seat. The person appointed will serve the remainder of Pinkston’s term, which ends in August 2020. Here’s a letter from a number of council members in support of Player-Peters:

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Lee Announces Leaders of School Privatization Commission

Governor Bill Lee this week announced the members of his state charter school commission, a group tasked with usurping the power of local school boards and fast-tracking charter schools with little accountability. Here’s more on the members from Chalkbeat:

  • Tom Griscom, of Hamilton County, a former director of White House communications under President Ronald Reagan, long-time aide to the late U.S. Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee, and former executive editor and publisher of the Times Free Press in Chattanooga
  • David Hanson, of Davidson County, is managing partner of Hillgreen, a private investment firm, and serves on the board for Teach for America and Nashville-based charter network Valor Collegiate Academies. 
  • Alan Levine, of Washington County in East Tennessee, CEO of Ballad Health and a one-time adviser to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush
  • Terence Patterson, of Shelby County, is the CEO of the Memphis Education Fund and former head of the Downtown Memphis Commission. He was also the chief of staff for Chicago Public Schools, later becoming the director of the Office of New Schools in Chicago, where he managed 113 new charter schools.
  • Mary Pierce, of Davidson County, was a leading charter school advocate during her one term as a school board member with Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.
  • Christine Richards, of Shelby County, a former general counsel for FedEx
  • Derwin Sisnett, of Shelby County, co-founded Gestalt Community Schools, a Memphis-based charter school network. He is the founder and managing partner of Maslow Development Inc., a nonprofit organization that develops communities around high performing schools.
  • Eddie Smith of Knox County, is a Republican who served in the Tennessee House of Representatives from 2014 until 2018, when he was ousted by Democrat Gloria Johnson.
  • Wendy Tucker, of Williamson County, is an attorney and adjunct professor at Vanderbilt School of Law. A member of the state Board of Education since 2014, she has been an advocate of children with special needs.

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White the Power

Apparently, the all-white, mostly Republican Williamson County School Board is really a front for leftist political indoctrination. At least, that’s the impression you’d get if you read a recent email sent by the Williamson County Republican Party in order to recruit candidates to run for School Board in 2020.

It seems some in the local Republican Party leadership are a little too comfortable in their white privilege. Or, they just don’t like reality. Or, the Williamson County School Board really is run by a bunch of raging leftists disguised as upper middle class white folks living in the state’s wealthiest (and most Republican) county.

If you believe this email, you might also believe Jay Sekulow’s lies about the Muslim takeover of Social Studies in Tennessee. You might also think that Eric Welch is best friends with AOC. Or that Rick Wimberly hangs out with “the Squad.”

Calm down, Williamson County.

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Let Me Hear You Scream

Nashville education blogger TC Weber is not amused. In fact, you can probably hear the screaming in his latest post. In it, he takes on a range of issues — charter schools, teaching reading, school discipline policies — and makes the case that all the shiny new objects are just a way to avoid the tough conversations adults in comfortable places don’t seem to want to have.

Here are some highlights:


As a result, we had a crisis on our hands, “According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, more than six in 10 fourth-graders aren’t proficient readers. It has been this way since testing began. A third of kids can’t read at a basic level.” 


I don’t want to get sidetracked, or this will turn into a 4000-word piece, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out who said it – National Assessment of Educational Progress – and what they said – It has been this way since testing began – nothing quite justifies one’s existence like the discovering of a crisis. Just think, if testing hadn’t started, we’d be wandering in the desert with no idea if kids could read or not.

On teaching reading:


Yet phonics disciples would have me believe that if we would just focus on using methods of teaching that aligned with science, we’d overcome all those social issues impacting students. Kids would suddenly start saying things in class like,


“Mrs. Johnson I used to be hungry in the morning when I came to class, but now that you are using phonics, I don’t feel hungry anymore.”


“Mr. Jones, my parents arguing and general drunken behavior used to keep me up all night, but now I go to sleep at night with the sounds of phonics in my head and I don’t even hear them anymore.”

The impact of poverty:


If you have doubts about what I’m saying when it comes to poverty’s impact on student outcomes, call me next time you have a job interview. We won’t feed you for 12 hours beforehand and I’ll keep you awake all night before your interview. We’ll see if you get the job.

There’s more — it’s intense, but worth a read.

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

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