Quid Pro Quo

Sure, we’re all hearing about Quid Pro Quo as it relates to President Trump and Ukraine. But, what about former Tennessee House Speaker Glen Casada, his Chief of Staff Cade Cothren, and the vote on vouchers that is facing an FBI investigation? Well, as it turns out the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) is still asking lawmakers about a possible quid pro quo on the voucher vote. The Daily Memphian has more:

A House member, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed to The Daily Memphian Tuesday being questioned by TBI agents within the past two months. The lawmaker said it appears the agency is continuing to look into the matter but could not tell by their questions what direction they’re taking in the investigation.


The legislator previously confirmed being questioned by TBI and FBI agents about Casada and his staff and whether they tried to bribe House members in connection with the governor’s ESA bill.

While the House vote remains under scrutiny with rumor of indictments coming down in the FBI investigation soon, it’s worth noting the Senate sponsor of voucher legislation faces a separate FBI investigation.

Additionally, earlier this week, Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn dropped the bombshell revelation that vouchers received by parents will be treated as taxable income by the IRS.

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Buildings Matter

While Governor Bill Lee’s administration distributes money to charter schools by way of a capital slush fund, schools in Shelby County and across the state are struggling to maintain infrastructure. More on the current challenges in Shelby County from Chalkbeat:

This week, when temperatures in Memphis dipped to an unseasonably chilly 20 degrees, his first two classes had no heat. The problem was partially caused by a gas leak that led to an early dismissal Tuesday, but Scott said cold classrooms are common. Walking into a classroom with no heat, “I could feel this fresh coldness like a window had been opened.”

Building conditions impact student outcomes

Studies have shown that conditions such as cold classrooms can affect student learning. One study found that poor building conditions can lead to higher rates of frequent student absences. Another found that students in deteriorating buildings score 5 to 17 points lower on standardized tests than students in newer facilities. Several studies, including two in Tennessee, show that students learn more when they are in newer facilities.

The report on infrastructure challenges in Shelby County comes on the heels of another report about lead in water at schools across Tennessee.

It’s absolutely clear that the State of Tennessee needs to make significant investments in our schools. It’s also clear that legislative leaders and Governor Lee have shown zero interest in making that happen. Instead, the Plaid Privatizer seems content to push an agenda of disruption while promoting charter schools and voucher schemes.

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A Tennessee Story from North Carolina

A North Carolina teacher wrote her state representative recently to express frustration over low pay and the cost of living. The email, which has gained attention as part of an ongoing budget fight in the state, could just as easily have been written by a Tennessee teacher. It is published below as Butler provided it, without identifying the specific teacher by name:

…a local teacher here in Brunswick County, North Carolina.  I wanted to express my concern and frustration over the requirements and qualifications required for any form of public assistance.  I realize that there are large amounts of families that are in tight financial situations but I am having difficulty with the fact that as a state employee who works extremely hard every day and I am not able to receive help.  I am a single mom with zero support from my child’s father. He has been unable to be located and works under the table so I cannot track his employment. I have been denied any form of help, from Medicaid for my daughter to food stamps and childcare vouchers.  I understand that I am employed and I am thankful for this every day but when I submit my information to try to get any assistance, I am denied because my Gross amount of pay is utilized, rather than my take home pay. According to my paycheck, I make $4,840 a month.  This is not accurate. I have to take into consideration that I only get paid 10 times a year and therefore I have set up at Summer Cash account through SECU to help save money for the months I am not paid in the Summer. I take out $600 from each paycheck for that amount which leaves me with $4,240.  I also have supplemental insurances to help cover emergencies since I am the only income for my family. This costs $440.32 a month. I am now at $3,799 a month. Then I have to take into account that I have state, federal, retirement, social security, and medicare taken from my paycheck for the amount of $1,070.89.  I am now bringing home $2,728.79. With my take home pay, I have monthly bills that I have to pay. I pay $975 a month in rent, $130 in utilities, my phone bill is $143, car insurance is $100, insurance for my daughters health and dental is $84. I have student loan payments at $336 a month. I have personal loan payments each month from trying to cover months that I was extremely in debt.  These total $393. I have to pay day care each week at $90 a week so on average that is $405. I am at $162.79 left. I also have credit card payments each month that cost $156.00. I have $6.79 left in my bank account to now cover gas, groceries, and miscellaneous items that always arise. I am currently in debt from not being able to pay all of my bills each month. I am $504 in debt to one student loan company and $672 to another.  My bank account currently sits at $0.64. I have another week before payday.

If you would so willing to help explain to me what I can do about this I would greatly appreciate it.  I am trying extremely hard each month to make it day to day. I often go without food in order to make sure that my daughter is provided for.  I depend on the charity of friends to help cook me dinner with leftovers since they know how hard I am struggling. I have sold off everything I can in my household to try to supplement my income and I try to pick up babysitting jobs or tutoring to make ends meet.  I am asking for your help as my local representative with this. I know I am not the only teacher in this situation. I realize that some strides are being taken to help with teacher pay but I need help now. If I would be able to get any kind of assistance I would be more than grateful.

If you are a Tennessee teacher with a similar story you’d like to share, you can email andy@tnedreport.com and I’ll help tell your story — anonymity is always protected.

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EXPOSED: Pinkston on NACSA

An innocuous-sounding group called the National Association of State Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) wields tremendous influence in education policy in states across the country. Former Nashville School Board member Will Pinkston exposes their agenda in a recent piece on Medium:

Many districts have fallen into the trap of letting the charter sector exert undue influence on their review process. The most egregious example: For more than a decade, an innocuously named Chicago-based nonprofit organization — the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) — has led the national charter sector’s campaign to set ground rules for how K-12 public school districts should review charter applications.


In fact, NACSA is a thinly veiled charter advocacy group largely funded by the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — the two biggest pro-charter philanthropies in the U.S. Moreover, NACSA’s board and staff is exclusively populated with charter school advocates. According to an Internal Revenue Service filing, NACSA’s mission is simple: “Promote establishment” of charter schools.

Pinkston highlights the Tennessee connection:

Tennessee. A state law written specifically for NACSA requires the State Board of Education to adopt charter review standards based on “national best practices” and orders local school districts to adopt the state board’s standards. Not coincidentally, the state board subscribes only to NACSA’s standards.

A Recommendation:

To counteract NACSA and other opponents of stronger charter review standards, local school districts should consider adopting independent review guidelines that require charter applicants to address the myriad academic, fiscal, and operational complexities associated with opening a new school of any type. For strategic purposes, portions of NACSA’s standards could be incorporated by reference into new nationally validated standards that go farther than the charter movement anticipated.

Strengthening charter application review standards isn’t rocket science. Career educators, researchers, and policy experts who have worked in and around K-12 school districts should get together and articulate new best practices. State and local teachers’ associations and unions can leverage their relationships with district leaders, including superintendents and school boards, in order to persuade them to adopt new or enhanced charter review standards.

READ MORE>

While Tennessee is governed by the Plaid Privatizer, it’s critical that legislative leaders stand up and fight for our public schools. Here, Pinkston offers valuable insight that should guide serious policymaking.

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Wilson County Voters to Decide on Sales Tax to Boost Teacher Pay

The Wilson Post reports that the Wilson County Commission is asking voters to decide on a sales tax increase on the March 3rd ballot, with any proceeds from increased revenue being dedicated to teacher pay raises:

The Wilson County Commission voted unanimously Monday night to put a one-half percent sales tax increase into the hands of voters, this time tying the increase to higher salaries for county teachers.

At the monthly commission meeting, District 6 Commissioner Kenny Reich made a motion to amend the resolution so that any additional revenue would be designated for teacher pay raises. The original resolution did not specify a use for the increased money.

If passed the county sales tax would increase to 9.75 percent from 9.25 percent. The one-half percent increase is the maximum increase allowed under state law. If passed the sales tax on a $100 item would increase 50 cents.

The move comes as Wilson County is feeling the impact of the national teacher shortage, driven in part by low pay for educators. Additionally, new reports indicate teacher pay in Tennessee has actually fallen over the last decade when adjusted for inflation. Wilson County also suffers from a pay scale tied to teacher value-added scores.

Director of Schools Donna Wright noted that a pay raise was essential to keep Wilson County competitive with neighboring districts. A pay raise of $4000 for every teacher in nearby Sumner County goes into effect in January.

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Charter Schools, William Lamberth, and Math

I’ve written recently about Governor Bill Lee’s Charter School Slush Fund and how the funds are beginning to be distributed across the state. This money is dedicated to capital improvements and is available exclusively to charter schools, many of which not only receive BEP funds from local districts but also benefit from support from private funders.

Interestingly, House Majority Leader William Lamberth has been a proponent of capital investment funds for fast-growing districts like Sumner County, where he lives. He’s even sponsored legislation that would provide a mechanism for these districts to access funds. The legislation has failed to advance because of a price tag of just over $18 million.

So, if Lamberth is really focused on securing state funds for capital investment in the district he represents, he COULD suggest that Sumner County convert all of its schools to charter schools. That way, they could access the Charter School Slush Fund.

Based on current enrollment numbers, the Charter School Slush Fund provides roughly $285 per student for charter schools. If every single school in Sumner County became a charter school, the district could access over $8 million in capital funding from the state.

State law specifically authorizes local districts to convert existing schools to charters. TCA 49-13-106 provides:

(g)  A public charter school may be formed by creating a new school or converting a school to charter status pursuant to this chapter.


(3)  An existing public school may convert to a public charter school pursuant to this chapter if the parents of at least sixty percent (60%) of the children enrolled in the school, or at least sixty percent (60%) of the teachers assigned to the school, support the conversion and demonstrate such support by signing a petition seeking conversion, and if the LEA approves the application for conversion. The percentage of parents signing a petition must be calculated on the basis of one (1) vote for each child enrolled in the school.

So, instead of Lamberth running his capital improvement bill next session, he could simply ask the Sumner County School Board to convert their schools to charters. That way, they’d be sure to be on Governor Bill Lee’s radar AND they could access monies from the Charter School Slush Fund.

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Revenue Up, Teacher Pay Down

Economic analysts are predicting a slowing of the growth that has driven the Tennessee economy in recent years, according to an article in the Tennessean. Those same analysts indicate tax revenue growth in the state over the past 10 years has been 7% when adjusted for inflation. Here’s more:

Most of Tennessee’s cities have reaped the benefits during this longest economic boom in history with double-digit jumps in employment and gross domestic product. 

However, Tennessee tax collections have only increased 7% in the past decade, when adjusted for inflation. 

“That’s not a lot of growth,” said William Fox, director of the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “Revenue growth would have been stronger, but we had a number of policy decisions to reduce revenues.”

An analysis provided by the Tennessee Education Association (TEA) indicates that average teacher pay in the state is actually down by 2.6% over the same time period when adjusted for inflation.

TEA also notes:

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. 

Not only is Tennessee bringing in more revenue than anticipated but also, as Fox notes, the state has used that good fortune to reduce future revenue. In fact, the state of Tennessee phased-out the inheritance tax (previously paid on estates worth $5 million or more) and is phasing out the Hall Income Tax on investment income. Here’s more on that from the Department of Revenue:

The Hall income tax is being phased out through December 31, 2020.  The tax is fully repealed beginning January 1, 2021.  See important notice 17-09 for more information.

Some estimates indicate completely eliminating the Hall Income Tax means foregoing $180 million in state revenue each year. That’s roughly the equivalent of foregoing a 7% raise in teacher pay each year.

So, let’s be clear about a few things: 1) State lawmakers prioritized tax cuts for wealthy Tennesseans over raising pay for teachers and 2) Even with these tax cuts, there is significant money available to fund teacher raises and 3) Now that the economy is slowing a bit, legislators are being encouraged to exercise caution — which likely means less money to invest in teacher pay and other public service needs.

Shorter: Tennessee policymakers have not made investing in teachers a priority.

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Vouchers a Taxing Proposition

Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn dropped a bombshell yesterday when she told a legislative committee that the value of a voucher under the state’s new education savings account program would be considered taxable income for the purpose of federal taxes. More from NewsChannel9 in Chattanooga:

Tennessee’s education commissioner says the state’s new school vouchers for private education will be considered federally taxable income for parents.

It was immediately pointed out that low-income families are the least likely to be able to absorb the burden of adding $7300 in taxable income reported to the IRS.

The announcement is the latest in a series of potential problems for Governor Bill Lee’s signature legislative initiative.

Just last week, it was revealed that the Department of Education is spending $2.5 million on a contract with a private firm to manage voucher payments. Not one cent of this money will go toward helping a student access a private school nor will it be paid to any private school. That’s just the administrative cost of managing the payments.

It’s also worth noting that there is an ongoing FBI investigation into both the House vote on the voucher legislation AND the Senate sponsor of the plan.

Oh, and there’s a serious effort to actually repeal the entire voucher scheme.

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Penny Doesn’t Know

At a legislative committee meeting today where state representative Andy Holt, often the purveyor of terrible ideas, advocated for allowing Tennessee teachers to carry concealed weapons at school, Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn seemed unable or unwilling to stand for teachers. The Tennessean has more on how Penny dropped the ball:

Ahead of the 2020 legislative session, at least one lawmaker is already expressing interest in allowing teachers to carry guns in schools.

It’s a measure some Republican lawmakers have pushed unsuccessfully in recent years, and one that Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn on Monday declined to give a position on.

“I’m not in a place to comment on that at this time,” Schwinn said after a House budget hearing when asked whether she supported the notion of arming public school teachers. “We’re focusing on the budget hearing.”

Apparently, the issue of allowing guns in schools was too much to handle for the former educator who also noted many times during the legislative hearing that she’s also a parent.

Does Schwinn want teachers at the schools her children attend to be armed? Does she, someone with classroom experience, think it’s wise to arm teachers?

It seems she doesn’t know. Or, well, she’s just unwilling to challenge a bully and blowhard like Holt, known more for his obnoxious cowbell on the House floor than for his legislative efficacy.

Schwinn is running a department that is in disarray and now seems unable (unwilling) to stand up for Tennessee teachers and students when they need it most.

All of this raises yet another question: What does Governor Bill Lee think? Is the HVAC mogul a supporter of arming teachers? Does he support Holt’s idea? Will he continue to back a Commissioner of Education who can’t be bothered to offer support for teachers on a pretty straightforward question?

American cent

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Nothing to Win, Nothing Left to Lose

Nashville can’t live without its teachers, but it seems the city’s leaders can’t live with the idea of actually paying them. While the need to improve pay for teachers has been clear for years, Mayor Cooper recently announced yet another study to determine what can be done with teacher pay. Now, Nashville finds itself in a budget crisis, short the money needed to meet this year’s obligations. That crisis has caused some to question whether the funds for a promised mid-year teacher raise will actually be available.

Metro Nashville Public Schools teachers union leaders are worried that an anticipated 3% raise for educators in January may be in danger after comments from Mayor John Cooper’s administration Friday evening. 

The concern was exacerbated by a weak statement from Mayor Cooper’s office:


“In light of the Comptroller’s report this week, we are doing everything possible to make the raise happen. The finance director is working with MNPS to determine the sources of funds.”

Additionally, at-large Metro Councilman Bob Mendes took to Twitter this weekend to explain how the promised raise came about and indicate a bit of a conflict in terms of whether it should be given:

Here’s the bottom line: Metro Nashville has been giving tax breaks to developers and companies like Amazon for years now. These tax giveaways mean new revenue from growth is already spent. Simultaneously, Nashville has been ignoring the looming crisis in teacher compensation. Now, those two trains are colliding.

The next question: If there’s no raise for teachers in January, will there be teachers in classrooms in January?

Nashville has teachers with nothing to win and now nothing left to lose.

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