Upheaval

The Tennessee Department of Education is in disarray, and the disruption is impacting students and their families, according to a recent story in Chalkbeat.


… the disbursements she receives to pay for curriculum and tutoring started showing up late, said Moore, who lives in Bartlett, northeast of Memphis. She had to borrow money in December to cover the costs. The state office she had known as responsive and helpful suddenly took weeks to return calls.


“Everything fell apart,” said Moore, who has limited income and receives disability payments.


Tennessee’s Republican-backed Individualized Education Account program, or IEA, is under increased scrutiny. Democrats and other voucher opponents are seizing on problems in the program — including parents being cited for disallowed purchases — to bolster their case that Tennessee can’t be trusted to launch a second, larger school voucher program this summer on Republican Gov. Bill Lee‘s accelerated timeline.


But Moore’s experience, and that of other parents like her, spotlights another aspect of the existing voucher program that has received little public attention: upheaval and uncertainty in the state Department of Education office charged with overseeing the relatively small initiative.


The resignations of the IEA director and her two staff members, a lag in replacing them, a failure by the state to answer pleas for more resources, and the challenges of overseeing a complicated program have all contributed to delayed disbursements and a frustrating information void in recent months, according to parents and current and former education department employees.

The challenges with the IEA voucher program and staff are just one example. Some in the Department of Education suggest the state will have difficulty administering the TNReady test this year:


An employee still with the department sums up her concerns by saying, “There is a complete lack of urgency or understanding regarding the human resource needs to launch an effective assessment in support of the districts, schools, teachers, students and parents of Tennessee.”

And then, there are reports of late night rants via email. Multiple sources confirm these reports.

All of this is occurring while the Department of Education also engages in questionable no-bid contracts such as the one awarded to ClassWallet to oversee the larger voucher program set to start in Memphis and Nashville this year.

Supposedly, all of this “upheaval” will be good for kids in the long-term. I suspect many school leaders, parents, and even legislators are becoming quite skeptical.

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Tinkering Around the Edges

State Senator Jeff Yarbro offers thoughts on Gov. Lee’s education budget.


“The governor‘s budget is not enough to even do a 4 percent increase for teacher pay. It’s tinkering around the edges in a year that we have one of the biggest budget surpluses in our history and we have the capacity to actually improve the structural education deficit problem. We think the reasonable step is getting to $1.5 billion (for public schools). That’s not that audacious of a goal. That gets us to about average in the Southeast. Right now our per pupil student funding is lower than every state in the Southeast except Mississippi.”


“What’s broken about the BEP is not the division. The pie is not big enough in the first place. The BEP assumes that we need fewer teachers then are actually in our schools. If you walk down the hallway at any school in Tennessee and see six teachers, the BEP says you only need five teachers to teach those kids and you only need the money to pay for four of their salaries.”

Yarbro and other legislative Democrats are proposing a $1.5 billion increase in education funding.

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Johnson on the Reality of the Education Budget

In this video, State Rep. Gloria Johnson presses Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn on the reality of the education budget.

https://www.facebook.com/TheTNHoller/videos/1037237439986475/UzpfSTEwNzkzMjU0ODA6MjU2MDUyMjk5NDA1Nzc5Nw/

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A Broken Promise to Teachers

Jill Richardson offers thoughts on the Trump Administration’s plan to cancel student loan forgiveness for teachers in OtherWords.

Before sharing my opinions about Trump’s recent proposal to cut student loan forgiveness, let me explain my own situation.

In my 20s, I was fresh out of college with a business degree and worked in software for a few years. In my 30s, I went to graduate school for sociology. I’m single and I had no family support. So I took out student loans.

I made the decision to take student loans carefully. It’s a risk, because you might not graduate and then you’ll be left with thousands of dollars to pay back.

There were two mitigating factors that led me to go for it. First, you can opt for income-based repayment. Under that option, your loan payments are tied to your income. If you’re broke, your payments are small. If you’re rich, you pay more. That seems fair.

Second, if you work in the public sector or at a non-profit organization, your loans are forgiven after 10 years of repayment. (If not, they are forgiven after 20 years.)

I’m a little more than a year away from graduation. After seven years of graduate school, if I’m lucky, I’ll get a job that pays less than I made in software in my 20s. And then I’ll pay back loans for a decade.

I’ll be 50 years old when my loans are forgiven. It will affect my ability to buy a home, start a family, or save for retirement. I chose that.

Yet Trump has proposed cutting loan forgiveness for people who work in non-profit or government jobs for ten years. For students like me who already took out loans, it’s reneging on a promise.

If you want to run the government like a profit-maximizing business, maybe cutting loan forgiveness makes sense. But there are good reasons why the government should not be run like a business.

Businesses are run to maximize the profits of their shareholders. Any benefits to their customers or the wider public are incidental. The government should benefit all of us.

A healthy society is one with social mobility, where a talented, hardworking person born into poverty can rise above their class. Unless you’re a star athlete, education is the key to getting ahead. Education is not equally accessible to all.

Students from low-income families with college aspirations are already at a disadvantage for a long list of reasons. Sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab studies how the current financial aid system is skewed against the poor. For example, she finds that aid packages underestimate the actual cost of attending school, and assume that children don’t contribute financially to their parents (which many low income students do).

Loans aren’t ideal. Any measures that could allow students to graduate without crippling debt would be better. But they are something. They allow some students who could not otherwise afford it to get a college education. They promote social mobility.

I want to live in a country where talented people from poor families can still go to college. I think that makes our country better — not just in an idealistic way because of lofty morals, but in a real, tangible way that I believe we will all gain from.

I don’t think we are better when the rich stay rich because Aunt Becky can buy her kids’ way into college without them earning it, while a genius born to poor parents can’t. I think we all do better when talented people born into poor families can realize their full potential, enriching our society for all of us.

Loan forgiveness isn’t the magic bullet to achieving a perfect meritocracy, but it’s something. And it’s not a giveaway of free money — it’s an investment in a better society.

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is pursuing a PhD in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Distributed by OtherWords.org.

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What Happens in Vegas Comes to Tennessee

As Tennessee moves forward with the implementation of a school privatization commission, the Department of Education has hired the former Superintendent of Public Instruction from Nevada to serve as a consultant on the project, Chalkbeat reports.


The former superintendent of public schools in Nevada is the chief consultant developing Tennessee’s new charter school commission.
Steve Canavero’s $50,000 contract with the Department of Education began on Feb. 1 and will end on June 30, with an option to renew at that time, according to documents obtained by Chalkbeat.


He is working with the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission, created under a 2019 law that was proposed by Gov. Bill Lee. Beginning in 2021, the nine-member panel will take over the state Board of Education’s responsibility in overseeing the state’s growing sector of the publicly funded, privately operated schools. 

Lee has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to charter schools, even doubling the funds available in a charter school slush fund in this year’s budget and pushing for the advancement of charters in rural communities.

This is in keeping with Lee’s alignment with Betsy DeVos’s school privatization agenda.

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Rural Charters Coming Soon?

On Feb. 5, Gov. Bill Lee’s education chief presented the department’s “Best for All” plan to layout the administration’s goals for future of education in Tennessee.


During the 27-slide presentation, commissioner Penny Schwinn briefly described a new initiative to increase the number of charter schools operating in rural school districts. 


Schwinn told the audience of mostly legislators and staff that a $24 million line item for “Charter Schools Facilities Funding” in the governor’s budget included a $10 million, one-time grant for high school charter facilities called “Innovative High School Models.”


Schwinn said:


“…and Innovative High School Models. The thing that I want to touch on there is the governor proposed $12 million recurring, $12 million one time for charter school facilities funds. 


One of the things that we’re proposing with the one-time funds is $10 million that would go to help build public charter schools with districts — in partnership with districts — to create more opportunities for students in rural communities.

One would suspect that rural districts would be very interested to know the Commissioner’s plans for expanding charter schools into their territory. Perhaps the new school privatization commission will be the vehicle to make this happen?

Slide Showing Funds for Rural Charters

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Why Teacher Pay Matters

Sure, it seems obvious that raising teacher pay makes a difference. But, it’s nice to have some evidence to back that claim up. Especially in a state where teachers now earn 4.4% less than they did back in 2009.

We Are Teachers has put together a list of six benefits of boosting teacher pay. Here are some highlights:


A majority (76%) of responders to a TIME poll said they agreed that many people won’t go into teaching because it doesn’t pay enough. This means fewer graduates of teacher education programs, and fewer teachers looking to fill the increase in demand for teachers.


Unsurprisingly, teacher pay has been shown to reduce turnover (which, in turn, increases student performance). Turnover is about 16% each year, and around 8% of teachers annually leave the profession entirely as opposed to moving to another school.


For example, a study in San Francisco found that when the salary for teaching was increased, the size and quality of teacher applicants increased.


Teachers are 30% more likely than non-teachers to have a second job. It goes without saying that raising teacher pay so teachers didn’t have to work a second job would boost teacher morale and help them stay focused on their classrooms.


In some states, teacher salaries are so low that teachers routinely qualify for public benefits like food stamps or public health care programs (like children’s health insurance programs). This is especially true for teachers who are the primary breadwinner in their family or have large families.


When teachers get paid more, students do better. In one study, a 10% increase in teacher pay was estimated to produce a 5 to 10% increase in student performance. Teacher pay also has long-term benefits for students. A 10% increase in per-pupil spending for each of the 12 years of education results in students completing more education, having 7% higher wages, and having a reduced rate of adult poverty. These benefits are even greater for families who are in poverty.

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On Community Schools

A note from Jeremy Mohler of In the Public Interest:

A groundbreaking new studyabout something you’ve likely never heard of might be the biggest education story so far this year.

For the past four years, Rand Corp. has studied New York City’s innovative Community Schools Initiative. It found that, in 113 public schools using the “community school” model, attendance improved, graduation rates increased, and more students passed courses and advanced grades on time.

What’s a community school, you ask? This video from the Learning Policy Institute goes a long way towards explaining. In short, they’re public schools that partner with local communities to create the conditions students need to thrive.

For example, students at the Bronx’s Benjamin Franklin School learn urban farming five days a week. A teacher helps them grow their own vegetables to eat for lunch and take home to their families.

These types of programs aren’t just a fancy New York City thing. Nationwide, there are more than 5,000 community schools.

Pocomoke High School on Maryland’s Eastern Shore pulls together families, home workers from social services, local agencies, and college representatives to build one-on-one relationships with students.

Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, a Denver high school, offers students mental health, dental, vision, and physician services.

The possibilities are almost endless, as long as the school is adequately funded—which is always the elephant in the room in education debates.

Decreasing taxes on corporations and the wealthy is slowly draining money from America’s public education system. The majority of states continue to spend less on education than they did ten years ago.

Fortunately, the growing #RedForEd movement has won not only higher teacher pay but also more funding for more school nurses, smaller class sizes, and more.

And in at least one case—the 2019 Los Angeles teachers’ strike—teachers were able to win promises from the local school district to transform 30 schools into community schools. This has cascaded into support from California Gov. Gavin Newsom, whose recent budget proposal calls for $300 million for community schools statewide.

A just-released poll shows that a majority of likely voters in the 2020 election view public schools positively but think they need more funding. If support for public education continues to grow, community schools might become the rarest thing in public policy: a silver bullet.

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Vultures Swoop into Franklin

A North Carolina-based private school hungry for voucher dollars is headed to middle Tennessee, with a first stop in Franklin. Here’s more on the revelation that Thales Academy will open its first Tennessee school in Williamson County:


Thales Academy-Franklin will be the first school in Tennessee added to Thales Academy’s successful roster of eight current campuses in the Raleigh, North Carolina area. Founder Bob Luddy emphasized their methodology of direct instruction (DI) Tuesday night and expressed the passion in their mission of teaching to master and creating connections for their students.

TNEdReport has previously reported on Thales Academy, including the founder’s strong desire to have a school based in the Nashville area:


Roughly one month after Governor Bill Lee signed his Education Savings Account voucher scheme into law, a North Carolina-based private school announced it is expanding operations to Nashville. Perhaps not surprisingly, tuition at the school is similar to the amount available to families in Nashville and Memphis under the ESA program.
The school, Thales Academy, is operated by the CEO of a commercial kitchen ventilation company. Bob Luddy is also a top GOP donor in North Carolina.

Thales also held an informational meeting in Wilson County.

The announcement regarding the opening of the Franklin-based school lends credence to the warning that “pop-up” private schools will swoop into Tennessee to feast on voucher funds:


Those who warned that passage of vouchers would lead to “pop-up” private schools have already been proven right. Thales Academy and Bob Luddy were invited into Tennessee by Bill Lee and friends and are now perched like hungry vultures ready to suck funds from Nashville’s public schools.

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