Voucher Vultures Getting FBI Scrutiny

NewsChannel5’s Phil Williams reports that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is continuing to investigate the possibility of bribes involved in the 2019 vote to secure passage of Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher scheme.

Here’s more:

NewsChannel 5’s cameras were there last month as Casada woke up last month to an FBI raid on his Franklin condo.

Now, Casada has told associates that the FBI had questions about how he helped pass Lee’s legislation to create school vouchers to pay for private school tuition. Two independent sources, who spoke on the condition that they not be identified, said Casada described being questioned about allegations of bribes being offered for votes

The voucher bill itself has so far been ruled unconstitutional in Tennessee courts. Now, the Tennessee Supreme Court will take up the issue.

Casada and number of his associates faced FBI raids last month connected to an investigation of campaign finance irregularities. Now, it seems that investigation may also include questions about bribes related to the voucher vote.

Lee’s voucher scheme passed the House by a single vote after Casada and his legislative aides and lieutenants negotiated with lawmakers while holding the vote open for more than 30 minutes.

MORE on vouchers:

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What’s the Big Deal?

Earlier this month, I wrote about the Germantown School District’s letter in response to Gov. Bill Lee’s education agenda as passed in the January special legislative session. Specifically, I noted that Germantown expressed concern about SB 7001, which heavily incentivizes districts to reach 80% participation in TNReady testing – testing that must take place in-person.

Why does this even matter? Well, as the Germantown Board points out, a number of families have chosen to have students participate in remote-only learning in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Requiring those students to return to school in-person may very well be a difficult, it not impossible, task.

So what?

Well, if your district doesn’t reach the magic 80% threshold, the district is subject to a range of potential penalties, including receiving a “letter grade” from the state about the quality of schools and the possibility of having schools assigned to the failed Achievement School District.

First of all, there shouldn’t be any testing at all this academic year due to the pandemic and the huge disruption it has been and continues to be for teachers and learners.

Second, in the best of circumstances, the TNReady test is of limited value. Specifically, our state has struggled to even properly administer a test.

Third, really? Testing this year? Despite what the Biden Administration says, it’s just a very bad idea.

While this legislation aligns with what House Education Committee Chair Mark White calls a “carrot and stick” approach, it seems rather counterproductive.

So, if you can’t get your district to the magic 80%, there could be all sorts of potentially negative impacts.

There’s actually some history with the Department of Education punishing districts that don’t reach arbitrary targets.

Will the General Assembly move to correct this mess soon, or will they allow the Commissioner of Education broad discretion to use suspect data to advance a school privatization agenda?

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Testing During a Pandemic is a Crime

Former Nashville school board member Amy Frogge posts on Facebook about the disappointing decision by the Biden Administration to insist on federally-mandated state standardized tests as our schools continue to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here’s what Frogge has to say:

This is a huge disappointment. Standardized testing in general is pretty useless. It does not improve outcomes for students or help drive instruction for teachers. To require testing during a pandemic is a crime. I can tell you the results right now: Children will fail- if they even show up at all.

The decision to require testing this year was rolled out by acting Assistant Secretary of Education Ian Rosenblum, Executive Director of the Education Trust- New York. The Education Trust is a corporate reform nonprofit funded (likely in the hundreds of millions at this point) by Bill Gates. Gates and The Education Trust have pushed for more standardized testing, Common Core standards and No Child Left Behind, which was an abject failure. (Bill Gates did not subject his own children to all this nonsense. He sent them to private school.)

Here in Nashville, The Education Trust is run by school board member Gini Pupo-Walker, who has also advocated for more testing and standardized testing during the pandemic.

The Education Trust purports to be focused on equity and closing the achievement gap- but don’t be fooled. There is evidence that all this testing has actually widened the achievement gap, and at the very least, it has maintained the achievement gap, which should be obvious to anyone paying attention. We should be spending more time on classroom learning and less time on endlessly assessing children.

Testing companies seeking a profit off children are swarming the Tennessee legislature. This year alone, 135 lobbyists are lobbying for privatization interests, including testing companies, at our legislature. That’s what this is really all about.

We should all hold President Biden accountable for this terrible decision. In the meantime, you can fight back by opting your children out of tests. (Stay tuned, more to come!)

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“Wholesome”

House Speaker Cameron Sexton appointed an anti-Muslim activist who promoted and participated in the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol to the State Textbook Commission. Now, Laurie Cardoza-Moore has taken to the Tennessean to defend her reputation and advocate for what she terms “wholesome” values in Tennessee schools.

Here’s some of what Moore has to say:

I pray for a day, when parents in the Volunteer State can send their children to school with the knowledge that they are receiving a wholesome, accurate and unbiased American education.

Surely, some of that unbiased education will include a condemnation of those who promoted and participated in an uprising against our national government on January 6th, 2021? What will an accurate, unbiased textbook say about this?

Moore also pats herself on the back for her work with a nonprofit she founded and runs called Proclaiming Justice to the Nations.

Here’s more on that:

Moore’s group – Proclaiming Justice to the Nations (PJTN) raised just over $1 million (in 2017).

What’d she do with the cash?

Well, she paid herself $130,000. Then, she paid her husband’s business $67,000. There was a business “office expense” for occupancy at just over $49,000. She runs PJTN from her home, so that means she’s paying her mortgage with the cash. That’s $200,000 in payments to Moore and her husband, and another 50,000 a year to cover their mortgage. Then, there’s another $26,000 paid to Moore as an “occupancy expense.” Oh, and there’s $41,000 on “meals and entertainment.” Finally, her two kids received a total of around $2000 from the organization for “contract labor” that year.

In her article, Moore claims:

The appointment has drawn the wrath of those who want to maintain the status quo. They are doing their utmost to distort my legacy and rewrite my past.

This statement reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Harry Truman:

It seems Ms. Moore simply can’t handle the truth.

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The Takedown with Amy Frogge

Former Nashville School Board member Amy Frogge offers some key facts about education funding in Tennessee in a series of tweets.

Here they are:

Here are some shocking facts about education funding in Tennessee: 1. TN has chronically underfunded public education. We rank 46th nationally (bottom 5 states) in education spending. We spend less than any of our neighbors, including KY, NC, GA, AL AR, and even MS. 1/

2. According to the states’s own estimates, the BEP (TN’s education funding formula) is underfunded by $1.7 billion per year. If you hear politicians say “the BEP is fully funded,” they’re lying. 2/

3. The BEP, which generates $7400 per student in state funding, is starvation funding. No school district can run on that amount. Local school districts must make up the difference- sometimes funding up to 60% of the costs. 3/

4. According to the TN Dept. of Revenue, TN’s surplus for the current fiscal year is now over $1 billion w/6 more months to go. The Sycamore institute just released an analysis demonstrating that TN will have at least $3.1 billion in “excess” or unplanned revenue this cycle. 4/

5. For the month of January 2021 ALONE, the state generated a $380.1 million surplus! 5/

6. TN has $7.5 billion in cash reserves. Underfunding education is a clear choice. 6/

Not only does the state refuse to invest in our schools and teachers, but the legislature continues to pass unfunded mandates that already strapped local school districts must shoulder. 7/

Here’s what YOU can do to help: Share this information, and please reach out to your representatives! The Governor’s budget can be amended before the end of the legislative session, and we have a golden opportunity to make a difference! 8/

Originally tweeted by Amy Frogge (@AmyFrogge) on February 22, 2021.

Frogge is dead on, of course. Here are some sources supporting her claims:

To be clear, when legislative leaders tell folks back home they “fully funded the BEP,” they are simply saying they put the minimum required funding into the formula. What they aren’t saying is that this formula still has a $1.7 billion hole plus a $1 billion inflationary gap. It’s like saying you made the minimum payment on your credit card bill while ignoring the 40 plus years it will take to pay off the balance if you only pay the minimum each month.

MORE>

There’s also been a decade of deliberately misleading rhetoric around funding schools.

Anyway, Frogge is right. Tennessee has a huge surplus of cash. It is completely reasonable to demand that money be invested in our schools.

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Told Ya This Would Happen

Back in July, I wrote a post about a newly-created political action committee (PAC) that seemed to be formed by Tennesseans for Student Success. You may recall that Tennesseans for Student Success is the dark money group behind a serious of insidious attacks on any legislator who opposes school privatization.

So, anyway, now they have a cheerily named PAC. Team Kid PAC, they’re calling it. Here’s more from the email they sent announcing this new venture:

Our state has made historic gains in education – twice being named the fastest improving in the nation – but you and our network of parents, teachers, community leaders, and volunteers know we can do better. If we want a better future for our children, we have to elect better leaders. That’s why we formed Team Kid PAC. 

The political action committee of Tennesseans for Student Success, we will serve as the ONLY organization that can and will effectively challenge any elected official or candidate who fails to put Tennessee’s students first –regardless of their political party.

Sounds pretty great, right? I mean, they start out the email with a pretty awesome question:

Do you want to secure effective education for all Tennessee students?

I mean, who is saying no to that? Even Gov. Bill Lee claims to want to secure an effective education for all Tennessee students. Heck, the team over at SCORE often claims they want effective education despite any evidence their presence in our state (or policy advocacy) has improved anything except for their payroll.

Here’s the reality: Tennesseans for Student Success spends their time and money attacking lawmakers who stand up for public schools. If you are not on the pro-privatization train, Tennesseans for Student Success is coming after you. Now, they’ll be doing it under the auspices of Team Kid.

Here’s the other reality: Tennessee needs at least $1.7 billion to make our school funding formula adequate. Tennessee has a huge surplus with even more money on the way. Tennessee has a governor who has no plans to use the current surplus to invest in schools.

So, what’s Team Kid PAC/Tennesseans for Student Success saying about Lee’s policy agenda?

Here are some tweets from them (and a bonus from SCORE CEO Dave Mansouri, a teammate of the Team Kid PAC team):

When Lee proposed an underwhelming raise for teachers:

And here’s Mansouri, acting like a happy cheerleader after his team scores a touchdown even though they’re still down by 50 points:

Oh, and about all those so-called “impressive” gains:

So, just watch out for Team Kid PAC and their gang of seemingly happy marauders out to derail the legislative career of anyone who dares stand and fight for Tennessee’s public schools.

Photo by Rojan Maharjan on Unsplash

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Investment

Today, Democratic lawmakers at the General Assembly unveiled a series of bills designed to help increase investment in Tennessee’s public schools and address some long-standing deficiencies in the BEP formula.

The state’s bipartisan TACIR – Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Affairs – has said the formula comes up short by $1.7 billion.

Now, the state has a huge budget surplus and while Gov. Bill Lee has stubbornly refused to invest it in schools, Democrats are calling for those investments. Specifically, dramatic improvements relative to teacher compensation, increases in the number of school nurses and counselors, and other changes designed to make the most of this funding opportunity.

Here’s more from the Democrats on their plans:

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Meaningless

A new video from the Tennessee Education Association (TEA) explains why the phrase “fully funding the BEP” is meaningless.

More on School Funding

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Like Grasshoppers

A public school advocacy group in Ohio has taken notice of the rampant spread of school vouchers across the country and the role Tennessee is playing in the privatization game.

The Tennessee Supreme Court has agreed to hear the plaintiffs’ voucher appeal. In 2019 a trial judge declared the Tennessee Voucher law unconstitutional. Subsequently, the Tennessee Court of Appeals upheld the trial court decision. Now the pro-voucher crowd has been successful in getting the Supreme Court to hear the case.


Vouchers are spreading across the nation like the Kansas Grasshopper Plague of 1874. (The insects ate all the crops, even wool off the back of sheep). Vouchers eat up the funds of public school districts.

It’s really no surprise that a guy who sent out a Christmas card lauding the success of his voucher appeal would be this persistent in pursuit of privatization.

And of course, Gov. Bill Lee has been a long-time supporter of vouchers and a long-time skeptic of public schools.

Since 2012, DeVos has provided just under $100,000 to the Tennessee organization. She’s been joined by some key local donors, including Lee Beaman and Bill Lee. Yes, since 2012, Bill Lee has given $11,000 to the Tennessee Federation for Children, the state’s leading political organization supporting school vouchers.

Lee has consistently and publicly supported voucher schemes. That’s why I’m puzzled when I hear some local elected officials express support for both Bill Lee and public schools – it would seem the two are mutually exclusive.

Bill Lee renewed his commitment to fast-tracking the privatization of public schools in a speech in Jackson where he laid out his policy goals for 2020. Lee doubled-down on support of a voucher scheme that is dividing the state Republican Party. 

Lee has also been an advocate of silencing school boards, embracing a proposal by former state Rep. Jeremy Durham that would allow County Commissions to override board decisions when it comes to advocacy.

So, in Bill Lee, Tennesseans have a candidate for Governor who has expressed unqualified support for a voucher program that has failed in Indiana, Ohio, and Louisiana and that will almost certainly increase state and local costs. Additionally, he wants to be sure local elected officials can’t bring a strong voice of opposition to this proposal.

That’s why I remain shocked that some board members and other elected officials express surprise at Lee’s refusal to invest in public schools even when the state is swimming in cash.

Even though as early as 2016, Bill Lee was extolling the virtues of school voucher schemes and even though he’s a long-time supporter of Betsy DeVos’s pro-voucher Tennessee Federation for Children and even though he has appointed not one, but two voucher vultures to high level posts in his Administration, it is somehow treated as “news” that Bill Lee plans to move forward with a voucher scheme agenda in 2019.

Dear public school supporters: Bill Lee is not your friend. He has never been your friend. He will not be your friend in some magical future world.

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Over a Billion

The surplus for the current fiscal year is now over $1 billion with six more months to go, according to figures released by the Tennessee Department of Revenue. This announcement comes as the Sycamore Institute recently released an analysis demonstrating that lawmakers will have at least $3.1 billion in “excess” or unplanned revenue with which to budget in the current cycle.

The figures for January indicated revenue coming in at $380 million above projections. This prompted TEA President Beth Brown to point out that the January surplus alone is three times what Gov. Lee has proposed investing in teacher pay this year.

Lee has shown no indication he plans to make any bold or meaningful investment in public schools, instead preferring to maintain the status quo of an underfunded school system.

The last decade has seen Tennessee’s Republican leadership consistently demonstrate that public schools are not a funding priority.

In fact, the Education Law Center has released a report noting that from 2008 to 2018, school funding in inflation-adjusted dollars in Tennessee actually decreased by $1,065 per pupil. To put it another way, had school spending kept up with inflation, our schools would see an additional $1 billion in state investment.

This figure would come close to filling the $1.7 billion gap in the current BEP funding formula.

As Brown notes, with the surplus this year and projected revenue for the FY 2022 budget, Tennessee could easily fill that gap.

I want to point this out ONE MORE TIME: We can add at least $2 billion to our investment in schools and do so without raising anyone’s taxes. In fact, doing so would likely help keep local property taxes down for some time to come.

So, the question remains: Does Gov. Bill Lee want to invest in Tennessee’s public schools? Does the Tennessee General Assembly want to use this special opportunity to right the wrongs of the last decade of underfunding? Do our policymakers want us to remain 46th in school funding or do they want the reality to match their rhetoric? Will they show that students matter and that our communities deserve excellent schools?

This is like pushing the “easy button.” No new taxes, a big investment in schools, making Tennessee a place where public education is a top priority – all without raising taxes one cent.

If the current leadership won’t fund public schools under these conditions, they never will.

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