Equity Coalition Opposes Vouchers

Here’s a statement from the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition opposing Governor Bill Lee’s school voucher proposal:

The Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition formed in 2016 in order to harness the influence and voices of a diverse group of civil rights and education advocacy organizations and leaders across the state. From the beginning, our shared policy priorities centered on addressing the chronic disparities in opportunities, achievement and outcomes for students of color, and those learning English, living in poverty or with a disability. We applaud Governor Lee for making education a priority in his first year, and for investing in teacher pay, and increased access to advanced courses, STEM programs, career and technical education, and post-secondary programs for incarcerated Tennesseans. We worked closely with Commissioner McQueen and the Tennessee Department of Education on the design and implementation of the Tennessee ESSA plan, and remain committed to ongoing partnership with the new administration.

However, many of our Coalition members believe that Governor Lee’s Education Savings Account proposal (SB 795/HB 939) is not aligned to our priorities. Parents must be empowered to make the best possible educational choice for their child, but this bill is not in keeping with the course we have set as a state over the past decade, and which has yielded improvement across all student groups. It is not designed to serve our students that are most in need, and it codifies educational practices that are exclusionary and discriminatory.

First, this bill, does not address the needs of low-income students or those attending our lowest performing schools. In fact, it provides middle income students in top-performing public schools the opportunity to access public funds for private instruction. The $7300 voucher is not considered payment in full to participating private schools, and represents only a fraction of the actual cost of most private schools in Tennessee. It is unlikely that low-income families can cover the remainder of tuition cost, fees, and other indirect expenses, reducing their chances of participating. The income threshold, set at $65,000 for a family of four, will expand the number of families that can participate, thereby reducing the number of available vouchers for low-income students. Additionally, students from any school in one of the qualifying districts can apply for a voucher, regardless of its quality.

Second, this ESA bill does not guarantee school choice. Private schools will continue to adhere to their admissions criteria, despite receiving voucher money.  They decide who may enroll in their schools, and can legally deny entry to students based on gender, ability, language of origin, sexual orientation, or religious and social beliefs. The Governor’s legislation explicitly discriminates against undocumented families, prohibiting families with undocumented parents from participating, even if the student is an American citizen. This feature of the ESA bill will trigger an immediate and costly legal challenge. The Supreme Court has long recognized that “where the state has undertaken to provide an educational opportunity, it must be made available to all on equal terms.” Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202, 223 (1982) Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 493 (1954)

Third, families with students with disabilities are required to waive their rights to protections under the Individuals with Disabilities Act once they accept a voucher. These include the right to disciplinary protections, accommodations for instruction or assessments, or access to services laid out in a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).

Additionally, the most recent Senate version of the ESA bill does not require students to take the TNReady assessment, and allows them to take an alternate norm-referenced test. Tennesseans need to know if this financial investment is benefiting students, and families must understand how well private schools are serving students with vouchers. If public dollars are to be diverted to private schools, they should be held accountable according to the framework we use to evaluate all public schools, and that must include the administration of TNReady.

Student achievement ought to be the driving force behind any education reform initiative, and the impact of school vouchers on student success is inconclusive at best. Research does confirm that current initiatives in Tennessee, such as the Innovation Zones, are demonstrating success with our lowest performing schools.  Tennessee must continue to make investments in proven strategies that are making a tangible difference in communities and in the lives of students most in need.

Tennessee has dramatically improved student achievement in K-12 education, setting records for academic progress, and relying on innovative collaboration in order to keep the focus on what is best for students. SB 795/HB 939 will be a step backwards in the progress we have made over the past decade. It is our belief that Governor Lee and our state legislature must set bold goals for all 1 million public school students in Tennessee, and invest our funding and resources on increasing their odds of success. We remain committed to working with the Governor Lee and the Tennessee Department of Education on serving and supporting all students in our state.

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

Your support makes reporting education news possible.

Roll Tide Roll

Tomorrow, the Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to take up Governor Bill Lee’s “super-charter authorizer” bill that would effectively usurp the authority of local school boards by creating a state board that has the power to authorize charter schools anywhere in Tennessee.

While I’ve warned before of the dangers of such an authorizer by pointing to Arizona, perhaps our neighbors in Alabama offer an even better example of what can go wrong with such an authorizer.

Here’s more from the Alabama Political Reporter:

Woodland Prep is a charter school horror story — and it hasn’t even been built yet.

Located in rural Washington County, Woodland Prep, which will open as a K-7 school this fall and add a grade level each year, is everything state leaders assured us could never happen under Alabama’s charter school laws.

Its land is owned by a shady Utah holding company. Its building is owned by a for-profit Arizona company. It will be managed by a for-profit Texas company that doesn’t employ a single Alabamian. It will pay the head of that management company around $300,000 per year — up front. Its application was rejected by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which Alabama pays a hefty sum to review and approve charter applications. Woodland’s management plan failed to meet basic standards for approval in any of the three plan areas reviewed by NACSA.

In spite of all of those concerns, Woodland Prep was approved by the Alabama Charter School Commission — a board similar to the one envisioned by Lee and his legislative supporters for authorizing charters in Tennessee.

Who is behind this mysterious charter?

Soner Tarim. Tarim is the CEO of Unity School Services and was the founder of Harmony Schools, a mostly-successful charter school group in Texas. Tarim and Harmony also have their very serious problems, not least of which is their ties to a Muslim cleric and controversial preacher from Turkey, Fetullah Gulen, and his Gulen Movement.

Numerous reports from the New York Times to Reuters and other local news outlets linked Harmony and Tarim to Gulen, and some labeled Harmony a financial front for Gulen’s movement. While Gulen espouses a more moderate brand of Islam, his movement has been labeled a terrorist organization by Turkey, which has accused Gulen and his followers of attempting to overthrow the Turkish government. Others dispute those claims, and believe the terrorist label is unfairly applied to Gulen, who has shown no proclivity for violence.

Regardless, other legal questions have been raised about Harmony and Tarim’s use of the schools to exploit a visa program and to skirt hiring laws in order to give contract jobs to Turkish workers and teachers.

Follow the Money

A copy of the USS contract with the Woodland Prep board shows that Tarim will make 15 percent of all federal, state and local funds received by Woodland. Which means that for every student allotment — and Woodland estimates in its application that the per-pupil allotment will be more than $8,200 — Tarim will make 15 percent off the top. If Woodland’s projected enrollment of 260 students is accurate, Tarim will make more than $300,000.

Can this happen in Tennessee?

Yes. Interestingly, the legislation creating the state charter authorizer also contains a provision specifically related to H1B visas — the same program used by Tarim at schools in Texas and contemplated in Alabama. Here’s that provision:

(1) An authorizer may deny a public charter school application if the
proposed public charter school plans to staff positions for teachers,
administrators, ancillary support personnel, or other employees by utilizing, or
otherwise relying on, nonimmigrant foreign worker H1B or J1 visa programs in
excess of three and one half percent (3.5%) of the total number of positions at
any single public charter school location for any school year.
(2) Notwithstanding subdivision (d)(1), an authorizer shall not deny a
public charter school application solely because the proposed public charter
school plans to exceed the limitation in subdivision (d)(1) by employing foreign
language instructors who, prior to employment, meet and, during the period for
which the instructors’ H1B or J1 visas have been granted, will meet all
Tennessee educator licensure requirements. If an authorizer denies a public
charter school application under this subsection (d), then the sponsor may
appeal the authorizer’s decision to deny the application as provided in subsection
(b).

Why would Tennessee’s proposed law contemplate this specific issue? The case out of Alabama should be alarming. We’re told again and again that Tennessee’s authorizer will be different, that our law builds in accountability. The Alabama law did the same thing and look what happened. Moreover, the law as proposed in Tennessee — with its H1B provisions — would make Soner Tarim smile.

Tennessee lawmakers would do well to look to Alabama for what could go wrong.

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

Your support helps make covering Tennessee education news possible.

Gardenhire Opposition Puts Vouchers in Doubt

Andy Sher of the Chattanooga Times-Free Press reports that Senator Todd Gardenhire will vote NO on vouchers when Governor Bill Lee’s ESA plan hits the Senate Finance Committee tomorrow. The revelation could spell trouble for Lee’s plan, according to Sher.

Here’s more:

“A week and a half ago, the governor asked to meet with me on another bill,” Gardenhire said. “I told him I was not for the voucher bill, but I’d carried every voucher bill for the past six years. But this was one I could not go along with.”

Among the reasons Gardenhire gave for opposing the current measure are the exclusion of undocumented immigrants and the fact that Lee didn’t consult Hamilton County lawmakers before initiating his proposal.

“Nobody asked any of the legislators at all that I know of for any input,” Gardenhire said. “They just decided just to come up with this plan.”

Gardenhire’s promise of a NO vote comes as parents prepare to descend on the Capitol to express support for public schools and opposition to vouchers. The bill is scheduled for votes in both the Senate and House Finance Committees on Tuesday.

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

Your support helps make reporting education news possible.

Donate Button

Bill Lee’s Buddy

At an invitation-only meeting with Bill Lee and Betsy DeVos — a meeting featuring no teachers or public school administrators — a man named Douglas Jahner is in attendance. Jahner is also a frequent commenter on this page, often criticizing public schools while claiming superhero status for his own advocacy of school privatization.

Erik Schelzig tagged a photo of all who attended. Among those not invited, according to Chalkbeat, was the Executive Director of Tennessee’s State Board of Education.

Over in the comments section of this post, Jahner makes an interesting comment:

Doug Jahner April 12, 2019 at 2:38 pm (Edit)

What a screwed up system whereby we open our wallets for illegal alien children yet we forbid legal neighbor child Johnny from education tax dollars simply because he goes to s school not approved by education unions.

Jahner here is encouraging the violation of what DeVos ultimately called “settled law” after her own mishap on the issue.

For all his commentary on support for “all children,” Jahner – a man close enough to Lee to get an invite to a closed door meeting with the U.S. Secretary of Education — appears to only support education for those children he finds worthy of his approval.

So far, the Senate version of Lee’s voucher plan appears to side with Jahner’s unconstitutional view of school attendance. No word from Lee on whether he backs his buddy on this one.

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

Your support makes reporting education news possible.

Timely Guidance

By now, readers know the TNDOE’s Kindergarten portfolio system is a complete and utter fiasco. The flawed evaluation system takes time away from instruction and, quite simply, doesn’t work. The state is now on its second vendor in two years of the program. Still, the online system for uploading content is sketchy, at best.

Here’s more on the new vendor:

Since last year, the Department of Education has moved to a new platform for portfolio evaluation — a group called Portfolium. More on this “new” group:


Who is Portfolium?
Portfolium is a startup company designed to provide college students with a way to highlight accomplishments and work samples for future employers. Yes, you read that right: The new evaluation platform is a startup company that was founded in 2013 and just three years ago, began raising a small amount of capital to launch:
Portfolium, a Web-based social network for students preparing to start their careers, said it has closed on $1.2 million in new venture funding, bringing its total funding to $2.1 million since 2013, when the San Diego-based startup was founded.

And, according to teachers, the Portfolium platform is pretty frustrating. Kindergarten teachers report frequently receiving the “Uh-Oh” screen and also note they’ve been told not to upload material during the TNReady testing window so as not to stress the state’s computer system.

Now, just two weeks before portfolio materials are due, teachers are receiving “guidance” from the Department of Education. Here’s the email sent last week late in the afternoon:


Thank you for all you have done so far during this year’s portfolio process. We wanted to provide some additional guidance and reminders to help support you during this final push of uploading and submitting your student artifacts. A walkthrough of how to login, choose a model, and upload artifacts has been provided by Portfolium and can be watched here.


Supported Browsers
It has come to our attention that some educators are having challenges utilizing the platform via Internet Explorer. As a reminder, Internet Explorer is no longer supported by Microsoft (meaning using it will reduce your experience on all websites). It is recommended that teachers utilize Chrome or Firefox when accessing the platform. 
When playing back videos, please be sure that you are using the most updated version of your media software (e.g., Quicktime, Windows Media Player, etc.). 


Supported File Formats
The TEAM Portfolio platform supports multiple file formats which include but are not limited to:
Images: .png, .gif, .jpeg
Documents: .doc, .docx, .pdf
Audio/Visual: .mp4, .mp3, .wav, .wma
For a full list of supported file formats, please see the guidance provided here. Please note that Wi-Fi speeds could impact upload time.
Contacting Technical Support
If an educator is having trouble with the technical aspects of the platform, including slow uploads and/or artifacts disappearing or showing up incorrectly, please utilize the chat feature on the platform itself. The educator having the issue should reach out to Portfolium for support via the chat feature so that they can check the individual account. Please be prepared to share some of the following when contacting Portfolium:


What browser were you using when the problem occurred? Did the problem occur right away or after some time in the platform? Please provide any relevant details around any conditions that were present when problems arose.
Does the problem occur when you use a different browser? 
Was there an error code or any messaging when the issue occurred? 
The chat function is the blue circle at the bottom right-hand corner of the platform screen. This feature allows an educator to interact with someone in real-time during Portfolium’s business hours: 11 a.m. CT/12 p.m. ET – 7 p.m. CT/8 p.m. ET. For after-hours issues, teachers can still utilize the chat feature, but will receive a response on the following business day. Educators may also email support@portfolium.com with technical questions. 
Please note there is no phone number for support. All inquiries should be made by direct chat or email.

So, TNReady starts next week, which means teachers heeding the state’s warning will not be uploading material during the school day. I’ve heard from some teachers that uploading very late in the evening or very early in the morning is a great time to do so because the servers are not overloaded.

To be clear: The Tennessee Department of Education is mandating a disastrous portfolio model while providing little support. This model requires teachers to spend the equivalent of 4-6 days away from direct instruction of students. The platform for uploading materials is not reliable. Teachers either spend hours attempting to upload material OR must do so at extremely odd hours — all with no additional compensation.

How are these portfolios evaluated? Well, last year, that process didn’t really work, either. More on that:

The bad news: That’s because there was no scoring as the state’s vendor, Educopia, could not provide access to the portfolios in order for them to be graded.

To be fair, some portfolios were graded in certain locations before the infrastructure was overloaded and all grading stopped.

This means trained reviewers sat in rooms around the state looking at blank screens instead of assessing portfolios. It means they were fed sandwiches and then told to go home. It means they were promised $500 for the lost day.

While lawmakers debate whether or not to continue the portfolio model in coming years, the state continues to make errors and, subsequently, make the lives of Kindergarten teachers miserable.

Will relief in the form of legislation come this year, or will the Senate Education Committee side with the state and against the trained educators doing the actual work in classrooms every day?

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

Your support makes reporting education news possible.

TNReady for Vouchers

This week is shaping up to be huge for education policy in Tennessee. Tomorrow, the TNReady testing window opens — while many will take pencil and paper tests, there will be significant numbers of students taking online TNReady. Our current Commissioner of Education is not quite sure how that will go.

If you’re an educator, student, or parent and you get wind of TNReady trouble this week, let me know ASAP: andy@tnedreport.com

Of course, during this busy week for our schools and teachers, legislators have planned key votes on voucher legislation. Governor Bill Lee’s “education savings account” voucher scheme will be voted on in the House and Senate Finance Committees on Tuesday. That’s the final step in both bodies before the bill hits the floor, likely the week of April 22nd.

A group of parents and teachers is planning a series of events tomorrow in order to protest the movement on vouchers.

Meanwhile, if you have any great voucher, charter, or TNReady memes, send them my way at andy@tnedreport.com

As always, your support makes reporting education news possible:

Donate Button

As a reminder, your support — $2, $4, $6 or more — makes reporting education news possible!



Dolores Doesn’t Know

Like US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Tennessee Senate Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham appears not to know how schools actually work.

Yes, apparently Gresham believes that parents in Tennessee must present a driver license, birth certificate, passport, certificate of citizenship, certificate of naturalization or a US citizen ID card to enroll their child in public school. Would she be shocked to know that all you really need is a utility bill with your address? Unless you and your child are homeless and then you just have to declare that you are homeless and living in the district.

Gresham made the remarks during debate on Governor Bill Lee’s voucher plan. The Senate version, sponsored by Gresham, contains a provision previously declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the case of Plyler v. Doe. DeVos made a similar error in explaining how students register for school during testimony last year.

When asked about the provision by committee member Raumesh Akbari, Gresham replied that she believed this was “routine” and “no different than what is required of traditional public school students.”

Perhaps if she actually spent time with public school educators listening to and understanding them — rather than lecturing them on their greed, as she did during the voucher debate — she might know how schools work.

In addition to her remarks demonstrating a basic understanding of what is required to register for school, Gresham said that public school principals too often view students as “profit centers.” Apparently, in Gresham’s world, Tennessee school principals are rounding up kids so they can enroll them and cash in on the huge payout from the state’s BEP funding formula.

She’s been at this for a long time, folks. There’s really just no excuse for this level of ignorance.

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

Your support makes reporting education news possible.

Bounds v. Dunn

In what could be an absolutely epic showdown between supporters of public schools and known backers of school privatization, former Kindergarten teacher and Knox County School Board member Patti Bounds is discussing the possibility of challenging Rep. Bill Dunn for his seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives.

Bounds is, like Dunn, a Republican. Unlike Dunn, she’s an unapologetic supporter of public schools, having taught in Knox County Schools and currently serving on the School Board.

Bounds helped lead a school board that moved toward a more supportive, inclusive environment for teachers.

Sandra Clark summarizes the potential matchup this way:

Both Dunn and Bounds will say their ideas are best for kids. Dunn will be well-funded. But Patti Bounds would run with the full-out support of most teachers and many parents. If Bounds runs, she can beat Dunn. But if he wins, at least he could go back to Nashville speaking truthfully about support or non-support for public education in his district.

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

Your support makes reporting education news possible.



Parents, Teachers Speak Out on Vouchers

As Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher proposal advances through the legislative process and, at least in the Senate, grows to cost significantly more money while reducing accountability, parents around the state are rising up and speaking out against the plan.

Chalkbeat reports on an event in Nashville on Tuesday where parents and teachers expressed opposition to vouchers and also indicated another demonstration was forthcoming.


“What this plan is going to do is take money from over 90 percent of our kids and give it to just a few,” said Lauren Sorensen, a Knox County teacher who helped organize the event.


“Our legislators actually have a constitutional duty in Tennessee to maintain and support a public education. They have no duty to support private education. And simply put, they are not doing their jobs,” Sorensen said.


The rally drew parents too, including Patty Daniel whose two children attend public schools in Williamson County, near Nashville.


“All of the parents I know do not want vouchers, and we are baffled as to why some of our elected officials are so intent on pushing this bill,” Daniel said. “I feel like they are listening to high-powered lobbying groups and not to actual parents and teachers.”

Daniel’s statement is right on the money, literally. Key legislative leaders received significant financial support from pro-privatization groups like the Tennessee Federation for Children and Tennessee CAN.

Meanwhile, dark money groups like Tennesseans for Student Success are attacking any Republicans who deviate from support for Lee’s voucher scheme. Even embattled state Rep. David Byrd, an admitted sex offender, faced attacks and repercussions from legislative leadership — not for his bad behavior but for his vote against vouchers.

The latest version of the plan will now cost a minimum of $219 million at full implementation. That’s enough money to give every teacher in the state a pay raise of around 7.5%.

Debate is sure to heat up in the next two weeks as the proposal moves toward a likely floor vote in both the House and Senate.

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

Your support — a one-time or monthly contribution — makes reporting education news possible.