Bill and Betsy: A Tennessee School Voucher Story

While Bill Lee is avoiding talking directly to Tennessee’s education leaders about his plans to use public money to pay for private school tuition by way of voucher schemes, his track record on the issue is clear. Bill Lee supports school vouchers.

Not only did he write an op-ed in 2016 encouraging support for voucher legislation, but he also has consistently supported the Tennessee Federation for Children financially.

The Tennessee Federation for Children is our state’s affiliate of the American Federation for Children, a political organization funded in large part by Betsy DeVos and her family. The mission of TFC is clear: Divert public money to private 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.

Here’s how Chalkbeat reported on the TFC when DeVos was nominated to be Secretary of Education:

This election cycle alone, advocacy groups founded and led by DeVos helped to oust at least one outspoken voucher opponent — and elect two new supporters — in Tennessee’s House of Representatives, the key arena for the state’s voucher debate.

From the helm of groups including the American Federation for Children and the Alliance for School Choice, DeVos, a staunch Republican, has contributed millions of dollars nationally to state legislative candidates in favor of vouchers and against those who do not, regardless of political party.

In Tennessee, most of that work has been done through the state’s affiliate of the American Federation for Children, which launched in 2012. The group has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, reaching more than $600,000 for races in 2014. This year, organizers spent at least $169,777 on House races.

The Tennessee affiliate is currently led by Shaka Mitchell, who previously attempted (unsuccessfully) to expand the Rocketship charter school experiment in Nashville.

Let’s be clear: Bill Lee has written about his support of school vouchers. He’s indicated support of legislation that would silence school boards on the issue. He’s given thousands of dollars to an organization dedicated to enacting vouchers and electing voucher supporters.

While Bill Lee won’t talk to educators about his plans, his record speaks loud and clear.

 

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Bill Lee Skips TOSS

Every year, the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (TOSS) holds a conference in Gatlinburg. The event is an opportunity for the state’s education leaders to come together, receive training, and learn from each other. Historically, during gubernatorial election years, the event has also featured the major party candidates for Governor outlining their education views and taking questions.

Not this year. Democratic candidate Karl Dean did attend the conference and gave a presentation on his agenda for public education in Tennessee.

However, Republican candidate Bill Lee did not attend. It’s true that Bill Lee has some education policy views that might not be welcomed by professional educators, but he certainly should take advantage of the opportunity to explain his vision in front of a nonpartisan group of state education leaders.

Back in 2016, Bill Lee wrote on op-ed supporting that year’s version of an education voucher scheme — one of many that have failed in the legislature in recent years. He’s also expressed support for legislation that would prevent school boards from actively lobbying against vouchers. During this year’s campaign, Lee has also indicated he would support a “voucher-like” program to use public funds to pay for private school tuition.

Lee’s support for vouchers is problematic not just because it represents a shift in taxpayer dollars away from public schools but also because recent evidence suggests vouchers don’t get results:

Recent evidence tells us that’s not the case. In fact, studies of voucher programs in D.C., Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio indicate students lose ground academically when accepting a voucher and attending a private school.

Writers Mary Dynarski and Austin Nichols say this about the studies:

Four recent rigorous studies—in the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio—used different research designs and reached the same result: on average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students that do not attend private schools. The Louisiana and Indiana studies offer some hints that negative effects may diminish over time. Whether effects ever will become positive is unclear.

Lee has also expressed support for arming teachers, the Tennessean reports:

With school safety at the forefront of a national debate, Williamson County businessman Bill Lee said Monday he supports arming some teachers as a “cost-effective” way to increase security.

 

It seems likely the state’s school system leaders would like further information on Lee’s plans for schools, but Lee was unwilling to attend their annual gathering and provide that information.

Why won’t Bill Lee talk directly to those most likely to be impacted by his policies — or seek input from school system leaders on how a voucher scheme or armed teachers would work in practice? Moreover, why wouldn’t Bill Lee want educators to be able to clearly compare his views to those of Karl Dean’s?

If Bill Lee believes he’s the best candidate on education, he should be willing to stand in front of educators and make that case.

 

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Bargain Prices on Teachers in Tennessee

Two years ago, I wrote about the teacher wage gap in Tennessee — the fact that teachers in Tennessee earned nearly 30% less than similarly prepared professionals. Now, the Economic Policy Institute has updated their study of teacher pay relative to other professions.

Guess what?

Tennessee teachers still come at bargain basement prices!

While there is some (slightly) encouraging news, the bottom line: Teacher pay in Tennessee is still not really improving relative to other professions.

This year’s results indicate a national average teacher pay gap of 23.8%. Tennessee’s gap is 27.3%. That’s an improvement of two points for Tennessee, which had a gap of 29.3% two years ago.

That said, Tennessee’s gap is still worse than the national average and among the worst in the Southeast.

Of 12 Southeastern states, Tennessee ranks 8th in teacher pay gap — that’s up one place from 9th two years ago.

Here are the numbers:

Mississippi                   18.9%

South Carolina            20.5%

West Virginia              21.2%

Louisiana                     23.5%

Arkansas                      24.3%

Kentucky                     24.6%

Florida                         25.7%

Tennessee              27.3%

Georgia                       29%

Alabama                     29.4%

Virginia                      33.6%

North Carolina         35.5%

 

Yes, the authors acknowledge that teacher benefit packages tend to be more generous than those offered other professionals. By their analysis, teachers have a benefits package that is a bit more than 7% more generous than similar professionals. The most expensive of these benefits is healthcare, followed by defined-benefit pensions.

Tennessee teacher healthcare benefits vary by district, but for the purpose of this discussion, we’ll assume that Tennessee teachers receive the national average benefits advantage.

Doing so means Tennessee teachers are still paid 20% less than similarly-trained professionals.

While some progress on this front is better than none at all, continuing down this road is not sustainable. Investing in teachers by providing compensation on par with other professions requiring similar education and training is essential to recruitment and retention.

Tennessee’s next Governor and the General Assembly sworn-in in January of 2019 should move past studying the issue and get to work finding long-term solutions to close this gap and pay our teachers the salaries they deserve.

 

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A Nashville Teacher Speaks Out

MNPS teacher Amanda Kail last night delivered a speech to the School Board detailing the needs of teachers in terms of compensation and support.

Here’s the full text of her remarks:

Good evening ladies and gentlemen of the board. My name is Amanda Kail, and I am an MNPS teacher.

I am here today as part of the #Red4Ed movement that began in West Virginia, and has since spread to Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, and now Nashville. In our city, teachers across the district have joined together by wearing red on Tuesdays. We are doing this for 2 reasons: First, to show that we are united in our desire to see our district fully-funded, and second, because we are no longer content to sit back and donate our own money and time to subsidize what state and local officials won’t fund. So we plan to be at BOE and Metro Council meetings on Tuesdays, keeping track of votes and demanding change.

We find our current situation intolerable. Our district is ranked 12th in the state for average wages, yet we have one of the highest costs of living in the state. It takes a teacher with a Masters Degree 11 years to earn $50,000. We have lost vital staffing positions like the psychologists and social workers that keep our students OUT of the school-to-prison pipeline. Our schools are enduring painful cuts to the very resources and programs that support our students social-emotional well-being the most: arts and music, after school programs, and field trips. Maplewood needs its auto shop reopened.

I would also like to say that teachers not only have been subsidizing the district by donating our labor at sub-standard wages, we have been subsidizing the needs of our students and families. Like many teachers, I have fed, clothed, taken to the hospital, paid prison fees, and paid for the funerals of my students.

We say this is intolerable, but we are not content just to complain. We are here to demand change. Because by joining #Red4Ed, we join teachers across the country in becoming warriors for the dignity of our profession, and for the needs of our students and their families.

To that end, we are asking you to do what you can within the powers of your office.

The compensation committee will meet tomorrow to begin the process of recommending raises for teachers. We ask you to join us by making the work of the compensation committee a priority, and immediately begin working with Metro Council for a short-term plan for the 2019-20 budget to include 5% raises for faculty and staff, along with step raises, and a long-term plan to increase wages by a minimum of 5% every year until MNPS ranks in the top 50% of The Council of the Great City Schools. We also demand a revision to the salary schedule that allows teachers to reach competitive salaries in a reasonable amount of time.

Second, BOE shift priorities from increased pay for outside vendors and top administrators to affording the men and women on the ground who are actually doing the work of educating our city’s children (because honestly, right now the city can’t afford us).

Do right by Nashville’s families. Start the process to fully fund #ItCitySchools NOW.

 

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The Speering Letter

On Friday, MNPS Board member Jill Speering sent a letter to her colleagues regarding transparency. Here’s the text of that letter:

Good afternoon colleagues,

I’m writing to remind the board that on 8/20/2018 at 8:52a, I sent an email to the entire board requesting a discussion of several pertinent issues. At the agenda planning meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 4th, the harassment policy was still on the draft agenda.

Yesterday, I learned the harassment policyhad been deleted from the Sept. 11th agenda. Apparently Shawn Joseph pulled the item without permission or discussion with the Board Chair. Via telephone, Anna Shepherd assured me she was unaware the item had been deleted and promised she would return the item to the agenda. This did not happen. Unfortunately Anna did not returned my phone call nor has she responded in text, about a time to discuss the agenda. If this is a matter of legal concerns, I’m sure board members will work within established paramaters to ensure adherence to legalities.

I suspect we have all received emails from constituents voicing concerns as to why items on the news are not discussed on the board floor. Dr. Joseph apparently is unwilling to talk about the board’s harassment policy or other items of interests in a public venue and actually walked away from cameras when news media approached him as reported on Channels 4 and 5. What would we think if the Mayor of Nashville or the Commissioner of Education behaved in such a manner? In my opinion this is unacceptable. I’m convinced Nashville taxpayers have grave concerns. It is time to be fully transparent and hold the director accountable to the public.

When the audit discussion was on the 8/28 agenda, you may recall that Anna and Dr. Joseph attempted to stop any discussion or questions. In response to Amy Frogge’s concerns, Anna promised to place the audit back on the agenda and allow questions to be answered in a public forum–not through emails or behind closed doors. Again, the audit is not on the 9/11 agenda and there appears to be no attempt to offer a rationale why important topics of discussion are consistently omitted from the agenda. You will also notice that safe drinking water has never been discussed on the board floor despite repeated requests from multiple board members.

We will elect a new Board Chair at the top of the 9/11 meeting. At that time I hope we will have a frank and thorough discussion about how we will hold the Chair accountable to place items of public interests on the agenda. We need to hear how the Chair plans to hold the director accountable for his actions and responses to public questions and concerns. Dr. Joseph is the highest paid public official in our city and appears to be the least responsive to taxpayers. This must stop!

I’ve lost all tolerance for Dr. Joseph and the leadership of this board. As servants, elected by the people, we must ensure public accountability. Our students, teachers and parents deserve no less!

After seeking legal advice, I’m copying news media in an effort for full disclose and adherence to the Sunshine Law.

Kindest regards,
Jill

 

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


 

Edu-Dystopia

One might think that the problems with the state’s Pre-K/Kindergarten portfolio evaluation couldn’t get any worse. But, we are dealing with the Tennessee Department of Education and failed leader Candice McQueen. These are the same people who brought us fake hacking and a monstrous TNReady dump truck.

Anyway, after this year’s blame the teachers portfolio event, the state finally agreed to review portfolios and re-score them. In fact, the state offered $500 each to reviewers who would meet at centralized locations and on a single day (September 8th) to assess the portfolios in question. This would allow for immediate feedback and assistance should problems arise.

The good news: No assistance was necessary because problems didn’t arise during the scoring.

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.

Now, those same reviewers are awaiting further guidance. Ostensibly, they will be provided access to Educopia on Monday and have one full week to grade the portfolios. Additionally, Educopia has promised to pay each reviewer an additional $250.

Here’s how the situation was described in a letter from the Tennessee Department of Education:

Thank you for your willingness to partner with us yesterday to review portfolio collections.  We understand that you gave up your time to work with us, so your gracious attitude while we navigated Educopia’s technology issues is greatly appreciated.  Our intention was for you to have an enjoyable, collaborative opportunity to engage in a streamlined review process.  While Educopia was aware that we would be reviewing across the state and was on call to provide support, the architecture they put into place to provide us access to the collections was flawed.  Therefore, our connectivity was hit and miss.  The CEO has issued an apology

If you’re a Pre-K/K teacher waiting for your portfolio to be reviewed (again), you’ll have to keep waiting.

Of course, you’ll also soon be introduced to the new Portfolium platform. Maybe it will work. Maybe not.

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


 

And Then There Were Ten

I wrote recently about Tipton County opting out of portfolio evaluation for Fine Arts teachers after participating the past four years. The move came in response to a letter a group of teachers sent to the Tipton County School Board.

Now, Nashville has also decided to opt out of Fine Arts portfolios for the 2018-19 academic year. While this had been raised as a possibility toward the end of last year, it wasn’t clear MNPS would move away from the portfolio model this year.

MNPS took the time to survey Fine Arts teachers and then used that feedback to inform their decision. The largest number of teachers responding voted to stop participating in the Fine Arts portfolio now and in future years. Another significant group wanted to at least pause the portfolio for a year and evaluate options going forward.

As a result, MNPS will now hold focus groups with Fine Arts teachers in the Spring to determine evaluation options for 2019-20 and beyond.

The move in Nashville comes as the portfolio evaluation model is losing favor around the state due to both poor implementation and lack of beneficial impact on instruction.

Prior to the start of this school year, five of sixteen districts participating in the Fine Arts portfolio indicated they would drop it for 2018-19. Now, Tipton and Nashville have opted out. This leaves nine districts who were previous participants plus Sumner County, a district that added portfolio evaluation over the objections of Fine Arts teachers there.

A line from the letter Tipton County teachers sent to their School Board explains why so many districts are moving away from this evaluation model:

While we appreciate the theory behind it, in real practice the portfolio process is not an effective one. What has occurred over the past several years is that portfolio has changed our lesson structures, negatively impacted our students’ classroom experience, and it has failed to provide feedback to help us improve as teachers.

It will be interesting to see if any other districts move away from this model ahead of the roll-out of the new portfolio evaluation platform from new (the third in three years) vendor Portfolium.

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

Actually Ready

As a few districts around the state push for a pause on TNReady while others look for ways to move beyond the test, the words of a teacher during the testing failure last year seem incredibly relevant:

I want all the things that the Tennessee Department of Education says that it wants from TNReady. But what I do not want is a test that disrupts learning instead of measuring it.

I don’t want to build my students up for a test that doesn’t happen when and how we’ve prepared for it to happen. I do not want to rush my students into a computer lab and be sure they’re all prepared only to sit and wait for 20 minutes to log in, or to end up leaving the lab without testing because the system is down.

I don’t want to start another sentence in my classroom with, “I know we were supposed to test today, but …”

And:

I do not want to hear excuses or listen to anyone insist that these problems do not interfere with the validity of the results. I do not want these results factored into a number used to quantify my effect as a teacher.

But all of that has happened. I also understand that testing is federally mandated, and I agree that tests can provide important feedback. So here’s what I do want: A test that is reliable. A test that is developmentally appropriate in length and respectful of the instructional time students lose to testing. A test that provides timely and detailed data.

And I want my students to take that test, and for my colleagues and I to be held accountable for it, only once it’s actually, truly, ready.

READ MORE>

As Governor Haslam continues his listening tour and the candidates for Governor move forward with their campaigns, the words of our teachers deserve attention.

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


 

Affirmed

The Maury County School Board by a 10-1 vote affirmed the position of Director of Schools Chris Marczak who has called for a halt to TNReady this year and a move to replace the state exam with the ACT suite of assessments.

The Columbia Daily Herald reports:

During the board’s regular meeting this week, representatives voted 10-1 to send a letter calling for the halt of TNReady testing. Former school board chairman David Bates cast the sole dissenting vote.

The letter, penned by Maury County Public Schools Superintendent Chris Marczak, asks the state to end TNReady testing, requests schools be held harmless in the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVASS) and calls for the ACT to be made the standardized testing tool for high school juniors and seniors by the year 2020.

Marczak called the vote an answer to an ongoing rally cry in Maury County.

“This is a huge affirmation for our educators who are working to do the best for our students,” Marczak told The Daily Herald. “To me, it is an affirmation for the community and the families and the students. I want to commend the school board for being forward thinking. They really took a stance and I am really impressed with their leadership.”

The School Board’s position drew immediate praise from the Maury County Education Association, the local affiliate of the Tennessee Education Association:

“After years of failure, confidence and trust in the state testing system is at an all-time low,” the statement reads. “There are calls to suspend testing completely and allow a reset, recognizing an entire generation of students have known nothing but glitches and disappointment.”

The TNReady failures have recently been the subject of an exchange of letters among directors, lawmakers, and Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen.

Additionally, Governor Bill Haslam and McQueen are currently on a statewide tour talking to invited guests about TNReady.

Stay tuned to see if additional districts join Maury County in pushing for a reset on testing and, ultimately, a move to a different test altogether.

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


 

Portfolio Opt Out

Earlier this year, I posted a piece by Camilla Spadafino, an art teacher in Nashville, about her experience with the Tennessee Fine Arts Portfolio. At the time, there was some discussion in Nashville about the district moving away from portfolio evaluation for Fine Arts teachers. While that did not happen this year in Nashville, five districts did drop portfolio evaluation for Fine Arts prior to the start of this school year.

For those following the Pre-K/Kindergarten portfolio story, the Fine Arts and other optional portfolios experienced similar challenges with platform vendor Educopia last year. Now, those few districts using the Fine Arts portfolio in 2018-19 will shift to the third platform vendor in three years.

In 2017-18, sixteen districts participated in the Fine Arts portfolio. As of July, five districts had dropped and one, Sumner County, added. That left twelve districts to move forward this year.

Now, Tipton County has announced they are dropping the Fine Arts portfolio this year. The move comes after a group of Fine Arts teachers sent a letter to school board members citing numerous challenges with the portfolio.

Here are some key excerpts explaining why Tipton County Fine Arts teachers did not want to continue with portfolio evaluation after having used it for four years:

While we appreciate the theory behind it, in real practice the portfolio process is not an effective one. What has occurred over the past several years is that portfolio has changed our lesson structures, negatively impacted our students’ classroom experience, and it has failed to provide feedback to help us improve as teachers.

There is extensive time spent on putting all the collections together in order to submit. Teachers have attested to spending anywhere from 40-100 hours of their own time outside of school on preparing their portfolio.

It has not positively impacted our students, or our school’s arts programs. Many counties in the state have opted out because of these issues. Our goal is to support classroom teachers through collaboration in order to help students reach their specific target areas. Portfolio detracts from this goal and should be removed. Our belief is that we should opt out of the portfolio process…

The concerns mentioned here echo many of those raised by Nashville teachers. They are also similar to concerns expressed by Pre-K and Kindergarten teachers after their first year of portfolio evaluation.

The process, according to teachers, takes up valuable instructional time and yields no real benefits for students. Teachers spend countless hours of their own time without compensation and receive little or no meaningful feedback on how to improve practice.

It will be interesting to see how the process goes this year with yet another new vendor. Will more districts opt out next year?

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