Demanding Charter Transparency

There’s now federal legislation (COAT Act) that would foster transparency among charter schools. Here’s more on what that means from the Network for Public Education.

In February of 2017, Betsy DeVos was sworn in as the U.S. Secretary of Education after 20 years of pushing for charter school expansion in her home state of Michigan – which now leads the nation in the number of schools operated for-profit, has more low-performance charter schools than any other state, and lacks any mechanism for oversight of failing charters. Michigan’s experiment with charters has led to a system of poor schools run by for-profit companies failing thousands of students, and millions of dollars lost to fraud and waste.

Over those same 20 years, the Department of Education gave more than $4 billion to states to increase the number of charter schools without requiring strong oversight systems. As a result, it is estimated that over $1 billion of taxpayer money has been lost to charter school waste, fraud, and abuse. Without the necessary oversight for charter schools, our children will continue to suffer while taxpayers will be caught holding the bill for charter school waste and abuse.

That’s why three years after Betsy DeVos’ confirmation as Secretary of Education, Rep. Tlaib is introducing the Charter Oversight, Accountability, and Transparency (COAT) Act.

Charter schools are publicly funded but are managed privately by Private Charter Management Organization (PCMOs). The PCMOs essentially act as the school district, running the daily operations, employing teachers, and freely deviating from most state guidelines, including testing and curriculum.

Under this legislation, States are ineligible for federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act funds unless their school districts’ contracts with PCMOs include basic transparency requirements. These transparency measures will require PCMOs to disclose to the Department of Education:

  • The dollar amount and percentage breakdown of money being used by the PCMO on the operations of the school.
  • The dollar amounts and percentage breakdown of money being used on the operations of the PCMO.
  • The dollar amounts every executive is earning in salary from the PCMO.
  • The identity of any company or organization the PCMO has financial interest in.
  • Whether the PCMO is for-profit or non-profit.

In addition, school districts contracting with PCMOs will require the PCMOs to:

  • Hold board meetings that are publicly disclosed and accessible to the public.
  • Annually disclose the members of the board of directors.

Since charter schools are privately-run but funded by our tax dollars, it is imperative that they are subject to basic transparency measures. The COAT Act is commonsense legislation that will increase transparency and accountability to ensure that charter schools provide necessary information to local, state, and federal agencies to detect and prevent fraud. Our children deserve better.

To urge your Tennessee Member of Congress to support the COAT Act, click here.

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The Impact of a Broken School Funding System

Tennessee’s school funding formula, the BEP, is broken. It fails to adequately fund teaching positions. It fails to account for actual salaries paid to teachers. It fails to provide the money necessary to adequately equip schools. There’s simply not enough funding for nurses or counselors or other key support staff. Here’s one teacher talking about what a broken school funding system looks like.

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Alan Levine and the School Privatization Commission

Gloria Johnson highlights some of the facts surrounding one of the proposed appointees to the school privatization commission.

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What Matters? Money!

While some Tennessee lawmakers are pushing for a significant new investment in our state’s schools, new evidence suggests that a cash infusion is just what schools need to retain teachers and improve student outcomes.

Here’s the breakdown from Matt Barnum:

This tracks with a post I shared recently from We Are Teachers noting that a boost to teacher pay has a long-term impact on student achievement:


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.

Tennessee needs $500 million just to properly staff schools — and that’s just teachers. We need more to add the proper number of counselors, nurses, and other key support staff.

Our teachers need a raise — Tennessee teachers earn about $2400 less than they did back in 2009 when salaries are adjusted for inflation.

This new round of research backs up what those on the front lines of public education will tell you: Money matters. It matters a lot.

While Gov. Lee and his legislative allies push failed charter solutions and sketchy voucher plans, our public schools are starving for support.

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We’ll Fix it Later

Despite significant concerns regarding a no-bid contract awarded to a vendor who will administer the state’s voucher program, legislative leaders have no plans to take action to stop ClassWallet or the Department of Education from circumventing the legislative process. That’s according to a report from the Associated Press.


Late last year, the education agency selected ClassWallet to help administer the applications and funds once the state’s voucher program begins in the summer. However, due to the department using a noncompetitive grant process to select ClassWallet, the agreement never was submitted to the Legislature for review.


This sparked alarm among some lawmakers unhappy the education agency’s decision to select ClassWallet skirted legislative scrutiny, as well as uneasiness the contract resulted in a higher dollar amount than was budgeted the year before.


After calls for further investigation were made by Democratic lawmakers, McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton asked Lee to provide proof the department acted legally.


“When we asked the governor’s office for how they were able to use this as a grant, they were able to provide some legal authority that they believe gave them that power,” McNally, a Republican, told reporters Thursday. “We still have reservations about that.”


But when asked about revisiting the education department’s decision surrounding ClassWallet, McNally said no.

To be clear: The legislature mandates various accountability measures for teachers and schools — TVAAS, Priority Schools Lists, School Improvement Plans, etc. — but, when the Department of Education fails to follow the legislative process designed to foster accountability, they get a free pass.

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Hamilton County Teachers Win 2.5% Raise

Teachers in Hamilton County won approval of a 2.5% pay hike, according to the Chattanooga Times-Free Press.


The Board of Education voted unanimously in favor of the 2.5% raise proposed earlier this month by Superintendent Bryan Johnson at its meeting Thursday night — the same night the board approved a new contract and a raise for Johnson.


The mid-year raise, which is effective retroactively as of Feb. 8, is possible thanks to $3 million in savings during the first half of the fiscal year, according to district officials.

The move comes even as some lawmakers are focusing on ways to improve Gov. Bill Lee’s proposed 4% increase to the state’s share of BEP money dedicated to teachers.

Meanwhile, Nashville school board members are calling on the state to dramatically increase investment in schools.

For the second year in a row, Lee has proposed doubling a state slush fund for charter schools while offering only a small increase in teacher compensation. In fact, one study indicates teachers in Tennessee are paid at a lower rate (when accounting for inflation) than they were back in 2009.

After adjusting for inflation, however, teachers’ average pay during the 2018-2019 school year was still about 4.4% lower than a decade earlier.

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

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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.

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

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