Will Vouchers be BLOCKED?

A court in Nashville will hear arguments on Wednesday in cases challenging Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher scheme. Specifically, the plaintiffs are seeking to stop implementation of the plan before the 2020-21 academic year.

Here’s more from a press release:

On Wednesday, April 29, Chancellor Anne C. Martin of the Chancery Court for Davidson County will hear oral arguments in two cases challenging the constitutionality of Tennessee’s Education Savings Account (ESA) Pilot Program, the private school voucher law passed in 2019.

The voucher program diverts scarce public education funding to private schools and applies only to Nashville and Memphis students, in violation of several provisions of the Tennessee Constitution as well as state statutes. At the request of Governor Bill Lee, the program will begin issuing vouchers this fall, a year earlier than the law requires.

The plaintiffs in McEwen v. Lee, who are public school parents and community members from Nashville and Memphis, are seeking a temporary injunction to stop the state from implementing the voucher program until the court rules on the constitutionality of the voucher law. Oral arguments on their motion will be heard on Wednesday at 10 a.m. CT.

Also during Wednesday’s hearing, the Court will hear oral argument for summary judgement in a separate lawsuit challenging the voucher law brought by Davidson and Shelby Counties and the Metro Nashville Board of Public Education.

The hearing will be conducted by video conference and live stream. Members of the public can watch online, though a link will likely not be available until shortly before the hearing starts.

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Charters or Teachers

Nashville school board member Amy Frogge distills the debate about whether to approve new charter school applications during the COVID-19 pandemic down to a simple choice:

“We have a limited pool of funds,” said Nashville board member Amy Frogge, a charter school critic who plans to vote to deny the district’s five applications. “We can choose to pay our teachers or open more charter seats.”

Chalkbeat has more on how Memphis and Nashville are looking at the charter expansion debate in the current fiscal climate.

Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Lee has presented consecutive state budget proposals doubling a charter school slush fund.

While Lee’s emergency “coronavirus” budget ultimately slashed the slush fund this year, he wasted no time in directing millions to his favorite privatization scheme, vouchers. He did this while cutting a planned investment in teacher compensation in half.

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What We Always Knew

A story out of Maury County highlights the education disparities we all know about. It also makes clear the problem of inequality is societal and systemic. It’s something we can conveniently ignore when school is in session because we know then all the kids are being fed and watched and loved. We aren’t forced to see the impacts of wage stagnation, wealth consolidation, and a lack of access to health care.

Here’s more from the Columbia Daily Herald:

“It took this crisis to realize that we are working on two very different dynamics in our districts,” Jennifer Enk, president of the education association, told members of the Maury County Board of Education during an online board meeting this month. “Going forward, this is something that our state and our local [district] really has to look at.”

She said the ongoing stay-at-home order has shown that students’ access to the internet and the devices to access it dramatically differs across the county.

After encouraging the school district to continue offering stipends to local educators who prepare work packets for students, Enk recommends incoming funds from the federal government be used to “equal the playing field” for the county’s students.

Maury County Superintendent of Schools Chris Marczak previously told The Daily Herald that in the northern portion of the county, in the surrounding Spring Hill area, about 10% of the school district’s students live in a home without internet. In Columbia, the county seat located in the center of the region, 24% of the school districts students don’t have internet at home.

It’s not just internet access, of course. There are wide disparities in access housing, food, and health care. A report published last year noted:


High concentrations of poverty, not racial segregation, entirely account for the racial achievement gap in U.S. schools, a new study finds.


The research, released Monday, looked at the achievement gap between white students, who tend to have higher scores, and black and Hispanic students, who tend to have lower scores. Researchers with Stanford University wanted to know whether those gaps are driven by widespread segregation in schools or something else.


They found that the gaps were “completely accounted for” by poverty, with students in high-poverty schools performing worse than those from schools with children from wealthier families.

So, while policymakers create plans focused on how much time kids are in school buildings and how to ensure they get to take tests, the real problems remain ignored.

Meanwhile, privatizing predators are on the prowl, ready to use the COVID-19 pandemic to open the doors to MORE taxpayer resources with little oversight or accountability.

Instead of trying to line the pockets of wealthy edu-profiteers, Tennessee policymakers should move forward with solutions that address the underlying challenges:

Addressing poverty would mean providing access to jobs that pay a living wage as well as ensuring every Tennessean had access to health care. Our state leads the nation in number of people working at the minimum wage. We lead the nation in medical bankruptcies. We continue to refuse Medicaid expansion and most of our elected leaders at the federal level are resisting the push for Medicare for All.

Yes, COVID-19 has highlighted inequality in our schools and beyond. It’s also highlighted the willingness of our top policymakers to simply walk by on the other side while their neighbors suffer.

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The Privatization Pandemic

In recent days, I’ve reported on virtual vultures seeking to profit off of the crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Reports have indicated that both Pearson (Tennessee Connections Academy) and K12, Inc. (Tennessee Virtual Academy) are seeking to extend their money grabs by offering their wares as a “solution” for public schools. Now, a report from the Koch Family Foundation-funded Mercatus Center further illuminates this very real privatization plan.

Instead of attempting to create new virtual platforms, school districts and physical charter schools should create public-private partnerships with virtual learning providers. Some private providers are prepared for this arrangement. K12 Inc. and Connections Academy, two of the nation’s largest K–12 online learning companies, have already created resources to assist districts. K12 Inc. has offered district school students access to the company’s online curriculum, while Connections has posted videos online and scheduled webinars to help traditional classroom teachers adapt instruction.


At least one public virtual school has also announced that it can expand its services. The nation’s largest state-based virtual school, the Florida Virtual School, is offering training for state teachers.8 VirtualSC, South Carolina’s online school, is providing similar services.9 According to local media, Florida Virtual School is prepared to increase its capacity to 400,000 students. If demand continues, the school is considering assigning students to certain times of the day to access content, staggering instruction so that servers are not overloaded.

So, go virtual and give private providers more cash with less oversight. We’ve seen how that worked out in Tennessee’s unfortunate embrace of K12, Inc.:

Take, for example, Tennessee, where K12 Inc. has spent between half a million and $1.1 million hiring lobbyists over several years. One of them was chief of staff to former Tennessee governor and current U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who is the chairman of the education committee in the Senate.

The state passed a virtual school law in 2011 that mirrored model legislation written by The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, an influential conservative think tank. A few schools opened up, including one run by K12 Inc. through a poor, rural school district in the northeastern part of the state.

Since then, K12’s Tennessee Virtual Academy, whose enrollment at one point ballooned to nearly 2,000 students, has been one of the worst-performing schools in the state ever since, but has so far managed to avoid being shut down.

Privatizers want to turn more of our money — and our kids — over to shady operators like K12, Inc. Also, they want ALL the money. Here’s more from Mercatus on “repurposing” current school budgets to direct additional funds to the privatizing predators:

Lawmakers should also allow districts to repurpose taxpayer resources meant for bus routes, food service, and facility maintenance, to name a few, and use this spending to purchase education services from online providers

But what about those pesky IDEA requirements that protect students with disabilities? Well, Mercatus and the privatizers agree with Tennessee’s own Lamar Alexander that “flexibility” should be offered in this regard. Here, flexibility means students with disabilities lose so for-profit prowlers can win:

While this fact sheet already offered school leaders “discretion” and “significant latitude,” the department appears to have erased any uncertainty on March 21 with another memo that said schools should not fear reprisal for good-faith efforts to move classes online, even for children with special needs. The department said, “To be clear: ensuring compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.”

The privatizers want ALL the money, all the students, and none of the accountability. It’s not a secret. They are saying (and writing) it out loud.

Will Tennessee’s policymakers stand up to the virtual vultures?

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Voucher Leader Jumps Ship

Today, Shelby County Director of Schools Joris Ray announced new additions to his leadership team. Among them, Amity Schuyler, previously the Tennessee Department of Education’s point person on school vouchers. Gov. Bill Lee and his team have been counting on Schuyler to fast-track the state’s voucher scheme.

Here’s the announcement via tweet:

It’s unclear what this means for the future of a voucher program that Lee chose to fund in his emergency budget while cutting a planned investment in public schools.

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Money Grabber

Not to be outdone by edu-opportunist Pearson, Tennessee’s favorite virtual vultures over at K12, Inc. are seeking to cash in on the COVID-19 pandemic. Peter Greene reports that K12’s CEO serves on something called the National Coronavirus Recovery Commission — a Heritage Foundation project closely connected to the Trump Administration. When it comes to education policy, this commission has some pretty interesting recommendations.

States should immediately restructure per-pupil K–12 education funding to provide education savings accounts (ESAs) to families, enabling them to access their child’s share of state per-pupil funding to pay for online courses, online tutors, curriculum, and textbooks so that their children can continue learning. Students are currently unable to enter the K–12 public schools their parents’ taxes support. They should be able to access a portion of those funds for the remainder of the school year in the form of an ESA.

So, go ahead and rob public schools RIGHT NOW — while many have moved to alternative models of instruction and are anticipating revenue shortfalls for the next school year due to the economic impacts of COVID-19.

Then, there’s this:

Additionally, state restrictions on teacher certification should be lifted immediately to free the supply of online teachers and tutors, allowing anyone with a bachelor’s degree to provide K–12 instruction online.

Because, of course. Why pay a premium for certified talent when you can capitalize on the legions of Americans now unemployed due to a global emergency?

But, hey, we’ve seen these assholes before. Here’s more (from Education Week) on the K12 story in Tennessee:

Those issues are not unique to online charter schools—full-time online programs run through school districts have run into many of the same problems. And especially for a small, rural school system, the opportunity to enroll students in their district from across the state can offer a powerful financial incentive.


Take, for example, Tennessee, where K12 Inc. has spent between half a million and $1.1 million hiring lobbyists over several years. One of them was chief of staff to former Tennessee governor and current U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who is the chairman of the education committee in the Senate.


The state passed a virtual school law in 2011 that mirrored model legislation written by The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, an influential conservative think tank. A few schools opened up, including one run by K12 Inc. through a poor, rural school district in the northeastern part of the state.


Since then, K12’s Tennessee Virtual Academy, whose enrollment at one point ballooned to nearly 2,000 students, has been one of the worst-performing schools in the state ever since, but has so far managed to avoid being shut down.


Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have proposed bills that would have shuttered failing virtual schools. One, sponsored by a Democrat in 2013, was killed in committee, even after the lawmaker produced a leaked email from a K12 Inc. staff member that appeared to instruct teachers to change students’ grades. Lawmakers did go on to approve a bill that session that gave the state education commissioner the power to close a failing virtual school after three consecutive years of poor performance, but they struck language from the bill that would have capped enrollment.


Republican state Senator Dolores Gresham—who sponsored the original legislation to allow virtual schools—introduced a bill in 2015 that would have also cracked down on failing virtual schools, but it never came to a vote.


That same year, Gresham also sponsored a bill to extend the state’s virtual school program through 2019.


That one passed.


When Kevin Huffman, a former state education commissioner, tried to shutter the Tennessee Virtual Academy with the authority given to him under that 2013 legislation, it devolved into a years-long saga. Parents sued state officials to keep the school open and a judge ruled in their favor. The school could stay open through the 2015-16 academic year.
Then K12 Inc. caught another break.


A botched roll-out of Tennessee’s computerized testing system in 2015-16 forced officials to toss out all student testing data. That extended the life of the Tennessee Virtual Academy another year.


K12 Inc. said the school has persisted not because of lobbying on behalf of the management company, but because it should never have been targeted for closure in the first place. Although company officials acknowledge that the Tennessee school has struggled academically, they say the school was unfairly singled out by state education officials.
The experience led Huffman, a staunch supporter of charter schools who is now a fellow at New America, a Washington-based think tank, to shift his stance on full-time online schools and for-profit companies that run them.


“I don’t see evidence of for-profit models that work,” he said in an email to Education Week. “Theoretically, a for-profit operator could run effective schools, but in practice, the top charter school operators are all non-profits, and I don’t think it’s accidental.”

In spite of K12 consistently failing both students and taxpayers in Tennessee, the state’s Treasury Department apparently sees the company as a sound investment:

The Tennessee Treasury Department has INCREASED its stake in problematic virtual school operator K12, Inc. The news comes from a report from market analysts:


State of Tennessee Treasury Department purchased a new stake in K12 Inc. (NYSE:LRN) in the 3rd quarter, according to its most recent filing with the Securities & Exchange Commission. The fund purchased 12,460 shares of the company’s stock, valued at approximately $329,000.

Yes, Pearson wants ALL the money. But, they’ve got some pretty stiff competition from K12, Inc.

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Staying the Course

While Nashville’s schools are looking at budget cuts in the upcoming year, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris is proposing maintaining current operational funding and investing in school construction, according to Chalkbeat.

Shelby County Schools could receive the same funding as last year for day-to-day operations and possible additional funding for school construction in the next budget year under a proposed $1.4 billion county government spending plan unveiled Monday.

Mayor Lee Harris recommended maintaining the $427 million the county allocated this year for the operating budgets for all seven of Shelby County’s school systems. Shelby County Schools, the largest district in the state, receives the bulk of that funding.

Additionally, the mayor proposed spending an additional $33 million for school construction needs in all the districts. On top of that, he proposed another $65 million for schools, including $50 million for Shelby County Schools, that he hopes will be an incentive for school leaders to rapidly build new facilities “and give more kids a first-rate learning environment.”

Harris is proposing a $16.50 increase in the vehicle registration fee in order to cover the cost of this investment.

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Pearson Wants ALL the Money

Following the maxim to never let a crisis go to waste, Pearson (the company that turns education into cash through testing and online learning “solutions”), is now marketing its Tennessee Connections Academy even as the COVID-19 outbreak has ended school for this year and thrown the 2020-21 school year into uncertainty.

Here is a mailer that landed in the mailboxes of public school parents recently:

Because Pearson’s Connections Academy is an online public school, they receive state dollars to operate.

Pearson has a long history of swooping into Tennessee to “solve” problems. Last summer, the company signed a two-year, $40 million contract to rescue the state’s TNReady test. Of course, the 2020 test wasn’t administered due to COVID-19, but there’s talk of using Pearson for benchmark testing when students return to school for the next school year.

Pearson also jumped in to bail-out the state back in 2016 when original TNReady vendor Measurement, Inc. failed to get the job done:

Jason Gonzalez at the Tennessean notes:

The Tennessee Department of Education has contracted with its previous test vendor Pearson Education in an emergency maneuver to score TNReady high school tests.

The contract with Pearson is only for scoring and reporting of 2015-2016 assessments, according to Education Commissioner Candice McQueen in a letter Monday to school directors statewide.

Pearson was paid $18.5 million for these “emergency” services.

Pearson wants to run the schools, administer the tests, and provide the materials. They want just one more thing: ALL the money.

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CLOSED

Today, Gov. Bill Lee called on all Tennessee school districts to close for the remainder of this school year. Here’s a statement from the Tennessee Education Association on the issue:

“The coronavirus pandemic has already negatively impacted students, educators and communities, and will continue to do so for some time. Educators are as eager as parents for school to resume, but every decision on how and when to reopen classrooms must consider health, safety and well-being first.

Following Gov. Bill Lee’s announcement today, it is now time to look toward the 2020-2021 school year. The prolonged break in classroom instruction has disrupted student learning and will cause serious challenges for students and educators when school resumes. As the professionals who work with students most closely, Tennessee educators must have significant input in the planning and implementation of efforts to overcome learning loss.

There is no better place for Tennessee students than public schools, and every educator from the bus driver and cafeteria worker to the counselor and school nurse will be needed to support students. Use of federal emergency funds must first prioritize the ability to reopen public schools for the 2020-2021 school year.”

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CLOSED FOR THE YEAR

McNairy County Schools becomes possibly the first school district in Tennessee to announce it is closing for the remainder of this school year, according to a story in the Jackson Sun.

The McNairy County School System won’t be returning to school for the rest of the semester and will be utilizing online instruction under the Tennessee Department of Education’s recently approved instructional plan.

The decisions come as districts around the state continue to respond to the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis.

On Thursday, the McNairy County board of education accepted the Continuing Instructional Plan (CIP) at the recommendation of superintendent Greg Martin, who said the recommendation stemmed from the rural county’s inability to test for coronavirus.

Many districts have indicated they will be closed until May 4th as Gov. Bill Lee has recommended the state’s residents stay home when possible until the end of April. Reports indicate Lee will be making recommendations regarding schools at his daily COVID-19 briefing tomorrow (April 15th).

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