Elections and Education

Former Nashville School Board member Amy Frogge offers her take on recent election results around the state and what they mean for education policy.

It’s been a rough week for public education in Tennessee. Here in Nashville, John Little, a political operative paid by charter school interests, was elected to the school board. Funded by wealthy (white) elites seeking to profit off public schools, Little has used aggressive and underhanded smear tactics to “disrupt” school board meetings and legislative hearings for many years now. He considers school board work “political theater” (his words), which has been obvious from his tactics.

In Williamson County, former Speaker of the House Glen Casada, who used questionable tactics to pass Tennessee’s most recent unconstitutional voucher law, was reelected to the state legislature. He was accused of offering incentives to lawmakers to vote in favor of vouchers, which resulted in an FBI investigation of the voucher vote. Casada stepped down as Speaker after only months in the position when confronted by a scandal involving racist and sexist text messages that embroiled him and his staff.

In Knoxville, two voucher proponents are heading to the state House of Representatives. Rep. Jason Zachary, who was responsible for the new unconstitutional voucher law last year, flipped his vote only after Casada held the clock open for 40 minutes and allegedly offered bribes for the vote. Nevertheless, he was reelected. Voucher proponent Michele Carringer was elected to fill the seat left open by departing representative Bill Dunn, an ardent voucher advocate in the legislature for many years. Dunn has now been asked by Governor Lee to join the floundering Tennessee Department of Education.

However, there is hope. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the most disliked current cabinet leader and perhaps the most despised education leader in U.S. history, will be gone in January. DeVos has consistently diverted public school funding to private schools. The national mood around “school reform” (i.e., school privatization, aka “school choice”) is rapidly changing, and President-elect Joe Biden has promised to name a teacher as Secretary of Education. Fingers crossed that we will not backtrack as a country to the low quality of former appointees under the last several presidents. We have real work to do in Tennessee, but perhaps changes at the top will make their way down to our state.

Former State Rep. Bill Dunn, now an education adviser to Gov. Lee

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Do Something

This piece by leaders of Pastors for Tennessee Children exposes the failed agenda of school privatizers and offers a path forward that involves meaningful investment in Tennessee public schools.

When meeting with elected leaders tasked with improving education in Tennessee, we have heard a common refrain: “We have to do something.”

In response to public education challenges, our state has tried various “solutions,” almost all of which have involved privatization: vouchers, charter schools, excessive for-profit standardized testing, and expensive curriculums.

None of these options has made a sustainable difference. In fact, vouchers and charter schools have made it worse, serving to exacerbate existing inequities in school systems by draining desperately needed funding from the neighborhood schools that serve around 90% of Tennessee’s students.

Often, the real impetus behind these privatization efforts is not the well-being of children, but a desire for personal profit.

READ MORE>

MORE on the schemes privatizers are pushing in Tennessee:

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Mystery Solved

Amy Frogge solved the mystery:

Here’s the story:

A few days ago, I shared a Tennessee Education Report piece about mailers sent out in the District 3 school board race on behalf of candidate Brian Hubert. It garnered a really interesting response. 

The mailers came from a group called the “Nashville Parents Committee,” and the address listed on the mailers was the same as that of the Tennessee Charter School Center. After TN Ed Report put out its blog post suggesting that the TN Charter Center was responsible for the mailers (a logical assumption), both Brian Hubert and his wife responded that they were unaware of these mailers and did not coordinate with the “Nashville Parents Committee.” Then, a couple of days later, the Tennessee Charter School Center issued a response disavowing the mailers. 

As it turns out, the registered agent for the “Nashville Parents Committee” is Todd Ervin, a tax attorney at the well-heeled Bass, Berry & Sims law firm. (I’m going to hazard a guess here that Mr. Ervin has not formed this committee to advocate for his children’s local public schools.) Mr. Ervin also just happens to be the registered agent for Tennesseans for Student Success.

Tennesseans for Student Success is a pro-school privatization organization that was set up to support Governor Haslam’s education agenda. This group shares the same agenda as the Tennessee Charter School Center and has recently inserted itself into Representative Mike Stewart’s Democratic primary by supporting his opponent James Turner (see comments). Although it appears that Haslam is no longer involved with Tennesseans for Student Success, it is still very active. It promotes charter schools, excessive standardized testing, and teacher “accountability” (our deeply flawed teacher evaluation model that evaluates 70% of TN teachers on classes they’ve never taught). These are all tentacles of the “school choice” movement. Unreliable standardized test scores are used to prove that TN schools are “failing” and thus to market new and “innovative” solutions, such as vouchers, more charter schools, and more tests and test prep to “assess” how our students and teachers are performing. The common theme here is profit for private interests. 

Over and over again, we find ourselves fighting the same battles in different guises against various forms of corruption. It becomes exhausting. During my 8 years on the board, we first had to fight against charter school proliferation (which drains money from public schools and directs it to private interests) and absurd amounts of standardized tests for our children. Then came vouchers (for the moment, defeated!). Now the battle has morphed once again. Former Nashville superintendent Shawn Joseph and current TN Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn, both affiliated with the Eli Broad network, are part of the latest scam to direct public funds to private interests and education vendors in the form of no-bid contracts. (Broad also pushes charter schools.) Millions and millions of dollars are at stake in these efforts. But make no mistake, all of this is ultimately about personal greed at the expense of children.

On a related note, I mentioned in my original post that District 9 candidate Russelle Bradbury is a former Teach for America teacher who has made pro-charter school statements. This matters because TFA and charter schools have a symbiotic relationship, and TFA candidates, like former school board member and TFA executive Elissa Kim, typically view charter schools and standardized testing as the only “solutions” to public school challenges. (I know there are good TFA teachers in our school system, some of whom have even taught my own children, but all of this is beside the point.) Ms. Bradbury denied that she was ever a TFA teacher, to which I responded that she has said (both verbally and in writing) that her “Mom likes to tell people, ‘Russelle did Teach for America, on her own!'” I’ve invited her to respond, but have not heard back. 

Keep your eye on these dark money groups that don’t serve the best interests of Nashville’s students. Even when candidates don’t coordinate with groups like Tennesseans for Student Success, organizations like these typically fight against the candidate whom they view as the most effective advocate for true public education. And, as always, just follow the money!

Charters and School Closures in Nashville

Nashville school board member Amy Frogge explains the impact of charter schools on MNPS in a recent Facebook post:

Last night, the board voted to close and consolidate schools in North Nashville. No one wants to close neighborhood schools, and this was a difficult decision. However, MNPS is out of money, and Dr. Battle recommended the closures because she believes MNPS can better serve the impacted students if we consolidate our resources.

These closures are a direct result of charter school expansion in Nashville. What happened last night is part of the charter school playbook. It’s happened in cities throughout the US. When a city opens a number of charter schools, enrollment decreases in traditional schools. The city is then trying to fund two separate, competing schools systems with the same pot of funding. Here in Nashville, our pot of funding was already insufficient. Because of state law, charter schools will always have the advantage because they must be paid, and they are always funded first. So cuts always come from our traditional, neighborhood schools. When money runs out, a city must close neighborhood schools. That’s the charter school playbook.

Nashville is also dealing with the additional threat of state takeover. Through the state-run Achievement School District, the state can reach down and remove any school performing in the bottom 5% of schools statewide and convert it to a charter school. This strategy has not yielded good results for students, since the performance of the ASD has been dismal. All of the schools we closed last night were priority schools (in the bottom 5% of schools in the state). By closing them, we are protecting these schools from state takeover.

Last night, the board voted to request $929 million in operational funding for next year. It’s more likely we will receive $914 million, which is our maintenance of effort budget from last year. Of that amount, approximately $145 million must go towards our charter schools, which serve only a small percentage of our students. In fact, charter costs will actually increase by $6.6 million next year, while we must cut other costs throughout the district. The charters are continuing to expand grade levels while other schools operate without enough funding. Our vote to close schools last night will save us about $3.5 million per year. If we were not trying to fund a charter sector right now, we could afford to keep these schools open. This is exactly what some of us have tried to warn the board about for years. Yet the board has continued to vote for more charter seats.

What happened last night is the very vision of the charter sector. It’s called “disruption,” a term the charter sector has borrowed from the business world. Charter schools have “disrupted the markets” in Nashville. In this case, the “markets” are children and neighborhoods.** [See below.]

Also, back in 2013, I spent nearly a year fighting the passage of the state charter authorizer law. I testified at the legislature and met with lawmakers, all to no avail. The state charter authorizer law was then-mayor Karl Dean’s vision. He pushed to pass a law that removed local control of schools so that Nashville would open more charter schools. So here we now sit- lacking adequate school funding, without local control of our schools, and with increased money going towards the charter sector while we close neighborhood schools. The chickens have finally come home to roost.

None of this is Dr. Battle’s fault. She is dealing with the outcomes of decisions made years ago, as well as a current emergency. Dr. Battle actually found a way to reduce funding for charter schools this year, which surprised me, since we have never been able to cut charter funding before. It’s only fair that if our district schools must suffer cuts, charter schools should, too. The good news here is that the district has no plans to sell any of the vacated buildings or to rent them to charter schools. (Handing over vacated buildings to charter schools is also part of the charter playbook.) Dr. Battle has provided us assurance that this will not happen. Instead the schools will be preserved for district use and can be reopened as neighborhood schools in the future if enrollment increases.

Equity has always been at the heart of the charter debate. Not only do charters receive district funding, but charters also have access to additional funding as well. Our district provides charter schools with the per pupil funding required by state, as well as some free district services. On top of that, charter schools often receive extra funding from investors or philanthropists, and they are sometimes provided with special funding. For example, back in 2010, at a time when we had no funds to renovate other school buildings that had been on a waiting list for years, Mayor Dean gave KIPP $10 million to renovate a historic building for ONE charter school ALONE. And now, in the midst of a pandemic, even though most charter schools are not losing funding, charters are applying for federal aid in the form of small business loans that can be forgiven. None of this is fair or right. By opening charter schools, we have created greater inequities in our school system. Our traditional schools, which serve the most costly and challenging to educate students are on the losing end, and those are the students who will suffer the loss.

I hope this has been an eye-opening experience for Nashville. Charter schools, which make money for wealthy investors, are not the answer. Nashville must focus on supporting our community schools.

[** As one commenter says below: “School closings are the heart of free market based ed ‘reform.’ The entire concept is that schools compete for limited funds, that ‘bad’ schools will lose and close and ‘good’ schools will win and have the funds directed toward them. Besides the fact that this model has not been successful at producing large scale improvements for kids, there is this – If you oppose school closures and the disruption and pain they cause communities and families, you should not support a competition based model as the means to school improvement, because school closings are the inevitable end result and the means by which the market ‘reform’ system is intended to work. If Tennessee continues to pursue this approach, we will see this happen more and more.

Another note – this is why you very rarely see ‘reform’ funders and organizations advocate for large scale increases in investment in public schools, and instead refer to ‘throwing money at the problem.’ Keeping resources limited and requiring educators to compete over them, with winners and losers, is another essential aspect of the competition/market model.”]

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Complaint

Nashville school board members Amy Frogge, Jill Speering, Fran Bush are suing for the right to speak out about former Director of Schools Shawn Joseph. They’ve filed a formal complaint alleging a clause in his separation agreement violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Here’s more from the complaint filed today.

This case arises out of a 5-3 vote by the Metropolitan Nashville Board of
Public Education to censor—under penalty of personal liability—the Plaintiffs’ truthful criticism of Defendant Shawn Joseph, Nashville’s former Director of Schools. The censorship at issue was effected through a content-based “disparaging or defamatory comments” clause in ex-Director Joseph’s severance agreement. Among other defects, the clause contravenes the First Amendment and deprives the Plaintiffs’ constituents of their right to hear and receive information from their elected representatives. The
Plaintiffs thus seek a declaratory judgment that the offending clause is unconstitutional and an order permanently enjoining its enforcement.

The Severance Agreement became effective on April 17, 2019. The
Severance Agreement also included mutual, content-based “disparaging or defamatory comments” clauses that purported to censor and prevent: (1) Joseph, (2) the School Board, and (3) the School Board’s individual members, including the Plaintiffs—all public officials with roles that carry significant public interest—from disparaging one another or making truthful statements about one another that would “tend[] to harm a person’s
reputation by subjecting the person to public contempt, disgrace or ridicule, or by adversely affecting the person’s business.”

The School Board Censorship Clause forbids the Plaintiffs—three duly
elected officials who have a duty and obligation to their constituents—from speaking candidly and honestly with their constituents and with other elected officials, including one another, about matters essential to their offices and their official duties.

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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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Frogge Won’t Seek Re-Election

Nashville school board member Amy Frogge announced today she will not seek re-election to her seat this year. She’s served two terms and beaten well-funded opponents by a 2-1 margin in both of her past races.

Here’s her announcement:

I have struggled with the decision of whether to run again for school board during this unusual time of uncertainty and upheaval. The last few weeks – dealing with the aftermath of the tornado, the coronavirus quarantine, and a personal bout with a minor illness – have provided me with a different perspective.

When I ran in 2012, I never intended to serve more than one term. This freed me to vote simply as I saw best and to take difficult positions that were often against my own political interests. I chose to run again four years ago because I felt it was necessary given the political climate at that time.

Upon reflection this week, however, I have decided not to seek reelection this year. I am deeply grateful for the support I’ve received and the friendships I have forged during my time on the school board, as well as for the learning opportunities I’ve been provided through this position. Serving in an elected position is not for the faint of heart, but I hope I have made a positive impact, and I think it is time to step away to new endeavors. I will continue to be deeply involved in advocating for Tennessee’s students and schools and plan stay active on my social media pages.

I have decided to throw my support behind Abigail Tylor, Nashville School Board District 9, a former teacher in the Encore gifted program who taught both of my children. As a teacher and parent of children who attend MNPS schools, Abigail is well-informed about the issues and the needs in our school system, and she’ll do a wonderful job serving our community and carrying on the work that I (and others before me) have begun. With Dr. Battle now at the helm of Metro Schools and with continued good representation for our district, I truly believe great things are going to happen in MNPS over the next few years. I hope you will support Abigail in her work!

I am also excited to formally announce my new role as Executive Director of Pastors for Tennessee Children. The Pastors for Children network, which is expanding nationwide, brings together faith leaders to serve schools and to advocate statewide for public education. I’m honored to be a part of this group, and I hope you will follow my work with the Pastors, as well!

Thank you for believing in me and for the experience of serving. Please continue to support our local schools! I’ll see you in the neighborhood.

Diane Ravitch and Amy Frogge

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Knox County’s Amy Frogge

Betty Bean has the story of an unlikely two-term winner on the Knox County School Board, Jennifer Owen.

Owen won re-election on Tuesday night by a large margin despite being outspent, reports Bean:


Sure, she had devoted volunteers and steady support from educators, but her opponent, John Meade, co-president of the Central High School Foundation, was rocking big ticket contributions from the top tier of the local GOP donor base and dispatching bales of direct mail to district mailboxes while Owen only sent out two mailers, one of which she paid for with $2,000 borrowed from her husband, Robert. Her only other large contribution was $2,500 from the K-PACE, the Knox County Education Association political action committee.

As Bean continues, she notes that Owen is known for speaking truth to power. She takes principled stands, even if they are sometimes unpopular. She’s not at all afraid to make the establishment uncomfortable. She asks tough questions. She’s unrelenting in her advocacy for public education.

Her story is not unlike that of Nashville’s Amy Frogge, now a two-term school board member. Frogge was outspent by large margins in both of her campaigns, and both times she won big. She challenges city leaders and state policymakers and she’s relentless.

Perhaps there’s a lesson in this for politicians everywhere: Stay true to your principles, fight hard, and do what’s right – even in the face of well-funded, polished interests who claim to be “for the kids.”

Whatever the case, Owen joins Frogge as someone who looks at the powerful interests in her way and nevertheless, persists.

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Amy Frogge and Nashville Schools

Nashville school board member Amy Frogge recently talked with “The Vue,” a community newspaper in her home community of Bellevue. Here are some highlights.

Author Diane Ravitch, who has written several books on the plight of U.S. public school systems, chronicled Frogge’s efforts in her new book, “Slaying Goliath,” writing that Frogge “emerged as an articulate critic of privatization… who courageously stood up to the right-wing governor, the legislature, the state (education) commissioner, and then-Mayor (Karl) Dean, who were all pushing for more charters in Nashville.” (An excerpt recently appeared in The Washington Post. You can read it here: https://wapo.st/2uQtsSJ )

According to Frogge:

“All of the tentacles of the reform movement are still active here and trolling the legislature, but when I first got on the board and I talked about it, and impact of poverty on learning, and topics like that, I was crucified. Charter schools were supposed to be miracles – if you just put your child in charter schools, they are going to do better.”

Frogge won her seat against great odds:


“I raised about $24,000, but my opponent raised $120,000 (and still lost). She was at the time on the board of the Public Education Foundation, which was very pro-charter, so I don’t think anyone was aware of how contentious the school board would come to be. At that time, it was still a regular local school board.”

Great Hearts:

“My first meeting on the school board was the fourth Great Hearts vote, and all the power players (in Nashville) were backing it. I didn’t know anything about education policy. I was educating myself on every issue that came up. I looked at charters, and research was saying that they don’t perform any better than traditional schools on average, so that was kind of my answer during the campaign. 

“Kevin Huffman (the state Department of Education commissioner) was really upset that the board on the previous three votes did not approve (Great Hearts). He demanded that the minute we got sworn in, we had to vote on it.

“Great Hearts had nine schools in Arizona. They were very segregated. They were wanting to charge $1,500 a student, and high-priced lunches – ways to weed out low-income kids. It was clearly a school that was being set up to ‘cherry pick’ the better performing kids and leave everyone else behind.

“I felt something was wrong, especially with my legal background, with the advice we were given. I still thought we were going to vote and be done with it. But right after we voted (against it), all these power players marched out on television and said we broke the law, which wasn’t true. But it led to a year of controversy.”

The article notes that Frogge is now more hopeful about where education is headed in Nashville, though the fight against so-called “education reformers” has been long and unrelenting.

READ MORE about Amy Frogge’s journey in public education advocacy.

Diane Ravitch and Amy Frogge
Nashville’s Amy Frogge with Diane Ravitch in 2014


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Nashville Pushes for State Funding Boost for Schools

The Metro Nashville school board is calling on the State of Tennessee to step up when it comes to school funding, according to a story on WPLN.


Nashville leaders are calling on state lawmakers to increase education funding. 


A resolution adopted by the Metro school board Tuesday night says the district needs more money to retain teachers. 


District 9 school board member Amy Frogge, who proposed the resolution, says the state has over $5 billion in reserves that could be used for education funding.   


Last week, board members expressed their support for a Metro lawsuit challenging the state’s new school voucher law — which they say will take money from the district. 


“It’s critically important that we get that money to our schools,” says Frogge. “As a school board member but also as a parent, the needs in our schools are great and we’re losing teachers.”

While Governor Bill Lee’s proposed budget makes some investment in teacher pay, Tennessee teachers are still paid at a rate lower than they were in 2009, according to a report from the Sycamore Institute.


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

And, of course there’s the reality that the state grossly underfunds its school funding formula, the BEP.


In Tennessee, classroom size requirements have forced districts to hire more than 9,000 teachers beyond what the BEP provides to pay for their salaries, according to a statewide analysis presented by the Department of Education in December to the BEP Review Committee.

To address the BEP shortfall, the state needs at least $468 million. To address stagnant teacher pay, the state needs another $300 million. As Frogge notes, Tennessee has the money. Will our policymakers make a nearly $800 million investment in public schools?

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