All the Money, None of the Work

Private school advocates attempting to secure public funding from Governor Bill Lee’s Education Savings Account (ESA) voucher scheme made clear this week they want taxpayer cash without any real accountability. Specifically, Chalkbeat reports these groups, including Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children, are resisting proposed rules requiring strict background checks on school employees.


Leaders of the Tennessee-based Beacon Center, the Florida-based ExcelinEd, and the Washington, D.C.-based American Federation for Children say the rule is unclear as written and could force private schools to run background checks that are far beyond the requirements for public schools. Such a mandate, they say, could place an “undue burden” on private schools wanting to participate in Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account program, as well as on their employees. 


Voucher supporters say they want participating private schools to face the same requirements as their public counterparts when it comes to employee background checks. At the same time, they don’t want private schools to be judged academically using the same state tests used by Tennessee public schools.

While voucher advocates, eager for taxpayer cash, expressed concern about having to follow the rules, a Department of Education representative indicated the rules are clear:


Deputy Education Commissioner Amity Schuyler, who is developing the program on behalf of her department, added that the state’s new law is clear that participating schools must conduct criminal background checks through the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

The resistance to employee background checks from voucher advocates comes just months after a horrifying story out of a Nashville charter school in which a student was in a class taught by a substitute teacher who was also the woman who killed that student’s brother:


But that feeling of safety was shattered Friday when the twins had a substitute teacher in their math class. It was Khadijah Griffis, the same woman who had shot and killed their older brother last month.

This incident happened at RePublic Charter School. The school was using a New Orleans-based firm to source substitute teachers.

Additionally, voucher proponents are attempting to avoid accountability when it comes to state tests:

On the testing issue, the proposed rules would allow either Tennessee’s standardized tests or “any nationally normed assessment” already in use when the state determines if a school will be suspended or terminated from the program for poor results by voucher students. The inclusion of national tests was a concession to private schools, which don’t administer state tests. Board member Wendy Tucker expressed concerns last month that the accommodation wasn’t in keeping with the spirit of new voucher law, which requires all voucher students to take annual state tests in math and English language arts to track student performance.

The voucher vultures are making it clear: They want Tennessee taxpayer dollars and they want minimal accountability. While Bill Lee attempts to fast-track this ill-conceived initiative, perhaps the antics of the money hungry DeVos devotees will boost the chances of a budding repeal movement.

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Dunn Done?

Knox County School Board member Patti Bounds is officially in the race to take on Rep. Bill Dunn, reports KnoxTNToday:

Bounds has been contemplating a race for state representative for some time. The former elementary school teacher has served on the school board for five years, while incumbent Bill Dunn has served in the legislature since 1994. The two Republicans share similar views except on one fundamental issue: school vouchers. Dunn was the prime sponsor of Gov. Bill Lee’s bill for vouchers that passed by one vote after several deals were cut and most counties eliminated. Bounds supports public education and will resist efforts to divert state revenue toward private or church schools through vouchers.

The voucher legislation sponsored by Dunn passed the House by a single vote. That vote is now under investigation by the FBI. The Senate sponsor of the voucher legislation is also facing an FBI investigation.

In fact, while Bounds has experience as an educator and tireless advocate for public school students and teachers, Dunn has been at the forefront of the effort to privatize Tennessee’s public schools for years. That fight highlights the influence of big money from outside special interests:

The answer is shockingly simple and unsurprising: money. The details, though, reveal an unrelenting push to dismantle America’s public schools. Yes, this story includes familiar characters like Betsy DeVos and the Koch brothers joining forces with a Tennessee cast to advance their vision for our nation’s schools. That vision: Public money flowing to private schools with little regard for the impact on students. In fact, the evidence is pretty clear—vouchers simply don’t achieve their stated goal of helping kids improve academic outcomes. Tennessee’s plan could result in taking more than $300 million away from local school districts to support private entities.

Will Republican voters stick with Dunn, who led the effort to use public money for private schools, or will they choose an educator and public school advocate?

Patti Bounds


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Making Failure Great Again

Governor Bill Lee has made no secret of his desire to expand charter schools across Tennessee. From doubling the funding available for charter school facilities to creating a “Super Charter Authorizer” that will override local school boards, Lee has made clear his disdain for public schools. A report from the Network for Public Education offers insight into why this strategy is destined to fail.

The report examines funds distributed by the US Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program and finds an alarmingly high 40% failure rate. Tennessee, always a national leader in the wrong categories, exceeds the national average with a 49% failure rate. Here’s more from the report specific to Tennessee:


Tennessee which has a 49 percent grantee failure rate, gave 38 grants of $10,000 each to schools that not only did not have a NCES number, they also did not have a listed name. Where did that $380,000 go? Apparently, the Department of Education has no idea.

Here’s more on the “success” of charters in Tennessee:

One hundred and twenty-one grants were given to open or expand charter schools in Tennessee from the federal charter schools program between 2006-2014. At this time, at least 59 (49%) of those charter schools are now closed or never opened at all. Fourty-three of the 59 grant recipients never opened at all.


Of the 43 that never opened, 38 did not even have a name. Only a grant amount was listed.

How much was spent on failed charter schools?

In total, $7,374,025.00 were awarded to Tennessee charter schools during those years that either never opened or shut down

This is the future Bill Lee wants for Tennessee — schools that never open or shut down just a few weeks into the year. Cash giveaways to private entities with little to no track record of positive impact. Taxpayer dollars wasted in the name of “choice” and the “free market.”

Bill Lee and his team of privatizers surely know these facts. They also don’t care. Steady, reliable service to the DeVos agenda of using public money to support private schools is all that matters.

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Bill Lee’s Wingman

We’ve already seen Bill Lee and his team of school privatizers use desperate measures in order to win votes for their “educational savings account” voucher scheme, but the latest effort reaches a new low. Team Lee turned to conservative mega-donor Lee Beaman (who gave Lee’s gubernatorial campaign $8000 in 2018) to pen an article in defense of school vouchers.

While the opposition to school vouchers includes resolutions from 44 school boards around the state, groups of parents, teachers, charitable foundations, civil rights groups, and even a former Senate sponsor of voucher legislation, the support appears to come from a small group of big money backers. The public face chosen for this group? A guy with a porn addiction who taped himself having sex with prostitutes in order to teach his wife how to better please him. You might say he’s certainly a fan of choice.

Beaman and Lee have been working together for years to bring school privatization to Tennessee. Both Bill Lee and Lee Beaman have been consistent supporters of the Tennessee affiliate of Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children, a group that works to undermine public education and advance school vouchers.

It’s no surprise, then, that after bringing Betsy DeVos to Nashville, Bill Lee would turn to his other voucher buddy, Lee Beaman, to advance his privatization agenda.

In fact, as I wrote in December, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Bill Lee is taking our state down this dangerous road:

Even though as early as 2016, Bill Lee was extolling the virtues of school voucher schemes and even though he’s a long-time supporter of Betsy DeVos’s pro-voucher Tennessee Federation for Children and even though he has appointed not one, but two voucher vultures to high level posts in his Administration, it is somehow treated as “news” that Bill Lee plans to move forward with a voucher scheme agenda in 2019.

Now, we’ve got Lee Beaman as the face and voice of vouchers ahead of a week when the privatization scheme known as ESAs will face key votes in the House and Senate.

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Dolores Doesn’t Know

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Byrd Attack

Governor Bill Lee failed to call on admitted sex offender and state Rep. David Byrd to step down from his leadership post on an education subcommittee following a meeting between Lee and one of Byrd’s accusers. However, Lee’s henchman, House Speaker Glen Casada, removed Byrd from his leadership post following Byrd’s vote in opposition to Lee’s school voucher scheme. Now, a group funded by Bill Lee is attacking Byrd with online ads.

The Tennessee Federation for Children, the Tennessee affiliate of Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children, is running ads accusing Byrd of refusing to stand with President Trump and Governor Lee on vouchers.

Before he was elected Governor, Lee gave thousands of dollars to the Tennessee Federation for Children and wrote pieces in favor of school vouchers. Once elected, he hired the former state director of TFC as his policy director.

The message is clear: If you oppose Bill Lee’s school privatization agenda, you’ll face the wrath of dark money political organizations funded by Lee. The attacks on Byrd come after another dark money group, Tennesseans for Student Success, spent money attacking House Education Republicans who stood in the way of Lee’s state charter authorizer. That plan is a way for Lee and his privatizing profiteers to circumvent local school boards and force charters where they aren’t wanted and don’t belong.

The next two to three weeks will be pivotal in the fight for Tennessee’s public schools.

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Sick

A Tennessee teacher writes about the education policies that make her sick.

I’m sick.

Sick of my students being over-tested and our schools being underfunded.

Sick of teachers leaving the profession because they are underpaid and undervalued.

Sick of Tennessee being 45th in the nation in per pupil funding. 

Sick of being disrespected by a Governor who has proposed increasing state funding for unaccountable charter schools by 100% while only increasing funding for teachers by 2%.

And how I feel is only going to get worse if the state government passes voucher legislation, which will further drain the resources our students need from public schools and hand them over to unaccountable private companies.

That’s why there’s a movement of teachers planning on calling in sick on Tuesday, April 9th to travel to Nashville and flood the capitol.

We plan on letting our state’s politicians know just how sick we are. And we plan on making it clear to them: the war on public education in Tennessee ends now.

I’m a member of the Tennessee Education Association, but I know that there are many in the state leadership who think that collective action is too aggressive and premature. They still believe that we can work amicably with state politicians. I disagree.

Anyone still entertaining that idea should have had a rude awakening last week when Betsy DeVos visited our state and held closed door meetings with privatizers and politicians.

Several months back, when Governor Lee announced his unfortunate choice for the TN Commissioner of Education, I publicly stated that he had declared war on public education. Some may have thought that was a bit dramatic. However, the Governor wouldn’t have invited the most vilified Secretary of Education in history to the state if he didn’t plan on dropping an atomic bomb on public education. His voucher and charter bills are just that.

With the backing of ALEC and Betsy DeVos those devastating bills will pass unless teachers wake up and do something drastic. Millions upon millions of dollars will be drained from public education and siphoned away from our students.

How do I know this? Because it was perfectly ok to have an admitted child predator be the chair of the House Education Committee until he voted against the voucher bill. Only then was he no longer fit to be the chair.

Strong arm tactics are running rampant and the writing is on the wall.

The go-along to get-along approach of the state teachers association, which means working with the enemies of public education, has been a pipe dream for almost a decade, and it’s time for teachers to wake up. All the emailing and phone calls in the world won’t stop politicians bankrolled by billionaires like the Koch brothers and DeVos family from pursuing devastating legislation that hurts our schools, students, and communities.

Over the last year, I have watched educators in one state after another rise up, take their power back, and force legislators to actually represent THEM and not privatizers. It didn’t matter that the strikes were illegal or sick-outs were risky. When educators stick together and have the backing of the community, they can make real change possible. Teachers can take on billionaires and win. They already have in other states.

In my opinion, the only thing that will stop this insanity is for teachers to walk out. Shut it down. Take back our schools. Take back our profession. Do our job……. and fight for our kids.

I hope to see you in the capitol on Tuesday, April 9.

Lauren Sorensen is a second grade teacher at Halls Elementary School in Knox County and a former president of the Knox County Education Association.

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Voucher Vulture Set to Descend on Nashville

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee is putting on the full court press in his quest to voucherize our state’s public schools. He’s got allies like dark money group “Tennesseans for Student Success” putting out hit pieces on voucher opponents, and on Monday, he’ll have Education Secretary Betsy DeVos appearing with him at a school choice event in Nashville.

DeVos is perhaps best known for her irrational fear of grizzly bear attacks on schools. Just last week, she appeared before a congressional committee and suggested larger class sizes are good for student learning, despite citing no evidence for that claim.

Now, she’s headed to the Volunteer State to offer up opinions on why Tennessee should adopt the type of voucher scheme most susceptible to fraud and least likely to improve student achievement.

It’s no surprise Lee and DeVos will be joining forces to sing the praises of using taxpayer dollars to fund unaccountable private schools. Soon after winning the governor’s race, Lee named two key DeVos disciples to leadership roles in his administration. Lee also has a track record of backing the DeVos privatization organization.

It should be clear by now that Bill Lee is determined to bring a failed model of “free market” education to Tennessee. Here’s more on what the DeVos agenda brought to Michigan:


Chaos. Uncertainty. Instability. That’s what a free market approach to public education brought Detroit. And, sadly, it also resulted in academic outcomes even worse than those expected in one of the worst public school districts in the country.


Choice advocates would have us believe that having more options will lead to innovation and force the local district to improve or close schools. Instead, in the case of Detroit, it led to chaos. The same fate could be visited upon other large, urban districts who fall into the free market education trap. Another unfortunate lesson from Detroit: Once you open the door, it’s very, very difficult to close.

Bill Lee is pulling out all the stops on an agenda that is destructive to public education and insulting to our state’s teachers. Perhaps his joint appearance with DeVos will convince any doubters of Lee’s true colors. Until then, here’s a message for DeVos:

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SHOCKING!


Even though as early as 2016, Bill Lee was extolling the virtues of school voucher schemes and even though he’s a long-time supporter of Betsy DeVos’s pro-voucher Tennessee Federation for Children and even though he has appointed not one, but two voucher vultures to high level posts in his Administration, it is somehow treated as “news” that Bill Lee plans to move forward with a voucher scheme agenda in 2019.

Here’s what he wrote in 2016:

This is where opportunity scholarships come in. The Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act would allow families to take a portion of the funding already spent on their child’s education and send him or her to the private school of their choice. For children languishing in schools that are failing to meet their needs, especially in urban areas like Nashville and Memphis, this proposal represents a much-needed lifeline for Tennessee families.

This despite growing evidence that vouchers don’t actually help students and, in fact, may cause harms:

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.

While rigorous academic studies tell a tale of a failed education policy, Bill Lee put his money behind Betsy DeVos’s pro-voucher group:

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.

In spite of years of evidence of where Bill Lee stands when it comes to supporting our public schools (he doesn’t), many school board members and county commissioners across the state supported his successful campaign. These local elected officials often touted his business acumen and support of vocational education as reasons to back him. However, it’s difficult to imagine these same officials just “didn’t know” Bill Lee backs a scheme to divert public money to private schools — a scheme that has failed miserably time and again in other states and localities.

More likely, they just didn’t care. Bill Lee was on the right team and spoke the right, religiously-tinged words and so earned the support of people who will look at you with a straight face and say they love Tennessee public schools.

The Tennessee County Commissioners Association provided an analysis of the potential cost to each local government of a modest voucher scheme. Here’s a look at the potential fiscal impact of a “small” voucher program:

Nearly 15,000 students who never attended public school suddenly receiving vouchers would mean a state cost of $98 million. That’s $98 million in new money. Of course, those funds would either be new money (which is not currently contemplated) or would take from the state’s BEP allocations in the districts where the students receive the vouchers.

Let’s look at Davidson County as an example. If three percent of the student population there took vouchers, and half of those were students who had never attended a public school, the loss to the district would be a minimum of $8.4 million.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t support vouchers and also be 100% behind our public schools. It’s likely no mistake that more than 90% of all schools eligible to receive state voucher funds are private, Christian-affiliated schools.

Stay tuned for a legislative session focused on undermining our public schools. Brought to you by a Governor who has been advertising this desire since at least 2012.

 

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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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