From 4 to 2 to 0

In what was ultimately a failed effort to preserve his planned school voucher scheme, Gov. Bill Lee cut a planned teacher pay increase from 4% to 2% in his emergency COVID-19 budget. Now, as the General Assembly considers the economic fallout from the pandemic, it appears the teacher salary boost will move to zero. This while key state officials are slated to receive raises. More from Fox 17 in Nashville:

Legislative staff which has analyzed Tennessee Governor Bill Lee’s budget recommendations is calling out the state’s revised budget for keeping the salary increases of some officials while cutting teacher increases.

According to Governor Bill Lee’s new budget overview, the revised budget gives the governor a $4,600 raise which reflects a 2% increase. Others, such as the Attorney General, judges, district attorneys, and more will also receive raises which are mandated by statute.

However, the legislative staff notes the 2% salary increase for K-12 teachers, higher education employees, and state workers is eliminated in the new budget.

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Lamar vs. Lee

Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander apparently disagrees with Gov. Bill Lee’s backdoor voucher scheme, Chalkbeat reports.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander said Thursday that federal coronavirus relief should be disbursed to help schools the same way as education funds for disadvantaged students, rather than rerouting millions of dollars to support private schools.

“My sense was that the money should have been distributed in the same way we distributed Title I money. I think that’s what most of Congress was expecting,” the Tennessee Republican said, referring to the federal program that supports students from low-income families.

The comments from Alexander, who chairs the Senate health and education committee, contradict recent guidance by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Following that advice, as Alexander’s home state plans to do, would provide more financial support to private schools than they expected, while high-poverty public school districts would receive less money.

The question now is will Alexander encourage Lee to keep public funds in public schools?

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STALLED

Gov. Bill Lee’s signature legislative achievement, a school voucher scheme, hit another roadblock today as the Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled the program can NOT be implemented while the state argues against a Chancery Court judge’s ruling stopping the program.

Here’s more from WPLN:

The Tennessee Court of Appeals decided Tuesday that the state’s school voucher program cannot be implemented until the state’s appeal is resolved.

The latest ruling comes a week after two libertarian groups working on behalf of four parents filed an emergency motion citing the state’s tight rollout deadline as a reason to move forward with the program. The state has said that the time between now and June 15 is crucial to being able to launch the program this fall.

A lower court has deemed the Education Savings Accounts Act is unenforceable, because it violates the state’s Home Rule Amendment, since it applied to only two counties without their consent. Nashville Chancellor Anne Martin ordered the Department of Education to put its voucher program on pause while its legal status is being sorted out.

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TEA Responds to Lee’s Backdoor Voucher Scheme

Amid reports that Gov. Bill Lee will go along with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s scheme to divert federal CARES Act funds to private schools, the Tennessee Education Association offered this response:

“We have a strong system of public schools in Tennessee that serve one million Tennessee children. Our students, families and educators are counting on local, state and federal officials to provide the funding needed to safely reopen public schools. Our public schools are the foundation of the communities they serve. Strong, financially stable local public schools are an important factor in rebuilding Tennessee’s economy.

The coronavirus pandemic should not be used as an excuse to advance bad ideas that siphon funding from public schools. Tennesseans have repeatedly rejected privatization schemes that use tax payer dollars to fund private school education. Our state leaders should prioritize providing a quality public education for every child in Tennessee, instead of following the lead of a woman who has repeatedly prioritized corporate profits over students’ education.”

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Pilfering Privatizers Seek Profit Amid Pandemic

This article on school privatization efforts in Tennessee originally appeared in The Progressive.

What’s the cure for COVID-19 in schools? Charter schools, of course!

Budget cuts on the horizon because of the economic damage caused by weeks of stay-at-home orders? Sounds like your districts need more charter schools.

Concerned about what the 2020-21 school year might look like?

Charter. Schools.

When it comes to public schools, Tennessee’s answer to the COVID-19 pandemic has been clear and simple: Privatization. 

First, in mid-March, Governor Bill Lee chose to include millions of dollars for a new voucher scheme in his emergency budget before the legislature left Nashville due to the coronavirus. How’d he pay for it? By cutting a planned investment in teacher compensation.

Now, as Tennessee’s two largest school districts, Memphis and Nashville, face significant budget shortfalls for the upcoming school year, the possibility of the state forcing unwanted charter schools on them looms large. These new charters would eat up valuable district resources at a time when funding is scarce. They also will come in the two districts where the state’s “Education Savings Account” voucher scheme will pilfer public dollars for privatizers.

In 2019, the newly-minted governor pushed for and won approval of a State Charter School Commission. This new body will have broad authority to grant charters to schools—even those schools denied a charter by local school districts. If the state body approved a charter school, the commission would manage the school, but the funding for that school would come from the local district.

In other words, whether or not Nashville or Memphis want more charter schools, the Charter Commission can approve and locate a charter in any district in the state without the approval or consent of the local board—then mandate that the local board spend funds to support it. 


Fast forward to May 2020. 

Right now, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is pushing a scheme whereby states can acquire additional federal stimulus funds for education if they agree to advance a school privatization agenda. 

Enter the Tennessee Charter School Commission. While Nashville and Memphis have taken a cautious approach to charter school approval in recent years, the Charter Commission, stacked with Governor Lee’s handpicked privatization proponents, seems primed to put charters where they aren’t wanted. 

Obligating districts to fund charters would also divert money that they need to provide resources for students if a second wave of COVID-19 wreaks havoc this fall. Nashville is already staring down a $100 million budget shortfall for education, and Memphis is considering a tax increase just to maintain its school system. 

How much of a financial bite will new charter schools take from these struggling districts?

That’s hard to calculate exactly. But in 2014, a study conducted by independent research firm MGT of America predicted that “new charter schools will, with nearly 100 percent certainty, have a negative fiscal impact” on Nashville’s school district. MGT calculated a price tag that could exceed $300 million in direct costs to the city’s public schools over a five-year period.

A more recent study in North Carolina found that the financial burden of adding charter schools to one urban county school district, Durham, was between $500 and $700 per student. In rural districts in the state with fewer charters, the impact was less negative but still significant—up to $300 per student.


Added to the estimated cost of charter schools in Tennessee is a whole new disaster: a voucher scheme. Though this program was ruled unconstitutional by a judge on May 5 (and will no longer start next year, as initially planned), it revealed the true aims of education reformers in the state. 

By forcing charters on cash-strapped districts, DeVos and Lee are using the chaos caused by COVID-19 to advance a privatization agenda. Something similar happened when public schools were hollowed out in New Orleans, post-Katrina.  

DeVos, in a statement on May 4, put it diplomatically: 

“The current disruption to the normal model is reaffirming something I have said for years. We must rethink education to better the realities of the twenty-first century. This is the time for local education leaders to unleash their creativity and ingenuity.”

Lee, a longtime financial supporter of DeVos, recently made the same point, in language that’s just as mystifying. “The Department of Education has a clear directive to challenge the status quo by developing solutions that best advocate for students and teachers,” Lee said. 

The COVID-19 crisis has created new opportunities for profit-seeking privatizers to prey on public education. We must continue shining a light on those working to undermine public schools, so that we can continue fighting for the public good. 

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TN PTA Applauds Voucher Ruling

A statement from the Tennessee Parent Teacher Association on last week’s court ruling that killed (for now) Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher program:

Tennessee PTA was excited to hear that Davidson County Chancellor Anne C.
Martin declared the Educational Savings Account statute unconstitutional. We were disappointed in Governor Lee’s funding cuts to education while maintaining $40 million for the ESA program in the most recent budget and request legislators reevaluate the needs of our public schools during this challenging time and move the funding for the ESA program back to the public schools.

The Tennessee Parent Teacher Association (PTA) stands in opposition to any form of voucher programs. Tennessee PTA believes our elected leaders must provide all Tennessee children with access to a quality public education. Public schools provide education to 90% of our country’s students and voucher programs such as this educational savings account program undermine our public schools by diverting desperately needed resources away from the public school system. Tennessee PTA recognizes that changes need to be made within the public schools to provide an equitable and excellent educational opportunity for every child. Vouchers, educational savings accounts, and other similar options do not provide the means for bringing about improvements in our public schools. Voucher programs have often proven ineffective in
improving student outcomes, lack accountability to taxpayers and students, create inequality, and place the individual rights of students at risk.

Kim Henderson
Tennessee PTA President

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Nobody Wants Vouchers

Tennessee’s school voucher program may end up being the ultimate solution in search of a problem as Chalkbeat reports few families are actually applying for the scheme.

Fewer than 300 applications appear to be on track for approval for 5,000 spots in the first year of Tennessee’s school voucher program, while a Nashville judge said she’ll rule by next week whether to allow the program to launch under two legal challenges.

As of Wednesday night, education department data showed 291 completed applications were still active, while 189 have been denied since the state began accepting them in late March.

So, in spite of aggressive marketing for the program, it seems that parents may not actually want vouchers.

What’s most disappointing about this reality is that Gov. Bill Lee slashed a planned investment in teacher compensation in order to fully-fund his voucher scheme. Now, school systems across the state will see less BEP funding while money sits waiting to be used for a voucher program no one wants.

Oh, and the private company managing the voucher scheme for $2.5 million? Yeah, they’re still getting paid.

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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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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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