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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Bill Lee’s Impact Fee

Governor Bill Lee is responsible for a fee increase that passed in Williamson County last night. The Tennessean reports that the Williamson County Commission passed an increase in the Education Impact Fee assessed on new homes.

One of the reasons cited for passing the impact fee increase was the “BEP deficit.” More on that:

Story also cited the state’s minimum contribution the the county’s portion of the state’s Basic Education Plan formula, pointing out that the state pays approximately 40% of Williamson County Schools cost per pupil, while the county picks up the rest.

“Every child that comes in, expands that deficit in terms of how much we have to pay.”

It’s worth noting here that the Republican Comptroller of the Treasury notes Tennessee underfunds public schools by at least $500 million.

It’s also worth noting that if Phil Bredesen’s BEP 2.0 were fully-funded, Williamson County would receive at least $1.6 million more in state funds each year.

Bill Lee’s failure to address the BEP deficit is, at least in part, responsible for the Williamson County impact fee increase. Instead of adding funds to the BEP, Lee is trying to fast-track an unproven voucher scheme.

I just hope all those realtors who showed up with stickers at the Williamson County Commission will vote against the guy (Bill Lee) who made the impact fee necessary.

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Repeal Push Gains Support

An effort to repeal Governor Bill Lee’s signature legislative initiative — vouchers — is gaining some support. Frank Cagle offers his take on this effort and on those who constantly criticize public schools (which is much easier than actually funding and supporting them):


I suspect that most of the critics of public education have not been near a public school since they graduated from one. You won’t find the critics running the concession stand on Friday night to raise money for the school. They won’t be out selling coupon books to keep the lights on. I doubt they personally know a teacher who spends her own money to buy school supplies for her classroom. In Tennessee, railing against the abstract notion of union-corrupted government schools is a paranoid delusion.

He might be talking about Governor Bill Lee here — you know, that guy who wears plaid shirts and pretends to care about rural Tennessee while taking money from public schools.

Cagle also warns against the dangers of “crony capitalism:”


A conservative should be wary of public money and public regulations coming to private schools. A conservative should also be wary of crony capitalism in which public money is handed over to private schools. I would urge you to spend some time on the internet examining former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his buddies who operated for-profit schools on the taxpayer’s dime.

The real question: Will any so-called conservative legislator actually take Bill Lee on and stand up for our public schools?

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Integrity

The Republican State Superintendent of Schools in Indiana is campaigning with a Democratic state Senator who hopes to become the state’s next Governor, Chalkbeat reports. The move comes as Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick finds herself at odds with the state’s Republican Governor and with the GOP Supermajority in the legislature. The move raises the question: Would any Tennessee Republican leader go so far as to back a Democrat in order to stop Governor Bill Lee’s school privatization agenda?

Here’s more on McCormick and her differences with her own party on education:


After years of public clashes between former superintendent Ritz and then-governor Mike Pence, some expected McCormick to work more smoothly with the Republican supermajority. But McCormick differentiated her education policy through her skepticism of diverting dollars from public schools, her calls for more accountability for charter schools and private schools accepting taxpayer-funded vouchers, and her push to change the state’s A-F grading system for schools.

For his part, state Senator and gubernatorial candidate Eddie Melton has outlined an aggressive defense of public schools as a key part of his campaign platform:


Melton, a first-term senator from Gary, Indiana, and a former State Board of Education member, also said Tuesday that the state needs to fully fund schools, put an end to high-stakes testing,  and end the “aggressive expansion” of vouchers, among other calls. He’s repeatedly said that education should be a bipartisan issue, including when he launched the listening tour with McCormick.

Will 2022 see Tennessee with a Democratic candidate for Governor who staunchly defends public schools — and earns the support of top Republicans?

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Lee Announces Leaders of School Privatization Commission

Governor Bill Lee this week announced the members of his state charter school commission, a group tasked with usurping the power of local school boards and fast-tracking charter schools with little accountability. Here’s more on the members from Chalkbeat:

  • Tom Griscom, of Hamilton County, a former director of White House communications under President Ronald Reagan, long-time aide to the late U.S. Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee, and former executive editor and publisher of the Times Free Press in Chattanooga
  • David Hanson, of Davidson County, is managing partner of Hillgreen, a private investment firm, and serves on the board for Teach for America and Nashville-based charter network Valor Collegiate Academies. 
  • Alan Levine, of Washington County in East Tennessee, CEO of Ballad Health and a one-time adviser to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush
  • Terence Patterson, of Shelby County, is the CEO of the Memphis Education Fund and former head of the Downtown Memphis Commission. He was also the chief of staff for Chicago Public Schools, later becoming the director of the Office of New Schools in Chicago, where he managed 113 new charter schools.
  • Mary Pierce, of Davidson County, was a leading charter school advocate during her one term as a school board member with Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.
  • Christine Richards, of Shelby County, a former general counsel for FedEx
  • Derwin Sisnett, of Shelby County, co-founded Gestalt Community Schools, a Memphis-based charter school network. He is the founder and managing partner of Maslow Development Inc., a nonprofit organization that develops communities around high performing schools.
  • Eddie Smith of Knox County, is a Republican who served in the Tennessee House of Representatives from 2014 until 2018, when he was ousted by Democrat Gloria Johnson.
  • Wendy Tucker, of Williamson County, is an attorney and adjunct professor at Vanderbilt School of Law. A member of the state Board of Education since 2014, she has been an advocate of children with special needs.

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REPEAL

Representative Bo Mitchell of Nashville has filed legislation that would repeal Education Savings Accounts (vouchers), Gov. Bill Lee’s signature legislative achievement from 2019.

The move comes with the House of Representatives now being led by Speaker Cameron Sexton, a long-time opponent of vouchers and supporter of public schools. Sexton told an audience in his home district:


“We should do everything we can to improve all public schools in the state of Tennessee so they can be successful,” he said. “I would rather go that route than the voucher route.”

So far, the voucher repeal bill has only Democratic co-sponsors. It will be interesting to see if Sexton and other anti-voucher Republicans join the effort or put forward their own voucher repeal effort.

While Governor Bill Lee has suggested speeding up implementation of the voucher scheme, Sexton has called for putting on the brakes pending the outcome of an FBI investigation into the House vote on the bill.

It will also be interesting to see if legislators take action in 2020 to address the underlying issues — poverty and funding — impacting school success.

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Don’t Believe the Hype

A new study from the U.S. Department of Education indicates that charter schools perform no better than traditional public schools. Newsweek has more:


A new report from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) finds that charter school and public school students have the same academic performance in testing conducted at the fourth- and eighth-grade level.


“In 2017, at grades 4 and 8, no measurable differences in average reading and mathematics scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were observed between students in traditional public and public charter schools,” the “School Choice in the United States: 2019” report found.

Despite these findings, Governor Bill Lee continues to make expanding charter schools a top policy priority. He increased funding for a charter school building fund this year and also successfully pushed legislation to create a new charter authorizing commission.

While policymakers like Lee hype non-solutions, evidence from actual schools suggests an urgent need to address poverty:

Districts with concentrated poverty face two challenges: Students with significant economic needs AND the inability of the district to generate the revenue necessary to adequately invest in schools.

Nevertheless, it seems Bill Lee and his allies will remain content to chase the latest shiny object and avoid a serious examination of policies that have the potential to change lives.

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$300 Million

Here are some interesting facts about Wisconsin’s school voucher program. These could be relevant here as Tennessee’s plan is estimated to cost as much as $300 million when fully implemented. Ask yourself: What happens when $300 million is no longer available for the BEP?

2019: 38,862 students at 284 schools statewide receive publicly funded vouchers to attend private schools in 2018-2019. Total cost: $311,470,259.04 (estimated).

Compare to 2018: 35,420 students at 240 school statewide received vouchers in 2017-2018. Total cost of vouchers in 2017-2018: 274,003,172.65 (estimated).

Over 55% of the entire student population of participating schools receive vouchers in 2018.

Only 28% of students receiving vouchers ever attended a public school.

Every year, the enrollment cap is increased by 1% of the local public school district’s enrollment, allowing more students to enter the program. In the 2026 school year, that cap is set in state law to come off entirely.

Students receiving vouchers in 2018-2019 must qualify by income. For the statewide program, that’s 220% of poverty; for the Milwaukee and Racine programs, it’s 300% of poverty. In contrast, students who qualify for Free & Reduced Lunch in public schools must meet at 185% poverty threshold.

Source: Department of Public Instruction
https://dpi.wi.gov/sms/choice-programs/data

Can Tennessee afford a $300 million voucher scheme that Bill Lee wants to fast track?

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Honest Answers

Read to be Ready is a statewide reading initiative focused on early grades. The Tennessee Department of Education describes the importance of the initiative this way:


Tennessee has made tremendous gains in student performance over the past several years – except in reading. Despite our educators’ best efforts, reading skills in elementary school learners have failed to improve, and in some cases have even declined. But these abilities are some of the most important ones our students need, and they are foundational to their success.

In discussing the urgency around improving reading results, the DOE says:


We have different vision for the future. We not only want to teach our children to read – we want to develop them into the thinkers, problem-solvers, lifelong learners, and future leaders of Tennessee. And it will take all of us to get there.

All of this sounds great — and reading is certainly very important for all students. Here’s a rubric for a first grade end-of-unit task:

Now, let’s imagine what would happen if first-graders gave honest answers in this brochure. For example, let’s think about the section that “explains the responsibilities of different leaders in Tennessee’s government.”

A first grade student from Franklin might write:

My state representative is Glen Casada. He used to be the Speaker with the big gavel. Then, he resigned because he framed a civil rights activist. He also hired a Chief of Staff who did cocaine on his desk at 10 AM on a Tuesday and had sex in a hot chicken restaurant for about a minute.

Meanwhile, a first-grader from Waynesboro could note:

My state representative is David Byrd. He was a teacher who admitted to inappropriate sexual contact with his students. They let him keep teaching and he even chaired a committee on education policy. People here re-elected him because he goes to the nice church and has the letter “R” after his name. I’ve heard he’s friends with a guy named Casada.

Over in Hohenwald, students in first grade could laud the exploits of state Senator Joey Hensley:

My Senator has been married four times and he got in trouble because he liked a girl who was also his second cousin. He even gave her drugs.

In Cleveland, a first grader might say:

My Congressman is a man named Scott Desjarlais. He’s had many mistresses and even though he says he’s “Pro-Life,” he’s supported abortions for the women he sleeps with.

Anywhere in Tennessee, first-graders could suggest:

Tennessee’s Governor is a man named Bill Lee who fixes air conditioners. He likes to wear plaid shirts a lot and pretend to care about rural Tennessee — like where I live. But, he’s supporting plans to underfund rural schools by sending money to vouchers. He also doesn’t seem to mind that hospitals all across our state are closing.

When discussing all the things Tennessee produces, students might say:

Our state is a national leader. We’re the best in rural hospital closures, we have the highest rate of medical debt, and we have more people working at the minimum wage (like my parents) than anywhere else.

We’re first in a lot of categories like that. We also do a lot to make sure it’s difficult for people to vote.

Oh, and 21 of our counties don’t even have an emergency room — that must be great, to not have any emergencies there.


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Turns Out, It’s the Poverty

A recently released study on student achievement confirms what any teacher will tell you: Poverty matters. In fact, it matters a great deal. It seems the only people who don’t realize this are those making education policy — and Tennessee’s policy makers are among the worst at denying the reality of the situation.

Here’s more from the Washington Post:


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.

This isn’t actually news — but it is interesting to have such a comprehensive academic study confirming the importance of addressing poverty as a key driver of improving education outcomes.

I’ve written about this on a Tennessee-specific level before, especially as it relates to state testing and the ACT:


An analysis of TCAP performance over time indicates that those school systems with consistently high levels of poverty tend to have consistently low scores on TCAP. Likewise, those systems with the least amount of poverty tend to have consistently higher scores on TCAP.


One possible explanation for the expanding achievement gap is the investment gap among districts. That is, those districts with lower levels of poverty (the ones scoring higher on TCAP) also tend to invest funds in their schools well above what the state funding formula (BEP) generates. The top ten districts on TCAP performance spend 20% or more above what the BEP formula generates. By contrast, the bottom 10 districts spend 5% or less above the formula dollars.

In other words, money matters. Districts with concentrated poverty face two challenges: Students with significant economic needs AND the inability of the district to generate the revenue necessary to adequately invest in schools.

The Achievement School District’s first Superintendent, Chris Barbic, referenced this challenge as he was leaving the job:


As part of his announcement, he had this to say about turning around high-poverty, district schools:


In his email early Friday, Barbic offered a dim prognosis on that pioneering approach. “As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results,” he wrote. “I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.”

While state policymakers adopt misguided “reforms” like A-F school report cards and expensive voucher schemes, children in poverty remain in poverty. Interestingly, the State Report Card holds schools accountable for closing achievement gaps:


Under Tennessee’s accountability system, districts must increase achievement levels for all students and show faster growth in achievement for the students who are furthest behind in order to narrow achievement gaps.

At best, this policy is well-intentioned but misguided. A more cynical look at the policy reality would conclude that legislators simply don’t want to admit the real problem because dealing with it would be politically difficult.

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 debt. We continue to refuse Medicaid expansion and most of our elected leaders at the federal level are resisting the push for Medicare for All.

Governor Bill Lee’s idea is to provide vouchers. Of course, all the evidence indicates vouchers just don’t work — they don’t improve student achievement. They do, however, take money from the public schools.

Bill Lee and his legislative allies are the latest to stick their heads in the sand and ignore the plight of the least among us. All the while, these same leaders expect teachers and school districts to do more with nothing.

Sadly, ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. Instead, like yet another disappointing UT football season, it will just keep getting worse.

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