Nail in the Coffin

Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher scheme is not only constitutionally suspect, but also the likely cause of Rep. Matthew Hill’s ouster from the legislature. WJHL has more on how Hill’s turn against public education led to his defeat in the August Republican primary.

A controversial 2002 income tax vote helped usher in the Matthew Hill era in Northeast Tennessee politics. Another controversial vote — this one over school vouchers — likely contributed to that era’s end.

“Year after year he voted ‘no’ on voucher legislation,” area public school teacher Jenee Peters said. “He voted ‘no’ every year up until he didn’t.”

“I would like to think the local area teachers were the final nail in his coffin, but there were clearly other issues that brought about the demise of his campaign,” Peters said.

Peters communicated often with Hill and said he gave teachers “a few good years” starting in 2014 after an early adversarial relationship with them. But a seeming focus on political power within the Capitol became pretty clear to people, culminating for the education community in Hill’s abandonment of his anti-voucher position.

“He wasn’t grounded in his community,” Peters said. “He was more interested in playing politics in Nashville and currying favor with the governor and making a bid for the speakership.”

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Voucher Decline

A professor at Teachers College at Columbia University says interest in vouchers may be waning in part due to poor academic performance. This comes as Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher scheme was delayed by court action.

Here’s more:

The demand by parents for education vouchers and Education Saving Accounts (ESA’s) – which allow them to use government funds to pay for private school tuition — is showing signs of flagging, possibly because private schools are not subject to public regulation and thus not required to meet government standards on measures that range from testing performance to teacher accreditation to instruction for special education students.

Yet the latest studies show that academic performance among voucher and ESA students is trending lower, according to Luis Huerta, Associate Professor of Education and Public Policy. Huerta and Kevin Welner, Professor of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education and co-founding Director of the National Education Policy Center, spoke in a recent webinar about the evolution of conventional school vouchers into vouchers funded by private, tax-free donations and, most recently, into Education Savings Accounts (ESA’s).

Of course, the poor performance and waning demand haven’t stopped Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander from pushing forward legislation to siphon COVID-19 relief funds to private schools.

Huerta also said that proposals by Republican Senators Tim Scott of South Carolina and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee would siphon CARES COVID relief aid to fund private school scholarships. “But again, it’s too soon to know whether this will give private schools the advantage to open more readily compared to publics, especially since the money linked to these proposals is only in the form of portable scholarships and not infrastructure dollars.”

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Voucher Quest

Nashville education blogger TC Weber talks about Gov. Bill Lee’s quest to voucherize Tennessee public schools and includes details on the Governor’s involvement in some key legislative races.

Here’s more:

One only has to take a look at the campaign trail for a clue to see how serious Lee is about vouchers.

Up in the far Northwest corner of the state is Obion County, the seat of Senate District 24. For nearly a decade, District 24 has been represented by Senator John Stevens. It’s a small rural district with a fraction of the economic base of the larger Tennessee districts. So the virus is taking a toll fiscally as well as physically. This year Stevens is being challenged by fellow Republican Casey Hood for the seat.

Hood is a plumber by trade and political newcomer, who is a staunch conservative, but also a staunch supporter of public education – an area that Stevens is weak in. Initially, the Stevens camp gave little credence to the Hood challenge, but recent polls show Hood as either even or slightly ahead, and suddenly things have gotten serious.

Stevens, you see has been an excellent waterboy for the governor, willing to tout any initiative put forth, including vouchers. Hood, not so much. He has yet to hear the argument that demonstrates vouchers as being beneficial for rural districts and therefore has publically stated he would never support voucher legislation. The governor can ill afford to lose this seat, especially in light of rumors that Districts 25 and 26 might also fall to candidates that don’t support voucher legislation.

That probably explains why come Monday the Governor will get in his car and drive to a county that he’s never set foot in to try and arouse support for a loyal soldier. It’s why he’ll be holding a “private rally” at Obion County Central High School in Troy, Tennessee while the Obion County commission meets to try and find additional funding to increase compensation for teachers. Obion County and Hood value the district’s teachers, with Governor Lee the jury is still out.

Over the last several week’s voters have been hit with over 14 pieces of campaign literature from the incumbent. Tennesseans for Student Success alone have spent between $30K and $40K to turn back the Hood threat. Somebody really doesn’t want to lose the seat and is doing whatever they can to hold it.

Teachers at the high school will be holding an in-service day on Monday, meaning the governor will have a captive audience. I wonder if he’ll tell those teachers how safe they are while COVID numbers explode for the county. I wonder if Lee will tell them how much he cares while meeting them for the first time ever. You have to wonder why a seat in a small district that he lost during his gubernatorial campaign has suddenly taken on such importance. I’m also curious how much of Monday’s trip’s cost is being picked up by Tennessee taxpayers.

This is not the only race that Lee is injecting himself into. He’s flooding the market with fliers in the Byrd campaign, as well as targeting Representative Mark Cochrane. I think it’s pretty clear that Lee has a plan on his mind and it ain’t about reopening schools. It’s about further disrupting public education. Much has been made of the negative impact of Lee’s education policies on urban districts, well they ain’t good for rural districts either.

More on Byrd:

More on Tennesseans for Student Success:

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Are You Ready for Some Football?

Gov. Bill Lee certainly is. He signed an executive order today allowing contact sports like football to resume when school does.

He also says schools should reopen for in-person learning except in the most “extreme” circumstances.

No word yet on what the acceptable level of student or teacher COVID-19 cases is… or how many have to be sick (or even die) before the situation is labeled extreme by Gov. Lee.

And then there’s this news:

Rhetoric vs. Reality

Gov. Bill Lee recently denied a request from Williamson County Schools for a waiver of TNReady and other requirements for the upcoming school year in light of COVID-19.

In response, the President of education-focused group SCORE tweeted this:

Here’s the thing. If Gov. Lee were actually an advocate of strong and student-centered policy, he wouldn’t have cut improvements to teacher pay from his budget this year. He’d implement a statewide mask mandate. He wouldn’t push an unproven voucher scheme only to see it overturned in the courts. He would work to make progress on the $1.7 billion deficit in the state’s funding formula for schools.

But. He’s not. He hasn’t been. He won’t be. Tennessee schools and the students and teachers in them will continue to be left behind as a result of the aggressive privatization strategy Lee is pursuing.

Bill Lee Says NO

Williamson County School Board member Rick Wimberly reports that Gov. Bill Lee has denied the district’s request to #CancelTNReady and to allow flexibility on the length of the school year and the hours in the school day.

The Governor has turned down Williamson’s County’s requests for waivers on state testing, school day length, and school year. I hope he’ll reconsider. #wcsb

Posted by Rick Wimberly Williamson Co School Board, District 9 on Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Here’s the story of the original request:

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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