Business as Usual

The Tennessean has the story of a Nashville charter school facing turmoil amid financial challenges created by poor management and lax oversight.

Knowledge Academies charter school has operated with a large deficit, occasionally failed to pay teachers on time and slipped into financial turmoil while its CEO ran side businesses out of its Antioch school building.

Understaffing at the school forced teachers to regularly take on extra students, while long-term substitutes without teaching licenses filled in as if they were full-time staff.

Teachers say the staffing, financial problems and cavalcade of issues centering around school leadership created a culture of disorganization and made classroom instruction extremely difficult.

The news about Knowledge Academies comes after a state legislative session which saw Governor Bill Lee win approval of a new, statewide charter authorizer.

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Voucher Sponsor Facing FBI Probe

As Governor Bill Lee signed controversial voucher legislation into law this past week, revelations emerged that the FBI is investigating potentially illegal campaign activity by the Senate sponsor of Lee’s plan.

The Daily Memphian reports Senator Brian Kelsey’s failed 2016 congressional campaign faces an investigation into illegal use of state campaign funds for a federal race.


The Tennessee Journal is reporting the Department of Justice talked recently to state lawmakers about alleged “straw donations” into state Sen. Brian Kelsey’s 2016 congressional campaign.


Kelsey, a Germantown Republican who represents East Memphis and Cordova, came in fourth in the Republican primary three years ago. But reports have raised questions about whether money was funneled from his state accounts into his congressional fund, which is illegal.


During the 2016 campaign, his state political action committee, Red State PAC, contributed about $20,000 to state legislators who then gave funds to his congressional race, according to the Tennessee Journal article.

The FBI is also investigating the House vote on voucher legislation to determine if any improper benefits were offered in exchange for votes in favor of the bill.

All of this comes amid the controversy surrounding soon-to-be former House Speaker Glen Casada, who will resign from his leadership role following a months-long scandal which began with the framing of an African-American political activist and included Casada’s appointment of an admitted sex offender to a key leadership role.

Just to be clear: Governor Bill Lee signed a bill that is currently facing an FBI investigation due to alleged impropriety in securing votes. The lead sponsor of that bill in the Senate is ALSO under an FBI investigation.

Rather than wait for the outcome of these investigations, Lee moved forward and signed the bill into law. Lee is so determined to privatize our state’s public schools that he partnered with the nefarious Glen Casada, ignored a potentially illegal vote, and relied on a Senate sponsor who seems to have displayed blatant disregard for campaign finance law.

Make no mistake: Lee is a win at all costs governor. His prize: Taxpayer dollars funneled to private entities with a record of failing to achieve results.

The losers in Lee’s dangerous, morally bankrupt game are the citizens of Tennessee and especially the students and families impacted by a voucher scheme that both fails to help kids and also sucks money from our chronically under-funded public school system.

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Vouchers Already Impacting Teacher Pay, School Resources

A story out of Coffee County explains how Governor Bill Lee’s voucher scheme (currently under investigation by the FBI), is already impacting teacher pay raises and resources dedicated to public schools:

The day it passed in the senate, April 25 (May 1 for an amended version), the Coffee County Board of Education expressed their concerns and decided it would be more frugal to give their faculty a 1 percent raise instead of a 2 percent raise. This decision had multiple factors involved, including balancing the budget, but the uncertainty of the vouchers was part of the discussion, Aaron explained.

In Manchester, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen did not pledge money in their 2019-20 budget to assist College Street Elementary School with renovations due, in part, to the uncertainty of the voucher program as well. Alderman Ryan French pointed out the program has the potential to decimate Average Daily Attendance (a facet of BEP), which will reduce funding and therefore put more strain on the local population.

It’s still unclear what the total cost of Lee’s voucher scheme will be should it be fully implemented. Some estimates put the cost at more than $300 million. That’s a significant hit to the state’s school funding formula. Even at the conservative end of the scale, a total cost of around or just above $100 million would mean a significant loss to all districts across Tennessee. To put that amount in perspective, $100 million would fund a four percent raise for all of Tennessee’s teachers.

Lee has already demonstrated he prefers to spend money on voucher schemes and charter schools instead of teacher salaries. His initial budget proposal provided a big boost for charter school facilities while offering only a minor increase in funding for teacher salaries.

Previous analysis indicates that even if the voucher program grows only modestly, the impact to all school systems will be significant:

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.

In other words, don’t believe the lie that just because your school district isn’t in the current voucher plan, vouchers won’t impact your schools. They absolutely will. Taking $100 million off the table means a big hit to the BEP formula, a plan that already struggles to meet the needs of our state’s schools.

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Secret Voucher Man

So we know Governor Bill Lee’s controversial voucher plan narrowly passed after gaining the support of Lee’s besties Lee Beaman and Betsy DeVos while earning opposition from Tennesseans across the state. So much opposition, legislators representing 93 counties opted their districts out of the bill.

Now, we also know the FBI is investigating whether anything improper occurred in the backroom dealings that led to the bill’s passage. We saw at least one lawmaker change his vote at the last minute after arm-twisting by House Speaker Glen Casada. Other lawmakers reported receiving offers from Governor Lee or Speaker Casada in order to switch their votes.

Here’s what Nashville’s NewsChannel 5 is reporting:


FBI agents have begun interviewing Tennessee lawmakers about whether any improper incentives were offered to pass Gov. Bill Lee’s school vouchers bill in the state House, NewsChannel 5 Investigates has learned.

It’s also interesting that in light of all the recent revelations about Glen Casada, Bill Lee has been reluctant to call on Casada to resign. It seems likely that without Casada’s help, Lee would have failed to achieve many of his legislative goals this session. Now, Casada’s true character is coming to light and Bill Lee is refusing to take a clear stand.

But hey, at least we have vouchers and a state charter authorizer, and as an added bonus, Lee signed the legislature’s bill that criminalized voter registration so that even if some Tennesseans are now motivated to vote Lee and his allies out, they’ll find it harder to get that done.

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PET on Voucher Passage

Immediately following yesterday’s passage of Governor Bill Lee’s “Education Savings Account” voucher program, Professional Educators of Tennessee sent out this statement:

The Tennessee General Assembly today voted to support a second Education Savings Account type program.  The legislation which passed today will serve up to 15,000 lower income students in Nashville and Memphis, after five years.  It will very likely face legal challenges.  Education policy must support all children in developing the skills, the knowledge, and the integrity that will allow them to be responsible, contributing members of their community and ultimately gain employment with a sustainable living wage. Public education still provides the best opportunity for most children to obtain that success.  We do not envision this limited pilot program changing that fact.   The vast majority of our schools are incredibly successful, as are the teachers who serve and students who attend them. 

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How Much is that Voucher in the Window?

Both the Tennessee House of Representatives and the Tennessee Senate today passed Governor Bill Lee’s school voucher (Education Savings Account) scheme and the measure now heads to his desk for signing.

The bill passed despite the fact that no one could clearly articulate the ultimate cost of the program. An early version of analysis by the legislature’s Fiscal Review Committee indicated the cost could be as much as $335 million by 2024.

As the Senate began debate on the measure, that large amount caused some concern (our state underfunds schools by at least $500 million). Not long after that concern was expressed, a “new” fiscal analysis appeared. This time, the projected cost was some $165 million. But wait, that still seems pretty high, right.

Not to fear, Finance Committee Chair Bo Watson and Conference Committee Report author Brian Kelsey assured lawmakers the actual cost would be roughly HALF what the fiscal analysis suggest because there won’t be enough students to meet the program’s caps in the early years.

Wait, what?! We’re supposed to count on a program being unpopular so it won’t cost so much? But, Governor Lee says everyone wants this. He campaigned on it, even. In fact, the plan is so desirable, legislators in 93 counties worked their asses off to ensure it didn’t impact their school districts.

During the debate, Senator Richard Briggs of Knoxville noted that once the door to vouchers was opened, it wouldn’t be closed. He cited the example of the failed Tennessee Virtual Academy, operated by K-12, Inc. Despite years of poor performance, the school is STILL allowed to operate.

Of course, there’s also the experience of Indiana. There, a limited voucher program was started by then-Governor Mitch Daniels. Then, under Mike Pence, the program expanded rapidly and now costs more than $150 million per year.

What’s worse, the legislature supported a program backed by the Governor despite overwhelming evidence the plan simply won’t help kids. In fact, research suggests that kids who receive vouchers perform no better than their non-voucher peers in reading and actually fall behind in math.

Oh, and then there’s the fraud. Rep. Mark White of Memphis USED To care about this, until Governor Lee and Speaker Glen Casada told him to stop.

So, to summarize: We don’t know how much this plan will ultimately cost. We don’t know how many kids will use it. We don’t know how large it will grow. We don’t know how the state will prevent fraud. We don’t know how, or even if, we’ll be able to shut it down if the results are as bad as the Tennessee Virtual Academy.

We do know this: Vouchers haven’t worked. Anywhere. We also know that somewhere between $70 million and $200 million will be shifted from current education funding to a voucher scheme. We know the low end of that would give our state’s teachers a badly needed additional 2.5% raise. We know the $200 million+ price tag that’s very possible if our state tracks others in expansion would mean an 8% raise. We know our schools are underfunded by AT LEAST $500 million according to the state’s Republican Comptroller. We know Tennessee is 45th in education funding. We know we spend $67 less (inflation adjusted) per pupil now than we did in 2010.

Instead of addressing any of that, we’ve watched our lawmakers do Governor Lee’s bidding so he can claim victory on one of his signature initiatives.

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BOOM!

A joint statement from Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools on Governor Bill Lee’s ESA voucher scheme:

Shelby County Schools (SCS) and Metro Nashviille Public Schools (MNPS) released a joint statement on Monday in opposition of the highly controversial Education Savings Account bill that passed both the state House and Senate last week.

In the statement, the districts call the bill unconstitutional because it affects only a small portion of school districts, which includes both SCS and MNPS. If the bill is signed into law, both districts say they are prepared to challenge its legality in court.

  You can read the full statement below:

The Education Savings Account (ESA) legislation violates Article XI, Section 9 of the Tennessee Constitution because it is arbitrarily limited to only a portion of the state when the Constitution requires any Act of the General Assembly to apply statewide unless approved by a local legislative body or through a local referendum.

The language, in both the House and Senate versions of the bill, reflects an arbitrary application to Shelby County Schools (SCS) and Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS), as there are school districts, such as Madison County and Fayette County, with larger or nearly the same percentages of schools performing in the bottom 10 percent. The legislation also applies to only certain districts with priority schools from the state’s 2015 priority school list even though there is a more current list from 2018 that includes schools in Campbell, Fayette, Madison and Maury Counties. These districts are arbitrarily left out of the legislation.

Should this legislation be signed into law, an immediate constitutional challenge is likely to ensure equal protection under the law. Shelby County is no stranger to asserting and prevailing on such constitutional challenges as reflected in the November 27, 2012 decision in the case of Board of Education of Shelby County Tennessee et al v. Memphis City Board of Education by federal Judge Hardy Mays which rendered a similar bill void that was local in effect.

“If the Governor and Legislature are determined to pass a general law that would apply arbitrarily only to us or a limited number of school systems, we will be sure to exhaust all of our legal options,” said SCS Superintendent, Dr. Joris M. Ray.

“No matter what you call them, vouchers are a bad idea. They are not what we need for public schools. We owe it to this generation of students — and to all of those who follow them – to fight for a system that is fairly funded,” said Dr. Adrienne Battle, the MNPS Interim Director.

If the ESA bill becomes law, Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools stand prepared to evaluate and pursue all legal remedies that ensure the constitutional guarantees of equal protection under the law remain intact for the children and families of our districts and state

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Out of the Gate

Bill Powers is brand new to the Tennessee State Senate. He was elected in a special election on Tuesday night to fill the Clarksville-area seat vacated when Mark Green was elected to Congress.

During the campaign, Powers promised he’d be against vouchers if elected. The race, decided by around 1000 votes, was relatively close. It’s possible if he’d said he supported vouchers, he would have lost the race.

While new to the body, he’s apparently not new to the art of creative deception. The very first bill Powers voted on was Governor Bill Lee’s voucher proposal. How did Powers vote? He voted YES.

Less than 48 hours after winning an election where he told voters he had one position on vouchers, he “changed his mind” after talking with Bill Lee and voted the other way.

That seems like a pretty big deal. Powers will face voters again in 2020 should he choose to run for a full 4-year term. It will be interesting to see how he explains his outright lie to the voters next year.

Photo/text courtesy of TN Holler

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SOLD!

Governor Bill Lee and his school privatization friends Betsy DeVos and Lee Beaman scored a major victory today as school voucher legislation passed the House on a 50-48 vote and earned approval in the Senate Finance Committee by a vote of 6-5.

The measure advanced in the House after an apparent 49-49 tie vote on the initial tally. After holding the vote open for nearly 40 minutes, Speaker Glen Casada and Majority Leader William Lamberth were able to convince Rep. Jason Zachary (R-Knoxville) to switch his initial NO vote to a YES. No word on what commitments or rewards Zachary secured in exchange for his betrayal of Knox County — a district directly impacted by the voucher legislation. It’s worth noting the school board in Knox County was one of the first in the state to speak out against vouchers and Knox County parents and teachers protested Bill Lee on his latest visit to the area because of Lee’s support for vouchers. Still, Zachary changed his vote after a back porch meeting with Casada, so it’ll be interesting to see how he explains that.

Over in the Senate, the voucher bill looks somewhat different. Just one week ago, Senator Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga indicated his opposition to the Governor’s voucher scheme. Today, the bill passed 6-5 with Gardenhire voting in favor. Some changes were made, ostensibly to secure Gardnehire’s support.

Now, the Senate bill heads to the floor on Thursday (4/25). The Senate and House versions have some key differences, so even if it secures Senate passage, those changes will likely be worked out in a conference committee. Given the extremely close House vote, those changes could spell trouble for the ultimate voucher package.

The question remains: What did Jason Zachary get in exchange for his YES vote?

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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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