Knox School Board Says: NO VOUCHERS!

As it becomes ever more clear that incoming Governor Bill Lee plans to aggressively pursue a voucher scheme agenda that will undermine Tennessee’s public schools, the Knox County School Board voted 7-2 last night to urge the General Assembly to reject any voucher plan.

Here’s the text of the resolution sponsored by Board Member Jennifer Owen:

WHEREAS, the Knox County Board of Education is responsible for managing all public schools established or that may be established under its jurisdiction;

WHEREAS, there is pending legislation before the Tennessee General Assembly that would create a voucher program allowing students to use public education funds to pay for private school tuition (voucher programs also are known as “opportunity scholarships,” “education savings,” “tax credits” or similar terms); and

WHEREAS, proponents have spent millions to convince the public and lawmakers of their efficacy, yet, more than five decades after introduction, vouchers remain controversial, unproven and unpopular; and

WHEREAS, the Constitution of the State of Tennessee requires that the Tennessee General Assembly “provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools;” and

WHEREAS, the State of Tennessee has established nationally recognized standards and measures for accountability in public education; and

WHEREAS, vouchers eliminate accountability, by channeling taxes to private schools without the same • academic or testing requirements, • public budgets or reports on student achievement, • open meetings and records law adherence, • public accountability requirements in major federal laws, including special education laws; and

WHEREAS, vouchers have not been effective at improving student achievement or closing the achievement gap; and

WHEREAS, vouchers leave students behind, including those with the greatest needs, because vouchers channel tax dollars into private schools that are not required to accept all students, nor offer the special services they may need; and

WHEREAS, underfunded public schools are less able to attract and retain teachers; and

WHEREAS, vouchers give choices to private entities, rather than to parents and students, since the providers decide whether to accept vouchers, how many and which students to admit, and potentially arbitrary reasons they might dismiss a student; and

WHEREAS, the Knox County Board of Education provides numerous academic choices (magnet, STEM, International Baccalaureate, career/technical programs, community schools, etc.) and has a liberal transfer policy which allows students to attend other traditional schools in the district; and

WHEREAS, vouchers divert critical funds from public schools to pay private school tuition for a few students, including those who already attend private schools; and

WHEREAS, vouchers are inefficient, compelling taxpayers to support two school systems: one public and one private, the latter of which is not accountable to all taxpayers supporting it;

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Knox County Board of Education opposes any legislation or other similar effort to create a voucher program in Tennessee that would divert money intended for public education to private entities.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that a copy of this Resolution shall be delivered to the Governor, each member of the Tennessee General Assembly, the Knox County Mayor and County Commission, the Knoxville City Mayor and City Council, and the Mayor, Vice Mayor, and Aldermen of the Town of Farragut.

ADOPTED BY THE ELECTED KNOX COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, meeting in regular session on the 12th of December, 2018, with this Resolution to take immediate effect, the public welfare requiring it.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

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.

 

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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On Teacher Morale

JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, offers his thoughts on boosting teacher morale

We know psychologically that there is a connection between feeling of self-worth and actions. When teachers lose hope in their career, eventually they change the direction of their own future and in turn it impacts the future of our children. If you are an educator or have friends who are educators, you have undoubtedly discussed teacher morale in public education and thoughts on the future of education. Sadly, those thoughts were most likely negative. Educators who enter the field are often bright-eyed, confident, and enthusiastic. Teacher turnover is continuing to climb higher, yet those entering the field is going lower. What happened? That is the problem we must solve.

Teacher turnover holds back our schools and our students. How do you improve morale? It will take multiple strategies, which differ from community to community, district to district, school to school. Let’s look at four of the most prominent issues: educator compensation, lack of respect for educators, testing and out of control students.

Educator Compensation. Compensation is everything that is provided to the educator for their services. Compensation alone will not impact teacher morale. Governor Bill Haslam made teacher salaries a priority, and should be recognized for his efforts. It is debatable if dollars allocated for salary increases reached all classroom teachers. This may be attributed to district implemented pay plans. Educators should be involved in the development of those plans. Governor-elect Bill Lee indicated he intends to develop a pipeline of well-trained, highly compensated educators who can flourish in the teaching profession. This will likely include incentive compensation programs, together with stipends, and associated benefits that are based on professional employee performance that exceeds expectations. Compensation can also be used to aid in hiring, and/or retaining highly qualified teachers for hard-to-staff schools and subject areas.

Lack of Respect for Educators. Teaching, a profession once held in high esteem, is being de-valued both by stakeholders and policymakers for a variety of reasons. Teachers, who are on the frontlines of parental dissatisfaction with the system, are often made scapegoats by people who have lost trust in the system. This lack of respect is reflected by lack of parental support and engagement. In fairness, some parents are supportive and work with educators to help ensure their children get the best possible education. Yet more often than not, parents simply blame the teacher for the problems at school. But even more than that, teachers often lack the support of their administrators, district, and even the state. Bureaucrats keep piling on more requirements of educators with barely a nod of appreciation. Teachers, above all other professions, deserve the recognition and gratitude of a job well-done. Doing so on a regular basis will be a small step toward improving the teacher turnover rate.

Testing. The testing culture has killed the enthusiasm of many educators. Nobody would object to testing that benefits the teaching and learning process of students. As it stands currently, the data is not received in a timely manner and the results yield little or no benefit to the students. Educators would welcome a robust, practical solution to current assessment issues. A portfolio-based assessment model is also problematic. However, it may be a preferred model of student evaluation if it is not too time-consuming. It is based on a wide range of student work done over a long period of time, rather than on a single, paper-and-pencil test taken over a few hours. We must work to ensure that our assessments and the subsequent results are empowering and informing without being a time drain. Assessments should not inhibit quality instruction but provide accurate feedback for educators, parents, and students. Most importantly, assessments should be not used a punitive measure against teachers.

Out of Control Students. Effective educators consider the root causes of misbehavior and develop appropriate solutions on a consistent, ongoing basis. However, some students need attention and intervention beyond the scope of what a classroom teacher can provide. It is imperative that a school and district adopt policies that support effective classroom management, as well as student instruction for all students. One possible policy has to be a better tracking of the time an educator has to spend on discipline issues. Do parents have the right to know, for example, if one student disrupts their own child’s education so frequently, they lose instruction time? School districts must balance their responsibilities toward the community with the responsibility to nurture students. Without discipline, students cannot learn. Students themselves must respect rules and authority regardless of underlying disabilities/issues. Districts must have policies in place that protect all students’ right to learn.

There is no one size fits all strategy that will work in every school or district. This is a recurring theme among those who believe in local control in public education. Together, we can work to address teacher morale issues. Once a plan is in place, it is very important to examine, evaluate, and adjust as necessary.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

Another Voucher Vulture Joins Team Lee

As Governor-elect Bill Lee staffs up ahead of taking office in January, he’s making it clear he plans to push forward heavily on vouchers. He’s already named one key voucher backer to a top policy role and now, he’s announced his Legislative Director will be the former Director of Students First/Tennessee CAN.

More on this:

Brent Easley will lead the Legislative Affairs office in the Office of the Governor. He currently serves as the state director for TennesseeCAN, an education advocacy group. Previously, he served as the state director for StudentsFirst Tennessee. Prior to that, he worked in the Tennessee House of Representatives as the senior research and policy analyst for the Tennessee House Republican Caucus.

Students First/Tennessee CAN has a long history of attempting to foist misguided education policy on Tennessee schools:

StudentsFirst “spent as much as $213,907 on lobbying in 2014, with its political action committee spending $573,917 during the two years leading up to the 2014 election, according to state finance records.”

In 2016, pro-voucher StudentsFirst Tennessee (now TennesseeCAN) pushed for Rep. Glen Casada’s “Jeb Bush School [A-F] Grading System” bill and thanked Casada for his support. The law “requires the department of education to develop a school grading system that assigns A, B, C, D, and F letter grades to schools” and is viewed as a path to education vouchers.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

DeVos Disciple Lands Key Role in Lee Admin

Incoming Governor Bill Lee announced a round of Cabinet and staff appointments yesterday including the appointment of a leading backer of school vouchers to a senior policy role.

Lee named Tony Niknejad as his policy director.

Niknejad served as policy director in the Lee campaign and before that was the Tennessee State Director of Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children. He also served as a policy staffer for state Senator Brian Kelsey, one of the leading advocates of using public money for private schools in the legislature.

Lee has a track record of supporting the DeVos organization and ill-advised voucher schemes.

The announcement is another indicator that Lee intends to move ahead on school vouchers, perhaps as soon as the 2019 legislative session.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @tnedreport


 

Reassuring?

Ever oblivious to past failure, Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen sent out an “Educator Update” yesterday announcing the start of TNReady for high school students on block scheduling.

Here’s the text of her email:

Starting tomorrow, high school students on block schedule will take their TNReady end-of-course exam. We have been working hard to ensure they are both academically and technologically successful, and I wanted to make sure you were aware of those preparations and how we plan to address any issue that may arise, particularly if your students are taking their EOC this fall.

First, over the past several weeks, we have passed smoothly through key milestones, such as our verification test of the online platform, where about 50,000 subparts were submitted over the course of an hour – more than we expect to see in fall block during that same period of time. Additionally, we released a new set of online tutorials for test administrators, and more than 1,000 folks have completed those. And most importantly, you have been preparing students with the content knowledge and critical thinking and writing skills they need to have – not just to be successful on TNReady, but for life after graduation.

Every good planning process has to plan for issues that may occur, and we have communicated extensively with your district leaders, testing coordinators, and technology directors to make them aware of the variety of support and communications avenues available. If you or your students run into any issues, please immediately contact your building testing coordinator. You can also consult this one-page troubleshooting guide. If you do not see your issue addressed here, your building testing coordinator may have more information, and they can coordinate with your district testing coordinator to get assistance. We work directly with your district testing coordinator throughout each day of the testing window, communicating with them on daily webinars, a call line for immediate assistance, text message alerts, and constant email messages and one-on-one phone calls. From here, we can take a number of steps to solve problems, including sending a support team to your school. We have those teams stationed across the state so each school can be reached within 90 minutes.

Thank you for your patience with us and support of our students as we have worked toward this moment. We all want testing to be a seamless experience where students can show what they know, so you can better understand your students’ mastery of the standards and reflect on how you can continue to improve your practice. That is powerful information, and we want you to have it as easily and quickly as possible. We are continuing to improve as we aim for that goal.

A reminder

While Commissioner McQueen’s note sounds nice, let’s remember that last year, the Fall administration of TNReady went relatively smoothly. Then, there were dump trucks and hackers. It’s also not like we haven’t had some sort of testing problem every year in the past five years:

Lately, this season has brought another ritual: The Tennessee Department of Education’s failure to deliver student test scores. Each of the last three years has seen TNDOE demonstrate it’s inability to get state testing right (nevermind the over-emphasis on testing to begin with).

Back in 2014, there was a delay in the release of the all-powerful “quick scores” used to help determine student grades. Ultimately, this failure led to an Assistant Commissioner losing her job.

Then, in 2015, the way “quick scores” were computed was changed, creating lots of confusion. The Department was quick to apologize, noting:

We regret this oversight, and we will continue to improve our processes such that we uphold our commitment to transparency, accuracy, and timeliness with regard to data returns, even as we experience changes in personnel.

The processes did not appear to be much improved at all as the 2016 testing cycle got into full swing, with a significant technical failure on Day One.

Every year, we hear about how TNReady is ready. Sometimes, the early administration goes well. Then, all hell breaks loose. So far, the call for options or a pause on the test has not been heeded. Instead, our state continues testing and continues making excuses and continues telling everyone it will all be fine.

Will Governor Bill Lee and the new General Assembly take a new approach? Will a new Commissioner explore an ESSA waiver and testing options? Will the advice of a handful of districts and the state’s PTA be heeded?

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

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