Leaving Rural Schools Behind

While Tennessee’s two largest school districts (Nashville and Memphis) are suing the state arguing the BEP funding formula is not adequate, new concerns are being raised about the equity of current funding. Three previous lawsuits (the “Small Schools” suits) challenged the state funding formula and each time, the Tennessee Supreme Court directed the state to take action to improve funding and make it more equitable for rural districts.

Despite these changes, it seems familiar concerns are being raised about funding distribution to rural districts. Chalkbeat has more:

But a new report says rural schools also face significant challenges in providing an equitable education to a third of the state’s students, all while serving a growing Latino population drawn to those areas mostly by agricultural work.

High poverty rates, lower median household income, opioid addiction, and limited access to technology and healthcare are among the issues in rural Tennessee, where fewer people are likely to attend college and more are likely to receive food stamps than their urban counterparts, according to economic research.

And with less industry and lower local tax bases to support their schools, rural districts also struggle to recruit, support, and retain effective educators.

Governor Bill Lee inherited this problem, and so far has done nothing to help it. Instead, his push for vouchers could end up hurting rural school systems by taking as much as $300 million out of the state funding formula for public schools.

Additionally, for years, the BEP formula has been broken, failing to deliver needed funds to districts at even a basic level. Now, the state’s Comptroller suggests Tennessee would need at least $500 million a year in new investments to properly fund schools.

So far, there has been zero indication Lee has any desire or inclination to address the funding shortfall that disproportionately impacts the state’s rural schools. Sure, he dresses up like a farmer every weekend and records neat videos, but that’s not doing anything to put dollars into the schools that need them most.

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No Positive Gains

As Governor Bill Lee seeks to accelerate implementation of his school voucher scheme amid an FBI probe into the House vote on the legislation, more evidence is emerging suggesting school vouchers are harmful to students.

Two professors studying the issue offer this analysis in a recent article in The Hill:


Researchers — including several voucher advocates — have conducted nine rigorous, large-scale studies since 2015 on achievement in voucher programs. In no case did these studies find any statistically positive achievement gains for students using vouchers. But seven of the nine studies found that voucher students saw relative learning losses. Too often, these losses were substantial.


For instance, research on Louisiana’s program indicates that when some children performing squarely in the average range use a voucher to enroll in a private school, their scores fall almost to the lowest performing quartile of students overall. And initial hopes that those losses were temporary have not panned out.

Why would Tennessee’s Governor push a voucher scheme he knows won’t work?

It’s because he doesn’t care.

Bill Lee has long been a voucher advocate and ally of and donor to organizations backed by Betsy DeVos.

His service to the DeVos agenda means more to him than doing what’s best for Tennessee kids. Lee is willing to take money from Tennessee public schools and transfer to unaccountable private entities no matter what the evidence says. Here’s why:

The answer is shockingly simple and unsurprising: money. The details, though, reveal an unrelenting push to dismantle America’s public schools. Yes, this story includes familiar characters like Betsy DeVos and the Koch brothers joining forces with a Tennessee cast to advance their vision for our nation’s schools. That vision: Public money flowing to private schools with little regard for the impact on students. In fact, the evidence is pretty clear—vouchers simply don’t achieve their stated goal of helping kids improve academic outcomes. Tennessee’s plan could result in taking more than $300 million away from local school districts to support private entities.

What’s more disappointing is the willingness of members of the Tennessee General Assembly to go along with this charade.

Instead of improving Tennessee’s investment in public schools, our state continues to lag behind — we’re at least $500 million short of properly funding the BEP – the state’s funding formula for schools.

Let me point out again that the authors reference nine studies — in seven, students LOST GROUND academically as a result of accepting vouchers. There were NO POSITIVE GAINS.

Vouchers don’t work. At all.

Governor Lee knows this. His team knows it. The leaders in the House and Senate know it.

They just don’t care. If they did, we wouldn’t see numbers like this year after year:

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Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad

Chalkbeat has the story of how 1 in 3 Tennessee teachers is seeking a way out of the profession. The data comes from the annual Tennessee Educator Survey released last week. Here’s more:

A third of Tennessee teachers say they would leave the profession for a higher-paying job and also would choose a different career if given a do-over, according to the results of a new statewide survey.

The bad news comes amidst a national teacher shortage that is definitely impacting Tennessee. In fact, Metro Nashville schools opened the year with more than 100 vacancies and a number of schools have few math teachers. Nearby Sumner County opened school with as many as 30 vacancies and has taken action — raising pay by $4000.

It’s no wonder Tennessee teachers want to leave the profession. Not only do they earn less than their peers in similar states, as Chalkbeat notes, they also earn nearly 30% less than similarly trained professionals:

This year’s results indicate a national average teacher pay gap of 23.8%. Tennessee’s gap is 27.3%. That’s an improvement of two points for Tennessee, which had a gap of 29.3% two years ago.

Of course, Bill Lee’s focus on vouchers and funding for charter schools instead of teacher pay only serves to exacerbate the problem:

So, charter schools — which serve only 3.5% of the state’s students — will see a 100% increase in available facility funding from the state while teachers will see only a 2% increase in pay.

If the two investments were equal and funded at the rate granted to charter schools, there would be a $342 million investment in teacher salaries. That’s roughly a 10% raise. A raise that’s desperately needed as Tennessee leads the nation in percentage of teachers with little to no classroom experience. We also have one of the largest teacher wage gaps in the Southeast.

Of course, teachers cite more than pay as a reason for wanting to leave the profession. Many cite the poor treatment by the state as an impetus for wanting to exit the field. For example, Kindergarten teachers have essentially been told their opinions about what’s best for kids count for nothing:

So, teachers and students will have to wait ONE MORE YEAR until the DOE actually provides an alternative model. That means your Kindergarten student will be losing instructional time and that teachers across the state will be forced to jump through meaningless hoops in order to meet a ridiculous mandate.

Does the TNDOE care? Nope. Not at all.

It’s as if Governor Bill Lee and Commissioner Penny Schwinn are joining together and singing to Tennessee teachers:

“I want you, I need you, but there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you…”

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Fund Us

In the wake of Governor Bill Lee’s voucher legislation that is poised to cost hundreds of millions of dollars and drain resources from public schools, the Fayetteville City School Board passed a resolution calling on the General Assembly to make a commitment to funding teacher salaries.

The Elk Valley Times has more:


The Fayetteville City School Board has adopted a resolution urging legislators to increase public school teachers’ pay by the same amount invested in Education Savings Accounts established through legislation passed by the General Assembly this past session.

The Board is asking school districts across the state to join in the effort. The resolution notes that current BEP funding for schools does not adequately fund teacher pay.


“ … Local school boards recognize that funding for teacher salaries under the Basic Education Program (BEP) under current law is insufficient,” the resolution continues. “ … Districts are funded based on a district-wide student-teacher ratio, rather than the actual number a district is required to employ to meet school-level ratio requirements … The teacher salary used for BEP funding does not represent the actual average teacher salary statewide.

While vouchers certainly impact school funding, it’s also worth noting here that Governor Lee made a significant investment in charter schools this year as well, doubling funds for charter facilities while offering teachers only a 2.5% increase in BEP salary funds.

Estimates indicate that funding the BEP salary component — funds given to districts for teacher pay — at an amount approaching the actual cost of hiring a teacher would mean spending in the range of $300-$500 million.

It’s not clear if Governor Lee or anyone in the legislature has a desire to actually improve teacher pay at a level that will make a real difference. Or, if anyone there even plans on undoing Governor Haslam’s mistake of freezing BEP 2.0.

It will be interesting to see how lawmakers respond if additional districts join Fayetteville in pushing for adequate pay for teachers. Will the same lawmakers who were so focused on ensuring vouchers didn’t “hurt” their districts also support providing their districts with the needed funds to compensate teachers?

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Making Failure Great Again

Governor Bill Lee has made no secret of his desire to expand charter schools across Tennessee. From doubling the funding available for charter school facilities to creating a “Super Charter Authorizer” that will override local school boards, Lee has made clear his disdain for public schools. A report from the Network for Public Education offers insight into why this strategy is destined to fail.

The report examines funds distributed by the US Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program and finds an alarmingly high 40% failure rate. Tennessee, always a national leader in the wrong categories, exceeds the national average with a 49% failure rate. Here’s more from the report specific to Tennessee:


Tennessee which has a 49 percent grantee failure rate, gave 38 grants of $10,000 each to schools that not only did not have a NCES number, they also did not have a listed name. Where did that $380,000 go? Apparently, the Department of Education has no idea.

Here’s more on the “success” of charters in Tennessee:

One hundred and twenty-one grants were given to open or expand charter schools in Tennessee from the federal charter schools program between 2006-2014. At this time, at least 59 (49%) of those charter schools are now closed or never opened at all. Fourty-three of the 59 grant recipients never opened at all.


Of the 43 that never opened, 38 did not even have a name. Only a grant amount was listed.

How much was spent on failed charter schools?

In total, $7,374,025.00 were awarded to Tennessee charter schools during those years that either never opened or shut down

This is the future Bill Lee wants for Tennessee — schools that never open or shut down just a few weeks into the year. Cash giveaways to private entities with little to no track record of positive impact. Taxpayer dollars wasted in the name of “choice” and the “free market.”

Bill Lee and his team of privatizers surely know these facts. They also don’t care. Steady, reliable service to the DeVos agenda of using public money to support private schools is all that matters.

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Bill Lee’s $200 Million Dream

During the voucher debate this past legislative session, I wrote about Governor Bill Lee’s Arizona Dream. I noted that Lee seemed determined to turn Tennessee into the same type of fraud-riddled education mess that decimated school funding in the Grand Canyon State.

Now, of course, the FBI is investigating Tennessee’s voucher vote. But instead of caution, Bill Lee is hitting the gas pedal and trying to move vouchers into our state even faster.

Let’s take a look at how that’s gone in Arizona:


Last year, nearly $200 million which otherwise would have been in the state’s coffers, money which could have been used to boost our shamefully low education budget, is paying for children to go to private schools.


Private school tuition tax credits, the state’s first voucher program, began in 1999. Back then, before vouchers, 44,050 students attended Arizona’s private schools, about 5 percent of the student population.

How did private school enrollment look in 2015, the most recent year I can find data for? In 2015, the number had risen to 46,250, which is an addition of 2,200 students over 17 years of taxpayer-funded vouchers — about 130 new students a year. That doesn’t sound like the kind growth you should expect given the investment we’re making.



Here’s a math problem for you. If Arizona had 2,200 more private school students in 2015 than in 1999, and in 2015, we spent $150 million on vouchers. How much were taxpayers pitching in for each new student? You’ll probably need to grab a calculator to figure it out, so let me give you the answer. It comes to $68,200 per new student.


$68,000 PER STUDENT.

That’s the cost to advance a voucher agenda that all the evidence indicates will fail the children it is designed to help.

That’s Bill Lee’s Arizona Dream. That’s the scheme he’s trying to foist (quickly) on Tennesseans.

Don’t let anyone tell you Bill Lee is a fiscal conservative who cares about protecting taxpayer dollars.

Here’s what his agenda makes clear: Bill Lee wants to take YOUR tax dollars and spend them on private entities regardless of outcome. Just because.

That’s bad policy. It’s fiscally irresponsible. It tells you all you need to know about Bill Lee.

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Vroom Vroom Vouchers

Governor Bill Lee is putting his school privatization scheme on the fast track. Marta Aldrich of Chalkbeat is all over the story, with news of Lee’s desire to rapidly grow the voucher program and reports of a new hire in the Department of Education to advance the voucher agenda.

Here’s more:


When Tennessee lawmakers signed off on an education voucher program this spring, they included a deadline: The program must start by the 2021-22 school year. 


Now, Gov. Bill Lee wants to cut that timeline in half, launching the program just a year from now — a prospect that has advocates and even some allies expressing concerns.


The Republican governor has directed the state education department to work with the Tennessee Board of Education so the controversial program can kick off for the 2020-21 school year, Chalkbeat has confirmed.

And, Amity Schuyler has been tapped to oversee voucher implementation:


“She comes from Florida where they already have education savings accounts, she’s done lots of voucher-ESA work, and she understands what it’s like from a district perspective,” Schwinn said of Schuyler.


“She also believes in education savings accounts. And to take the lead on this project, I need someone who believes in it,” Schwinn said.

Here’s how the Orlando Sentinel views Florida’s voucher scheme:


In its “Schools Without Rules” series, Sentinel reporters found voucher (or “scholarship”) schools faking safety reports, hiring felons, hiring high-school dropouts as teachers and operating in second-rate strip malls. They discovered curricula full of falsehoods and subpar lesson plans.


If you confront defenders of this system, be they legislators or school operators, many start mumbling about the virtue of “choice”— as if funding a hot mess of a school is a swell thing, as long parents choose that mess.


Horse hockey. I choose accountability. And transparency. And standards.

Here’s an example of how Florida’s choice programs are working out for kids:


South Florida Prep received significant funds from the Florida Department of Education under the McKay program. Here’s how that school was run:


Two hundred students were crammed into ever-changing school locations, including a dingy strip-mall space above a liquor store and down the hall from an Asian massage parlor. Eventually, fire marshals and sheriffs condemned the “campus” as unfit for habitation, pushing the student body into transience in church foyers and public parks.


“We had no materials,” says Nicolas Norris, who taught music despite the lack of a single instrument. “There were no teacher edition books. There was no curriculum.”

While it should come as no surprise that Bill Lee is moving quickly to privatize Tennessee’s public schools, it should certainly be of concern that the person chosen to lead the program comes from a state where the voucher program has been a source of fraud and abuse.

Then, there’s the issue of ongoing FBI investigations into both the House vote on vouchers AND the Senate sponsor of voucher legislation.

I will say this again: Bill Lee will stop at nothing in his quest to privatize public education in our state.

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Bill Lee’s ED

Governor Bill Lee has been on a tour of rural Tennessee counties the last two weeks. During his stops, he’s touting what he’s calling a successful first legislative session. If by success, he means securing passage of a school voucher scheme by any means necessary, sure, he’s been successful. Maybe he means siphoning public money to private schools by way of his Education Savings Account (ESA) plan to the tune of as much as $300 million? Or, perhaps he means demonstrating how he really feels about public school teachers by including the lowest increase in BEP salary funds in the last four budget cycles in his budget — all offering new money and easier access to charter schools.

What Bill Lee hasn’t done on these stops is tell the real story. Because it’s embarrassing. No one likes to talk about it. It’s Bill Lee’s ED. His Education Deficit. Since Bill Lee won’t admit it, I took the liberty of compiling some data to help him talk about it.

Here’s a look at each of the seven counties Lee visited in the past two weeks on his ED tour. I’ve noted first the average salary increase teachers in those counties received since 2015. Next, I’ve indicated the “BEP Gap” — that is, the number of positions each county pays for above what the state funding formula generates. Here’s what this means: The school system NEEDS those employees in order to provide a quality education. But, the state formula won’t pay for them. So, local taxpayers are left footing 100% of the cost of those positions. Data provided by the Comptroller of the Treasury and the Department of Education.

County Avg. salary increase BEP Gap

Bledsoe 3.4% 13

Meigs 1.5% 20

Loudon 1.4% 46

Giles 0.925% 81

Lawrence 1.9% 94

Lincoln 1.8% 49

Bedford 2.25% 24

As you can see, we’ve got some work to do. Teachers in these rural counties have salaries that lag below the state average and receive relatively low annual salary increases. Plus, taxpayers in these communities are left footing the bill for a BEP that simply isn’t adequate to meet the needs of our schools in 2019. Bill Lee did nothing to address the structural deficits in the BEP. Plus, he offered teachers the lowest state funds for raises in the last four budget cycles.

While Lee likes to ride around on a horse to tout his vitality, it’s clear there’s an ED problem he just doesn’t want to talk about.

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Voucher Vultures Swoop Down on Nashville

Roughly one month after Governor Bill Lee signed his Education Savings Account voucher scheme into law, a North Carolina-based private school announced it is expanding operations to Nashville. Perhaps not surprisingly, tuition at the school is similar to the amount available to families in Nashville and Memphis under the ESA program.

The school, Thales Academy, is operated by the CEO of a commercial kitchen ventilation company. Bob Luddy is also a top GOP donor in North Carolina.

Here’s Luddy on how great his schools are:

“We get results. If you look consistently over a period of time, kindergarten students come in, they can barely walk in the door, they can barely sit down, and then you see them progress as they learn sounds, and they learn to decode. By the time they progress into the 3rd or 4th grade they’re doing very sophisticated work, which is going to prepare them to be excellent students in the long term,” Luddy says in a video on the Thales Academy website.

And here’s more on accreditation straight from the school’s website:

The accreditation process does not align with Thales Academy’s mission and would prevent Thales from maintaining our standard of the highest quality education.

Thales and Luddy are not new to Tennessee. In fact, in 2015, voucher advocate Lee Barfield paid for a private plane to take former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and then-House Speaker Beth Harwell to North Carolina to visit the Thales schools. Like Bill Lee, Barfield is a long-time supporter of Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children and even served on the group’s Board of Directors.

Those in the GOP cozying up to Luddy should beware, though, he’s known for expressing his disappointment where it hurts politicians the most: campaign contributions.

Here’s how he treated the House GOP in North Carolina:

A major conservative donor’s decision this week to divert a planned $25,000 contribution away from state House Republicans highlights an increasingly bitter divide within the party over tax policy and government spending.

Raleigh businessman Bob Luddy, who chairs the board of the conservative Civitas Institute think tank and is an influential financial supporter of conservative candidates, emailed a sharp critique of the House budget to House Republicans, who are in the majority.

Luddy complained that the budget advancing to a major vote on Thursday does not include new tax cuts and extends tax breaks for specific industries. He called the spending plan too “liberal” and said he’s decided to withold his planned, annual donation to the House Republicans’ campaign committee.

Luddy instead directed his money to Americans for Prosperity and then issued this sharp rebuke to those who had taken his money in the past but were not doing his bidding:

But Luddy says the state shouldn’t prop up the solar industry. “These guys couldn’t exist without government subsidies, and those subsidies have to come from every working taxpayer who are capable of creating way more jobs than the solar industry could ever create,” he said.

Here’s a guy who plans on using public money to fund his private school scheme and he’s decrying the use of public funds to support an industry he simply doesn’t like. Perhaps if public money shouldn’t be used to “prop up the solar industry” it also shouldn’t be used to prop up Luddy’s Thales Academy.

Those who warned that passage of vouchers would lead to “pop-up” private schools have already been proven right. Thales Academy and Bob Luddy were invited into Tennessee by Bill Lee and friends and are now perched like hungry vultures ready to suck funds from Nashville’s public schools.

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Bill Lee’s Beach Buddy

Governor Bill Lee has appointed unregistered voucher lobbyist Mark Gill to the Tennessee Board of Regents, according to a report in the Tennessean.

Lee appointed Mark Gill, a longtime advocate for school vouchers who made headlines after treating five lawmakers to a stay at his Alabama seaside condo and a deep-sea fishing trip, to the Tennessee Board of Regents.

Gill has served on the Board of Directors of the Tennessee Federation for Children, the Tennessee arm of Betsy DeVos‘s American Federation for Children. Lee is both a long-time voucher advocate and a financial backer of DeVos’s school privatization efforts.

Readers may recall Gill’s pro-voucher antics, including hosting lawmakers at his beachfront condo:

So, Mark Gill serves on the Board of Directors for the Tennessee Federation for Children, is a large donor to the group, and hosts five Tennessee lawmakers at his beachside condo and then those same lawmakers just happen to co-sponsor pro-voucher legislation at the General Assembly?

No, this isn’t illegal. Yes, it actually happened. This is the type of behavior these same lawmakers decry about DC politicians.

Make no mistake, Bill Lee depends on shady characters like Lee Beaman, Shaka Mitchell, and Mark Gill in order to claim victory in his quest to take public money and shift it to private schools.

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