Done Dirt Cheap

Desperate for votes for his voucher scheme to send public tax dollars to unaccountable private schools, Governor Bill Lee appears to be going along with a plan unveiled by House Republicans yesterday to buy off rural legislators with a tiny grant program. Let’s call it what it is: bribery.

Here’s the deal: The new plan eliminates Madison County from the list of districts where students will initially be eligible for Education Savings Accounts. That’s likely intended to win over the votes of Madison County Republicans wavering in their support of Lee’s proposal. It means that only students in Shelby, Knox, Hamilton, and Davidson counties will be eligible for the program when it launches (if it should pass).

Next, the plan redirects funds originally intended to help urban districts to rural districts. Again, this is nothing more than throwing money at lawmakers (and their districts) in order to secure the needed 50 votes for passage in the House.

Here’s a breakdown of how that would work:

In the first year, school districts outside the four counties identified in the program would split up $6.2 million. In the second, schools in the 91 counties would share $12.5 million. In the third year, the aforementioned counties would receive $18.7 million.

91 counties would divide a relatively small amount of funds. In the first year, if the grants were evenly divided among all counties, each county would receive an additional $68,000. That’s barely enough to fund a single position in most districts.

The amended proposal also pushes the amount of the voucher to $7500. That means at full implementation (currently imagined at 30,000 students), the total annual cost would be $225 million.

That’s enough to give every teacher in the state a raise of roughly 8%. That’s $225 million NOT available to fund the BEP or to enhance our current funding formula by improving ratios for RTI or school counselors or nurses.

Instead of adding the elements needed to make our public schools a success, Bill Lee and the House GOP envision giving that money away to private schools that don’t have to take the state’s TNReady test.

The legislation is currently scheduled to be heard in Senate Finance and on the House floor on Tuesday, April 23rd.

Oh, and if you’re a legislator not susceptible to this type of cheap bribery, Lee and his team will ensure you face pain in the form of attack ads paid for by pleasant-sounding dark money groups with names like Tennessee Federation for Children and Tennesseans for Student Success.

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Roll Tide Roll

Tomorrow, the Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to take up Governor Bill Lee’s “super-charter authorizer” bill that would effectively usurp the authority of local school boards by creating a state board that has the power to authorize charter schools anywhere in Tennessee.

While I’ve warned before of the dangers of such an authorizer by pointing to Arizona, perhaps our neighbors in Alabama offer an even better example of what can go wrong with such an authorizer.

Here’s more from the Alabama Political Reporter:

Woodland Prep is a charter school horror story — and it hasn’t even been built yet.

Located in rural Washington County, Woodland Prep, which will open as a K-7 school this fall and add a grade level each year, is everything state leaders assured us could never happen under Alabama’s charter school laws.

Its land is owned by a shady Utah holding company. Its building is owned by a for-profit Arizona company. It will be managed by a for-profit Texas company that doesn’t employ a single Alabamian. It will pay the head of that management company around $300,000 per year — up front. Its application was rejected by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which Alabama pays a hefty sum to review and approve charter applications. Woodland’s management plan failed to meet basic standards for approval in any of the three plan areas reviewed by NACSA.

In spite of all of those concerns, Woodland Prep was approved by the Alabama Charter School Commission — a board similar to the one envisioned by Lee and his legislative supporters for authorizing charters in Tennessee.

Who is behind this mysterious charter?

Soner Tarim. Tarim is the CEO of Unity School Services and was the founder of Harmony Schools, a mostly-successful charter school group in Texas. Tarim and Harmony also have their very serious problems, not least of which is their ties to a Muslim cleric and controversial preacher from Turkey, Fetullah Gulen, and his Gulen Movement.

Numerous reports from the New York Times to Reuters and other local news outlets linked Harmony and Tarim to Gulen, and some labeled Harmony a financial front for Gulen’s movement. While Gulen espouses a more moderate brand of Islam, his movement has been labeled a terrorist organization by Turkey, which has accused Gulen and his followers of attempting to overthrow the Turkish government. Others dispute those claims, and believe the terrorist label is unfairly applied to Gulen, who has shown no proclivity for violence.

Regardless, other legal questions have been raised about Harmony and Tarim’s use of the schools to exploit a visa program and to skirt hiring laws in order to give contract jobs to Turkish workers and teachers.

Follow the Money

A copy of the USS contract with the Woodland Prep board shows that Tarim will make 15 percent of all federal, state and local funds received by Woodland. Which means that for every student allotment — and Woodland estimates in its application that the per-pupil allotment will be more than $8,200 — Tarim will make 15 percent off the top. If Woodland’s projected enrollment of 260 students is accurate, Tarim will make more than $300,000.

Can this happen in Tennessee?

Yes. Interestingly, the legislation creating the state charter authorizer also contains a provision specifically related to H1B visas — the same program used by Tarim at schools in Texas and contemplated in Alabama. Here’s that provision:

(1) An authorizer may deny a public charter school application if the
proposed public charter school plans to staff positions for teachers,
administrators, ancillary support personnel, or other employees by utilizing, or
otherwise relying on, nonimmigrant foreign worker H1B or J1 visa programs in
excess of three and one half percent (3.5%) of the total number of positions at
any single public charter school location for any school year.
(2) Notwithstanding subdivision (d)(1), an authorizer shall not deny a
public charter school application solely because the proposed public charter
school plans to exceed the limitation in subdivision (d)(1) by employing foreign
language instructors who, prior to employment, meet and, during the period for
which the instructors’ H1B or J1 visas have been granted, will meet all
Tennessee educator licensure requirements. If an authorizer denies a public
charter school application under this subsection (d), then the sponsor may
appeal the authorizer’s decision to deny the application as provided in subsection
(b).

Why would Tennessee’s proposed law contemplate this specific issue? The case out of Alabama should be alarming. We’re told again and again that Tennessee’s authorizer will be different, that our law builds in accountability. The Alabama law did the same thing and look what happened. Moreover, the law as proposed in Tennessee — with its H1B provisions — would make Soner Tarim smile.

Tennessee lawmakers would do well to look to Alabama for what could go wrong.

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Gardenhire Opposition Puts Vouchers in Doubt

Andy Sher of the Chattanooga Times-Free Press reports that Senator Todd Gardenhire will vote NO on vouchers when Governor Bill Lee’s ESA plan hits the Senate Finance Committee tomorrow. The revelation could spell trouble for Lee’s plan, according to Sher.

Here’s more:

“A week and a half ago, the governor asked to meet with me on another bill,” Gardenhire said. “I told him I was not for the voucher bill, but I’d carried every voucher bill for the past six years. But this was one I could not go along with.”

Among the reasons Gardenhire gave for opposing the current measure are the exclusion of undocumented immigrants and the fact that Lee didn’t consult Hamilton County lawmakers before initiating his proposal.

“Nobody asked any of the legislators at all that I know of for any input,” Gardenhire said. “They just decided just to come up with this plan.”

Gardenhire’s promise of a NO vote comes as parents prepare to descend on the Capitol to express support for public schools and opposition to vouchers. The bill is scheduled for votes in both the Senate and House Finance Committees on Tuesday.

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Bill Lee’s Buddy

At an invitation-only meeting with Bill Lee and Betsy DeVos — a meeting featuring no teachers or public school administrators — a man named Douglas Jahner is in attendance. Jahner is also a frequent commenter on this page, often criticizing public schools while claiming superhero status for his own advocacy of school privatization.

Erik Schelzig tagged a photo of all who attended. Among those not invited, according to Chalkbeat, was the Executive Director of Tennessee’s State Board of Education.

Over in the comments section of this post, Jahner makes an interesting comment:

Doug Jahner April 12, 2019 at 2:38 pm (Edit)

What a screwed up system whereby we open our wallets for illegal alien children yet we forbid legal neighbor child Johnny from education tax dollars simply because he goes to s school not approved by education unions.

Jahner here is encouraging the violation of what DeVos ultimately called “settled law” after her own mishap on the issue.

For all his commentary on support for “all children,” Jahner – a man close enough to Lee to get an invite to a closed door meeting with the U.S. Secretary of Education — appears to only support education for those children he finds worthy of his approval.

So far, the Senate version of Lee’s voucher plan appears to side with Jahner’s unconstitutional view of school attendance. No word from Lee on whether he backs his buddy on this one.

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TNReady for Vouchers

This week is shaping up to be huge for education policy in Tennessee. Tomorrow, the TNReady testing window opens — while many will take pencil and paper tests, there will be significant numbers of students taking online TNReady. Our current Commissioner of Education is not quite sure how that will go.

If you’re an educator, student, or parent and you get wind of TNReady trouble this week, let me know ASAP: andy@tnedreport.com

Of course, during this busy week for our schools and teachers, legislators have planned key votes on voucher legislation. Governor Bill Lee’s “education savings account” voucher scheme will be voted on in the House and Senate Finance Committees on Tuesday. That’s the final step in both bodies before the bill hits the floor, likely the week of April 22nd.

A group of parents and teachers is planning a series of events tomorrow in order to protest the movement on vouchers.

Meanwhile, if you have any great voucher, charter, or TNReady memes, send them my way at andy@tnedreport.com

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Parents, Teachers Speak Out on Vouchers

As Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher proposal advances through the legislative process and, at least in the Senate, grows to cost significantly more money while reducing accountability, parents around the state are rising up and speaking out against the plan.

Chalkbeat reports on an event in Nashville on Tuesday where parents and teachers expressed opposition to vouchers and also indicated another demonstration was forthcoming.


“What this plan is going to do is take money from over 90 percent of our kids and give it to just a few,” said Lauren Sorensen, a Knox County teacher who helped organize the event.


“Our legislators actually have a constitutional duty in Tennessee to maintain and support a public education. They have no duty to support private education. And simply put, they are not doing their jobs,” Sorensen said.


The rally drew parents too, including Patty Daniel whose two children attend public schools in Williamson County, near Nashville.


“All of the parents I know do not want vouchers, and we are baffled as to why some of our elected officials are so intent on pushing this bill,” Daniel said. “I feel like they are listening to high-powered lobbying groups and not to actual parents and teachers.”

Daniel’s statement is right on the money, literally. Key legislative leaders received significant financial support from pro-privatization groups like the Tennessee Federation for Children and Tennessee CAN.

Meanwhile, dark money groups like Tennesseans for Student Success are attacking any Republicans who deviate from support for Lee’s voucher scheme. Even embattled state Rep. David Byrd, an admitted sex offender, faced attacks and repercussions from legislative leadership — not for his bad behavior but for his vote against vouchers.

The latest version of the plan will now cost a minimum of $219 million at full implementation. That’s enough money to give every teacher in the state a pay raise of around 7.5%.

Debate is sure to heat up in the next two weeks as the proposal moves toward a likely floor vote in both the House and Senate.

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Voucher Expansion

Opponents of Governor Bill Lee’s school voucher scheme have long argued that once the program starts, it will expand significantly and take up ever larger chunks of state education funding. Turns out, the plan hasn’t even been enacted yet and it is already expanding.

Erik Schelzig of the Tennessee Journal reports that the Senate will consider an amendment that would allow the program to grow to 30,000 and will include homeschool students:


Just as in the House bill, the program would be capped at 5,000 students in the first year, followed by increments of 2,500 in the next four years. But while the lower chamber’s bill envisions limiting the pilot program at 15,000, the Senate bill would continue to allow the program to grow by 2,500 students each ensuing year until it reaches an enrollment of 30,000.

At today’s funding levels, that’s a total annual cost of $219 million at full implementation. That’s $219 million NOT available to fill in the gaps of the BEP or raise teacher pay, for example.

Additionally, the Senate envisions removing the requirement that students receiving voucher dollars take at least the math and ELA parts of TNReady. Instead, schools could administer a nationally norm-referenced test of their choosing.

Ironically, education advocates have for years suggested the state allow local school districts the flexibility to choose an alternative test to replace the failed TNReady. Instead, education policy leaders in our state stubbornly hold on to the idea that everything will eventually be “just fine” with testing.

As of this writing, the House version passed another subcommittee on the march toward the House floor. The Senate is scheduled to take up the expanded version this afternoon.

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Byrd Attack

Governor Bill Lee failed to call on admitted sex offender and state Rep. David Byrd to step down from his leadership post on an education subcommittee following a meeting between Lee and one of Byrd’s accusers. However, Lee’s henchman, House Speaker Glen Casada, removed Byrd from his leadership post following Byrd’s vote in opposition to Lee’s school voucher scheme. Now, a group funded by Bill Lee is attacking Byrd with online ads.

The Tennessee Federation for Children, the Tennessee affiliate of Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children, is running ads accusing Byrd of refusing to stand with President Trump and Governor Lee on vouchers.

Before he was elected Governor, Lee gave thousands of dollars to the Tennessee Federation for Children and wrote pieces in favor of school vouchers. Once elected, he hired the former state director of TFC as his policy director.

The message is clear: If you oppose Bill Lee’s school privatization agenda, you’ll face the wrath of dark money political organizations funded by Lee. The attacks on Byrd come after another dark money group, Tennesseans for Student Success, spent money attacking House Education Republicans who stood in the way of Lee’s state charter authorizer. That plan is a way for Lee and his privatizing profiteers to circumvent local school boards and force charters where they aren’t wanted and don’t belong.

The next two to three weeks will be pivotal in the fight for Tennessee’s public schools.

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

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Sick

A Tennessee teacher writes about the education policies that make her sick.

I’m sick.

Sick of my students being over-tested and our schools being underfunded.

Sick of teachers leaving the profession because they are underpaid and undervalued.

Sick of Tennessee being 45th in the nation in per pupil funding. 

Sick of being disrespected by a Governor who has proposed increasing state funding for unaccountable charter schools by 100% while only increasing funding for teachers by 2%.

And how I feel is only going to get worse if the state government passes voucher legislation, which will further drain the resources our students need from public schools and hand them over to unaccountable private companies.

That’s why there’s a movement of teachers planning on calling in sick on Tuesday, April 9th to travel to Nashville and flood the capitol.

We plan on letting our state’s politicians know just how sick we are. And we plan on making it clear to them: the war on public education in Tennessee ends now.

I’m a member of the Tennessee Education Association, but I know that there are many in the state leadership who think that collective action is too aggressive and premature. They still believe that we can work amicably with state politicians. I disagree.

Anyone still entertaining that idea should have had a rude awakening last week when Betsy DeVos visited our state and held closed door meetings with privatizers and politicians.

Several months back, when Governor Lee announced his unfortunate choice for the TN Commissioner of Education, I publicly stated that he had declared war on public education. Some may have thought that was a bit dramatic. However, the Governor wouldn’t have invited the most vilified Secretary of Education in history to the state if he didn’t plan on dropping an atomic bomb on public education. His voucher and charter bills are just that.

With the backing of ALEC and Betsy DeVos those devastating bills will pass unless teachers wake up and do something drastic. Millions upon millions of dollars will be drained from public education and siphoned away from our students.

How do I know this? Because it was perfectly ok to have an admitted child predator be the chair of the House Education Committee until he voted against the voucher bill. Only then was he no longer fit to be the chair.

Strong arm tactics are running rampant and the writing is on the wall.

The go-along to get-along approach of the state teachers association, which means working with the enemies of public education, has been a pipe dream for almost a decade, and it’s time for teachers to wake up. All the emailing and phone calls in the world won’t stop politicians bankrolled by billionaires like the Koch brothers and DeVos family from pursuing devastating legislation that hurts our schools, students, and communities.

Over the last year, I have watched educators in one state after another rise up, take their power back, and force legislators to actually represent THEM and not privatizers. It didn’t matter that the strikes were illegal or sick-outs were risky. When educators stick together and have the backing of the community, they can make real change possible. Teachers can take on billionaires and win. They already have in other states.

In my opinion, the only thing that will stop this insanity is for teachers to walk out. Shut it down. Take back our schools. Take back our profession. Do our job……. and fight for our kids.

I hope to see you in the capitol on Tuesday, April 9.

Lauren Sorensen is a second grade teacher at Halls Elementary School in Knox County and a former president of the Knox County Education Association.

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



Bill Lee and the Voucher Toilet

Knoxville columnist Frank Cagle has some thoughts on Bill Lee’s voucher scheme. To be clear, Cagle thinks it’s a very bad idea. This is because Cagle has actually read evidence and understands basic math — two concepts that seem to escape many at the legislature.

Here’s some of what Cagle has to say:


The plan issues a debit card with $7,300 on it and the parent can spend it on anything deemed “educational.” Field trip to Disney World? A flat-screen TV study aid? These programs have been found to be infested with fraud and abuse elsewhere. Who in Tennessee will police the program and find out if it is being abused? Is the Comptroller’s Office supposed to audit 15,000 students? And who decides if a questionable item is an “educational expense?” An audit of the program in Arizona revealed parents misspent $700,000 in one year.


The plan uses one-time general fund money to set it up and to fool people that the ultimate cost won’t come out of the existing education budget. By 2025 Lee would have spent $125 million to have a program in place for 15,000 students. It is unlikely that the administration would spend this kind of money to set up this program if it did not plan to expand it exponentially. At that point BEP funds to local school systems will be cut to pay for the vouchers. The only thing one can conclude is that this plan will gradually disburse funds to parents to send students to private schools, education funding from the state will be cut to pay for it and the end result is not a happy outcome for public schools.

Cagle is exactly right — the plan is expensive, with a 10-year cost approaching $1 billion. Yes, Bill Lee wants to devote $1 billion of taxpayer money to funding unaccountable private schools even though similar schemes in other states have yet to yield positive results.

Finally, Cagle notes that legislators are being punished by legislative leadership for opposing vouchers. Cagle notes that admitted sex offender David Byrd was given a subcommittee chairmanship, but had that honor stripped after he opposed Lee’s voucher plan. That’s how Glen Casada governs Tennessee’s House of Representatives — admitting to being a sex offender is all well and good, but when you get in the way of Bill Lee’s plan to privatize Tennessee’s public schools, you are suddenly unfit to lead.

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