$300 Million

Here are some interesting facts about Wisconsin’s school voucher program. These could be relevant here as Tennessee’s plan is estimated to cost as much as $300 million when fully implemented. Ask yourself: What happens when $300 million is no longer available for the BEP?

2019: 38,862 students at 284 schools statewide receive publicly funded vouchers to attend private schools in 2018-2019. Total cost: $311,470,259.04 (estimated).

Compare to 2018: 35,420 students at 240 school statewide received vouchers in 2017-2018. Total cost of vouchers in 2017-2018: 274,003,172.65 (estimated).

Over 55% of the entire student population of participating schools receive vouchers in 2018.

Only 28% of students receiving vouchers ever attended a public school.

Every year, the enrollment cap is increased by 1% of the local public school district’s enrollment, allowing more students to enter the program. In the 2026 school year, that cap is set in state law to come off entirely.

Students receiving vouchers in 2018-2019 must qualify by income. For the statewide program, that’s 220% of poverty; for the Milwaukee and Racine programs, it’s 300% of poverty. In contrast, students who qualify for Free & Reduced Lunch in public schools must meet at 185% poverty threshold.

Source: Department of Public Instruction
https://dpi.wi.gov/sms/choice-programs/data

Can Tennessee afford a $300 million voucher scheme that Bill Lee wants to fast track?

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Honest Answers

Read to be Ready is a statewide reading initiative focused on early grades. The Tennessee Department of Education describes the importance of the initiative this way:


Tennessee has made tremendous gains in student performance over the past several years – except in reading. Despite our educators’ best efforts, reading skills in elementary school learners have failed to improve, and in some cases have even declined. But these abilities are some of the most important ones our students need, and they are foundational to their success.

In discussing the urgency around improving reading results, the DOE says:


We have different vision for the future. We not only want to teach our children to read – we want to develop them into the thinkers, problem-solvers, lifelong learners, and future leaders of Tennessee. And it will take all of us to get there.

All of this sounds great — and reading is certainly very important for all students. Here’s a rubric for a first grade end-of-unit task:

Now, let’s imagine what would happen if first-graders gave honest answers in this brochure. For example, let’s think about the section that “explains the responsibilities of different leaders in Tennessee’s government.”

A first grade student from Franklin might write:

My state representative is Glen Casada. He used to be the Speaker with the big gavel. Then, he resigned because he framed a civil rights activist. He also hired a Chief of Staff who did cocaine on his desk at 10 AM on a Tuesday and had sex in a hot chicken restaurant for about a minute.

Meanwhile, a first-grader from Waynesboro could note:

My state representative is David Byrd. He was a teacher who admitted to inappropriate sexual contact with his students. They let him keep teaching and he even chaired a committee on education policy. People here re-elected him because he goes to the nice church and has the letter “R” after his name. I’ve heard he’s friends with a guy named Casada.

Over in Hohenwald, students in first grade could laud the exploits of state Senator Joey Hensley:

My Senator has been married four times and he got in trouble because he liked a girl who was also his second cousin. He even gave her drugs.

In Cleveland, a first grader might say:

My Congressman is a man named Scott Desjarlais. He’s had many mistresses and even though he says he’s “Pro-Life,” he’s supported abortions for the women he sleeps with.

Anywhere in Tennessee, first-graders could suggest:

Tennessee’s Governor is a man named Bill Lee who fixes air conditioners. He likes to wear plaid shirts a lot and pretend to care about rural Tennessee — like where I live. But, he’s supporting plans to underfund rural schools by sending money to vouchers. He also doesn’t seem to mind that hospitals all across our state are closing.

When discussing all the things Tennessee produces, students might say:

Our state is a national leader. We’re the best in rural hospital closures, we have the highest rate of medical debt, and we have more people working at the minimum wage (like my parents) than anywhere else.

We’re first in a lot of categories like that. We also do a lot to make sure it’s difficult for people to vote.

Oh, and 21 of our counties don’t even have an emergency room — that must be great, to not have any emergencies there.


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Turns Out, It’s the Poverty

A recently released study on student achievement confirms what any teacher will tell you: Poverty matters. In fact, it matters a great deal. It seems the only people who don’t realize this are those making education policy — and Tennessee’s policy makers are among the worst at denying the reality of the situation.

Here’s more from the Washington Post:


High concentrations of poverty, not racial segregation, entirely account for the racial achievement gap in U.S. schools, a new study finds.


The research, released Monday, looked at the achievement gap between white students, who tend to have higher scores, and black and Hispanic students, who tend to have lower scores. Researchers with Stanford University wanted to know whether those gaps are driven by widespread segregation in schools or something else.


They found that the gaps were “completely accounted for” by poverty, with students in high-poverty schools performing worse than those from schools with children from wealthier families.

This isn’t actually news — but it is interesting to have such a comprehensive academic study confirming the importance of addressing poverty as a key driver of improving education outcomes.

I’ve written about this on a Tennessee-specific level before, especially as it relates to state testing and the ACT:


An analysis of TCAP performance over time indicates that those school systems with consistently high levels of poverty tend to have consistently low scores on TCAP. Likewise, those systems with the least amount of poverty tend to have consistently higher scores on TCAP.


One possible explanation for the expanding achievement gap is the investment gap among districts. That is, those districts with lower levels of poverty (the ones scoring higher on TCAP) also tend to invest funds in their schools well above what the state funding formula (BEP) generates. The top ten districts on TCAP performance spend 20% or more above what the BEP formula generates. By contrast, the bottom 10 districts spend 5% or less above the formula dollars.

In other words, money matters. Districts with concentrated poverty face two challenges: Students with significant economic needs AND the inability of the district to generate the revenue necessary to adequately invest in schools.

The Achievement School District’s first Superintendent, Chris Barbic, referenced this challenge as he was leaving the job:


As part of his announcement, he had this to say about turning around high-poverty, district schools:


In his email early Friday, Barbic offered a dim prognosis on that pioneering approach. “As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results,” he wrote. “I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.”

While state policymakers adopt misguided “reforms” like A-F school report cards and expensive voucher schemes, children in poverty remain in poverty. Interestingly, the State Report Card holds schools accountable for closing achievement gaps:


Under Tennessee’s accountability system, districts must increase achievement levels for all students and show faster growth in achievement for the students who are furthest behind in order to narrow achievement gaps.

At best, this policy is well-intentioned but misguided. A more cynical look at the policy reality would conclude that legislators simply don’t want to admit the real problem because dealing with it would be politically difficult.

Addressing poverty would mean providing access to jobs that pay a living wage as well as ensuring every Tennessean had access to health care. Our state leads the nation in number of people working at the minimum wage. We lead the nation in medical debt. We continue to refuse Medicaid expansion and most of our elected leaders at the federal level are resisting the push for Medicare for All.

Governor Bill Lee’s idea is to provide vouchers. Of course, all the evidence indicates vouchers just don’t work — they don’t improve student achievement. They do, however, take money from the public schools.

Bill Lee and his legislative allies are the latest to stick their heads in the sand and ignore the plight of the least among us. All the while, these same leaders expect teachers and school districts to do more with nothing.

Sadly, ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. Instead, like yet another disappointing UT football season, it will just keep getting worse.

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Hot Chicken, Sex, and Vouchers

Originally published in The Progressive, this piece tells the story of the ongoing battle over vouchers in Tennessee:

After a years-long fight, the Tennessee General Assembly and Governor Bill Lee finally succeeded in establishing a school voucher scheme for the state. Lee made vouchers the signature piece of his legislative agenda during the 2019 session, and his push proved pivotal. The so-called Education Savings Account plan passed the state House of Representatives in April by just one vote

The story of how Tennessee became the latest state to succumb to the Betsy DeVos-backed voucher craze involves more than just an earnest first-term governor using his political goodwill to secure passage of controversial legislation. There’s an ongoing FBI probe. There’s a scandal that took down the pro-voucher House Speaker featuring cocaine and texts about a sexual encounter in a hot chicken restaurant

Lee’s zeal to create and implement a voucher plan a year ahead of schedule—despite all of this controversy and in the face of public opposition—now threatens to divide the Republican supermajority in the state’s political leadership. In fact, on August 23, the House chose an avowed voucher opponent, former GOP Caucus Chair Cameron Sexton, as a new Speaker. Sexton voted against Lee’s plan, and is now expressing opposition to Lee’s plan to accelerate the program.

Does any of this give Bill Lee pause? Not at all. The former head of a heating and air conditioning company he inherited from his family, Lee is used to getting his way. Now, his allies at the American Federation for Children (more about them soon) are using online ads to attack Republican lawmakers who opposed vouchers.

Just to be clear: The Republican Governor of Tennessee is attacking Republican lawmakers (who support most of his agenda) simply because these lawmakers voted against a voucher plan that is now state law and will soon be implemented. 


Why is Lee so adamant about vouchers that he would take out members of his own team? First, he’s been committed to vouchers for some time. In 2016 he wrote of his voucher plan, “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.”

Never mind that the evidence suggests vouchers actually cause students to lose ground academically. Bill Lee likes them and he’s going to do all he can to see them implemented—even if that puts him at odds with the new house speaker.

Second, his top policy advisers come from pro-voucher groups. His legislative affairs director is the former state director of TennesseeCAN, and before that headed up StudentsFirst in the state. Both of those organizations are longtime supporters of “school choice” in all its forms. His policy director came to the governor’s office after having served as Tennessee state director of American Federation for Children, an organization Betsy DeVos co-founded and once led.

Third, it’s about money. Records at the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance indicate StudentsFirst spent more than $200,000 lobbying the legislature on school choice in 2014 (when Lee’s current Legislative Affairs Director was heading the group). Additionally, the group spent nearly $600,000 on legislative campaigns that year by way of a political action committee. Likewise, in 2018, the Tennessee arm of American Federation for Children spent just over $250,000 on campaigns. 

That’s a lot of campaign money going out, but where does all the public money these vouchers will spend end up going?

Well, roughly one month after the voucher bill was signed into law, a North Carolina-based private school announced plans to expand into Nashville. The school, Thales Academy, notes it does not offer transportation, a cafeteria, athletic programs, or special education services. They will, however, accept Tennessee tax dollars to pay for student tuition. 

Closer to home, perhaps, is the private school affiliated with the church Lee attends. The school, Grace Christian Academy,  recently expanded and now offers a full K-12 experience for students. 

This type of opportunistic expansion is just what new House Speaker Sexton warned about in an address to a local school board in his district back in 2017:

“For Sexton, the vouchers offer ‘false hope’ because the vouchers can’t cover the entire cost of private school tuition,” reported the Crossville Chronicle at the time. “That could lead to a boom of private for-profit schools opening that would accept the voucher funds, ‘which may or may not be great schools,’ Sexton said.”

Turns out, Sexton was right on target. Now, he’s at odds with a governor from his own party. Based on how Lee has treated others who have opposed his aggressive school privatization agenda, Sexton may be the next in line to receive “friendly fire.”

The question going forward will be whether Sexton can navigate his House colleagues toward a long-term solution that favors public schools as he suggested soon after being appointed as speaker: “We should do everything we can to improve all public schools in the state of Tennessee so they can be successful,” he said. “I would rather go that route than the voucher route.”

Or, will Sexton become a victim of the forces of privatization led by the likes of Betsy DeVos and Bill Lee and backed by seemingly endless funding? 

The result of this internecine struggle over vouchers in Tennessee could determine how the GOP addresses the issue across the country. 


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Not Good Execution

Chalkbeat has the story of a letter sent to parents around the state based on guidance from the Tennessee Department of Education:


The letters inform parents that, based on state systems for rating school performance, their school has been targeted to receive additional federal resources and support because a historically underserved group of students within the school is in the state’s bottom 5% for that group. And based on guidance provided to districts by the state Education Department, most districts are telling parents which student group or groups are struggling.


“Specifically, Cedar Bluff is a Targeted Support and Improvement school based on the following student groups: Black student ethnic/racial group,” says one letter sent to parents of students at Cedar Bluff Middle School, a Knoxville school that is mostly white.


Other letters have identified Hispanic students as the source of the designation, as well as students who have disabilities, are economically disadvantaged, or are English language learners.

While lawmakers and advocacy groups have criticized the move, the Tennessee Department of Education’s Director of Communications, Jennifer Johnson, had this to say:

“This was not good execution of a template letter and goes beyond the scope of what the federal law requires,” acknowledged Jennifer Johnson, a state spokeswoman. She added that the matter will be reviewed by the Education Department.

So, Jennifer Johnson, who is in charge of communication for the state department of education is indicating that information was not communicated well by the state.

No matter what the review finds, the damage is already done. Seems like someone tasked with overseeing communication at the state level would be tuned-in to how a message might sound.

Not good execution could, in fact, describe pretty much all of Governor Bill Lee’s term so far — from an FBI probe into the vote on his voucher bill to shafting teachers while boosting charter schools.

Will the man who inherited a successful HVAC company ever learn to actually be Governor? It’s not looking good.

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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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