Where Bill Stands

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was in Nashville today to offer support for Governor Bill Lee’s plan to use public money to fund private schools.

Chalkbeat has more:

“I’m really cheering the governor and all of the legislators on here,” DeVos told reporters during a brief news conference at LEAD Cameron, a middle school operated by a Nashville-based charter network.

“School choice and education freedom is on the march,” she added.

One of Lee’s proposals would start a new type of education voucher program in Tennessee, and the other would create a state commission with the power to open charter schools anywhere across Tennessee through an appeals process.

While evidence from states around the country indicates that vouchers simply don’t improve student achievement, Lee has pushed forward with a plan known as Education Savings Accounts, a type of “voucher” particularly susceptible to fraud.

Lee’s plan is expected to cost at least $125 million a year by the time it is fully implemented, three years from now. It’s likely the plan will effectively create a “voucher school district” and result in local tax increases as a result of money moved from the state’s school funding formula (BEP) to the voucher scheme.

Lee has long been a supporter of DeVos and her anti-public school organization American Federation for Children. In fact, Lee hired a former AFC staffer to a senior role in his administration.

In addition to vouchers, Lee is also pushing a state charter school authorizer plan that would usurp the authority of local school boards and create a climate similar to the one in Arizona, where the charter industry has been riddled with fraud.

Legislators who oppose Lee’s school privatization agenda have been punished by ads from dark money group Tennesseans for Student Success and also have lost key leadership roles.

Lee’s voucher scheme is moving through the legislative process, passing a key House committee today and heading toward a likely floor vote near the end of April.

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Voucher Vulture Set to Descend on Nashville

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee is putting on the full court press in his quest to voucherize our state’s public schools. He’s got allies like dark money group “Tennesseans for Student Success” putting out hit pieces on voucher opponents, and on Monday, he’ll have Education Secretary Betsy DeVos appearing with him at a school choice event in Nashville.

DeVos is perhaps best known for her irrational fear of grizzly bear attacks on schools. Just last week, she appeared before a congressional committee and suggested larger class sizes are good for student learning, despite citing no evidence for that claim.

Now, she’s headed to the Volunteer State to offer up opinions on why Tennessee should adopt the type of voucher scheme most susceptible to fraud and least likely to improve student achievement.

It’s no surprise Lee and DeVos will be joining forces to sing the praises of using taxpayer dollars to fund unaccountable private schools. Soon after winning the governor’s race, Lee named two key DeVos disciples to leadership roles in his administration. Lee also has a track record of backing the DeVos privatization organization.

It should be clear by now that Bill Lee is determined to bring a failed model of “free market” education to Tennessee. Here’s more on what the DeVos agenda brought to Michigan:


Chaos. Uncertainty. Instability. That’s what a free market approach to public education brought Detroit. And, sadly, it also resulted in academic outcomes even worse than those expected in one of the worst public school districts in the country.


Choice advocates would have us believe that having more options will lead to innovation and force the local district to improve or close schools. Instead, in the case of Detroit, it led to chaos. The same fate could be visited upon other large, urban districts who fall into the free market education trap. Another unfortunate lesson from Detroit: Once you open the door, it’s very, very difficult to close.

Bill Lee is pulling out all the stops on an agenda that is destructive to public education and insulting to our state’s teachers. Perhaps his joint appearance with DeVos will convince any doubters of Lee’s true colors. Until then, here’s a message for DeVos:

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Hotbed of Socialism

You might not think the House Republican Caucus of the Tennessee General Assembly is a hotbed of socialism, but Rep. Bill Dunn clearly does. In his opening remarks in support of HB939 — Governor Lee’s school voucher proposal — Dunn likened opponents of the plan to socialists.

Here’s more from the Nashville Scene on Dunn’s remarks:

Despite the bipartisan nature of the opposition, the bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, was quick to inject partisan politics into the debate. In an opening statement, he said Donald Trump and Mike Pence support ESAs while “Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and other socialists” oppose it. Later, he compared education savings accounts to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Dunn’s remarks are noteworthy as four of the nine “no” votes on the bill came from his fellow Republicans. Additionally, one other Republican, Kirk Haston, was “present but not voting” and noted he’s not in favor of the bill.

That makes five potential socialists in the GOP caucus. Further expanding on Dunn’s remarks, perhaps Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders could find support among the Republican members of the House Education Committee? One also wonders if their are more socialists hiding in the midst of the TNGOP. It’s a perfect cover, really.

For more on all the excitement that was Wednesday’s committee hearing on vouchers, check out TN Holler for video clips.

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TN CEC Opposes Vouchers

The Tennessee Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) has announced opposition to school vouchers even as the legislative debate on the issue moves forward. Here’s a general statement from CEC on vouchers and an explanation of the reasons for CEC’s opposition.

CEC opposes school vouchers for children and youth and those with disabilities as being contrary to the best interests of children and youth and their families, the public school system, local communities, and taxpayers. Further, CEC believes that vouchers both contradict and undermine central purposes of civil rights laws designed to protect children and youth with disabilities

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Bye Bye Byrd

Admitted sex offender David Byrd is out as chair of a House Education subcommittee just one day after his vote against Governor Bill Lee’s school voucher plan. While some had speculated Byrd might vote in favor of vouchers in exchange for cover from Lee, Byrd voted NO on Lee’s plan yesterday in the full House Education Committee.

The move to oust Byrd comes after months of controversy surrounding his appointment to the post. Speaker Glen Casada and Governor Bill Lee backed Byrd despite calls from the public for him to resign. In 2018, both Lt. Governor Randy McNally and then-House Speaker Beth Harwell called on Byrd to resign from the General Assembly. Instead, he ran for re-election and won, then was appointed by Casada to a subcommittee chairmanship.

The Tennessean reports on Byrd’s removal:

Citing bipartisan concerns over the controversy surrounding Rep. David Byrd, House Speaker Glen Casada has removed the Waynesboro Republican from his chairmanship of an education subcommittee.  

The move, announced by Casada on Thursday, comes just two months after the speaker appointed Byrd — who has faced allegations that he sexually assaulted three women in the 1980s — to serve as chairman of the House Education Administration Subcommittee.

“Following discussions with members of the House and after careful consideration, I have formally asked Representative Byrd to step down from his position as chairman of the House Education Administration Subcommittee,” the speaker said in a statement.

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Bill Lee’s Charter Quest

Governor Bill Lee is pushing aggressively to privatize Tennessee schools — both by creating a new, unaccountable voucher scheme and by expanding the reach of charter schools in our state.

This story out of California should give policymakers pause as they explore the possibility of more charter schools across the state, even in districts where the local school board is not consulted.

Here’s a quick summary:

“The warning signs appeared soon after Denise Kawamoto accepted a job at Today’s Fresh Start Charter School in South Los Angeles. Though she was fresh out of college, she was pretty sure it wasn’t normal for the school to churn so quickly through teachers or to mount surveillance cameras in each classroom. Old computers were lying around, but the campus had no internet access. Pay was low and supplies scarce — she wasn’t given books for her students. She struggled to reconcile the school’s conditions with what little she knew about its wealthy founders, Clark and Jeanette Parker of Beverly Hills. The Parkers have cast themselves as selfless philanthropists, telling the California Board of Education that they have ‘devoted all of our lives to the education of other people’s children, committed many millions of our own dollars directly to that particular purpose, with no gain directly to us.’ But the couple have, in fact, made millions from their charter schools. Financial records show the Parkers’ schools have paid more than $800,000 annually to rent buildings the couple own. The charters have contracted out services to the Parkers’ nonprofits and companies and paid Clark Parker generous consulting fees, all with taxpayer money, a Times investigation found. How the Parkers have stayed in business, surviving years of allegations of financial and academic wrongdoing, illustrates glaring flaws in the way California oversees its growing number of charter schools. Many of the people responsible for regulating the couple’s schools, including school board members and state elected officials, had accepted thousands of dollars from the Parkers in campaign contributions.”

This is exactly the type of abuse of the system that could be on the way to the Volunteer State if Lee’s proposals become law. Key votes are coming in the next few weeks. Stay tuned …

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Bill Lee’s Arizona Dream

Governor Bill Lee is moving to create a state charter school authorizer that would usurp the authority of local school boards. The plan would allow charter operators to apply directly to the state board rather than utilizing the local and state accountability measures currently in place in Tennessee.

The idea is strikingly similar to the state authorizer that helped start charter schools in Arizona in the 1990s. I’ve included some excerpts of the Arizona Republic’s reporting on charter schools in that state. The state authorizer has proven to be an avenue for shady operators to gain access to public funds for nefarious purposes. Perhaps the same fate awaits Tennessee should lawmakers travel down this road.

On a state authorizer:

It provided that charter schools could be established to improve student achievement and provide additional academic choices.At the recommendation of a friend in Colorado, it created the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools.

The board was given conflicting responsibilities: Not only would it oversee the new schools, it would also promote them.

Early Fraud:

Citizen 2000 was one of Arizona’s original 46 charter schools. Its founder and operator, Lawndia White Venerable, claimed that almost 500 students had signed up. It looked like an early success story for a charter that was on its way to becoming a longstanding institution.


A few months into the school’s first year, state officials opened an investigation into the school. A state audit said Venerable had used more than $126,000 in state money to buy jewelry and to make a down payment on her mother’s house. The state Board of Education review found the school violated record-keeping, cash-control and bidding rules. Its enrollment figures had been inflated.

And Now:

For example, Damian Creamer paid himself $10.1 million the past two years running Primavera online charter school, where state records show 49 percent of the kids dropout. State lawmaker Eddie Farnsworth will make $13.9 million selling his Benjamin Franklin charter schools to a non-profit company he created. And American Leadership Academy founder Glenn Way made at least $18.4 million from no-bid contracts to build classrooms for ALA.

When you combine his desire for a state charter authorizer with his push for vouchers, it seems clear Bill Lee is working overtime to undermine Tennessee public schools.

The Tennessee General Assembly can, of course, oppose these privatization efforts. Key votes are happening on both fronts in the coming days. Stay tuned …

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Lee Laments Inability to Articulate a Clear Message

Despite dressing up in farmer clothes and standing next to actual farm equipment every Saturday, Bill Lee still hasn’t been able to overcome significant skepticism about his scheme to use public funds to pay for private schools — a plan he’s calling “Education Savings Accounts.”

Erik Schelzig of Tennessee Journal has more on Lee’s bafflement over school voucher messaging gone awry:


But a lot of the confusion about the proposal comes from members of Lee’s own party. For example, freshman Rep. Robin Smith (R-Hixson) took to twitter to declare a news account a “pure lie” for stating the education savings account, or ESA, program would also apply to students who don’t currently attend failing schools. It would.


Fellow freshman Rep. Scott Cepicky (R-Columbia), a member of the House Education Committee scheduled to vote on the bill this week, said in a Facebook post that “because of the risk of fraud, as seen in other states with Educational Savings Accounts, homeschooling is not allowed in this bill.”


That’s in contrast to what Lee said last week when reporters asked him whether home-schooling would qualify for the ESAs.
If a family is in the district that qualifies, and they are currently in a public school, then they would qualify for an ESA,” Lee said.

Here are some important facts about Governor Lee’s voucher people from the Tennessee School Boards Association – a group that has actually read the bill. It’s not yet clear whether Lee has, in fact, read his own bill or even if members of his own party are reading actual legislation, or just spouting off talking points in order to confuse the issue.

What is clear: Bill Lee and his “team” aren’t quite on the same page. Of course, it may not matter, as they seem to have some tricks up their sleeves.


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Byrd in the Hand

Bill Lee has had his eye on the privatizing of Tennessee public schools long before he became Governor. However, when he announced his “Education Savings Account” plan along with a state charter authorizer that would undermine local school boards, many predicted he’d face some difficulty this legislative session. Turns out, Lee may have a Byrd in the hand by way of a clever move to gain a vote for his ill-designed plan.

Recently, Governor Lee met with one of the women who has accused state representative David Byrd of inappropriate sexual conduct when he was her high school basketball coach. Byrd apologized directly and has not denied the conduct. Lee refused to condemn Byrd or suggest he resign. This despite former House Speaker Beth Harwell calling on Byrd to resign and current Lt. Governor Randy McNally have called for Byrd’s resignation in 2018 and more recently, suggesting an ethics investigation might be in order.

Why is Bill Lee reluctant to make a strong statement on Byrd? Well, Erik Schelzig of Tennessee Journal may have the answer:

The charter authorizer bill advanced out of that committee on a 13-9 vote, but only after House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) came to the panel to personally intervene. Casada was able to get several freshman Republican who voiced concerns about the measure to get on board.

The bill also got the support of embattled Rep. David Byrd (R-Waynesboro), whom school choice advocates have tried for years to to defeat because of his support for traditional public schools.

By all accounts, Lee is working overtime to get the votes he needs to pass his voucher plan. With Byrd’s support, Lee may be able to move the plan one step closer to final passage. Some have suggested Lee won’t criticize Byrd as long as Byrd goes along with a plan to devastate the state’s public school systems.

The next vote on vouchers is Wednesday at 8:00 AM in the full House Education Committee. David Byrd sits on that committee and his vote could be pivotal. Does Bill Lee really have a Byrd in the hand?

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