We Need a Bigger Pie

The League of Women Voters (LWV) is calling on Gov. Bill Lee and the Tennessee General Assembly to take bold action on school funding. The group notes that the state historically underfunds schools and suggests that now is the time to change that reality. In fact, the push from the LWV comes as the state is experiencing an unprecedented revenue surplus.

Here’s more from LWV from a media release:

Chronically underfunded school districts throughout the  state have been especially challenged during the pandemic. However, the inadequacies and  the gross underfunding predate this stressful year. Tennessee currently funds its public school  system at a level that consistently places it in the bottom five most poorly funded states in the  United States, per the National Education Association.

“This goes beyond how you slice the pie to provide varying amounts of funding to the diverse  counties of our state – the pie itself is simply not big enough,” said Debby Gould, president elect of LWVTN. “The League’s position on education is that the state’s coverage,  implementation, and funding of the Basic Education Program should be adequate to assure a  high standard of public education.” 

Under the current formulation, the BEP allows for a per-student budgeted amount  that is $3,655 lower than the nationwide average, and lower than most southeastern states.  Because the BEP formula underfunds our public schools, it puts a heavy burden on communities  to supply the local funds necessary to provide an acceptable standard of public education for  students. 

Each year, a BEP Review Committee analyzes the formula and its results for the preceding year,  making official recommendations to the state for improvement. The committee’s latest report  recommends increasing the BEP teacher salary component to match what districts actually  have to spend. It also recommends increasing the numbers of school nurses and counselors to  meet nationally-recognized standards and increasing the number of interventionists to fulfill  requirements of a state-mandated program designed to keep students from falling behind, or  catch them up more quickly when they do. At the very minimum, Governor Lee and the General  Assembly should incorporate all BEP Review Committee recommendations and provide  recurring funding for them. This action would be a significant step toward adequately funded  public schools for all Tennessee children.

MORE on the inadequacy of the current BEP:

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Another $200 Million

The Tennessee Department of Revenue has released February numbers and it seems our state has nearly $200 million more than was budgeted – in February alone. This continues a trend of the state’s revenue far-exceeding budgeted estimates.

Here’s more from the Department’s press release:

Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration Commissioner Butch Eley today announced that Tennessee tax revenues exceeded budgeted estimates in February. February revenues totaled $1.13 billion, which is $112.7 million more than the state received in February 2020 and $190.9 million more than the budgeted estimate. The growth rate for February was 11.06 percent.

Despite the continued positive revenue news, Gov. Lee and legislative leaders appear committed to a status quo budget for schools.

As I noted over at The Education Report:

It’s clear the BEP is inadequate. The state’s own bipartisan commission that studies issues like school funding says the formula is $1.7 billion behind where it should be.

The Education Law Center notes that our state’s school funding has yet to recover from the 2008 recession. Had we kept up with prior funding levels and inflation, we’d have an additional $1 billion invested in schools right now.

So, Tennessee has billions and billions of dollars to spend and a school funding system that ranks 46th in the country and has landed lawmakers in court. Why isn’t there some big push to make an investment in schools?

The answer is actually pretty simple: Gov. Lee and those in legislative leadership don’t actually believe in public schools.

At a minimum, lawmakers should use the significant surplus of cash to fill the $1.7 billion hole in the BEP identified by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Affairs (TACIR). They can do this without raising anyone’s taxes and they can do it while still investing in other priorities AND contributing significantly to the state’s rainy day fund.

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Bill Lee vs. Tennessee Schools

Gov. Bill Lee apparently isn’t all that excited about the billions of dollars in money coming into Tennessee by way of the American Rescue Plan. Here’s a recent tweet from Lee expressing his dismay with the proposal that means money in the pockets of many Tennesseans and will send $2.6 billion to our state just for education.

I guess Lee feels like it is a punishment for a state like Tennessee, which ranks 46th in education funding, to receive $2.6 billion to help our schools. Will he stand at the state line and stop the money from coming into our severely underfunded schools?

Interestingly enough, pro-privatization group 50CAN published a report outlining how the funds from the American Rescue Plan will benefit public schools. They used Tennessee as an example case to demonstrate the flow of the added cash.

So, our state will see $2.6 billion. Most of that will flow directly to local districts. In this example, we see that Shelby County gets more than half a billion dollars. As the report notes, these funds are expected to be spent by 2023, but can fund programs that last up to 2028. That means there’s a fair amount of flexibility and they can both help establish new programs and make those programs sustainable, at least in the short term.

Never mind all these benefits, though. Gov. Lee has to take to Twitter to attack a plan that will directly benefit our state’s public schools.

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Missing the Mark

Superintendents in Shelby County are raising concerns about recently-passed legislation that would make retention the default option for a significant number of third grade students. One Superintendent even noted the effort “misses the mark” of its intent and instead of being helpful, will actually have a harmful effect on students.

The Daily Memphian has more:

“I have never seen anything that will hurt students as bad as what they are proposing,” Germantown Municipal School District Superintendent Jason Manuel told the suburb’s Board of Education in a recent meeting.

The response from Manuel comes as his district sent a letter to Gov. Bill Lee and local lawmakers raising concerns about this issue and the insistence on in-person TNReady testing this year.

Meanwhile, it has been pointed out that TNReady is NOT a literacy test and using it for this purpose is ill-advised.

“The legislation is attempting to address third graders who can’t read at grade level, but the TCAP test doesn’t test to see if students can read at grade level,” Lakeland Superintendent Ted Horrell said.

Unsurprisingly, the leadership over at SCORE suggests this idea is a really good one – even though actual educators stand in strong opposition to it. Here’s SCORE CEO Dave Mansouri tweeting about how great this really bad idea is:

It’s almost as if Mansouri gets paid to be a cheerleader for the bad ideas of GOP governors instead of actually advancing sound education policy.

Here’s more on the folly of third grade retention:

But, as Senator Jeff Yarbro points out, 62% of third graders currently fall into the category where retention is the default action. And, students who are retained at this age end up more likely to not complete school or graduate from high school. There’s definitely mixed data on the benefits and drawbacks to retention.

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Voucher Vultures Continue to Lose in Court

Parent advocacy group Public Funds for Public Schools notes that the Tennessee Supreme Court denied a motion by school privatization advocates to allow implementation of Gov. Lee’s voucher scheme while the issue of the constitutionality of the program is sorted out.

Here’s more from a press release:

On February 22, the Tennessee Supreme Court denied a motion by pro-voucher groups to lift a lower court’s permanent injunction barring implementation of Tennessee’s 2019 “education savings account” voucher law. In May 2020, the Davidson County Chancery Court ruled the voucher law is unconstitutional because it violates the Home Rule provision of the Tennessee Constitution. In August 2020, the Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed the Chancery Court’s decision. The case is now before the Tennessee Supreme Court.

The voucher law, which passed by only one vote in the State Legislature, illegally targeted just two Tennessee counties, Davidson and Shelby, which are home to the Nashville and Memphis public schools. Legislators from the two counties overwhelmingly opposed the voucher law, which would have drained millions of dollars from two school districts that are severely underfunded by the State.

The law was challenged in court by the two counties in Metropolitan Government of Nashville & Davidson County v. Tennessee Department of Education, and by public school parents and community members in a companion case called McEwen v. Lee. The McEwen plaintiffs are represented by Public Funds Public Schools, a collaboration of Education Law Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center, as well as by the ACLU of Tennessee and pro bono by the law firm Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd.

After the Chancery Court granted summary judgment in Metro Government, the State defendants and the pro-voucher groups that had intervened in the case unsuccessfully asked the Chancery Court to lift its injunction. The defendants were then rebuffed again by the Court of Appeals. Immediately thereafter, the defendants tried yet again, asking the Supreme Court to assume jurisdiction over the case and to stay the injunction. The Supreme Court refused both requests.

In an unusual move last month, the intervenors sought a fourth bite at the apple, requesting a “modification” of the injunction that would allow the State to take every step necessary to prepare and implement the voucher program, short of actually delivering the voucher funds. Notably, the State did not join in the intervenors’ motion.

In a one-paragraph order, and without calling for oral argument, the Tennessee Supreme Court summarily denied the intervenors’ motion.

The Supreme Court’s order to let the injunction stand is welcome news for parents and students in the underfunded and under-resourced Shelby County and Nashville public schools. While the appeal is pending, the State continues to be barred from spending any tax dollars on the voucher program.

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Voucher Vultures Getting FBI Scrutiny

NewsChannel5’s Phil Williams reports that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is continuing to investigate the possibility of bribes involved in the 2019 vote to secure passage of Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher scheme.

Here’s more:

NewsChannel 5’s cameras were there last month as Casada woke up last month to an FBI raid on his Franklin condo.

Now, Casada has told associates that the FBI had questions about how he helped pass Lee’s legislation to create school vouchers to pay for private school tuition. Two independent sources, who spoke on the condition that they not be identified, said Casada described being questioned about allegations of bribes being offered for votes

The voucher bill itself has so far been ruled unconstitutional in Tennessee courts. Now, the Tennessee Supreme Court will take up the issue.

Casada and number of his associates faced FBI raids last month connected to an investigation of campaign finance irregularities. Now, it seems that investigation may also include questions about bribes related to the voucher vote.

Lee’s voucher scheme passed the House by a single vote after Casada and his legislative aides and lieutenants negotiated with lawmakers while holding the vote open for more than 30 minutes.

MORE on vouchers:

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What’s the Big Deal?

Earlier this month, I wrote about the Germantown School District’s letter in response to Gov. Bill Lee’s education agenda as passed in the January special legislative session. Specifically, I noted that Germantown expressed concern about SB 7001, which heavily incentivizes districts to reach 80% participation in TNReady testing – testing that must take place in-person.

Why does this even matter? Well, as the Germantown Board points out, a number of families have chosen to have students participate in remote-only learning in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Requiring those students to return to school in-person may very well be a difficult, it not impossible, task.

So what?

Well, if your district doesn’t reach the magic 80% threshold, the district is subject to a range of potential penalties, including receiving a “letter grade” from the state about the quality of schools and the possibility of having schools assigned to the failed Achievement School District.

First of all, there shouldn’t be any testing at all this academic year due to the pandemic and the huge disruption it has been and continues to be for teachers and learners.

Second, in the best of circumstances, the TNReady test is of limited value. Specifically, our state has struggled to even properly administer a test.

Third, really? Testing this year? Despite what the Biden Administration says, it’s just a very bad idea.

While this legislation aligns with what House Education Committee Chair Mark White calls a “carrot and stick” approach, it seems rather counterproductive.

So, if you can’t get your district to the magic 80%, there could be all sorts of potentially negative impacts.

There’s actually some history with the Department of Education punishing districts that don’t reach arbitrary targets.

Will the General Assembly move to correct this mess soon, or will they allow the Commissioner of Education broad discretion to use suspect data to advance a school privatization agenda?

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The Takedown with Amy Frogge

Former Nashville School Board member Amy Frogge offers some key facts about education funding in Tennessee in a series of tweets.

Here they are:

Here are some shocking facts about education funding in Tennessee: 1. TN has chronically underfunded public education. We rank 46th nationally (bottom 5 states) in education spending. We spend less than any of our neighbors, including KY, NC, GA, AL AR, and even MS. 1/

2. According to the states’s own estimates, the BEP (TN’s education funding formula) is underfunded by $1.7 billion per year. If you hear politicians say “the BEP is fully funded,” they’re lying. 2/

3. The BEP, which generates $7400 per student in state funding, is starvation funding. No school district can run on that amount. Local school districts must make up the difference- sometimes funding up to 60% of the costs. 3/

4. According to the TN Dept. of Revenue, TN’s surplus for the current fiscal year is now over $1 billion w/6 more months to go. The Sycamore institute just released an analysis demonstrating that TN will have at least $3.1 billion in “excess” or unplanned revenue this cycle. 4/

5. For the month of January 2021 ALONE, the state generated a $380.1 million surplus! 5/

6. TN has $7.5 billion in cash reserves. Underfunding education is a clear choice. 6/

Not only does the state refuse to invest in our schools and teachers, but the legislature continues to pass unfunded mandates that already strapped local school districts must shoulder. 7/

Here’s what YOU can do to help: Share this information, and please reach out to your representatives! The Governor’s budget can be amended before the end of the legislative session, and we have a golden opportunity to make a difference! 8/

Originally tweeted by Amy Frogge (@AmyFrogge) on February 22, 2021.

Frogge is dead on, of course. Here are some sources supporting her claims:

To be clear, when legislative leaders tell folks back home they “fully funded the BEP,” they are simply saying they put the minimum required funding into the formula. What they aren’t saying is that this formula still has a $1.7 billion hole plus a $1 billion inflationary gap. It’s like saying you made the minimum payment on your credit card bill while ignoring the 40 plus years it will take to pay off the balance if you only pay the minimum each month.

MORE>

There’s also been a decade of deliberately misleading rhetoric around funding schools.

Anyway, Frogge is right. Tennessee has a huge surplus of cash. It is completely reasonable to demand that money be invested in our schools.

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Told Ya This Would Happen

Back in July, I wrote a post about a newly-created political action committee (PAC) that seemed to be formed by Tennesseans for Student Success. You may recall that Tennesseans for Student Success is the dark money group behind a serious of insidious attacks on any legislator who opposes school privatization.

So, anyway, now they have a cheerily named PAC. Team Kid PAC, they’re calling it. Here’s more from the email they sent announcing this new venture:

Our state has made historic gains in education – twice being named the fastest improving in the nation – but you and our network of parents, teachers, community leaders, and volunteers know we can do better. If we want a better future for our children, we have to elect better leaders. That’s why we formed Team Kid PAC. 

The political action committee of Tennesseans for Student Success, we will serve as the ONLY organization that can and will effectively challenge any elected official or candidate who fails to put Tennessee’s students first –regardless of their political party.

Sounds pretty great, right? I mean, they start out the email with a pretty awesome question:

Do you want to secure effective education for all Tennessee students?

I mean, who is saying no to that? Even Gov. Bill Lee claims to want to secure an effective education for all Tennessee students. Heck, the team over at SCORE often claims they want effective education despite any evidence their presence in our state (or policy advocacy) has improved anything except for their payroll.

Here’s the reality: Tennesseans for Student Success spends their time and money attacking lawmakers who stand up for public schools. If you are not on the pro-privatization train, Tennesseans for Student Success is coming after you. Now, they’ll be doing it under the auspices of Team Kid.

Here’s the other reality: Tennessee needs at least $1.7 billion to make our school funding formula adequate. Tennessee has a huge surplus with even more money on the way. Tennessee has a governor who has no plans to use the current surplus to invest in schools.

So, what’s Team Kid PAC/Tennesseans for Student Success saying about Lee’s policy agenda?

Here are some tweets from them (and a bonus from SCORE CEO Dave Mansouri, a teammate of the Team Kid PAC team):

When Lee proposed an underwhelming raise for teachers:

And here’s Mansouri, acting like a happy cheerleader after his team scores a touchdown even though they’re still down by 50 points:

Oh, and about all those so-called “impressive” gains:

So, just watch out for Team Kid PAC and their gang of seemingly happy marauders out to derail the legislative career of anyone who dares stand and fight for Tennessee’s public schools.

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Like Grasshoppers

A public school advocacy group in Ohio has taken notice of the rampant spread of school vouchers across the country and the role Tennessee is playing in the privatization game.

The Tennessee Supreme Court has agreed to hear the plaintiffs’ voucher appeal. In 2019 a trial judge declared the Tennessee Voucher law unconstitutional. Subsequently, the Tennessee Court of Appeals upheld the trial court decision. Now the pro-voucher crowd has been successful in getting the Supreme Court to hear the case.


Vouchers are spreading across the nation like the Kansas Grasshopper Plague of 1874. (The insects ate all the crops, even wool off the back of sheep). Vouchers eat up the funds of public school districts.

It’s really no surprise that a guy who sent out a Christmas card lauding the success of his voucher appeal would be this persistent in pursuit of privatization.

And of course, Gov. Bill Lee has been a long-time supporter of vouchers and a long-time skeptic of public schools.

Since 2012, DeVos has provided just under $100,000 to the Tennessee organization. She’s been joined by some key local donors, including Lee Beaman and Bill Lee. Yes, since 2012, Bill Lee has given $11,000 to the Tennessee Federation for Children, the state’s leading political organization supporting school vouchers.

Lee has consistently and publicly supported voucher schemes. That’s why I’m puzzled when I hear some local elected officials express support for both Bill Lee and public schools – it would seem the two are mutually exclusive.

Bill Lee renewed his commitment to fast-tracking the privatization of public schools in a speech in Jackson where he laid out his policy goals for 2020. Lee doubled-down on support of a voucher scheme that is dividing the state Republican Party. 

Lee has also been an advocate of silencing school boards, embracing a proposal by former state Rep. Jeremy Durham that would allow County Commissions to override board decisions when it comes to advocacy.

So, in Bill Lee, Tennesseans have a candidate for Governor who has expressed unqualified support for a voucher program that has failed in Indiana, Ohio, and Louisiana and that will almost certainly increase state and local costs. Additionally, he wants to be sure local elected officials can’t bring a strong voice of opposition to this proposal.

That’s why I remain shocked that some board members and other elected officials express surprise at Lee’s refusal to invest in public schools even when the state is swimming in cash.

Even though as early as 2016, Bill Lee was extolling the virtues of school voucher schemes and even though he’s a long-time supporter of Betsy DeVos’s pro-voucher Tennessee Federation for Children and even though he has appointed not one, but two voucher vultures to high level posts in his Administration, it is somehow treated as “news” that Bill Lee plans to move forward with a voucher scheme agenda in 2019.

Dear public school supporters: Bill Lee is not your friend. He has never been your friend. He will not be your friend in some magical future world.

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