Charters: The God that Failed

In 2002, the Tennessee General Assembly passed the Tennessee Public Charter Schools Act. The law allowed for local school districts to authorize charter schools — schools that would operate independently from district control and be run by private, non-profit boards. The move was hailed as a way to improve educational opportunity, especially for students in districts with high concentrations of low-income families. Then, in 2011, the legislature lifted the cap on charter schools, allowing for further proliferation of the publicly-authorized, privately-run entities.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools notes that Tennessee has 112 charter schools serving more than 40,000 students.

Governor Bill Haslam created a charter school capital fund and Governor Bill Lee moved to double this slush fund in his first legislative session. Additionally, Lee created a state charter commission, designed to allow charter operators to circumvent local school boards in seeking authorization. In fairness to Lee, Democrats nominated Karl Dean for Governor in 2018. Dean was an avid charter advocate, bringing the Charter School Incubator to Nashville.

Since charters are (for now) embedded in Tennessee’s education system, a recent report from the Network for Public Education should be of interest. The report notes that more than $500 million in federal spending was wasted on charter schools that are either now defunct OR never even opened. In Tennessee, 49% of the schools that received grants are now closed or never even opened. Here’s more from the report:

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. Forty-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

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

This report comes as the charter-dominated Achievement School District is under fire for failing to produce results.

Those pushing charters as the savior to our state’s education woes would do well to remember the parting words offered by the ASD’s first Superintendent, Chris Barbic:


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.”

In other words, poverty matters. And, making the investments to combat it matters, too.


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.

But, by all means, let’s continue to worship at the feet of the Charter God hoping that our faith in “free markets” will be enough to move the needle for the kids who most need the opportunities provided by public education.

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We’re #1

A new report indicates Tennessee is a national leader in at least one education category. Jason Gonzales in the Tennessean notes that Tennessee has one of the lowest investments in the nation in rural schools.

Specifically, the report states:


For example, the report said: “22 states have decreased their state contributions for every local dollar invested in rural schools. Tennessee has seen the greatest drop ($1.68, down from $2.11 per local dollar).”

So, six years ago education officials touted the “fastest-improving” NAEP scores — which turned out to be an outlier. Now, we’ll see how (if) they do anything to improve funding for rural schools.

We’re already in a state where teachers earn less than similarly-trained professionals and we’re at the bottom in both overall investment in schools and funding effort relative to ability. In fact, another recent report gave Tennessee a grade of “F” in funding effort:


The report notes that Tennessee is 43rd in the nation in overall funding level and 47th in effort. The effort category is of particular interest because it indicates that Tennessee has significant room for improvement in terms of funding level. That is, there are untapped resources Tennessee is NOT using to fund schools.

Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Lee is out finding a new plaid shirt for this weekend’s faux farmer update. He’ll post to Twitter and pretend he cares about rural schools while pushing an aggressive privatization agenda.

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A Different Kind of Test

Amid reports of lead in the water at schools across Tennessee, health experts are advising parents to have children tested, according to WREG in Memphis. Here’s more:

Health experts said there’s a wide range of severity and symptoms when dealing with lead poisoning, with anything from mild nausea and headaches to developmental problems. But with the levels found in the two dozen SCS locations, doctors are optimistic for student and faculty safety.

“With the amount of lead that they’re talking about, 1% above the EPA threshold, the likelihood that those children ingested toxic amounts of lead is low,” said Dale Criner, medical director of St. Francis Hospital Bartlett. “There’s still a possibility, but it’s low.”

Doctors recommend a simple blood test to determine exposure levels.

As a result of state legislation, school systems across the state are testing buildings for lead. The results have not been encouraging:

So far, 134 schools in Tennessee have at least one water source with unacceptably high levels of lead, according to a story in Chalkbeat:


So far, more than 100 schools in 31 districts across Tennessee found at least one water source above 20 parts per billion.

As noted before, the infrastructure concerns are being raised at a time when Gov. Lee is pushing state funds to charter schools by way of a “capital improvement slush fund.”

It’s also worth noting that studies have consistently indicated that the quality of the buildings where a student learn impact overall student achievement:

Studies have shown that conditions such as cold classrooms can affect student learning. One study found that poor building conditions can lead to higher rates of frequent student absences. Another found that students in deteriorating buildings score 5 to 17 points lower on standardized tests than students in newer facilities. Several studies, including two in Tennessee, show that students learn more when they are in newer facilities.


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Voucher Vultures on the March

It seems Governor Bill Lee’s HVAC buddy Bob Luddy is bringing his no frills private school pitch to Wilson County, too. I previously reported on Luddy and his Thales Academy as they held an initial interest meeting in Nashville in July. Here’s more on the interest meeting the school held in Wilson County:

Informational meeting for parents interested in Thales Academy in Wilson County, TN featuring Thales Academy Academic Director Dr. Tim Hall

About this Event

At Thales Academy, our mission is to provide an excellent and affordable education for students through the use of Direct Instruction and a Classical Curriculum that embodies traditional American values.

Thales provides a rigorous academic environment that fosters ethical behavior, critical thinking, virtuous leadership, lifelong learning, and truth seeking with a firm foundation in cognitive, non-cognitive, and technical skills. As a result, Thales Academy students are well prepared to succeed in higher education, career, and life while positively impacting the world around them.

We’ll discuss this and more on Thursday, August 1 with Thales Chief Academic Officer, Dr. Tim Hall, PhD.

Join us for an evening of learning Thursday, Aug 01 from 6:00 pm to 7:30 pm

It’s interesting that Thales is attempting to recruit students from Wilson County, even though Wilson is not (yet) a part of the Education Savings Account voucher scheme.

As noted before, here’s the deal with Thales:

No special education. No transportation. No cafeteria. Luddy calls it “no frills” and hails the use of “direct instruction.”

And here’s more on Luddy’s past dealings in Tennessee:

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

Not surprisingly, tuition at Thales roughly mirrors the amount available to parents under the ESA program.

This is exactly the kind of “pop-up” private school critics of vouchers have warned about. In fact, new House Speaker Cameron Sexton once said:

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.”

Maybe all this expansion talk by the likes of Thales will lead to even more momentum for a repeal of the voucher scheme.

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Republican Joins Voucher Repeal Effort

Legislation that would repeal Governor Bill Lee’s signature legislative victory on school vouchers has gained bipartisan support. Republican Bruce Griffey of Paris became the first GOP legislator to sign-on to a bill sponsored by Nashville Democrat Bo Mitchell and co-sponsored by every House Democrat except John DeBerry of Memphis.

The repeal effort is gaining momentum even as both the FBI and TBI continue investigations into the narrow House vote that led to passage of Education Savings Accounts (Lee’s euphemistic name for his voucher scheme).

In addition to the investigations into the House vote, the Senate sponsor of the voucher bill is facing a separate FBI investigation.

I wrote earlier about how the voucher legislation threatens to divide the GOP in Tennessee heading into the 2020 session:

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


It’s worth noting that new House Speaker Cameron Sexton has consistently opposed vouchers, including voting against Lee’s plan this year. Here’s more of what he’s said about vouchers:

“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.”

It will be interesting to see if more Republicans join the repeal effort and what, if any, work Sexton does to undo the voucher plan.

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Penny’s Problems

An earlier story indicated some staffers in the Tennessee Department of Education are worried the current climate there means the state won’t be ready for this year’s round of TNReady. Now, a new report in Chalkbeat suggests a department in turmoil, with high turnover and chaos in the ranks. Here’s more:

Tennessee’s education department has experienced an exodus under Commissioner Penny Schwinn, with almost a fifth of its employees leaving in the nine months since she took over.


The exits include people with decades of institutional knowledge, leaving many local school leaders wondering whom to call about everything from testing to information technology to early intervention programs for students with learning disabilities. Also gone are dozens of mid- and lower-level employees responsible for executing essential department responsibilities, including the state’s testing program.

American cent

For his part, Governor Bill Lee stands by the disruption led by Schwinn at the DOE:

“The Department of Education has a clear directive to challenge the status quo by developing solutions that best advocate for students and teachers,” Arnold said. “We are confident that changes in structure reflect a desire to build the most effective team that will deliver on this mission.”

While Lee seems ready to “disrupt” both the DOE and public schools, it’s clear that he’s not on board with efforts to disrupt poverty.

An alternative explanation? Bill Lee is not exactly sure how to run state government, so he’s just keeping his head in the sand.

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The Plaid Privatizer

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has a new superhero, none other than Tennessee Governor Bill Lee. Some are calling him “The Plaid Privatizer” for his tendency to buy new plaid shirts, find a nearby farm, and spout off talking points in videos he posts to Twitter. Chalkbeat has the story of how a governor in office for less than a year is already being dubbed a “Champion for Charters” by this national group:

Gov. Bill Lee has been in office for less than six months, but he’s already been named a champion of the charter school movement by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.


Lee — who pushed through new funding and legislation for the state’s growing charter sector — was the only Tennessean and sole governor among 17 local, state, and federal officials named Tuesday to the organization’s 2019 class of “Champions for Charters.”

Lee pushed through legislation doubling the amount of money available for charter school capital projects. That slush fund began doling out cash recently, and plans to spend more soon. He also created a school privatization commission that will soon effectively strip local school boards of their authority to decide on charter schools.

In addition to his aggressive advancement of the charter agenda, Lee spared no ethical expense in order to push through a school voucher scheme. The House vote on that legislation now faces and FBI investigation while the Senate sponsor of the bill is under a separate FBI investigation.

While Lee advances a charter and voucher agenda, Tennessee’s education funding for public schools has earned an ‘F’ in a national analysis.

Because Bill Lee pushes his privatization agenda in plaid no matter the cost (of the shirts or to his integrity), he shall now be nationally known as “The Plaid Privatizer.”

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So Much for Local Control

For the second time in recent weeks, the Tennessee State Board of Education has overturned a local school board’s decision regarding a charter school. Chalkbeat has the story of the State Board reversing a decision by Shelby County Schools to deny a charter for Beacon College Prep:

State officials are recommending that one Memphis charter school applicant be allowed to open its proposed school, a ruling that would overturn the local school board’s September vote against the school and challenge part of the board’s new charter policy.

It’s not yet clear whether Shelby County will now grant the charter, but if they don’t, the State Board would be in charge of the school. Soon, the state’s authorizing function will shift to Governor Bill Lee’s school privatization commission.

Lee has long expressed distrust of local school boards, joining Jeremy Durham (the only legislator ever expelled from the Tennessee House of Representatives) in pushing to silence the advocacy power of local boards of education:

The proposal to silence local school boards because they oppose school vouchers is not a new one. In fact, legislation to that effect was previously proposed by Lee’s Williamson County neighbor, Jeremy Durham.

Lee indicated his support for the measure in 2017 while running for Governor.

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OUTSOURCED

Governor Bill Lee’s Administration is privatizing his school privatization scheme by hiring a private company to administer funds from the so-called Education Savings Accounts. Chalkbeat has more on the millions being paid to a Florida company to manage money in Tennessee’s voucher plan:

Tennessee has hired a Florida company to oversee online payment and application systems for its new education voucher program for some families in Memphis and Nashville.

ClassWallet started work on Nov. 4 after signing a two-year contract worth $2.53 million with the Department of Education, according to documents obtained by Chalkbeat.

The company becomes the major vendor managing Tennessee’s education savings account program, scheduled to launch for up to 5,000 students next school year under a new state law.

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The Price of Your Greed

So far, 134 schools in Tennessee have at least one water source with unacceptably high levels of lead, according to a story in Chalkbeat:

So far, more than 100 schools in 31 districts across Tennessee found at least one water source above 20 parts per billion.

The latest results from Shelby County brought the total to 134:

The third and last batch of water sample tests brings the total number of Memphis schools affected to 39, representing about 2% of water sources in the district’s 165 school buildings and facilities. Charter schools and state-run schools in Memphis will test their water separately, Shelby County Schools officials said.

As Chalkbeat notes, the testing came about due to a new state law:

The tests were the first under a new Tennessee law requiring school districts to test water sources such as water fountains and sinks for lead at least every two years.

The alarming statewide results indicate a need for serious investment in capital improvements at school facilities across the state.

While there is a clear statewide need for school infrastructure funding, Gov. Bill Lee’s charter school slush fund began doling out millions of dollars this week and plans to award millions more in competitive grants to charter schools in districts across the state. Meanwhile, a new report indicates Tennessee remains at the bottom in nation in both funding of schools and funding effort (use of available resources to support investment in schools).

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