What We Always Knew

A story out of Maury County highlights the education disparities we all know about. It also makes clear the problem of inequality is societal and systemic. It’s something we can conveniently ignore when school is in session because we know then all the kids are being fed and watched and loved. We aren’t forced to see the impacts of wage stagnation, wealth consolidation, and a lack of access to health care.

Here’s more from the Columbia Daily Herald:

“It took this crisis to realize that we are working on two very different dynamics in our districts,” Jennifer Enk, president of the education association, told members of the Maury County Board of Education during an online board meeting this month. “Going forward, this is something that our state and our local [district] really has to look at.”

She said the ongoing stay-at-home order has shown that students’ access to the internet and the devices to access it dramatically differs across the county.

After encouraging the school district to continue offering stipends to local educators who prepare work packets for students, Enk recommends incoming funds from the federal government be used to “equal the playing field” for the county’s students.

Maury County Superintendent of Schools Chris Marczak previously told The Daily Herald that in the northern portion of the county, in the surrounding Spring Hill area, about 10% of the school district’s students live in a home without internet. In Columbia, the county seat located in the center of the region, 24% of the school districts students don’t have internet at home.

It’s not just internet access, of course. There are wide disparities in access housing, food, and health care. A report published last year noted:


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.

So, while policymakers create plans focused on how much time kids are in school buildings and how to ensure they get to take tests, the real problems remain ignored.

Meanwhile, privatizing predators are on the prowl, ready to use the COVID-19 pandemic to open the doors to MORE taxpayer resources with little oversight or accountability.

Instead of trying to line the pockets of wealthy edu-profiteers, Tennessee policymakers should move forward with solutions that address the underlying challenges:

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 bankruptcies. We continue to refuse Medicaid expansion and most of our elected leaders at the federal level are resisting the push for Medicare for All.

Yes, COVID-19 has highlighted inequality in our schools and beyond. It’s also highlighted the willingness of our top policymakers to simply walk by on the other side while their neighbors suffer.

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CLOSED

Today, Gov. Bill Lee called on all Tennessee school districts to close for the remainder of this school year. Here’s a statement from the Tennessee Education Association on the issue:

“The coronavirus pandemic has already negatively impacted students, educators and communities, and will continue to do so for some time. Educators are as eager as parents for school to resume, but every decision on how and when to reopen classrooms must consider health, safety and well-being first.

Following Gov. Bill Lee’s announcement today, it is now time to look toward the 2020-2021 school year. The prolonged break in classroom instruction has disrupted student learning and will cause serious challenges for students and educators when school resumes. As the professionals who work with students most closely, Tennessee educators must have significant input in the planning and implementation of efforts to overcome learning loss.

There is no better place for Tennessee students than public schools, and every educator from the bus driver and cafeteria worker to the counselor and school nurse will be needed to support students. Use of federal emergency funds must first prioritize the ability to reopen public schools for the 2020-2021 school year.”

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Coronavirus and School Funding in Nashville

$100 million. That’s how much the already struggling Nashville school district is being asked to cut in the wake of the economic challenges created by the COVID-19 outbreak. The Tennessean has more:

Mayor John Cooper has asked Nashville schools to explore ways to potentially cut up to $100 million from its current budget as the coronavirus continues to take a toll on the city’s revenue collections.

As non-essential businesses remain closed and Nashville residents are spending less time outside, city officials are forecasting a $200 million to $300 million shortfall in expected taxes and other revenue for the current fiscal year. 

The potential budget cuts come even as Gov. Bill Lee insisted on $41 million in state funding for his voucher scheme while cutting funds sent to districts for teacher compensation.

Teachers in Nashville already lag behind those in other districts when it comes to pay.

It’s not clear where MNPS will find room for cuts, but based on past actions, it seems likely some savings would be realized by moving more students to virtual schools. It also seems likely entire programs could be reduced or eliminated.

This difficult climate is happening in a state that clearly has yet to learn the lessons of the Great Recession. Tennessee is at least $1.7 billion behind where it should be to adequately fund schools, according to a report from the bipartisan legislative study group known as TACIR.

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A Lesson Not Learned

In a post at the Washington Post, Derek Black warns that investment in public education must not be denied in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and coming economic impacts.

Some notes:


During the Great Recession of the late 2000s, Congress hoped that most of a $54 billion set-aside in stimulus funds would be enough to save public school budgets, which had been savaged by state and local governments. It wasn’t enough.


States imposed education cuts so steep that many school budgets still have not fully rebounded — and Congress’s 2020 stimulus bill aimed at trying to save the economy from a new calamity fails to address the possibility of a sequel. Meanwhile, even before the economic effects of the current crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic are being fully felt, states are already looking to cut education funding.


If states cut public education with the same reckless abandon this time as last, the harm will be untold. A teaching profession that has spent the last two years protesting shamefully low salaries may simply break. The number quitting the profession altogether will further skyrocket — and it’s not likely there will be anyone to take their place.


The first signs of this possibility are here. In recent weeks, three states — Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee — have cut teacher salary increases for this coming year — increases intended at this late date to begin repairing the damage from the last recession. Education Week reports that teachers may lose all of an anticipated pay hike in Kentucky, and legislatures in at least five other states have not acted on salary hikes for educators.

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Black notes that Tennessee is among the states not learning the lesson of the Great Recession. It’s worth noting that Tennessee’s teachers already earn less in inflation-adjusted dollars than they did all the way back in 2009.


Between FY 2016 and FY 2020, lawmakers enacted a total of $429 million in recurring increases for teacher pay. Since that time, growth in Tennessee teachers’ average pay has begun to catch up with inflation. After adjusting for inflation, however, teachers’ average pay during the 2018-2019 school year was still about 4.4% lower than a decade earlier.

So, the response to the coronavirus by Gov. Bill Lee and the General Assembly was to cut a planned investment in teacher compensation and instead fund a voucher scheme.

When (if?) the General Assembly returns in June, it will be interesting to see if commitments are made about investments in public education going forward. Tennessee is already $1.7 billion behind where we should be in school funding.

Perhaps the crisis caused by coronavirus will give lawmakers time to actually conduct a comprehensive review of our school funding formula and make necessary adjustments and improvements.

Alternatively, as Black suggests, lawmakers may look to “save money” by moving to cheaper, less reliable online learning options while foregoing investment in teachers and the resources students need.

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Byrd is Back

Admitted child sex offender David Byrd, who serves in the Tennessee House of Representatives, has indicated he will seek re-election to his seat in 2020. The announcement comes despite earlier claims by Byrd that he would not seek re-election AND after Gov. Bill Lee reportedly asked Byrd not to run.

Here’s a summary of what TNEdReport has noted about Byrd in recent years:

Casada Cozies Up to Byrd


Last year, former House Speaker Beth Harwell was calling on state representative David Byrd to resign amid allegations he had improper sexual relationships with high school students he had coached. Now, new House Speaker Glen Casada has appointed Byrd to Chair the House Education Administration Subcommittee.

No One on Byrd’s Subcommittee Would Challenge Him


At yesterday’s meeting, Byrd asked each committee member to introduce himself (the committee is made up of seven men) and state an interesting fact.


Each member proceeded to attempt humor. Not a single member used the opportunity to call on Byrd to resign from his committee leadership post. Instead, they acted as if having an admitted sex offender at the helm of a legislative committee was just business as usual.

Voucher Vote Nails Byrd


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.

Weak Lee


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.

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Voucher Scheme Goes Live

After receiving support from a mail campaign paid for by the voucher vultures at American Federation for Children, Gov. Bill Lee’s scheme to divert public money to private schools is now accepting applications.

The website is now live and includes an illuminating FAQ.


What is the ESA program?
The ESA program allows eligible students who are zoned to attend a Shelby County district school, a Metro Nashville public school, or a school that was in the Achievement School District (ASD) on May 24, 2019, to use state and local money toward education expenses, including tuition and/or fees at approved private schools.

This is true. The ESA program (vouchers) diverts taxpayer money to private schools by way of a platform administered by ClassWallet. ClassWallet, of course, is the company that “won” a no-bid state contract worth millions of dollars.


How can ESA funds be used?
Funds in an ESA may only be used for educational purposes. This includes:
Tuition or fees at a participating school
Required school uniforms at a participating school
Required textbooks at a participating school
Tuition and fees for approved summer education programs and specialized after-school education programs
Tutoring services provided by an individual who meets department requirements.
Tuition and fees at an eligible postsecondary institution
Transportation to and from a participating school or education provider by taxi or bus service
Textbooks required by an eligible postsecondary institution
Fees for early postsecondary opportunity courses, exams, or exams related to college admission
Educational therapies or services for participating students provided by a department-approved therapist
Computer hardware, technological devices, or other department-approved technology fees. (This is applicable only if the technology is used for educational needs, is purchased at or below fair market value, and is purchased through a participating school, private school, or provider.)

The broad guidelines for use of voucher funds make the program susceptible to fraud, as the Daily Memphian reports has happened in other jurisdictions:


Reports from across the nation show situations in which private-school officials and parents spent voucher money for items unrelated to education. Cards were used at beauty supply stores, sporting good shops and for computer tech support, in addition to trying to withdraw cash, which was not allowed.

Can an ESA be used for a participating private school outside of Shelby or Davidson County?

Yes, while your student must be zoned for a Shelby County district school, a Metro Nashville public school, or a school in the Achievement School District, the ESA may be used for an out-of-county participating private school.

So, the voucher scheme is taking money from cash-strapped Shelby and Davidson counties and diverting it to private schools in neighboring districts.

Oh, and let’s be clear: Lee insisted that vouchers be funded in his emergency coronavirus budget — and did so at the expense of an investment in public schools.

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April 24th

Today, Governor Bill Lee announced he’s recommending schools in the state remain closed through at least April 24th in light of the COVID-19 crisis. Here’s a tweet from Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn:

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“Detractors”

Governor Bill Lee isn’t happy that members of his own party aren’t happy with the rocky rollout of the state’s voucher program, according to the Tennessean.


Gov. Bill Lee says the state should continue to move forward with implementing a school voucher program as quickly as possible, despite ongoing concerns being raised by legislators on both sides of the aisle.


Lee said Thursday the implementation of the program was being “hampered” by “detractors to a process,” and reiterated that he pushed for the program to “give kids in our state a high-quality education.”

Those “detractors” are worried about pesky little details like no-bid contracts and overspending.

It’s also worth noting that significant evidence indicates that vouchers don’t actually help kids, and in fact, can leave them lagging behind academically:


The first results came in late 2015. Researchers examined an Indiana voucher program that had quickly grown to serve tens of thousands of students under Mike Pence, then the state’s governor. “In mathematics,” they found, “voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement.” They also saw no improvement in reading.


The next results came a few months later, in February, when researchers published a major study of Louisiana’s voucher program. Students in the program were predominantly black and from low-income families, and they came from public schools that had received poor ratings from the state department of education, based on test scores. For private schools receiving more applicants than they could enroll, the law required that they admit students via lottery, which allowed the researchers to compare lottery winners with those who stayed in public school.
They found large negative results in both reading and math. Public elementary school students who started at the 50th percentile in math and then used a voucher to transfer to a private school dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year. Results were somewhat better in the second year, but were still well below the starting point.


In June, a third voucher study was released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank and proponent of school choice. The study, which was financed by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation, focused on a large voucher program in Ohio. “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools,” the researchers found. Once again, results were worse in math.

It’s no wonder so many “detractors” are trying to “hamper the process.”

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100% for Charters, 4% for Teachers

Last year, Governor Bill Lee doubled the charter school slush fund while only offering a pittance to public school teachers. This year, he’s pulling a similar trick, again doubling the charter school slush fund — from $12 million to $24 million — while offering teachers a paltry 4% increase in the BEP salary number (which means an actual raise of about 2%).

Lee’s 2020-21 budget includes $24 million in funding for charter school facilities. This is a 100% improvement over the 2019-2020 budget. Simultaneously, Lee is touting a 4% increase in BEP funding for teacher salaries. This means an actual raise of less than 2% for most teachers. Even if you assume a net gain of 4%, you get a 70 cent an hour raise.

Let’s be clear: Governor Lee prioritizes charter schools over Tennessee’s public school teachers. His last two budgets make that plain.

It’s also worth noting that Lee has made NO effort to improve BEP funding even as the state’s own Department of Education indicates we are 9000 teachers short of proper funding:


In Tennessee, classroom size requirements have forced districts to hire more than 9,000 teachers beyond what the BEP provides to pay for their salaries, according to a statewide analysis presented by the Department of Education in December to the BEP Review Committee.

So, we’re at a minimum of $500 million short of properly funding our schools and Lee’s proposal is to give the teachers we have a 2% raise. No word on improving the BEP. No word on a significant salary boost for existing teachers. Just 2% for teachers (4% in BEP funds), and another 100% increase for charter schools.

Could Gov. Lee’s priorities be more clear?

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Dirty Tricks, Bribes, Threats: It’s a Voucher Story!

The Tennessee Holler has the video of Republican State Rep. Kent Calfee explaining just how that voucher bill passed last year:

https://twitter.com/TheTNHoller/status/1222900056140836868?s=20

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