Kelsey, White Named Co-Conspirators in Lee’s Assault on Local School Boards

It should come as no surprise that Governor Bill Lee is pursuing an aggressive agenda of school privatization complete with a fast-growing voucher program, additional money for charter schools, and a way for charter operators to bypass the accountability of local school boards. Now, however, it seems Lee has enlisted co-conspirators from the school district likely to be most negatively impacted by his agenda.

Senator Brian Kelsey and Rep. Mark White have agreed to carry Lee’s legislation creating a state charter authorizer. It’s a bill some critics are calling the worst charter legislation in the nation.

The Daily Memphian has more:


State Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican, and State Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who chairs the House Education Committee, are carrying Senate Bill 796 and House Bill 940, one of the signature pieces of Gov. Bill Lee’s K-12 education initiative.


White didn’t want to use the word “bypass” but acknowledged the legislation would remove the step for charter applicants to go to the Tennessee Board of Education if turned down by local boards.


“But basically, yeah, you would come to the state without going through that process,” White said.

The change is significant because current law requires a charter operator to first apply to the local board of education to determine if the proposed charter is a good fit for the district. The case of Rocketship in Nashville is a good example:


In summary, with no additional state accountability data to consider, and no compelling evidence presented that provides confidence in the review team, converting an existing low-performing school before Rocketship has demonstrated academic success on state accountability measures would not be in the best interests of the students, the district, or the community.


If Governor Lee’s proposal is successful, schools like Rocketship will now be able to circumvent local input altogether. In this case, MNPS identified key problems with Rocketship and decided an expansion was not in the best interests of the students of the district.

It’s not yet clear whether there is broad support for circumventing local school boards. The legislation did pass a hurdle today, clearing a House subcommittee and moving forward in the process.

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TEA Talks Vouchers, Charters

The Tennessee Education Association is raising concerns about Gov. Bill Lee’s school privatization agenda. More from a recent article posted on the TEA website:

In his State of the State address, Gov. Bill Lee announced his intent to allocate more than one-fifth of his K-12 education budget to advance privatization in Tennessee. His proposed budget includes more than $25 million for education savings accounts and $12 million for a charter school building slush fund.

“TEA has serious concerns about the governor’s plan to fund a program that is essentially private school vouchers with even less accountability that are more susceptible to fraud and abuse,” said TEA President Beth Brown. “At a time when classrooms lack needed resources and teachers are digging into their own pockets to buy classroom supplies, it is discouraging to see funding going to something proven to harm student achievement in other states.”

The increase in the building fund for private charter operators is partnered with a proposal to make it easier for new charter schools to be approved. While details on this are still not final, TEA strongly opposes any charter legislation that limits the authority of the locally elected school board to be the final voice on new charter school applications.

“Charter schools need to be a local decision, because local taxpayers bear a majority of the costs,” Brown said. “Also, local boards of education better understand the needs of their district and are better equipped to make the right decision for the students they serve.”

Both charter schools and any form of private school vouchers have proven to destabilize public school budgets and negatively impact existing classrooms. These privatization schemes also have a track record of harming student achievement.

“We have seen in other states where students in voucher programs and unaccountable charter schools are not keeping up with their peers in traditional public schools,” Brown said. “There are many proven ways to improve public education for all schools; unfortunately, the governor is choosing to invest significant resources in two dangerous paths.”

The more than $35 million currently slated for education savings accounts and rapid charter expansion would be better used in ways proven to increase student performance, like reducing class sizes and updating text books and classroom technology. 

“As a rural educator, I understand the assumption that these risks will only impact metro areas, but that is simply untrue,” said Brown. “Educators and public education advocates from every corner of the state need to stand together to defeat every single attempt to privatize education. If passed, these proposals would erode the foundation of all public schools.”

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Winning

So, the winner of the 2015 SCORE Prize is now closing its doors for good.

I noted previously that New Vision Academy was in violation of Metro fire code and that a number of students would be forced to leave. Now, it turns out, the entire school is closing down after tomorrow.

The closure of New Vision means some 150 students will now return to traditional public schools in MNPS after 3/4 of the school year has passed.

The troubling development comes as Tennessee Governor Bill Lee is proposing both boosting state tax dollars made available to charter schools and circumventing local school board authority over such schools.

The tireless advocates of “school choice” at any cost will likely note this is just “market forces” making a correction.

The problem is, that “correction” impacts real people. Specifically, 150 middle school kids who are now displaced.

While Governor Lee claims to want to innovate and try new things, he’s simply not looking where he should be. One thing Tennessee has never seriously tried is making a long-term, sustained investment in our schools. In fact, we spend less per student now than we did in 2010 in inflation-adjusted dollars.

We’re seeing Governor Lee propose adding some $200 million to the rainy day fund while students in districts and schools with high concentrations of poverty are facing rain every single day. The numbers suggest we can and must do better.

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Bill Lee Doesn’t Trust Your School Board

Governor Bill Lee gave his State of the State address last night and outlined his budget and vision as he begins his first term. Among the items he discussed was the creation of a state charter school authorizer.

Nashville Public Radio has more:


Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is proposing legislation that would make it easier to establish charter schools.
He announced the plan Monday night during his State of the State address. If it passes, it would allow a sponsor to go directly to a state-run authorizer for approval, instead of a local school district.

The proposed change is significant because current law requires a charter operator to submit a proposal to a local school board first. The local board then evaluates the proposal and makes a decision as to whether or not it would be a good fit for the needs of students in the district. If the local board rejects the proposal, the operator may appeal to the State Board of Education.

The State BOE often looks to the local board’s evaluation of the charter application for guidance. Sometimes, operators revise and improve the application. Sometimes, the State BOE determines the local board made a sound decision based on the evidence, as was the case with Rocketship in Nashville not long ago:


Let’s review. Rocketship was denied expansion by MNPS and the State Board of Education last year. Rocketship applied again. MNPS denied them. Rocketship appealed. MNPS denied the amended application by an 8-1 vote. Rocketship is now appealing based on a technicality instead of working with MNPS to find a satisfactory way to address concerns.

Here’s what MNPS said when they reviewed the Rocketship application:


In summary, with no additional state accountability data to consider, and no compelling evidence presented that provides confidence in the review team, converting an existing low-performing school before Rocketship has demonstrated academic success on state accountability measures would not be in the best interests of the students, the district, or the community.

If Governor Lee’s proposal is successful, schools like Rocketship will now be able to circumvent local input altogether. In this case, MNPS identified key problems with Rocketship and decided an expansion was not in the best interests of the students of the district.

Why shouldn’t charters be required to present a proposal to a local board of education first? Shouldn’t the citizens of a community, by way of their duly elected school board, be able to weigh-in on the appropriateness of a given charter school proposal?

Moreover, why doesn’t Bill Lee trust local school boards?

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100% for Charters, 2.5% for Teachers

Tonight, Governor Bill Lee outlined his proposed budget for 2019-2020. Lee’s budget doubles the fund for charter school facilities to $12 million. This amounts to a benefit of $342 per student (there are roughly 35,000 Tennessee students in charter schools).

Meanwhile, he announced a meager improvement to teacher salaries of around 2% – $71 million. This amounts to $71 per student.

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.

As one Nashville teacher pointed out, Nashville – and the entire state — have a failed business plan:


I’m starting a business and looking for workers. The work is intense, so the workers should be highly skilled. Experience preferred. Starting salary is 40k with the opportunity to get all the way to 65k after 25 years of staying in the same position. See how dumb that sounds?

Now, those are numbers for Nashville. Some teachers around the state have to teach for 10 years before they even hit $40,000. Still, the point is clear: The value proposition for teachers in our state is not very good. Unfortunately, Governor Lee’s first budget is not doing much to change that. It’s the status quo. A nominal increase that will likely not entirely make it into teacher paychecks.

Tennessee’s numbers when it comes to both investment in schools and educational attainment are disappointing. Continuing along the same path means we’ll keep getting the same results.

The bottom line: Money matters.

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Bad Vision

New Vision Academy, a Nashville charter school, is in trouble again.

The school, once selected as a winner of the SCORE prize for innovation in education, has faced questions over financial management and now is in violation of the city’s fire code.

The Tennessean notes:


The Nashville charter school New Vision Academy has been violating city fire code by enrolling more students than the capacity allowed at the south Nashville church building where it rents space.
Because of the overcrowding issue, Metro Nashville Public Schools is forced to remove at least 64 students from the school in the coming weeks, according to a letter from the district’s charter school chief.
It’s the latest development for a school that has been embroiled in turmoil. New Vision Academy remains under federal and state investigations related to financial irregularities, special education requirements and compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Back in 2015, SCORE — Bill Frist’s education think tank — romanticized New Vision like this:


A small, single-hallway school with nine instructors on staff, NVA has an exceptionally data-rich culture. Many tools for monitoring student growth are in use at this public charter school in Nashville – assessments, benchmarks, math and reading levels – and NVA sets a new standard for using this information productively. Data improves instruction, facilitates teacher collaboration, and aids communication with students and parents

Turns out, innovation may just mean bending, or even breaking, all the rules.

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Memphis Market Magic

Peter Greene takes on the myth of market magic in this explainer on the charter sector in Memphis. He notes:


Nor are the schools well-distributed. Check this map and you’ll see that some neighborhoods have clusters of charter schools, while other areas of the county have none at all. It’s almost as if market forces do not drive charter businesses to try to serve all students, but only concentrate on the markets they find attractive! Go figure.


The problem did not happen overnight– a local television station did a story entitled “Charter Schools– Too Many? Too Fast?” back in 2017. The answer was, “Probably yes to both.” But it also included the projection that SCS would some day be all charter. It does appear that Shelby County is in danger of entering the public school death spiral, where charters drain so much money from the public system that the public system stumbles, making the charters more appealing, so more students leave the public system, meaning the public system gets less and less money, making charters more appealing, so students leave, rinse and repeat until your public system collapses.

Greene does note there is some good news:


Shelby County Schools is developing guidelines that would determine if a neighborhood has too many charter schools, addressing a longtime concern of school board members.

The charter school guidelines, called the Educational Priorities Document/Rubric in a proposed district policy on charter schools, would also prioritize what the district wants charter schools to focus on, such as early literacy.

Greene asks that we all watch to see if market magic remains the focus, or if some semblance of sanity returns to public education in Shelby County.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

Evidence Be Damned


Failed Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, never one to consult actual evidence before making a decision impacting Tennessee children, is now recommending that more schools in Nashville and Memphis be placed in the Achievement School District (ASD).

The state-run intervention district consisting mostly of charter schools has so far failed to produce tangible results.

Here’s more from Chalkbeat:

“Our recommendation will be: As we go into next school year, unless we see some dramatic changes in certain schools, we will move some schools into the Achievement School District,” McQueen told Chalkbeat this week.

Even more alarming, data from the consistently     unreliable TNReady test will be used to make these determinations.  This would certainly seem to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the “No Adverse Action” legislation passed by the General Assembly earlier this year.

Taking this action also places the kids in these schools into a cruel experiment… One where we know the outcome, but persist hoping this time will be different. It won’t be.

The next Commissioner of Education would do well to ignore this and any other recommendation from Candice McQueen.

Instead, Bill Lee and his team should focus on policies based on evidence (so not vouchers), teacher input, and student needs.

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#Winning


I wrote in May about SCORE prize winner New Vision Academy and some problems they’d run into prompting an investigation by MNPS.

Now, the Tennessean reports the charter school is facing state and federal investigations:

New Vision Academy charter school is under federal and state investigations, which expand on the existing Metro Nashville Public Schools investigation launched earlier this year.

New Vision is being investigated for financial irregularities and compliance with federal laws regarding building accessibility for students with disabilities. The middle school is in a former church building on Havenhill Drive in South Nashville.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

 

Policy Shift


Tennessee’s next Governor, Bill Lee, is an unabashed voucher supporter.

As the General Assembly prepares to return in January, it will be important for policymakers to focus on what gets results instead of what the new Governor thinks is the cool new thing for Tennessee schools.

Derek Black, who teaches law at the University of South Carolina and focuses on education policy issues, points out some flaws in arguments in favor of “school choice” in a recent column in Salon.

His argument is essentially that a lack of accountability in many choice programs combined with the financial strain they put on traditional K-12 schools has a devastating impact and must be re-examined:

The current debate over school funding must move beyond teacher salaries and whether the books in public schools are tattered. Those conversations ignore the systematic policies that disadvantage public schools. Increasing public school teachers’ salaries alone won’t fix the problem. The public school teaching force has already shrunk. Class sizes have already risen. And the rules that advantage charter and private schools remain firmly in place.

Long-term solutions require a reexamination of these preferences. As a state constitutional matter, the law requires that states make public education their first priority. It is not enough to make education one of several competing priorities. And as a practical matter, states cannot continue to ask public schools to work with whatever is left over and then criticize them for doing a poor job. This cycle creates a circular justification for dismantling public education when states should be repairing it.

Black’s analysis is especially relevant in a state that consistently brings up the rear in investment in education and also continues to lag behind in overall student achievement.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport