Voucher Decline

A professor at Teachers College at Columbia University says interest in vouchers may be waning in part due to poor academic performance. This comes as Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher scheme was delayed by court action.

Here’s more:

The demand by parents for education vouchers and Education Saving Accounts (ESA’s) – which allow them to use government funds to pay for private school tuition — is showing signs of flagging, possibly because private schools are not subject to public regulation and thus not required to meet government standards on measures that range from testing performance to teacher accreditation to instruction for special education students.

Yet the latest studies show that academic performance among voucher and ESA students is trending lower, according to Luis Huerta, Associate Professor of Education and Public Policy. Huerta and Kevin Welner, Professor of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education and co-founding Director of the National Education Policy Center, spoke in a recent webinar about the evolution of conventional school vouchers into vouchers funded by private, tax-free donations and, most recently, into Education Savings Accounts (ESA’s).

Of course, the poor performance and waning demand haven’t stopped Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander from pushing forward legislation to siphon COVID-19 relief funds to private schools.

Huerta also said that proposals by Republican Senators Tim Scott of South Carolina and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee would siphon CARES COVID relief aid to fund private school scholarships. “But again, it’s too soon to know whether this will give private schools the advantage to open more readily compared to publics, especially since the money linked to these proposals is only in the form of portable scholarships and not infrastructure dollars.”

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We Don’t Need Another Hero

It appears there’s some miscommunication between James Turner’s campaign for the Tennessee House of Representatives and pro-privatization group Tennesseans for Student Success (TSS).

Last week, Turner released a statement denouncing any support from TSS.

However, TSS maintains a website dedicated to “Education Heroes” and it features James Turner.

Specifically, the site notes:

James Turner is committed to ensuring every student in Tennessee has access to great public education and opportunities for a bright future. James Turner will be a leader in helping Tennessee build on our historic gains in education by supporting school choice…

So, is James Turner the type of education “hero” who will sell our public schools out to privatizers? Or, is TSS just making things up?

Vouchers Remain Dead

WPLN reports that the Tennessee Supreme Court has refused to take action that would have allowed the state’s voucher program to be implemented.

The Tennessee Supreme Court decided Thursday morning that it will not take up the case of whether the state’s Education Savings Account program is legal. It also declined to reverse an order that bars the state from implementing the program.

This means the fight over school vouchers will proceed in August in the Tennessee Court of Appeals. In the meantime, the state will be unable to process voucher applications or make any awards until appeals courts have ruled.

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Delete Vouchers

A legislative attempt to effectively delete Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher scheme failed in committee today due to a lack of a second. Rep. Bo Mitchell sponsored the bill. Here’s more:

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Lamar vs. Lee

Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander apparently disagrees with Gov. Bill Lee’s backdoor voucher scheme, Chalkbeat reports.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander said Thursday that federal coronavirus relief should be disbursed to help schools the same way as education funds for disadvantaged students, rather than rerouting millions of dollars to support private schools.

“My sense was that the money should have been distributed in the same way we distributed Title I money. I think that’s what most of Congress was expecting,” the Tennessee Republican said, referring to the federal program that supports students from low-income families.

The comments from Alexander, who chairs the Senate health and education committee, contradict recent guidance by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Following that advice, as Alexander’s home state plans to do, would provide more financial support to private schools than they expected, while high-poverty public school districts would receive less money.

The question now is will Alexander encourage Lee to keep public funds in public schools?

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STALLED

Gov. Bill Lee’s signature legislative achievement, a school voucher scheme, hit another roadblock today as the Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled the program can NOT be implemented while the state argues against a Chancery Court judge’s ruling stopping the program.

Here’s more from WPLN:

The Tennessee Court of Appeals decided Tuesday that the state’s school voucher program cannot be implemented until the state’s appeal is resolved.

The latest ruling comes a week after two libertarian groups working on behalf of four parents filed an emergency motion citing the state’s tight rollout deadline as a reason to move forward with the program. The state has said that the time between now and June 15 is crucial to being able to launch the program this fall.

A lower court has deemed the Education Savings Accounts Act is unenforceable, because it violates the state’s Home Rule Amendment, since it applied to only two counties without their consent. Nashville Chancellor Anne Martin ordered the Department of Education to put its voucher program on pause while its legal status is being sorted out.

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Pilfering Privatizers Seek Profit Amid Pandemic

This article on school privatization efforts in Tennessee originally appeared in The Progressive.

What’s the cure for COVID-19 in schools? Charter schools, of course!

Budget cuts on the horizon because of the economic damage caused by weeks of stay-at-home orders? Sounds like your districts need more charter schools.

Concerned about what the 2020-21 school year might look like?

Charter. Schools.

When it comes to public schools, Tennessee’s answer to the COVID-19 pandemic has been clear and simple: Privatization. 

First, in mid-March, Governor Bill Lee chose to include millions of dollars for a new voucher scheme in his emergency budget before the legislature left Nashville due to the coronavirus. How’d he pay for it? By cutting a planned investment in teacher compensation.

Now, as Tennessee’s two largest school districts, Memphis and Nashville, face significant budget shortfalls for the upcoming school year, the possibility of the state forcing unwanted charter schools on them looms large. These new charters would eat up valuable district resources at a time when funding is scarce. They also will come in the two districts where the state’s “Education Savings Account” voucher scheme will pilfer public dollars for privatizers.

In 2019, the newly-minted governor pushed for and won approval of a State Charter School Commission. This new body will have broad authority to grant charters to schools—even those schools denied a charter by local school districts. If the state body approved a charter school, the commission would manage the school, but the funding for that school would come from the local district.

In other words, whether or not Nashville or Memphis want more charter schools, the Charter Commission can approve and locate a charter in any district in the state without the approval or consent of the local board—then mandate that the local board spend funds to support it. 


Fast forward to May 2020. 

Right now, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is pushing a scheme whereby states can acquire additional federal stimulus funds for education if they agree to advance a school privatization agenda. 

Enter the Tennessee Charter School Commission. While Nashville and Memphis have taken a cautious approach to charter school approval in recent years, the Charter Commission, stacked with Governor Lee’s handpicked privatization proponents, seems primed to put charters where they aren’t wanted. 

Obligating districts to fund charters would also divert money that they need to provide resources for students if a second wave of COVID-19 wreaks havoc this fall. Nashville is already staring down a $100 million budget shortfall for education, and Memphis is considering a tax increase just to maintain its school system. 

How much of a financial bite will new charter schools take from these struggling districts?

That’s hard to calculate exactly. But in 2014, a study conducted by independent research firm MGT of America predicted that “new charter schools will, with nearly 100 percent certainty, have a negative fiscal impact” on Nashville’s school district. MGT calculated a price tag that could exceed $300 million in direct costs to the city’s public schools over a five-year period.

A more recent study in North Carolina found that the financial burden of adding charter schools to one urban county school district, Durham, was between $500 and $700 per student. In rural districts in the state with fewer charters, the impact was less negative but still significant—up to $300 per student.


Added to the estimated cost of charter schools in Tennessee is a whole new disaster: a voucher scheme. Though this program was ruled unconstitutional by a judge on May 5 (and will no longer start next year, as initially planned), it revealed the true aims of education reformers in the state. 

By forcing charters on cash-strapped districts, DeVos and Lee are using the chaos caused by COVID-19 to advance a privatization agenda. Something similar happened when public schools were hollowed out in New Orleans, post-Katrina.  

DeVos, in a statement on May 4, put it diplomatically: 

“The current disruption to the normal model is reaffirming something I have said for years. We must rethink education to better the realities of the twenty-first century. This is the time for local education leaders to unleash their creativity and ingenuity.”

Lee, a longtime financial supporter of DeVos, recently made the same point, in language that’s just as mystifying. “The Department of Education has a clear directive to challenge the status quo by developing solutions that best advocate for students and teachers,” Lee said. 

The COVID-19 crisis has created new opportunities for profit-seeking privatizers to prey on public education. We must continue shining a light on those working to undermine public schools, so that we can continue fighting for the public good. 

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TN PTA Applauds Voucher Ruling

A statement from the Tennessee Parent Teacher Association on last week’s court ruling that killed (for now) Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher program:

Tennessee PTA was excited to hear that Davidson County Chancellor Anne C.
Martin declared the Educational Savings Account statute unconstitutional. We were disappointed in Governor Lee’s funding cuts to education while maintaining $40 million for the ESA program in the most recent budget and request legislators reevaluate the needs of our public schools during this challenging time and move the funding for the ESA program back to the public schools.

The Tennessee Parent Teacher Association (PTA) stands in opposition to any form of voucher programs. Tennessee PTA believes our elected leaders must provide all Tennessee children with access to a quality public education. Public schools provide education to 90% of our country’s students and voucher programs such as this educational savings account program undermine our public schools by diverting desperately needed resources away from the public school system. Tennessee PTA recognizes that changes need to be made within the public schools to provide an equitable and excellent educational opportunity for every child. Vouchers, educational savings accounts, and other similar options do not provide the means for bringing about improvements in our public schools. Voucher programs have often proven ineffective in
improving student outcomes, lack accountability to taxpayers and students, create inequality, and place the individual rights of students at risk.

Kim Henderson
Tennessee PTA President

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Coming Up: COVID-19 School Budget Cuts

Wilson County education advocate Kristi Dunn reports on a proposed budget for Wilson County Schools that includes some pretty steep cuts. Here’s her summary:

Yesterday was a work session for the Wilson County BOE ti discuss the upcoming budget. It was ugly and disappointing to the day the least. Our economy has taken a hit due to decrease in sales tax revenue, construction, tourism and property taxes. We have a $10.5 million deficit in the education budget to make up. The solution being proposed is to cut 41 high school teaching positions, 95 EAs, buy no textbooks, cut our Adult High School program which helps at least 145-150 students get their diploma a year, cut adult basic education program, cut all coaching stipend, mentoring stipends, all stipends for any band director, etc, no early retirement incentives.

The proposal comes just ahead of the return of the Tennessee General Assembly in June. At that time, legislators may decide to reinvest money previously allocated for Gov. Bill Lee’s now dead voucher scheme.

Additionally, a new report from Education Week indicates that districts across the country will face significant cuts due to the economic impact of COVID-19.

Almost half of the nation’s 13,000 school districts may be forced to make the deepest cuts to education spending in a generation—slashing programs and laying off hundreds of thousands of administrators, teachers and other staff—to fend off financial collapse brought on by the coronavirus.

“What’s so stunning about this recession is that poor districts are going to bear the brunt of these cuts because they rely so heavily on state aid and they don’t have the capacity to raise their property taxes,” said David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center, a law firm and advocacy organization which has sued states for having inequitable funding systems.

It will be interesting to see how lawmakers handle school funding in the mini-session and going forward.

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