Vouchers Strike Back?

On the surface, it would seem Gov. Bill Lee and his commitment to a statewide voucher scheme for Tennessee scored a huge victory yesterday when the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled in a 3-2 decision that Lee’s ESA voucher plan does NOT violate the “Home Rule” Amendment of the Tennessee Constitution.

Here’s the deal: While the loss on the Home Rule Amendment is a definite blow to public school advocates, there are MORE issues at play here.

Here’s what a press release from the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts has to say about yesterday’s ruling:

The Tennessee Supreme Court granted Defendants’ applications for permission to appeal. Because it is an interlocutory appeal, the issues before the Court were limited to the constitutionality of the ESA Act under the Home Rule Amendment and Plaintiffs’ standing to bring that challenge. The Supreme Court agreed with both the trial court and the Court of Appeals that Plaintiffs Metro and Shelby County had standing to bring their Home Rule Amendment Claim. However, the Supreme Court, after reviewing the applicable constitutional language, held that the ESA Act is not rendered unconstitutional by the Home Rule Amendment because the Act is not “applicable to” the Plaintiff counties for purposes of the Amendment. The majority concluded that the ESA Act is not applicable to the Plaintiff counties because the Act regulates or governs the conduct of the local education agencies and not the counties. Thus, the Act does not violate the Home Rule Amendment. The Supreme Court therefore affirmed, in part, and reversed, in part, the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remanded the case to the trial court for the dismissal of the Home Rule Amendment claim and for consideration of Plaintiffs’ remaining claims.

“Consideration of remaining claims.”

There.

So, the plaintiffs lost on the Home Rule Amendment in a narrow, 3-2 ruling. While I may not agree with that interpretation of Home Rule, as it relates to vouchers, this is not a “death blow” per se.

There are “other issues.” The plaintiffs will now have to revisit their case as it relates to other claims relative to the harms or potential harms of vouchers.

This ruling does NOT mean that Bill Lee and Penny Schwinn can just go all out on vouchers.

Instead, it means that lower courts will hear evidence on claims related to vouchers.

Was the Home Rule Amendment the home run in terms of defeating vouchers? Yes! Seeing vouchers as unconstitutional in this light was the easiest, fastest way to defeat a voucher scheme.

Was it the ONLY way that vouchers would lose in court? Not at all.

Remember, the ESA scheme as concocted in 2019, applies only to Memphis and Nashville. There are a range of legitimate claims that could serve to halt the negative impact of a voucher scheme.

A trial court may now have to hear evidence and make a decision on those claims.

Bottom line: This is NOT a green light for Lee’s voucher plan.

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The Big Voucher Payback

Remember when then-House Speaker Glen Casada “enticed” members to vote for Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher scheme? Remember how the FBI was (and still is) interested in Casada and others for possible bribes in order to pass the bill by a single vote?

Remember the ensuing scandal that led to Casada’s resignation as House Speaker?

Well, it turns out dark money groups like Tennesseans for Student Success are all in on a big payback for Casada’s “leadership.” You see, Casada is now running for the six-figure job of Williamson County Clerk. Here’s what Phil Williams reports TSS is doing for Casada in that race:

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Tennesseans for Student Success is pretty shady:

crop man getting dollars from wallet
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Extreme Privatization

If you are wondering what it looks like when school privatizers are close to total victory, Tennessee is a prime example. Here, the forces that want to take public money and hand it over to private entities are on the verge of completing their conquest. 

Tennessee’s current legislative session features a range of attacks on public schools. Some of these would have immediate impacts, while others take a longer-term approach to fully privatizing K-12 education in the state.

First, it is important to understand that groups backing privatization in the form of charter schools and vouchers are among the top spenders when it comes to lobbying state legislators. For example, the American Federation for Children—an organization founded and previously led by the family of Betsy DeVos, a school privatization advocate and former President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education—spent $887,500. Another big spender, the Tennessee Charter School Center, spent $732,500.

Based on this year’s full-frontal assault, these investments appear to be paying off. There are three key issues that currently pose the most significant threat to Tennessee’s public schools. They include: a partnership with Hillsdale College, a private fundamentalist Christian college in Michigan, to run fifty or more charter schools; legislation that would create a charter school real estate grab; and school funding reforms that set the stage for a statewide voucher program.

In his State of the State address, Governor Bill Lee restated his commitment to set aside $32 million to help launch new charters in Tennessee and announced the Hillsdale College partnership, which could bring close to fifty Hillsdale-run charter schools into the state. 

Beyond the use of public funds to open schools run by a private, Christian college, there is reason to be concerned about the nature of the Hillsdale curriculum. As educator and blogger Peter Greene explained,  “[Hillsdale President Larry] Arnn has been a Trump supporter, and the college has fallen right into MAGAland as well. . . . The college uses Trump mailing lists to raise money. They used to sponsor Rush Limbaugh’s show. They get grads placed on the staff of legislators such as Jim Jordan and Kevin McCarthy.” 

low angle view of cross against sky at night
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Of course, any charter schools—Hillsdale or otherwise—must be approved by a local school board, right? Wrong! Tennessee’s State Charter Commission, created by Lee, can override local decisions. And Lee is now seeking to expand the authority of this unelected body. 

Legislation currently advancing in the state Senate (SB2168/HB2833) would allow charter schools to apply directly to the State Charter Commission. This means a group of unelected appointees of a pro-privatization governor could decide to place charter schools in districts where the local elected officials and public don’t want them.

Another part of the same bill creates a real estate grab for charter operators. The relevant section states:

The proposed legislation authorizes a public charter school operating in the LEA to have a right of first refusal to: lease at an annual cost not to exceed the annual capital funding received by the public charter school leasing the building; or purchase at or below fair market value any underutilized or vacant property submitted by the LEA under this section. 

Just to be clear, public money in the form of local property taxes pays for facilities run by public schools. Should this new legislation pass and become law, an unelected state board will be able to place charter schools in a district, and those charter schools can take over public buildings at a reduced cost. So much for the free market.

Potentially millions of dollars worth of real estate assets in local districts across Tennessee could soon be up for grabs at prices below market value. No wonder privatizers tied to the charter industry have spent $8 million lobbying the legislature.

The final element in the push for privatization is being billed as a “reform” of the state’s school funding formula. Governor Lee recently released his plan to revamp how the state directs money to local school districts for public schools. The bottom line, according to Lee, is that the approach is “student-centered” and that funds “follow the child” no matter what. This plan is based on model legislation from the rightwing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

This statement, first of all, creates the erroneous impression that charter schools operate as “public” schools. Although called public schools under Tennessee law (as in most states), these schools function with less government oversight and an array of private operations, from real estate management to the sourcing of substitute teachers to overall school management.

Second, the proposed change to school funding is quite simply the gateway to a full-on voucher scheme. As Tennessee teacher Mike Stein wrote on his personal blog, the final form of funding reform is a workaround for a school voucher law that Lee enacted and was ruled unconstitutional

Step one, according to Stein, is to create a funding allocation for each individual student; step two is to allow that funding to follow the individual student to whatever “public” school they attend; and step three is to let parents take these funds to any school, public or private.

The short-term impact of this formula would be an influx of funds to charter schools and their operators. In the long term, a transition to a fully operational “choice” economy of schools seems likely.

Lee has been fighting to redirect public money to private schools since before he was elected governor. It now looks like a fight he’s poised to win. And if he does, defenders of public education should learn to resist next time the small, subtle cuts to public education that he used to lay the groundwork.

This piece originally appeared in The Progressive

1000 Cuts

A Williamson County teacher explains what it is like to be a teacher in Tennessee right now:

https://twitter.com/TheTNHoller/status/1494768171294863362?s=20&t=HdIBTWSPVC6Z8btGFt1UlA

Of course, the legislature is responding in the only way they know how:

This type of attack has been going on for more than a decade now:

Make no mistake. These cuts are intentional. The forces of privatization are using all the tools to erode the teaching profession and set public schools up to fail. The nail in the coffin will likely be a new state funding formula that paves a path for a voucher scheme.

food man people woman
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Voucher Case Gets New Court Hearing

Chalkbeat reports that a case against Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher scheme will receive another hearing before the Tennessee Supreme Court as that body attempts to assess the constitutionality of the program.

The Tennessee Supreme Court will rehear arguments in the case of educational savings accounts, also known as vouchers. The court’s announcement on Tuesday comes in the wake of the death of Justice Cornelia Clark who was on the bench in June to hear the arguments, but died of cancer in September before the court was able to issue a ruling.

In the brief order, court members said that “in light of the untimely death of Clark, this court has concluded that re-argument will aid the resolution of this appeal.”

At stake in the case is the future of school vouchers in Tennessee. Republican Gov. Bill Lee pushed the educational savings accounts, or school voucher law, in 2019, as a way for students in Nashville and Memphis to use public funds to pay for private education, supplies, and tutoring. The program was to begin with 5,000 students and grow to 15,000 by the fifth year, but the program never got off the ground as multiple courts blocked it.

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The BEP Voucher Plan

Tennessee teacher and education blogger Mike Stein offers his take on Gov. Bill Lee’s latest run at school vouchers. This time, Lee’s plan appears to be to use the state’s school funding formula (BEP) to create a voucher scheme.

Here are some highlights from Stein’s piece, written after he’d been to one of TN DOE’s BEP Town Hall events:

I had so much to say! I wanted to mention how atrocious it is that in 2021 teachers in this state are still limited on how many copies they can make for their classrooms. I wanted to go into how students’ mental health is poor. That fights during school are on the rise because they don’t know how to properly deal with their emotions and the need for school counselors, psychologists, and social workers is at a critical point. I wanted to mention my idea for attacking the substitute teacher crisis in Tennessee, which is to include substitute teacher pay as a component in the BEP. Rural systems like mine can not afford to pay them a decent wage (they can literally make more money at any fast food establishment), so if TDOE creates a baseline pay of $120 per day for non-licensed substitute teachers that is reimbursed to districts, then we will be much more likely to attract and keep quality substitute teachers. The $120 figure comes from paying them the equivalent of $15 an hour for the length of the school day. If the substitute is a certified teacher, then I believe that amount should equal $160 per day. I wanted to raise these points–and more–but the two minute time limit had me rethinking what I was going to say.

Is the answer already decided?

. . . because in January they plan on presenting their new BEP formula to the state legislature

Stop and reflect on that last sentence. If their timeline is to present their plan in January then it can only mean one thing–it’s either already written or close to it. This means that TDOE’s public town halls and their funding review committees are either entirely or mostly a farce. They’re going through the motions of eliciting public feedback because to redo the BEP formula without attempting to do so would mean their suggestion in January would most assuredly be D.O.A.

The tea leaves are not difficult to read here. The new BEP formula will include some form of vouchers (they, of course, won’t be called that) and because the BEP funds public schools across the state, then it will not violate the “Home Rule” provision. State legislators will be put in a position to either vote in favor of the new BEP formula (which will undoubtedly include actual needed improvements that will be popular with their constituents) or reject it. It’s a lose-lose situation for them. Either support the new BEP formula that will actually privatize public schools or be accused of being against public education. 

Stein then does a great job of breaking down the members of the Fiscal Responsibility Committee – noting that many of them are decidedly pro-voucher.

Check out his post for more on Bill Lee’s continued effort to send public money to private schools.

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Education Committee Chair May Lose Post Over Federal Indictment

Senator Brian Kelsey, who chairs the Senate’s Education Committee and who has long been a champion of using public money to fund private schools, is facing a federal indictment on allegations of campaign finance misconduct. This is not just a legal headache for Kelsey, though, it also may result in him losing the gatekeeping role he now plays as Committee chair.

More on this from Chalkbeat:

A McNally spokesman said later that Kelsey had not requested a hearing before the Senate’s ethics committee on whether the indictment merits suspension from his leadership position. If Kelsey does not make the request within 10 days of his indictment, Senate rules say he will be suspended as chairman for as long as the indictment is being pursued.

“Lt. Gov. McNally will enforce the Senate rules as written,” said McNally spokesman Adam Kleinheider.

Kelsey’s political future is being closely watched, especially since he ascended to lead the education committee after longtime Chairwoman Dolores Gresham retired last year. The panel is the gatekeeper of hundreds of proposals annually that can affect Tennessee students, educators, and schools.

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Paid For By . . .

At the end of this nice, happy story welcoming a new reporter to the education beat at WPLN, there’s a very interesting sentence:

Nashville Public Radio thanks the Thorne Family Charitable Fund, the Scarlett Foundation, the HCA Healthcare Foundation, the Joe C. Davis Foundation and the Andrew Allen Foundation for their generous support of our education beat.

It’s great that the education beat has some solid financial support. What’s noteworthy, though, is that two of the five sponsors of education news are also hard core privatization advocates.

First, there’s the Scarlett Foundation. This group, headed up by Joe Scarlett, is solidly in the privatization camp. Plus, as the Scarlett Foundation’s page notes about their board chair:

He serves as chairman of the Scarlett Hotel Group and vice-chairman of the Beacon Center of Tennessee.

Yes, THAT Beacon Center – the conservative group pushing policy schemes like school vouchers and opposing meaningful investment in public schools.

Of course, the Scarlett Foundation was also involved in Metro Nashville School Board elections in 2016 under the guise of a group called Nashville Rise:

Project Renaissance Co-CEO Wendy Tucker refused to identify who is currently funding the group’s efforts, saying some of the money people did not want to be identified.

$250,000 from the Joe C. Davis Foundation in Nashville, which boasts that it is focused “on increasing the supply of high-performing charter schools.”

Project Renaissance, of course, was the project of former Nashville Mayor and charter backer Karl Dean.

And, of course, there’s the The Joe C. Davis Foundation which was also involved in that 2016 campaign. Sitting on the board of the Davis Foundation is Bill DeLoache:

In an annual report filed with the Secretary of State earlier this month, Project Renaissance named several members to its board, all with ties to the controversial independently-run publicly-funded schools known as charter schools. Among them is Bill DeLoache, a wealthy charter school backer who also sits on the board for the Tennessee Charter School Center.

DeLoache has a long history of advocacy for charters:

[Charter school company] Beacon was founded as Alternative Public Schools Inc. in Nashville in 1992 by local businessmen Bill DeLoache Jr. and John Eason. Even after the company moved to Westborough, Mass., and changed its name to Beacon, DeLoache remained chairman.

The bottom line is this: Those who would privatize our public schools will go to any lengths to ensure they control the message on education issues. Kudos to WPLN for their transparency here. However, just hearing the list of names of foundations only tells part of the story. It’s important to understand the agenda advanced by those who want to appear to be philanthropic voices just supporting local public radio.

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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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