Vouchers and School Budgets

At a time when the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is creating uncertainty for school budgets, Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher scheme received full funding in the state budget that passed just before the General Assembly left town on recess.

Williamson County School Board member Eric Welch makes this point succinctly in a tweet expressing frustration over the impact of the revised state budget on the district’s plan to invest in teachers:

Yes, with the coronavirus crisis wreaking havoc on local economies and school system and county budgets, Lee chose to stand with the Betsy DeVos agenda he’s long supported.

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Voucher Mail

The American Federation for Children is sending targeted mailers to families in Nashville and Memphis advertising for the state’s voucher program that is slated to start in the upcoming school year. The voucher plan, once thought to be in doubt due to a range of problems, was funded in Gov. Bill Lee’s amended COVID-19 budget.

The American Federation for Children (AFC) is an organization previously headed-up by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. DeVos and Lee have a long-standing relationship, with Lee providing financial support to AFC.

Here are those mailers:

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Vouchers vs. Teachers

There’s a budget showdown looming this afternoon pitting Tennessee teachers versus Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher scheme. Erik Schelzig has more:


Tennessee lawmakers are gearing up for a long day Thursday in which they hope to come to an agreement over deep budget cuts before going into recess until the coronavirus crisis subsides.


One of the biggest sticking points is Gov. Bill Lee’s plan to keep funding in the budget to launch his school voucher program this fall while cutting a planned 4% teacher pay raise in half.

More on vouchers, teacher pay, and Lee’s amended budget>

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Public School Advocates Push Back on Vouchers in Tennessee

Even as Gov. Bill Lee’s amended budget cuts planned improvements to teacher pay while maintaining funding for a voucher scheme, this article details the persistence of public school advocates in Tennessee. Here are some highlights:


Another factor making it difficult for vouchers to move smoothly through the process in Tennessee has been grassroots resistance. Ahead of the voucher vote, parent groups and civil rights organizations joined together to express opposition. But those groups didn’t stop just because a group of powerful white men got their way the first time around. 


Rather, they kept organizing. Using social media to stay connected, groups like Tennessee Teachers and Parents Against School Vouchers and Tennessee Strong focused on the long game—stopping implementation of a voucher plan expected to cost as much as $335 million.


The unrelenting focus of grassroots activists helps keep every single misstep of the voucher scheme in the public eye. Whether it’s the no-bid contract for the vendor overseeing administration of the program, or how the scheme’s rules were written in a way that allows for discrimination, no bad voucher deed goes unreported. 

Read MORE about the voucher fight in Tennessee.

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Senate Education Chair Not Seeking Re-Election

State Senator Dolores Gresham will not be seeking re-election this year, the AP reports:


Tennessee Republican state Sen. Dolores Gresham says she will not be seeking reelection this year.


The Somerville lawmaker made the announcement in an email this week to constituents in her 26th District.


Gresham served six years in the state House before she was elected to three four-year terms in the Senate. She became Education Committee chairwoman as a freshman senator.

Gresham’s leadership was a critical element in securing passage of Tennessee’s school voucher program. In fact, in litigation filed by the school systems in Nashville and Memphis, reference is made to Gresham’s captaining of the voucher bill from the Senate floor.


Amendment No. 1 did not apply to Sen. Gresham’s home county of Fayette County or to any of the other six counties in Sen. Gresham’s district, despite Fayette County having two out of seven schools (28.6%) on the 2017 bottom 10% list and one out of seven schools (14.3%) on the 2018 list of priority schools.

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Voucher Scheme Facing Second Lawsuit

In February, the school districts in Nashville and Memphis filed a lawsuit challenging Gov. Bill Lee’s signature legislative achievement, school vouchers. Today, parents in both districts filed a second suit challenging the so-called “Education Savings Accounts.” Here’s more from a press release:

Public school parents and community members in Nashville and Memphis today filed suit in the Chancery Court for Davidson County challenging the Tennessee Education Savings Account (ESA) voucher law as an unconstitutional diversion of public education funding to private schools.

In the lawsuit, McEwen v. Lee, the plaintiffs contend that diverting millions of dollars intended for Memphis and Nashville public schools to private schools violates public school students’ rights to the adequate and equitable educational opportunities guaranteed under the Tennessee Constitution. The lawsuit also charges that the voucher law violates the constitution’s “Home Rule” provision, which prohibits the state legislature from passing laws that apply only to certain counties.

The Tennessee voucher program would siphon off over $7,500 per student – or over $375 million in the first five years – from funds appropriated by the General Assembly to maintain and support the Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) and Shelby County (Memphis) Schools, according to the lawsuit. The controversial state law could go into effect as early as the 2020-21 school year.

The voucher law passed by a single vote in May 2019, over the objections of legislators from Shelby and Davidson Counties, as well as others.

If the voucher program is implemented, Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools will lose substantial sums from their already underfunded budgets, resulting in further cuts to educators, support staff, and other essential resources, the lawsuit states.

“We love my daughter’s school, but it is already underfunded,” said Roxanne McEwen, whose child is an MNPS student. “There isn’t enough money for textbooks, technology, to pay teachers, or to keep class sizes down. Taking more money away from our schools is only going to make it worse. I joined this lawsuit because I want to be a voice for my child and for kids who don’t have a voice.”

“I believe that Shelby County Schools do not have enough funding to provide all children with the resources they need to learn. At one of my son’s middle school, they do not offer geometry, and one of my other sons did not have a science teacher for two years in a row,” said Tracy O’Connor, whose four children attend Shelby County Schools. “If the district loses more funds due to the voucher program, I worry that we will lose more guidance counselors, reading specialists and librarians, and there will be more cuts to the foreign language and STEM programs.”

The complaint highlights numerous ways in which private schools receiving public funds are not held to the same standards as Tennessee public schools, in violation of the state constitution’s requirement of a single system of public education. Private schools do not have to adhere to the numerous academic, accountability, and governance standards that public schools must meet. They can discriminate against students on the basis of religion, LGBTQ status, disability, income level, and other characteristics. And they are not required to provide special education services to students with disabilities.

“Public schools are open to all children, while private schools receiving voucher funds are not held to the same standards,” said Nashville mother Terry Jo Bichell. “My son is non-verbal and receives extensive special education and related services in his MNPS school, including being assigned a one-on-one paraprofessional. I do not know of a single private school in the state that would be willing or able to enroll a student like my son. Even if a private school was willing to enroll my son, we would have to waive his right to receive special education.”

The voucher law also violates the Tennessee Constitution’s requirement that the General Assembly appropriate first-year funding for each law it passes. No money was appropriated for the voucher law, and recent hearings have revealed that the Tennessee Department of Education used funds from an unrelated program to pay over $1 million to a private company for administration of the voucher program.

The plaintiffs are represented by Education Law Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which collaborate on the Public Funds Public Schools (PFPS) campaign. PFPS opposes all forms of private school vouchers and works to ensure that public funds are used exclusively to maintain, support and strengthen our nation’s public schools. The plaintiffs are also represented by the ACLU of Tennessee and pro bono by the law firm Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP.

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We’ll Fix it Later

Despite significant concerns regarding a no-bid contract awarded to a vendor who will administer the state’s voucher program, legislative leaders have no plans to take action to stop ClassWallet or the Department of Education from circumventing the legislative process. That’s according to a report from the Associated Press.


Late last year, the education agency selected ClassWallet to help administer the applications and funds once the state’s voucher program begins in the summer. However, due to the department using a noncompetitive grant process to select ClassWallet, the agreement never was submitted to the Legislature for review.


This sparked alarm among some lawmakers unhappy the education agency’s decision to select ClassWallet skirted legislative scrutiny, as well as uneasiness the contract resulted in a higher dollar amount than was budgeted the year before.


After calls for further investigation were made by Democratic lawmakers, McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton asked Lee to provide proof the department acted legally.


“When we asked the governor’s office for how they were able to use this as a grant, they were able to provide some legal authority that they believe gave them that power,” McNally, a Republican, told reporters Thursday. “We still have reservations about that.”


But when asked about revisiting the education department’s decision surrounding ClassWallet, McNally said no.

To be clear: The legislature mandates various accountability measures for teachers and schools — TVAAS, Priority Schools Lists, School Improvement Plans, etc. — but, when the Department of Education fails to follow the legislative process designed to foster accountability, they get a free pass.

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Vultures Swoop into Franklin

A North Carolina-based private school hungry for voucher dollars is headed to middle Tennessee, with a first stop in Franklin. Here’s more on the revelation that Thales Academy will open its first Tennessee school in Williamson County:


Thales Academy-Franklin will be the first school in Tennessee added to Thales Academy’s successful roster of eight current campuses in the Raleigh, North Carolina area. Founder Bob Luddy emphasized their methodology of direct instruction (DI) Tuesday night and expressed the passion in their mission of teaching to master and creating connections for their students.

TNEdReport has previously reported on Thales Academy, including the founder’s strong desire to have a school based in the Nashville area:


Roughly one month after Governor Bill Lee signed his Education Savings Account voucher scheme into law, a North Carolina-based private school announced it is expanding operations to Nashville. Perhaps not surprisingly, tuition at the school is similar to the amount available to families in Nashville and Memphis under the ESA program.
The school, Thales Academy, is operated by the CEO of a commercial kitchen ventilation company. Bob Luddy is also a top GOP donor in North Carolina.

Thales also held an informational meeting in Wilson County.

The announcement regarding the opening of the Franklin-based school lends credence to the warning that “pop-up” private schools will swoop into Tennessee to feast on voucher funds:


Those who warned that passage of vouchers would lead to “pop-up” private schools have already been proven right. Thales Academy and Bob Luddy were invited into Tennessee by Bill Lee and friends and are now perched like hungry vultures ready to suck funds from Nashville’s public schools.

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Robbing Teachers to Pay ClassWallet

Here’s some video of a House legislative committee hearing focused on how ClassWallet won a no-bid contract worth more than $1.2 million OVER what the legislature allocated:

MORE on ClassWallet and Vouchers in Tennessee:

It’s getting hot in here

Bragging Rights

NO BID!

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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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