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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“REAL PROBLEMS”

Lawmakers in Governor Bill Lee’s own party are expressing concern over the rushed rollout of the state’s school voucher program, according to a story at WPLN.


Legislators are worried that the Department of Education is rushing to get school vouchers started. The agency hired an outside vendor, Florida-based ClassWallet, to help with the rollout and to track education expenses.


“When they ask for $750,000 and then spend $2.5 million without telling us, those are real problems,” Hill said.


But House GOP Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison told reporters he regrets supporting the law. He says the program isn’t being the run correctly, and although school vouchers are supposed to be implemented this year, Faison predicts that’s not going to happen.

While Republican lawmakers are questioning Lee’s Administration over the rapid rollout and no-bid contracts, Democrats have already called for a formal audit of how ClassWallet became the chosen vendor to administer vouchers.

It’s almost as if those who warned the voucher scheme would quickly get out of control were exactly right.

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ClassWallet Controversy Heats Up

Rep. Bo Mitchell of Nashville is asking for a formal investigation into how a contract to manage the state’s voucher program was awarded to ClassWallet, according to a story in Chalkbeat.


A Nashville lawmaker wants Tennessee’s chief internal investigator to look into how the Department of Education is paying for the early rollout of Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account program.


The Republican governor ordered the early rollout last summer but set aside only $771,300 for voucher work in the 2019-20 budget approved last spring. The education department has since signed a two-year contract for $2.5 million with ClassWallet, a Florida-based vendor hired to manage online accounts and applications for the voucher program. 


The education department irked many lawmakers when it signed the ClassWallet contract last fall without going through competitive bids or the legislature’s Fiscal Review Committee. 

Mitchell’s push for an investigation follows concerns over how the contract was awarded to ClassWallet:


The lack of adherence to bidding procedures should come as no surprise as Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn faced similar challenges when she held a senior level position in the Texas Education Agency.

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More on the ClassWallet Controversy

I reported previously on the controversy surrounding ClassWallet and their contract to manage the voucher program in Tennessee. This week, members of a key legislative committee questioned Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn about the issue. Here’s more:

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Testing, Vouchers No Recipe for Success in Schools

Dr. Bill Smith of Johnson City writes about the reality of current education policy in his latest piece for the Johnson City Press.


In the 40 years since Anyon’s article was published, accountability measures have standardized public school curricula, and testing pressures have kept teachers from deviating from these standards. Although there has been some effort in recent years to include higher-level learning expectations in mandated curricula, the inherent limitations of standardized testing make it unlikely that many of today’s classrooms — even in the most well-funded schools — can provide the rich, engaging learning experiences children had in the affluent professional and executive elite schools Anyon studied.


However, as Nikhil Goyal wrote in 2016, it’s noteworthy that most of our politicians have enrolled their children “in schools outside the wrath of their own education policies.” Austere budgets and high stakes testing measures that narrow the curriculum and diminish the joy of learning are good enough for our children, but not for theirs.


That’s worth remembering whenever you hear politicians yammering about how they’re going to eliminate the achievement gap with $7,000 vouchers and more incentives to raise test scores.

Smith makes the point that what our leaders have not done so far is actually meaningfully increase investment in schools. Neither a more intense focus on testing nor the offering of vouchers will actually move the needle when it comes to student outcomes.

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FILED

A lawsuit challenging the state’s voucher law has been filed by Nashville and Shelby County. Some highlights from the claim below.

Dolores Gresham

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.

Victory at any cost?

Sen. Dickerson expressed concerned about the “unfair” process, noting that House votes were acquired based on promises to exclude certain counties from the bill: 

So, for this bill to really be fair, I think it needs to apply to every child in Tennessee. There are members in this chamber who have said that they will vote for this bill because it does not apply to their county. It’s an okay bill, so long as it does not apply to their county. I think if it’s a good bill, we should embrace it for every county. And not to cut with too fine a point here, but in the, our, our chamber down the hall, the 50th vote came with the specific stipulation that this bill would not apply to the 50th vote’s county. It also came with a significant financial reward for that individual’s county, if reports are to be believed. And I really worry that this is very unfair, and this is not the way that we should be doing our business. I think this comes down to a victory at any cost.

Pilot Project

Sen. Yarbro (D-Nashville) speaking on the Senate floor on April 25, 2019, called references to a “pilot project” a “false premise.” He noted that the bill, unlike true pilot projects, did not have a “sunset” provision. Rather, he said, the bill created a permanent $110 million state program for 15,000 students in only two counties.

Funding Lost

Based on the combined statewide BEP average of $7,593 in 2019-2020, MNPS would lose 2,150 x $7,593 = approximately $16.3 million in funding for that school year. SCS would lose 2,850 x $7,593 = approximately $21.6 million in funding for the first year of implementation. This number likely underestimates the financial impact on MNPS and SCS, since the BEP per-pupil funding for 2020-2021 will likely be higher than the current year.

MNPS’s total funding loss over five years would be at least $163 million over the ESA Program’s first five years and would increase by at least $49 million annually in each succeeding year. The actual funding loss would likely be significantly higher, as the BEP per-pupil funding (whether MNPS’s or the combined statewide average) will undoubtedly increase over time.

SCS’s total funding loss over five years would be at least $216 million over the ESA Program’s first five years and would increase by at least $65 million annually in each succeeding year.

Bottom Line

Vouchers are expensive. The program as designed unfairly impacts Nashville and Shelby County. Pro-voucher lawmakers worked to ensure their own counties would NOT be included in the program.

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Challenging Vouchers in Court

Governor Bill Lee’s signature legislative achievement — school vouchers — will face a legal challenge from the City of Nashville, Chalkbeat reports:


Tennessee’s new voucher law is expected to get its first legal challenge this week from Nashville and its school district.


Attorneys for Metropolitan Nashville government were putting the finishing touches on a complaint Wednesday that’s expected to name Gov. Bill Lee and his education commissioner, Penny Schwinn, concerning the controversial 2019 law.


A special called meeting of the school board for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools is set for Thursday morning, where Mayor John Cooper and his law director, Bob Cooper, are scheduled to deliver an “important announcement,” according to a notice shared Wednesday with news organizati

The vote to authorize vouchers is under separate investigations from both the FBI and TBI.

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The Truth About National School Choice Week

Jeremy Mohler of In the Public Interest tells the real story of National School Choice Week:

Last week was “National School Choice Week,” and odds are you’re confused. Why was there a week dedicated to something nobody would argue against? Shouldn’t every child be able to attend a great school?

The answers lie in who paid for the bright yellow scarves and signs on display at last week’s thousands of events.

Surely some well-meaning parents and students celebrated. But they were joined by powerful people who, despite what they say, don’t believe that every child deserves a great school.

Instead, these people believe in a certain kind of choice over all others. In their worldview, market choice is more important than democracy, parents are consumers rather than members of a broader community, and education is a competition between students, with winners and losers.

National School Choice Week was founded in 2011 by the Gleason Family Foundation, the philanthropy arm of a machine tool manufacturing company in Rochester, New York. As of 2017—the most recent year data is publicly available, albeit incomplete—the foundation gave at least $688,000 to organize the self-described “nonpartisan, nonpolitical, independent public awareness effort.” The total is likely higher—in 2014, the foundation’s spending on the week topped $4.3 million.

The Gleason Family Foundation has little public presence, not even a website, but much can be gleaned from who it supports. As of 2016, it had given money to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Cato Institute, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice (now called EdChoice), and countless other conservative organizations bent on privatizing public education.

So, the “choice” in National School Choice Week clearly means certain educational options, namely private school vouchers and charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated.

But it goes further than that. By recklessly pushing vouchers and charter schools at all costs, the privatizers funding the school choice movement actually aim to eliminate choices for parents, students, and teachers.

Shouldn’t parents have the choice to send their child to a well-funded neighborhood public school? Yet, private school vouchers siphon precious funding from public school districts, many of them already struggling to raise revenue.

Additionally, research has shown that each new charter school that opens diverts money from districts. Charter schools cost Oakland, California’s school district $57.3 million per year, meaning $1,500 less in funding for each student who attends a neighborhood school. Last fall, the struggling district moved forward with a plan to begin closing 24 of its 80 schools. Budget pressure caused by unlimited charter school growth surely contributed to this decision.

Simply put, allowing more and more charter schools to open threatens the existence of by-right, neighborhood public schools.

Polling shows that parents prefer neighborhood public schools, as long as those schools receive adequate investment. A majority of Americans also agree that public schools need more money. Yet, the well-funded, conservative members of the school choice movement don’t agree with these choices.

ALEC and think tanks like Cato are staunch advocates for lower taxes on corporations and the wealthy, which has slowly drained money from America’s public education system, especially in the wake of the 2008 recession.

The majority of states continue to spend less on education than they did ten years ago. More than half of the country’s public schools are in need of repairs. In 2018, more than 60 percent of schools didn’t employ a full- or part-time nurse. Nationally, teacher pay is so low, nearly 1 in 5 teachers works a second job.

This all fits squarely with the school choice movement’s worldview that market competition belongs everywhere, even in public education. Instead of investing in all public schools, and especially those where the needs are greatest, the likes of the Gleason Family Foundation want our communities to leave public education up to private markets.

Simply put, the funders of National School Choice Week don’t share the same values as the many parents who just want a great school for their child.

Here’s what school choice should mean: every family should be able to make their neighborhood school their top choice, and every school should be a first choice for somebody.

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