Glory Days

Remember when UT was actually good at football? Not just good, the best. The Peyton Manning years. Tee Martin and the perfect season and national title. Remember that? What if I looked at you today and said, “UT Football is the best in the nation?”

You’d think I was crazy. Or that I was wishing for those glory days of the Big Orange that have, for now, passed us by.

What if I started talking about an event that happened SIX YEARS AGO that made Tennessee look really good in the education world? Would you say: Yes, but what about now?


But not if you’re a Tennessee lawmaker pushing Governor Bill Lee’s school privatization agenda.

Specifically, House Education Committee Chair Mark White trotted out the “Tennessee is the fastest-improving state in the nation” on NAEP in math and reading line yesterday during debate on Lee’s ESA voucher scheme.

Then, Matthew Hill talked about how much Tennessee has invested in teacher pay over the years, as if our legislature has actually done something meaningful in the form of teacher pay raises.

White’s claim is nothing more than living in the “glory days” of Tennessee education policy. Hill’s claim is clearly, demonstrably false.

Here’s the deal: Back in 2013, Tennessee had a solid year on the NAEP — the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In fact, in key areas, Tennessee saw growth that outpaced the nation. It was, if nothing else, an encouraging sign.

Of course, there was reason to be cautious, even then:

Yes, Tennessee should celebrate its growth.  But policymakers should use caution when seeing the results from the last 2 years as a validation of any particular policy.  Long-term trends indicate that big gains are usually followed by steady maintenance. And, even with the improvement, Tennessee has a long way to go to be competitive with our peers. Additionally, education leaders should be concerned about the troubling widening of the rich/poor achievement gap  – an outcome at odds with stated policy goals and the fundamental principle of equal opportunity.

White might have a point about Tennessee’s tremendous success on NAEP if we’d sustained that growth demonstrated in 2013. But, we didn’t. In fact, it seems the 2013 numbers were a bit of an outlier.

First, notice that between 2009 and 2011, Tennessee saw drops in 4th and 8th grade reading and 8th grade math. That helps explain the “big gains” seen in 2013. Next, note that in 4th and 8th grade reading and 4th grade math, our 2017 scores are lower than the 2013 scores. There’s that leveling off I suggested was likely. Finally, note that in 4th and 8th grade reading, the 2017 scores are very close to the 2009 scores. So much for “fastest-improving.”

Tennessee is four points below the national average in both 4th and 8th grade math. When it comes to reading, we are 3 points behind the national average in 4th grade and 5 points behind in 8th grade.

But maybe we’re closing the achievement gap? Nope.

Back in 2013, Tennessee students eligible for free/reduced lunch had an average NAEP reading score of 256 and scored 20 points below the non-eligible students. Now, that average score is 252 (four points worse) and 19 points below. For 4th grade, there’s a similar story, with free/reduced lunch eligible students scoring 25 points below their non-eligible peers this year. Four years ago, it was 26 points.

So, we had one really good year on the NAEP. Back in 2013. SIX YEARS AGO. And, well, that was awesome — unless you’re actually concerned about kids from low-income families. Oh, and it’s worth noting that this 2013 progress so often lauded by today’s lawmakers happened before a single student took a TNReady test. In fact, our scores have leveled off during the TNReady testing era.

But what about the claim from Hill about teacher pay? So many legislators suggested that Tennessee’s teachers are faring much better with the state’s “big commitment” to teacher pay in recent years. Even Jason “Judas” Zachary cited teacher pay raises in his video explaining his vote in favor of using public money to fund private schools.

Well, about that:

Average teacher salaries in the United States improved by about 4% from the Haslam Promise until this year. Average teacher salaries in Tennessee improved by just under 2% over the same time period. So, since Bill Haslam promised teachers we’d be the fastest improving in teacher pay, we’ve actually been improving at a rate that’s half the national average. No, we’re not the slowest improving state in teacher pay, but we’re also not even improving at the average rate.

So, that one time, Tennessee did that one thing that was kinda awesome. Since then, there’s been a lot of rhetoric and not much tangible improvement.

Oh, and even though we did have a really great year in 2013, we’re still 45th in the nation in school funding we now spend $67 LESS per pupil than we did in 2010 in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Glory days, indeed.

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Governor Bill Lee and his school privatization friends Betsy DeVos and Lee Beaman scored a major victory today as school voucher legislation passed the House on a 50-48 vote and earned approval in the Senate Finance Committee by a vote of 6-5.

The measure advanced in the House after an apparent 49-49 tie vote on the initial tally. After holding the vote open for nearly 40 minutes, Speaker Glen Casada and Majority Leader William Lamberth were able to convince Rep. Jason Zachary (R-Knoxville) to switch his initial NO vote to a YES. No word on what commitments or rewards Zachary secured in exchange for his betrayal of Knox County — a district directly impacted by the voucher legislation. It’s worth noting the school board in Knox County was one of the first in the state to speak out against vouchers and Knox County parents and teachers protested Bill Lee on his latest visit to the area because of Lee’s support for vouchers. Still, Zachary changed his vote after a back porch meeting with Casada, so it’ll be interesting to see how he explains that.

Over in the Senate, the voucher bill looks somewhat different. Just one week ago, Senator Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga indicated his opposition to the Governor’s voucher scheme. Today, the bill passed 6-5 with Gardenhire voting in favor. Some changes were made, ostensibly to secure Gardnehire’s support.

Now, the Senate bill heads to the floor on Thursday (4/25). The Senate and House versions have some key differences, so even if it secures Senate passage, those changes will likely be worked out in a conference committee. Given the extremely close House vote, those changes could spell trouble for the ultimate voucher package.

The question remains: What did Jason Zachary get in exchange for his YES vote?

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Bill Lee’s Wingman

We’ve already seen Bill Lee and his team of school privatizers use desperate measures in order to win votes for their “educational savings account” voucher scheme, but the latest effort reaches a new low. Team Lee turned to conservative mega-donor Lee Beaman (who gave Lee’s gubernatorial campaign $8000 in 2018) to pen an article in defense of school vouchers.

While the opposition to school vouchers includes resolutions from 44 school boards around the state, groups of parents, teachers, charitable foundations, civil rights groups, and even a former Senate sponsor of voucher legislation, the support appears to come from a small group of big money backers. The public face chosen for this group? A guy with a porn addiction who taped himself having sex with prostitutes in order to teach his wife how to better please him. You might say he’s certainly a fan of choice.

Beaman and Lee have been working together for years to bring school privatization to Tennessee. Both Bill Lee and Lee Beaman have been consistent supporters of the Tennessee affiliate of Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children, a group that works to undermine public education and advance school vouchers.

It’s no surprise, then, that after bringing Betsy DeVos to Nashville, Bill Lee would turn to his other voucher buddy, Lee Beaman, to advance his privatization agenda.

In fact, as I wrote in December, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Bill Lee is taking our state down this dangerous road:

Even though as early as 2016, Bill Lee was extolling the virtues of school voucher schemes and even though he’s a long-time supporter of Betsy DeVos’s pro-voucher Tennessee Federation for Children and even though he has appointed not one, but two voucher vultures to high level posts in his Administration, it is somehow treated as “news” that Bill Lee plans to move forward with a voucher scheme agenda in 2019.

Now, we’ve got Lee Beaman as the face and voice of vouchers ahead of a week when the privatization scheme known as ESAs will face key votes in the House and Senate.

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TEA to Host March on Monday

The Tennessee Education Association will host a march to the Capitol on Monday, April 22nd to express opposition to Governor Bill Lee’s voucher plan.

The event will begin at TEA headquarters, 801 2nd Ave. North at 3:30 PM and will proceed to the Capitol at 4 PM.

More details here.

Lee’s voucher proposal will face a vote in the Senate Finance Committee on April 23rd and is also slated to be considered on the House floor on the 23rd.

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Maddox Fund Opposes ESAs

A statement from the Dan and Margaret Maddox Fund on Governor Bill Lee’s voucher plan:

Since 2008, the Dan and Margaret Maddox Charitable Fund has been partnering with nonprofit organizations that are working to improve the lives of young people in Middle Tennessee.  Core to our values is knowing that education and knowledge are transformative.  Understanding this as an education funder, we feel that Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs) will be a detriment to ensuring that all children can access high-quality educational opportunities.

Educational Savings Accounts would divert funds away from public schools and the students that need them.

Tennessee currently ranks 45th in the nation for public spending on education.  Allowing these already scarce resources to potentially go to private institutions through ESAs would place a greater strain on our currently under-funded public schools.  ESAs would not be made accessible to all students.  Out of the 145,000 students living in low-income households across the state, only 5,000 would receive an ESA in this first year.  Requirements for documentation would also bar some of Tennessee’s most vulnerable students from these educational opportunities.  The $7,300 provided by ESAs may not fully cover the tuition for students to attend private schools and does little to address the multitude of other barriers that families face like transportation.

Accountability and measurement are important for making sure that education programs are truly making an impact.  Maddox asks its nonprofit partners to be able to demonstrate their success, but studies on ESAs and similar voucher-based interventions have shown that they have little impact on student achievement and are less effective than other programs in addressing attendance and graduation rates.  There is little accountability to the students accessing ESAs.  Students attending private schools will not be held to the same academic assessments.  There are also no provisions to ensure that English language learners, students with Individual Education Plans, or those with special needs are not discriminated against in the admissions process.

ESAs will only make educational opportunities available to a select few and without any oversight, would potentially further disparities for our state’s low-income communities.

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

Done Dirt Cheap

Desperate for votes for his voucher scheme to send public tax dollars to unaccountable private schools, Governor Bill Lee appears to be going along with a plan unveiled by House Republicans yesterday to buy off rural legislators with a tiny grant program. Let’s call it what it is: bribery.

Here’s the deal: The new plan eliminates Madison County from the list of districts where students will initially be eligible for Education Savings Accounts. That’s likely intended to win over the votes of Madison County Republicans wavering in their support of Lee’s proposal. It means that only students in Shelby, Knox, Hamilton, and Davidson counties will be eligible for the program when it launches (if it should pass).

Next, the plan redirects funds originally intended to help urban districts to rural districts. Again, this is nothing more than throwing money at lawmakers (and their districts) in order to secure the needed 50 votes for passage in the House.

Here’s a breakdown of how that would work:

In the first year, school districts outside the four counties identified in the program would split up $6.2 million. In the second, schools in the 91 counties would share $12.5 million. In the third year, the aforementioned counties would receive $18.7 million.

91 counties would divide a relatively small amount of funds. In the first year, if the grants were evenly divided among all counties, each county would receive an additional $68,000. That’s barely enough to fund a single position in most districts.

The amended proposal also pushes the amount of the voucher to $7500. That means at full implementation (currently imagined at 30,000 students), the total annual cost would be $225 million.

That’s enough to give every teacher in the state a raise of roughly 8%. That’s $225 million NOT available to fund the BEP or to enhance our current funding formula by improving ratios for RTI or school counselors or nurses.

Instead of adding the elements needed to make our public schools a success, Bill Lee and the House GOP envision giving that money away to private schools that don’t have to take the state’s TNReady test.

The legislation is currently scheduled to be heard in Senate Finance and on the House floor on Tuesday, April 23rd.

Oh, and if you’re a legislator not susceptible to this type of cheap bribery, Lee and his team will ensure you face pain in the form of attack ads paid for by pleasant-sounding dark money groups with names like Tennessee Federation for Children and Tennesseans for Student Success.

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One Scheme at a Time

The Senate Finance Committee was slated to take up both Governor Lee’s charter authorizer bill and his plan to voucherize Tennessee public schools today. Instead, the committee only completed discussion on the charter bill, ultimately approving it and moving it forward.

Apparently, the voucher legislation will have to wait at least a week as revelations about growing opposition are causing concern among Governor Lee’s team.

In fact, in a budget update presented to the committee, Lee’s Finance Commissioner noted that $25 million was being dedicated to fight Hepatitis C in Tennessee prison. Where’d that money come from? It’s the exact amount previously dedicated to year one of Lee’s voucher scheme.

Commissioner McWhorter said the money shift would not impact the voucher scheme in year one, but the move raised questions among advocates and critics alike.

It’s entirely possible the Senate Finance Committee is waiting to see how the House acts on vouchers before taking a controversial vote. It’s also quite possible the votes simply aren’t there for a voucher plan this year.

Tune in next week to see what, if anything, the Senate does with vouchers. Will a weekend of arm-twisting by Bill Lee move a vote or two? Will the House advance the bill and thereby push the Senate to act?

The drama continues …

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This One’s for Dolores

Last week, Senate Education Committee chair Dolores Gresham accused public school principals of viewing kids as “profit centers” during a hearing on Governor Bill Lee’s voucher legislation. This meme tells the real story: Privatizers seek profit from our kids by way of publicly-funded vouchers.

What’s your meme? Got a message about school privatization? Send it my way:

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Equity Coalition Opposes Vouchers

Here’s a statement from the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition opposing Governor Bill Lee’s school voucher proposal:

The Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition formed in 2016 in order to harness the influence and voices of a diverse group of civil rights and education advocacy organizations and leaders across the state. From the beginning, our shared policy priorities centered on addressing the chronic disparities in opportunities, achievement and outcomes for students of color, and those learning English, living in poverty or with a disability. We applaud Governor Lee for making education a priority in his first year, and for investing in teacher pay, and increased access to advanced courses, STEM programs, career and technical education, and post-secondary programs for incarcerated Tennesseans. We worked closely with Commissioner McQueen and the Tennessee Department of Education on the design and implementation of the Tennessee ESSA plan, and remain committed to ongoing partnership with the new administration.

However, many of our Coalition members believe that Governor Lee’s Education Savings Account proposal (SB 795/HB 939) is not aligned to our priorities. Parents must be empowered to make the best possible educational choice for their child, but this bill is not in keeping with the course we have set as a state over the past decade, and which has yielded improvement across all student groups. It is not designed to serve our students that are most in need, and it codifies educational practices that are exclusionary and discriminatory.

First, this bill, does not address the needs of low-income students or those attending our lowest performing schools. In fact, it provides middle income students in top-performing public schools the opportunity to access public funds for private instruction. The $7300 voucher is not considered payment in full to participating private schools, and represents only a fraction of the actual cost of most private schools in Tennessee. It is unlikely that low-income families can cover the remainder of tuition cost, fees, and other indirect expenses, reducing their chances of participating. The income threshold, set at $65,000 for a family of four, will expand the number of families that can participate, thereby reducing the number of available vouchers for low-income students. Additionally, students from any school in one of the qualifying districts can apply for a voucher, regardless of its quality.

Second, this ESA bill does not guarantee school choice. Private schools will continue to adhere to their admissions criteria, despite receiving voucher money.  They decide who may enroll in their schools, and can legally deny entry to students based on gender, ability, language of origin, sexual orientation, or religious and social beliefs. The Governor’s legislation explicitly discriminates against undocumented families, prohibiting families with undocumented parents from participating, even if the student is an American citizen. This feature of the ESA bill will trigger an immediate and costly legal challenge. The Supreme Court has long recognized that “where the state has undertaken to provide an educational opportunity, it must be made available to all on equal terms.” Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202, 223 (1982) Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 493 (1954)

Third, families with students with disabilities are required to waive their rights to protections under the Individuals with Disabilities Act once they accept a voucher. These include the right to disciplinary protections, accommodations for instruction or assessments, or access to services laid out in a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).

Additionally, the most recent Senate version of the ESA bill does not require students to take the TNReady assessment, and allows them to take an alternate norm-referenced test. Tennesseans need to know if this financial investment is benefiting students, and families must understand how well private schools are serving students with vouchers. If public dollars are to be diverted to private schools, they should be held accountable according to the framework we use to evaluate all public schools, and that must include the administration of TNReady.

Student achievement ought to be the driving force behind any education reform initiative, and the impact of school vouchers on student success is inconclusive at best. Research does confirm that current initiatives in Tennessee, such as the Innovation Zones, are demonstrating success with our lowest performing schools.  Tennessee must continue to make investments in proven strategies that are making a tangible difference in communities and in the lives of students most in need.

Tennessee has dramatically improved student achievement in K-12 education, setting records for academic progress, and relying on innovative collaboration in order to keep the focus on what is best for students. SB 795/HB 939 will be a step backwards in the progress we have made over the past decade. It is our belief that Governor Lee and our state legislature must set bold goals for all 1 million public school students in Tennessee, and invest our funding and resources on increasing their odds of success. We remain committed to working with the Governor Lee and the Tennessee Department of Education on serving and supporting all students in our state.

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