Amy Frogge on “School Choice”

Nashville school board member Amy Frogge takes on the notion of “school choice.” Here’s what she has to say:

Let’s consider for a moment the notion of “school choice.” This phrase is a political term that has been used to promote school privatization (through vouchers and charter schools). We hear the phrase frequently these days because it is spread by political PR machines to pave the way for money-making schemes through public education. This seemingly innocuous term appeals to many parents and citizens who are unaware of education policy debates and just believe that this term means allowing parents to choose great schools for their children. Of course, no one is opposed to giving parents options, but that’s not what “school choice” really means in the context of education discussions now.

As education historian Diane Ravitch documents in her most recent book, “School choice, it should be remembered, was the goal of Southern governors in the decade after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision of 1954. For many years, the term ‘school choice’ was stigmatized because most people, familiar with the backlash to the Brown decision, understood that ‘choice’ was a strategy devised by Southern governors to preserve racial segregation. The racist origins of school choice are well documented.”

Because the history of this phrase is largely forgotten, the use of this term from disparate groups makes for some strange bedfellows in the political world. On one hand, there are there are those who support “choice” from the perspective of need. These folks, primarily people of color, live in marginalized communities that have suffered decades of disinvestment. Their schools, which are segregated, underfunded, and often overcrowded, serve the neediest children without adequate support to meet the needs of those children who have experienced trauma and difficult life circumstances. When these families exercise “choice,” they are contributing to greater equity in the school system, and I am sympathetic to their circumstances. Charter schools appeal to these families, who see charters as a way to escape their neglected neighborhood schools.

On the other hand, “school choice” is also promoted by more affluent, white parents who would prefer more segregated public schools. This agenda is being driven by billionaire white men, who like to utilize (paid) people of color as the face of their movement. The white parents supporting the segregation agenda sometimes openly push to keep black children out of classrooms with their own children. In a bizarre twist, these white parents often end up advocating for “choice” alongside disenfranchised African-American parents who have suffered discrimination.

Ultimately, the real “school choice” debate should come down to equity, or in other words, ensuring that every child gets a fair shot at a great education. When children are bussed off to schools outside their zones or when families select schools across the city, the underlying question is whether those “choices” increase or decrease equity in the school district overall. I have long advocated for families on the west side to try their zoned schools, because this increases equity and also because our schools are very good, despite the bad rap they sometimes receive. I have long opposed charter schools because they decrease funding for schools serving the neediest students, because they increase school segregation, and because they are unregulated, which leads to fraud and misuse of taxpayer dollars. These, again, are equity issues.

But here’s the underlying problem: MNPS has not undertaken the work necessary to create effective pathways for ALL children to be well served. Opening the door wide to random “choice” may provide good options for some families, but leaves many more- almost always children in poverty- behind. I am hopeful that we will finally begin this work with Dr. Battle, who, having grown up in Nashville, truly understands the disparate needs of different areas of the city. The school system and the city, not parents, should be held responsible for ensuring greater equity across our district, and we should invite parents to help us in our work. The feeding frenzy we have created around the MNPS lottery system and certain schools only serves to decrease equity. The ideal is to have well-resourced schools in every neighborhood that are well supported by parents and their communities.

In the end, it’s really about the common good. “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that we must want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.” (John Dewey) We must welcome all children regardless of their circumstances, provide greater resources for schools serving children with the greatest needs, encourage parent involvement, ensure that all of our schools are safe learning environments, and build community through our neighborhood schools, no matter where they are located. That’s the real secret for success.

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TEA Pushes School Funding, Voucher Repeal

The Tennessee Education Association is pushing for increased school funding and a repeal of the state’s voucher law in this legislative session, according to a report from WMOT radio.


TEA President Beth Brown notes that the state’s per-pupil school funding is the second lowest in the Southeast. She says it’s time for lawmakers to spend Tennessee’s excess revenue on education.


“We actually have a $7.6 billion cash reserve. …and so we will be pushing very hard to see some of that revenue that’s going unbudgeted invested in our schools.”


Brown says the TEA will also support efforts this session to repeal Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher plan passed by a single vote last year.

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Gloria Johnson Exposes Voucher Discrimination

The Tennessee Holler has the video of State Rep. Gloria Johnson questioning the rules for Tennessee’s new voucher scheme and exposing the discrimination inherent in the program:

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Dirty Tricks, Bribes, Threats: It’s a Voucher Story!

The Tennessee Holler has the video of Republican State Rep. Kent Calfee explaining just how that voucher bill passed last year:

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ClassWallet Brags About TN Voucher Contract

Even as a legislative committee heard testimony this week acknowledging that the vendor chosen to administer the state’s school privatization program was awarded the contract without competitive bidding, ClassWallet was bragging about inking the Tennessee deal. Here’s the text of a recent company newsletter:


November marked a great milestone for the Company landing our 4th state contract, this one with the Tennessee Department of Education.  It’s exciting when the problem is real and ClassWallet can uniquely solve it. I have no doubt that ClassWallet will save the Department thousands of hours of time, substantially reduce the cost of program administration and provide dramatically more accountability than the alternatives.


ClassWallet has signed a contract to work with the Tennessee Department of Education. The state of Tennessee joins North Carolina, Arizona, and New Mexico as the latest state government agency that will be using ClassWallet to manage educational program fund distribution, reconciliation, and reporting.

It’s worth noting that Arizona’s ESA program has been marked with fraud, and there have been new questions raised about excessive account balances:


Of the nearly 7,000 accounts, nine have a balance of more than $100,000 and 78 were found with more than $60,000. The records were released by the Arizona Department of Public Education, and spokesman Richie Taylor said the amounts reflect the different types of disabilities students have. But the high dollar figures raised questions for some school voucher skeptics.


“If the entire premise of the ESA program is that families need these state dollars in order to go into private schools or the private sector to pay for the education that their kids need, then I’m not sure why funds would be piling up an individual accounts to the tune of $130,000 piled up; $105,000 piled up,” said Dawn Penich-Thacker with Save Our Schools Arizona. “The funds are paid out quarterly every single year because, theoretically, you’re supposed to be paying tuition or paying therapist or paying for services.”

Even pro-voucher groups are not happy with the payment processing:


Two pro-school voucher nonprofits are threatening to sue the Arizona Department of Education for failure to send on-time payments to parents whose kids use a special program to attend non-public schools.


The Goldwater Institute and the Liberty Justice Center filed a Notice of Claim against the department last week.


They allege the agency is forcing parents to pay for tuition costs out of their own pockets because checks were not mailed in time. The students are part of the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program that uses taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition, tutoring or home-school curriculum.

Maybe, like with TNReady, Tennessee will get lucky and everything will work out just fine.

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No Bid? No Surprise!

At a legislative committee meeting Monday, it was revealed that the contract that outsourced administration of the Education Savings Account (ESA) voucher scheme was awarded without competitive bidding. Chalkbeat has more:


A legislative review of new voucher rules gave Mitchell and other Democrats an opportunity to grill state education officials for almost two hours on Monday about details for the program’s start.


Among the revelations: The department did not go through a competitive bidding process or the legislature’s fiscal review committee to secure its contract with 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:


On November 21, 2017, then-Texas special education director, Laurie Kash, blew the whistle on the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) entering into a $4.4M no-bid contract with a special education data collecting company, SPEDx; she filed a report with the US Department of Education (USDOE) Office of Inspector General (OIG).

Kash’s supervisor? Penny Schwinn.

In short, Schwinn is doing what she’s always done: Bending the rules to serve her needs.

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Vouchers and Taxes

The Associated Press is reporting that after much debate, Tennessee’s school voucher plan (education savings accounts) will be counted as taxable income for some families.


Tennessee’s top education officials say a small number of parents who participate in the state’s latest school voucher imitative might be taxed for participating in the program.


The development on Monday comes after months of debate between policy officials, education advocates and lawmakers over whether the new school vouchers for private education will be considered federally taxable income for parents.

The announcement on taxes comes following a November statement by Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn that vouchers would be subject to taxes:


… Penny Schwinn dropped a bombshell yesterday when she told a legislative committee that the value of a voucher under the state’s new education savings account program would be considered taxable income for the purpose of federal taxes.

Following that announcement, Gov. Bill Lee said he didn’t believe the vouchers would be taxed. Now, it appears that at least for some recipients, accepting an education savings account will also mean accepting an increased tax burden.

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The Five Pillars of Privatization

Tennesseans for Student Success recently released a 2020 policy agenda and noted the following five pillars guiding this agenda:


Tennesseans for Student Success is kicking off the 2020 legislative session by outlining our policy pillars and how they affect student success. Our five pillars are higher academic standards, an aligned assessment to those standards, protecting accountability, innovation in education, and securing economic freedom for all. 

This sounds pretty nice, or at least rather innocuous. But, who is Tennesseans for Student Success? Here’s what their website says:


Tennesseans for Student Success is a statewide network of teachers, parents, community leaders, and volunteers who are dedicated to supporting, championing, and fighting for Tennessee’s students and their futures.

This sounds even better, right? Look! It’s everyone! All coming together to fight for our kids! We should ALL love TSS, right?!

Well, let’s take another look. It seems TSS is all about privatizing public schools. Sure, they attacked staunch public education defender and state representative Gloria Johnson a few years back. But, maybe that was an anomaly.

Then, of course, there are the candidates they strongly back.

It’s a who’s who of school voucher backers.

TSS has consistently indicated support for voucher-backers like Senators Dolores Gresham and Brian Kelsey. And, they’ve taken out ads against Republicans who dare stand in the way of Gov. Lee and the school privatization agenda:

The five pillars of TSS are nothing more than the five horsemen of the public education apocalypse. Standards and Assessment simply mean ever more testing. Protecting Accountability means using voodoo science to evaluate (and remove) teachers and keep salaries (costs) low. Education “innovation” means charter schools and vouchers (as seen in the ads above). Economic freedom for all is nothing more than saying the “market” is what should guide education policy — it’s saying we should privatize above all.

TSS is, in fact, non-partisan. They’ll attack anyone, Republican or Democrat, who stands in the way of letting privatizing profiteers get their hands on public schools.

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57 Hands Out

There are 57 private schools who have taken the first step toward receiving public support for their operations, according to a story in Chalkbeat. The news comes as Governor Lee continues to ramp up his Education Savings Account voucher scheme. The vote to authorize the plan remains under investigation by the TBI and the FBI.

From Chalkbeat:


At least 57 private schools have taken the first formal step to participate in Tennessee’s new voucher program beginning with the upcoming school year.


Leaders for 30 schools in the Memphis area, 26 in the Nashville area, and one in Knoxville have completed the state’s online form indicating their intent to participate. The list is based on information provided to Chalkbeat by the Department of Education through a public records request.

Here’s the list of those schools seeking taxpayer support without any real accountability:

Memphis area

  • Bodine School, Germantown
  • Bornblum Jewish Community School, Memphis
  • Brinkley Heights Urban Academy, Memphis
  • Central Baptist School, Memphis
  • Christian Brothers High School, Memphis
  • Christ the King Lutheran School, Memphis
  • Collegiate School of Memphis
  • Creative Life Inc., Memphis
  • Evangelical Christian School, Cordova
  • Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal School, Memphis
  • Greater Praise Christian Academy, Memphis
  • Immaculate Conception Cathedral School, Memphis
  • Immanuel Lutheran School, Memphis
  • Incarnation Catholic School, Collierville
  • Harding Academy of Memphis
  • Holy Rosary Catholic School, Memphis
  • Hutchison School, Memphis
  • Memphis Heritage Christian School, Memphis
  • Pleasant View School, Memphis
  • Presbyterian Day School, Memphis
  • SE Academy Independent School, Memphis
  • Sensational Enlightenment, Memphis
  • St. Ann Catholic School, Bartlett
  • St. Benedict at Auburndale, Cordova
  • St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School, Cordova
  • St. George’s Independent School, Collierville
  • St. Louis Catholic School, Memphis
  • St. Paul Catholic School, Memphis
  • Woodland Presbyterian School, Memphis
  • Word of Faith Christian Academy, Memphis

Nashville area

  • Akiva School, Nashville
  • Benton Hall Academy, Nashville
  • Born Again Christian Academy, Nashville
  • Christ the King School, Nashville
  • Dayspring Academy, Greenbrier
  • Ezell-Harding Christian School, Antioch
  • Gateway Academy, Nashville
  • Lighthouse Christian School, Antioch
  • Linden Waldorf School, Nashville
  • Hendersonville Christian Academy, Hendersonville
  • Holy Rosary Academy, Nashville
  • Montessori East, Nashville
  • Montgomery Bell Academy, Nashville
  • Pleasant View Christian School, Pleasant View
  • Pope John Paul II High School, Hendersonville
  • St. Ann School, Nashville
  • St. Henry School, Nashville
  • St. John Vianney School, Gallatin
  • St. Rose of Lima Catholic School, Murfreesboro
  • St. Clement Coptic Orthodox Christian Academy, Nashville
  • St. Edward School, Nashville
  • St. Joseph School, Madison
  • St. Matthew School, Franklin
  • St. Pius X Classical Academy, Nashville
  • South Haven Christian School, Springfield
  • Templeton Academy, Nashville

Elsewhere

  • First Lutheran School, Knoxville

The voucher plan is facing a serious repeal effort and also threatens to divide Republicans, at least in the House.




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Exacerbate

Dr. Bill Smith writes in the Johnson City Press that the General Assembly’s recent education policies will only exacerbate inequality.


Crowe, a 28-year veteran of the General Assembly and member of the Senate Education Committee, and his colleagues have grotesquely underfunded the BEP in recent years, and the money diverted to vouchers will exacerbate this shortcoming. Tennessee is 45th nationally in per-pupil funding and well below the Southeastern average. Expanding the voucher program will compromise funding for public education even more, and local schools will surely feel the impact.


In a May 1 article, The Tennessean reported that last year’s voucher law could cost $330 million by 2024, money that could be used instead to improve education across the state. Further, if we’ve learned anything over the years about school funding and the achievement gap, it’s that the children who most need our embrace are the ones who suffer most when educational funding is inadequate.

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