REPEAL

Representative Bo Mitchell of Nashville has filed legislation that would repeal Education Savings Accounts (vouchers), Gov. Bill Lee’s signature legislative achievement from 2019.

The move comes with the House of Representatives now being led by Speaker Cameron Sexton, a long-time opponent of vouchers and supporter of public schools. Sexton told an audience in his home district:


“We should do everything we can to improve all public schools in the state of Tennessee so they can be successful,” he said. “I would rather go that route than the voucher route.”

So far, the voucher repeal bill has only Democratic co-sponsors. It will be interesting to see if Sexton and other anti-voucher Republicans join the effort or put forward their own voucher repeal effort.

While Governor Bill Lee has suggested speeding up implementation of the voucher scheme, Sexton has called for putting on the brakes pending the outcome of an FBI investigation into the House vote on the bill.

It will also be interesting to see if legislators take action in 2020 to address the underlying issues — poverty and funding — impacting school success.

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$300 Million

Here are some interesting facts about Wisconsin’s school voucher program. These could be relevant here as Tennessee’s plan is estimated to cost as much as $300 million when fully implemented. Ask yourself: What happens when $300 million is no longer available for the BEP?

2019: 38,862 students at 284 schools statewide receive publicly funded vouchers to attend private schools in 2018-2019. Total cost: $311,470,259.04 (estimated).

Compare to 2018: 35,420 students at 240 school statewide received vouchers in 2017-2018. Total cost of vouchers in 2017-2018: 274,003,172.65 (estimated).

Over 55% of the entire student population of participating schools receive vouchers in 2018.

Only 28% of students receiving vouchers ever attended a public school.

Every year, the enrollment cap is increased by 1% of the local public school district’s enrollment, allowing more students to enter the program. In the 2026 school year, that cap is set in state law to come off entirely.

Students receiving vouchers in 2018-2019 must qualify by income. For the statewide program, that’s 220% of poverty; for the Milwaukee and Racine programs, it’s 300% of poverty. In contrast, students who qualify for Free & Reduced Lunch in public schools must meet at 185% poverty threshold.

Source: Department of Public Instruction
https://dpi.wi.gov/sms/choice-programs/data

Can Tennessee afford a $300 million voucher scheme that Bill Lee wants to fast track?

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Hot Chicken, Sex, and Vouchers

Originally published in The Progressive, this piece tells the story of the ongoing battle over vouchers in Tennessee:

After a years-long fight, the Tennessee General Assembly and Governor Bill Lee finally succeeded in establishing a school voucher scheme for the state. Lee made vouchers the signature piece of his legislative agenda during the 2019 session, and his push proved pivotal. The so-called Education Savings Account plan passed the state House of Representatives in April by just one vote

The story of how Tennessee became the latest state to succumb to the Betsy DeVos-backed voucher craze involves more than just an earnest first-term governor using his political goodwill to secure passage of controversial legislation. There’s an ongoing FBI probe. There’s a scandal that took down the pro-voucher House Speaker featuring cocaine and texts about a sexual encounter in a hot chicken restaurant

Lee’s zeal to create and implement a voucher plan a year ahead of schedule—despite all of this controversy and in the face of public opposition—now threatens to divide the Republican supermajority in the state’s political leadership. In fact, on August 23, the House chose an avowed voucher opponent, former GOP Caucus Chair Cameron Sexton, as a new Speaker. Sexton voted against Lee’s plan, and is now expressing opposition to Lee’s plan to accelerate the program.

Does any of this give Bill Lee pause? Not at all. The former head of a heating and air conditioning company he inherited from his family, Lee is used to getting his way. Now, his allies at the American Federation for Children (more about them soon) are using online ads to attack Republican lawmakers who opposed vouchers.

Just to be clear: The Republican Governor of Tennessee is attacking Republican lawmakers (who support most of his agenda) simply because these lawmakers voted against a voucher plan that is now state law and will soon be implemented. 


Why is Lee so adamant about vouchers that he would take out members of his own team? First, he’s been committed to vouchers for some time. In 2016 he wrote of his voucher plan, “The Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act would allow families to take a portion of the funding already spent on their child’s education and send him or her to the private school of their choice. For children languishing in schools that are failing to meet their needs, especially in urban areas like Nashville and Memphis, this proposal represents a much-needed lifeline for Tennessee families.”

Never mind that the evidence suggests vouchers actually cause students to lose ground academically. Bill Lee likes them and he’s going to do all he can to see them implemented—even if that puts him at odds with the new house speaker.

Second, his top policy advisers come from pro-voucher groups. His legislative affairs director is the former state director of TennesseeCAN, and before that headed up StudentsFirst in the state. Both of those organizations are longtime supporters of “school choice” in all its forms. His policy director came to the governor’s office after having served as Tennessee state director of American Federation for Children, an organization Betsy DeVos co-founded and once led.

Third, it’s about money. Records at the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance indicate StudentsFirst spent more than $200,000 lobbying the legislature on school choice in 2014 (when Lee’s current Legislative Affairs Director was heading the group). Additionally, the group spent nearly $600,000 on legislative campaigns that year by way of a political action committee. Likewise, in 2018, the Tennessee arm of American Federation for Children spent just over $250,000 on campaigns. 

That’s a lot of campaign money going out, but where does all the public money these vouchers will spend end up going?

Well, roughly one month after the voucher bill was signed into law, a North Carolina-based private school announced plans to expand into Nashville. The school, Thales Academy, notes it does not offer transportation, a cafeteria, athletic programs, or special education services. They will, however, accept Tennessee tax dollars to pay for student tuition. 

Closer to home, perhaps, is the private school affiliated with the church Lee attends. The school, Grace Christian Academy,  recently expanded and now offers a full K-12 experience for students. 

This type of opportunistic expansion is just what new House Speaker Sexton warned about in an address to a local school board in his district back in 2017:

“For Sexton, the vouchers offer ‘false hope’ because the vouchers can’t cover the entire cost of private school tuition,” reported the Crossville Chronicle at the time. “That could lead to a boom of private for-profit schools opening that would accept the voucher funds, ‘which may or may not be great schools,’ Sexton said.”

Turns out, Sexton was right on target. Now, he’s at odds with a governor from his own party. Based on how Lee has treated others who have opposed his aggressive school privatization agenda, Sexton may be the next in line to receive “friendly fire.”

The question going forward will be whether Sexton can navigate his House colleagues toward a long-term solution that favors public schools as he suggested soon after being appointed as speaker: “We should do everything we can to improve all public schools in the state of Tennessee so they can be successful,” he said. “I would rather go that route than the voucher route.”

Or, will Sexton become a victim of the forces of privatization led by the likes of Betsy DeVos and Bill Lee and backed by seemingly endless funding? 

The result of this internecine struggle over vouchers in Tennessee could determine how the GOP addresses the issue across the country. 


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Dunn Done? Done!

It seems the formal announcement of a challenger was all it took to make Rep. Bill Dunn, the prime sponsor of controversial voucher legislation, decide to retire.

The Tennessee Journal reports:

Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, the longest-serving Republican in the state House, says he won’t run for re-election next year. Dunn was the lead House sponsor of this year’s controversial school voucher legislation. He had already drawn a primary opponent.

“After the 2019 session was over, and we had passed Educational Savings Accounts legislation, as well as one of the most pro-life measures in the country, House Bill 1029, I decided it was the right time to conclude my public service on a high note,” Dunn said in a statement.

Knox County School Board member Patti Bounds is the only announced Republican running for the seat Dunn currently holds.

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Wrong Direction

Even as neighboring districts like Sumner County move to significantly increase teacher pay, teachers in Metro Nashville find their salaries stagnating.

Ben Hall of NewsChannel5 reports that a teacher in Metro with 15 years of experience actually earns LESS money today than a teacher with 15 years of experience earned back in 2012:


It’s hard to believe, but a Metro teacher with a Bachelor’s Degree and 15 years experience is paid less today than a teacher in that same position back in 2012. As you can see in the chart above, in 2012-2013 teachers on Step 15 made just over $52,089. Today, seven years later, Step 15 is valued at $51,772.

This chart shows the stagnation of teacher pay in MNPS

The problem of low teacher pay in Nashville is not new. In fact, in 2015, I reported on teacher pay in Nashville relative to peer districts and noted that at that time, starting pay was reasonably competitive, but pay for experienced teachers lagged behind:

Just three hours north of Nashville in a city with similar demographics and cost of living, a teacher can earn significantly better pay over a career. While a teacher in Louisville starts out making slightly less than a new Nashville teacher, by year 10, the Louisville teacher makes $9,000 more than her Nashville counterpart and by year 20, that difference stretches to $15,000. The lifetime earnings of a teacher in Louisville significantly outpace those of a teacher in Nashville.

In 2017, I updated this analysis with a comparison to Louisville:


A Nashville teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 20 years experience makes $56,000. In Louisville, that teacher makes $71,000. A teacher working in Louisville with 20 years experience earns $22,000 more a year than that city’s “comfortable living” salary. In fact, they earn more than Nashville’s “comfortable” salary.


How about the top of the pay scale? At year 25, a Nashville teacher earns $57,000. In Louisville, it’s just over $72,000.


Some may note that teachers often earn advance degrees over the course of their career and that boosts pay. That’s true. So, a teacher with a master’s degree working in Nashville earns $62,600 at the top of the scale. In Louisville, it’s $78,000.


Imagine working for 25 years in the same profession, earning an advanced degree in your field, and making $7000 less than the “comfortable living” salary for your city? That’s what’s happening in MNPS.

In short, teacher pay in Nashville has been an “area of concern” for years now. So far, little has been done to address it. Yes, the state should absolutely put forward its fair share — though Bill Lee wants that money spent on vouchers. But, Nashville has the resources to significantly boost teacher pay. That the city has chosen not to should tell you all you need to know about the priorities of those in power.

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Dunn Done?

Knox County School Board member Patti Bounds is officially in the race to take on Rep. Bill Dunn, reports KnoxTNToday:

Bounds has been contemplating a race for state representative for some time. The former elementary school teacher has served on the school board for five years, while incumbent Bill Dunn has served in the legislature since 1994. The two Republicans share similar views except on one fundamental issue: school vouchers. Dunn was the prime sponsor of Gov. Bill Lee’s bill for vouchers that passed by one vote after several deals were cut and most counties eliminated. Bounds supports public education and will resist efforts to divert state revenue toward private or church schools through vouchers.

The voucher legislation sponsored by Dunn passed the House by a single vote. That vote is now under investigation by the FBI. The Senate sponsor of the voucher legislation is also facing an FBI investigation.

In fact, while Bounds has experience as an educator and tireless advocate for public school students and teachers, Dunn has been at the forefront of the effort to privatize Tennessee’s public schools for years. That fight highlights the influence of big money from outside special interests:

The answer is shockingly simple and unsurprising: money. The details, though, reveal an unrelenting push to dismantle America’s public schools. Yes, this story includes familiar characters like Betsy DeVos and the Koch brothers joining forces with a Tennessee cast to advance their vision for our nation’s schools. That vision: Public money flowing to private schools with little regard for the impact on students. In fact, the evidence is pretty clear—vouchers simply don’t achieve their stated goal of helping kids improve academic outcomes. Tennessee’s plan could result in taking more than $300 million away from local school districts to support private entities.

Will Republican voters stick with Dunn, who led the effort to use public money for private schools, or will they choose an educator and public school advocate?

Patti Bounds


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No Positive Gains

As Governor Bill Lee seeks to accelerate implementation of his school voucher scheme amid an FBI probe into the House vote on the legislation, more evidence is emerging suggesting school vouchers are harmful to students.

Two professors studying the issue offer this analysis in a recent article in The Hill:


Researchers — including several voucher advocates — have conducted nine rigorous, large-scale studies since 2015 on achievement in voucher programs. In no case did these studies find any statistically positive achievement gains for students using vouchers. But seven of the nine studies found that voucher students saw relative learning losses. Too often, these losses were substantial.


For instance, research on Louisiana’s program indicates that when some children performing squarely in the average range use a voucher to enroll in a private school, their scores fall almost to the lowest performing quartile of students overall. And initial hopes that those losses were temporary have not panned out.

Why would Tennessee’s Governor push a voucher scheme he knows won’t work?

It’s because he doesn’t care.

Bill Lee has long been a voucher advocate and ally of and donor to organizations backed by Betsy DeVos.

His service to the DeVos agenda means more to him than doing what’s best for Tennessee kids. Lee is willing to take money from Tennessee public schools and transfer to unaccountable private entities no matter what the evidence says. Here’s why:

The answer is shockingly simple and unsurprising: money. The details, though, reveal an unrelenting push to dismantle America’s public schools. Yes, this story includes familiar characters like Betsy DeVos and the Koch brothers joining forces with a Tennessee cast to advance their vision for our nation’s schools. That vision: Public money flowing to private schools with little regard for the impact on students. In fact, the evidence is pretty clear—vouchers simply don’t achieve their stated goal of helping kids improve academic outcomes. Tennessee’s plan could result in taking more than $300 million away from local school districts to support private entities.

What’s more disappointing is the willingness of members of the Tennessee General Assembly to go along with this charade.

Instead of improving Tennessee’s investment in public schools, our state continues to lag behind — we’re at least $500 million short of properly funding the BEP – the state’s funding formula for schools.

Let me point out again that the authors reference nine studies — in seven, students LOST GROUND academically as a result of accepting vouchers. There were NO POSITIVE GAINS.

Vouchers don’t work. At all.

Governor Lee knows this. His team knows it. The leaders in the House and Senate know it.

They just don’t care. If they did, we wouldn’t see numbers like this year after year:

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Bill Lee’s $200 Million Dream

During the voucher debate this past legislative session, I wrote about Governor Bill Lee’s Arizona Dream. I noted that Lee seemed determined to turn Tennessee into the same type of fraud-riddled education mess that decimated school funding in the Grand Canyon State.

Now, of course, the FBI is investigating Tennessee’s voucher vote. But instead of caution, Bill Lee is hitting the gas pedal and trying to move vouchers into our state even faster.

Let’s take a look at how that’s gone in Arizona:


Last year, nearly $200 million which otherwise would have been in the state’s coffers, money which could have been used to boost our shamefully low education budget, is paying for children to go to private schools.


Private school tuition tax credits, the state’s first voucher program, began in 1999. Back then, before vouchers, 44,050 students attended Arizona’s private schools, about 5 percent of the student population.

How did private school enrollment look in 2015, the most recent year I can find data for? In 2015, the number had risen to 46,250, which is an addition of 2,200 students over 17 years of taxpayer-funded vouchers — about 130 new students a year. That doesn’t sound like the kind growth you should expect given the investment we’re making.



Here’s a math problem for you. If Arizona had 2,200 more private school students in 2015 than in 1999, and in 2015, we spent $150 million on vouchers. How much were taxpayers pitching in for each new student? You’ll probably need to grab a calculator to figure it out, so let me give you the answer. It comes to $68,200 per new student.


$68,000 PER STUDENT.

That’s the cost to advance a voucher agenda that all the evidence indicates will fail the children it is designed to help.

That’s Bill Lee’s Arizona Dream. That’s the scheme he’s trying to foist (quickly) on Tennesseans.

Don’t let anyone tell you Bill Lee is a fiscal conservative who cares about protecting taxpayer dollars.

Here’s what his agenda makes clear: Bill Lee wants to take YOUR tax dollars and spend them on private entities regardless of outcome. Just because.

That’s bad policy. It’s fiscally irresponsible. It tells you all you need to know about Bill Lee.

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Vroom Vroom Vouchers

Governor Bill Lee is putting his school privatization scheme on the fast track. Marta Aldrich of Chalkbeat is all over the story, with news of Lee’s desire to rapidly grow the voucher program and reports of a new hire in the Department of Education to advance the voucher agenda.

Here’s more:


When Tennessee lawmakers signed off on an education voucher program this spring, they included a deadline: The program must start by the 2021-22 school year. 


Now, Gov. Bill Lee wants to cut that timeline in half, launching the program just a year from now — a prospect that has advocates and even some allies expressing concerns.


The Republican governor has directed the state education department to work with the Tennessee Board of Education so the controversial program can kick off for the 2020-21 school year, Chalkbeat has confirmed.

And, Amity Schuyler has been tapped to oversee voucher implementation:


“She comes from Florida where they already have education savings accounts, she’s done lots of voucher-ESA work, and she understands what it’s like from a district perspective,” Schwinn said of Schuyler.


“She also believes in education savings accounts. And to take the lead on this project, I need someone who believes in it,” Schwinn said.

Here’s how the Orlando Sentinel views Florida’s voucher scheme:


In its “Schools Without Rules” series, Sentinel reporters found voucher (or “scholarship”) schools faking safety reports, hiring felons, hiring high-school dropouts as teachers and operating in second-rate strip malls. They discovered curricula full of falsehoods and subpar lesson plans.


If you confront defenders of this system, be they legislators or school operators, many start mumbling about the virtue of “choice”— as if funding a hot mess of a school is a swell thing, as long parents choose that mess.


Horse hockey. I choose accountability. And transparency. And standards.

Here’s an example of how Florida’s choice programs are working out for kids:


South Florida Prep received significant funds from the Florida Department of Education under the McKay program. Here’s how that school was run:


Two hundred students were crammed into ever-changing school locations, including a dingy strip-mall space above a liquor store and down the hall from an Asian massage parlor. Eventually, fire marshals and sheriffs condemned the “campus” as unfit for habitation, pushing the student body into transience in church foyers and public parks.


“We had no materials,” says Nicolas Norris, who taught music despite the lack of a single instrument. “There were no teacher edition books. There was no curriculum.”

While it should come as no surprise that Bill Lee is moving quickly to privatize Tennessee’s public schools, it should certainly be of concern that the person chosen to lead the program comes from a state where the voucher program has been a source of fraud and abuse.

Then, there’s the issue of ongoing FBI investigations into both the House vote on vouchers AND the Senate sponsor of voucher legislation.

I will say this again: Bill Lee will stop at nothing in his quest to privatize public education in our state.

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Bill Lee’s ED

Governor Bill Lee has been on a tour of rural Tennessee counties the last two weeks. During his stops, he’s touting what he’s calling a successful first legislative session. If by success, he means securing passage of a school voucher scheme by any means necessary, sure, he’s been successful. Maybe he means siphoning public money to private schools by way of his Education Savings Account (ESA) plan to the tune of as much as $300 million? Or, perhaps he means demonstrating how he really feels about public school teachers by including the lowest increase in BEP salary funds in the last four budget cycles in his budget — all offering new money and easier access to charter schools.

What Bill Lee hasn’t done on these stops is tell the real story. Because it’s embarrassing. No one likes to talk about it. It’s Bill Lee’s ED. His Education Deficit. Since Bill Lee won’t admit it, I took the liberty of compiling some data to help him talk about it.

Here’s a look at each of the seven counties Lee visited in the past two weeks on his ED tour. I’ve noted first the average salary increase teachers in those counties received since 2015. Next, I’ve indicated the “BEP Gap” — that is, the number of positions each county pays for above what the state funding formula generates. Here’s what this means: The school system NEEDS those employees in order to provide a quality education. But, the state formula won’t pay for them. So, local taxpayers are left footing 100% of the cost of those positions. Data provided by the Comptroller of the Treasury and the Department of Education.

County Avg. salary increase BEP Gap

Bledsoe 3.4% 13

Meigs 1.5% 20

Loudon 1.4% 46

Giles 0.925% 81

Lawrence 1.9% 94

Lincoln 1.8% 49

Bedford 2.25% 24

As you can see, we’ve got some work to do. Teachers in these rural counties have salaries that lag below the state average and receive relatively low annual salary increases. Plus, taxpayers in these communities are left footing the bill for a BEP that simply isn’t adequate to meet the needs of our schools in 2019. Bill Lee did nothing to address the structural deficits in the BEP. Plus, he offered teachers the lowest state funds for raises in the last four budget cycles.

While Lee likes to ride around on a horse to tout his vitality, it’s clear there’s an ED problem he just doesn’t want to talk about.

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