Hi, This is James

So, apparently, Americans for Prosperity paid for a texting campaign that reached a number of Nashville residents today. The focus: Signing up for Tennessee’s voucher program. The problem, of course, is that just YESTERDAY, that same program was halted by a Nashville judge as it was ruled unconstitutional. It seems like someone at Americans for Prosperity would have been aware of this and cancelled the campaign. Or, maybe prosperity just means the ability to waste ALL the money?!

Here’s the text:

Someone should maybe tell James about all this.

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A Voucher Obituary

Yesterday, a judge in Nashville found that Tennessee’s voucher law is unconstitutional. This effectively kills Gov. Bill Lee’s signature legislative achievement and means there won’t be a voucher program in the 2020-21 school year or anytime in the near future.

Here’s a nice summary of the essence of the decision thanks to WPLN:

“The Court finds, based upon the particular criteria in the ESA Act, and upon the legislative history detailing the extensive tweaking of the eligibility criteria in order to eliminate certain school districts to satisfy legislators (rather than tweaking to enhance the merits of the Act) that the legislation is local in form and effect,” Martin ruled. “Additionally, the legislative history of the General Assembly’s consideration and passage of the ESA Act confirms that the Act was intended, and specifically designed, to apply to MNPS and SCS, and only MNPS and SCS.”

As such, Martin found that the law violates the Tennessee Constitution’s Home Rule Amendment.

Read the rulings here and here

Gov. Bill Lee indicated the state’s legal team will immediately appeal the decision.

The ruling raises questions about what comes next for a program Lee deemed so essential he funded it in his emergency COVID-19 budget while simultaneously slashing a planned investment in teacher compensation.

Also worth asking: What happens to the $2.5 million no-bid contract awarded to ClassWallet to oversee the doomed program?

The General Assembly seems likely to return for a brief session in early June. Perhaps they’ll redirect the voucher funds BACK to public schools.

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Vouchers DEAD

Derek Black and Education Law Center have the breaking news: A Tennessee judge has found the state’s voucher program unconstitutional.

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Nobody Wants Vouchers

Tennessee’s school voucher program may end up being the ultimate solution in search of a problem as Chalkbeat reports few families are actually applying for the scheme.

Fewer than 300 applications appear to be on track for approval for 5,000 spots in the first year of Tennessee’s school voucher program, while a Nashville judge said she’ll rule by next week whether to allow the program to launch under two legal challenges.

As of Wednesday night, education department data showed 291 completed applications were still active, while 189 have been denied since the state began accepting them in late March.

So, in spite of aggressive marketing for the program, it seems that parents may not actually want vouchers.

What’s most disappointing about this reality is that Gov. Bill Lee slashed a planned investment in teacher compensation in order to fully-fund his voucher scheme. Now, school systems across the state will see less BEP funding while money sits waiting to be used for a voucher program no one wants.

Oh, and the private company managing the voucher scheme for $2.5 million? Yeah, they’re still getting paid.

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A Day in Court

A news release from Public Funds for Public Schools:

The Chancery Court for Davidson County will hear oral arguments today in two lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Tennessee’s private school voucher law, the Education Savings Account (ESA) Pilot Program. The plaintiffs in McEwen v. Lee seek to temporarily halt implementation of the program until the court rules on the constitutionality of the voucher law, which diverts much needed public education funds to pay private school tuition in Davidson and Shelby Counties.

The voucher program was originally slated to take effect in the 2021-2022 school year, but Governor Bill Lee’s administration is planning to issue private school vouchers this fall.

The McEwen plaintiffs are public school parents and community members in Shelby and Davidson Counties. Their lawsuit, filed in March, contends that the voucher law violates several provisions of the Tennessee Constitution, including the “home rule” provision, which prohibits the General Assembly from passing laws that target specific counties without their approval. It also violates the constitution’s Appropriation of Public Moneys provision, governing the proper appropriation of public funds, and its Education and Equal Protection Clauses, which guarantee adequate and equitable educational opportunities to public school students across Tennessee.

“I have five children currently enrolled in Shelby County Schools, and our family has always actively supported Tennessee’s public school system,” said plaintiff Apryle Young. “I know firsthand that my children’s schools are in desperate need of facilities maintenance, counselors and other support staff, textbooks and supplies. They cannot afford to lose more resources.”

The McEwen plaintiffs will argue for a temporary injunction to stop implementation of the voucher program and prevent the state from diverting scarce public education dollars — now at greater risk due to the COVID-19 pandemic — to private schools while the court rules on the constitutionality of the voucher law.

“I am very worried about the effect on my daughter’s school and on all the students in Metro Nashville Public Schools if the state starts handing out vouchers in the next few months,” said plaintiff Roxanne McEwen. “Beginning the private school voucher program this fall will take away funds that are essential to keep our kids learning during this difficult time.”

The McEwen plaintiffs are represented by Education Law Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which collaborate on the Public Funds Public Schools (PFPS) campaign to ensure public education funds are used exclusively to maintain, support and strengthen public schools. The plaintiffs are also represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and the pro bono law firm Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP.

“The state should not be permitted to push ahead with a constitutionally flawed program at the expense of Nashville and Memphis public schools that desperately need more, not less, funding and resources,” said Chris Wood, partner at Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP. “We are asking the court to temporarily enjoin the voucher program while the judge rules on the numerous constitutional and statutory violations asserted by the plaintiffs.”

The court will also hear oral arguments on several other motions during Wednesday’s hearing. Davidson and Shelby Counties and the Metro Nashville Board of Public Education will argue the summary judgment motion filed in their separate lawsuit challenging the voucher program. In addition, the state and intervenor defendants will argue their motions to dismiss each case.

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While groups attempting to stop Tennessee’s voucher scheme from being implemented make arguments before a judge, no actual vouchers will be awarded. This according to a story in Chalkbeat.

Chancellor Anne C. Martin is scheduled to hear arguments Wednesday on nine motions that range from the state’s efforts to dismiss both lawsuits to requests by several plaintiffs to declare the 2019 education savings account law unconstitutional. One motion asks for a temporary injunction to keep the program from launching before the new school year.

Martin is expected to rule on several key motions in early May. Her two recent orders noted that the state, which has been accepting applications for the program since March 27, has agreed “not to notify any person that he or she has been approved to receive an Education Savings Account” before May 13.

Governor Bill Lee has made vouchers his primary legislative focus, even working to ensure funding for the scheme was included in his emergency budget adopted before the legislature recessed due to COVID-19.

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DeVos the Destroyer

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is using the COVID-19 pandemic to further her school privatization agenda. Chalkbeat reports that DeVos is tying the awarding of certain CARES Act funds to a state’s willingness to further school vouchers and virtual schools.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will use $180 million in federal coronavirus relief earmarked for the hardest-hit states to create voucher-like grants for parents and to expand virtual education.

State education agencies can apply for federal money by proposing one of three things.

The first is “microgrants” — what some would call “vouchers” — meant to give families more options for remote learning. Those grants could be used to pay for tutoring, summer programs, tuition to a private or public school online program, counseling, test prep, or textbooks, among other things. The state must allow private organizations to provide those services.

The second option is for states to create a statewide virtual school or another program allowing students to access classes that their regular school doesn’t offer. States can either expand an existing program or create one from scratch.

Tennessee is already seeing the proliferation of virtual providers as long-time troublemaker K12, Inc. is facing stiff competition from Pearson to gobble up state dollars.

DeVos wont’ rest, it seems, until her dream of destroying public education has been realized. In a time of pandemic-induced panic and uncertainty, our nation’s Education Secretary is seeking to disrupt the stability and sense of community provided by public schools.

Betsy DeVos testifies before the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee confirmation hearing to be next Secretary of Education on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 17, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

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Will Vouchers be BLOCKED?

A court in Nashville will hear arguments on Wednesday in cases challenging Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher scheme. Specifically, the plaintiffs are seeking to stop implementation of the plan before the 2020-21 academic year.

Here’s more from a press release:

On Wednesday, April 29, Chancellor Anne C. Martin of the Chancery Court for Davidson County will hear oral arguments in two cases challenging the constitutionality of Tennessee’s Education Savings Account (ESA) Pilot Program, the private school voucher law passed in 2019.

The voucher program diverts scarce public education funding to private schools and applies only to Nashville and Memphis students, in violation of several provisions of the Tennessee Constitution as well as state statutes. At the request of Governor Bill Lee, the program will begin issuing vouchers this fall, a year earlier than the law requires.

The plaintiffs in McEwen v. Lee, who are public school parents and community members from Nashville and Memphis, are seeking a temporary injunction to stop the state from implementing the voucher program until the court rules on the constitutionality of the voucher law. Oral arguments on their motion will be heard on Wednesday at 10 a.m. CT.

Also during Wednesday’s hearing, the Court will hear oral argument for summary judgement in a separate lawsuit challenging the voucher law brought by Davidson and Shelby Counties and the Metro Nashville Board of Public Education.

The hearing will be conducted by video conference and live stream. Members of the public can watch online, though a link will likely not be available until shortly before the hearing starts.

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The Privatization Pandemic

In recent days, I’ve reported on virtual vultures seeking to profit off of the crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Reports have indicated that both Pearson (Tennessee Connections Academy) and K12, Inc. (Tennessee Virtual Academy) are seeking to extend their money grabs by offering their wares as a “solution” for public schools. Now, a report from the Koch Family Foundation-funded Mercatus Center further illuminates this very real privatization plan.

Instead of attempting to create new virtual platforms, school districts and physical charter schools should create public-private partnerships with virtual learning providers. Some private providers are prepared for this arrangement. K12 Inc. and Connections Academy, two of the nation’s largest K–12 online learning companies, have already created resources to assist districts. K12 Inc. has offered district school students access to the company’s online curriculum, while Connections has posted videos online and scheduled webinars to help traditional classroom teachers adapt instruction.

At least one public virtual school has also announced that it can expand its services. The nation’s largest state-based virtual school, the Florida Virtual School, is offering training for state teachers.8 VirtualSC, South Carolina’s online school, is providing similar services.9 According to local media, Florida Virtual School is prepared to increase its capacity to 400,000 students. If demand continues, the school is considering assigning students to certain times of the day to access content, staggering instruction so that servers are not overloaded.

So, go virtual and give private providers more cash with less oversight. We’ve seen how that worked out in Tennessee’s unfortunate embrace of K12, Inc.:

Take, for example, Tennessee, where K12 Inc. has spent between half a million and $1.1 million hiring lobbyists over several years. One of them was chief of staff to former Tennessee governor and current U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who is the chairman of the education committee in the Senate.

The state passed a virtual school law in 2011 that mirrored model legislation written by The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, an influential conservative think tank. A few schools opened up, including one run by K12 Inc. through a poor, rural school district in the northeastern part of the state.

Since then, K12’s Tennessee Virtual Academy, whose enrollment at one point ballooned to nearly 2,000 students, has been one of the worst-performing schools in the state ever since, but has so far managed to avoid being shut down.

Privatizers want to turn more of our money — and our kids — over to shady operators like K12, Inc. Also, they want ALL the money. Here’s more from Mercatus on “repurposing” current school budgets to direct additional funds to the privatizing predators:

Lawmakers should also allow districts to repurpose taxpayer resources meant for bus routes, food service, and facility maintenance, to name a few, and use this spending to purchase education services from online providers

But what about those pesky IDEA requirements that protect students with disabilities? Well, Mercatus and the privatizers agree with Tennessee’s own Lamar Alexander that “flexibility” should be offered in this regard. Here, flexibility means students with disabilities lose so for-profit prowlers can win:

While this fact sheet already offered school leaders “discretion” and “significant latitude,” the department appears to have erased any uncertainty on March 21 with another memo that said schools should not fear reprisal for good-faith efforts to move classes online, even for children with special needs. The department said, “To be clear: ensuring compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.”

The privatizers want ALL the money, all the students, and none of the accountability. It’s not a secret. They are saying (and writing) it out loud.

Will Tennessee’s policymakers stand up to the virtual vultures?

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Voucher Leader Jumps Ship

Today, Shelby County Director of Schools Joris Ray announced new additions to his leadership team. Among them, Amity Schuyler, previously the Tennessee Department of Education’s point person on school vouchers. Gov. Bill Lee and his team have been counting on Schuyler to fast-track the state’s voucher scheme.

Here’s the announcement via tweet:

It’s unclear what this means for the future of a voucher program that Lee chose to fund in his emergency budget while cutting a planned investment in public schools.

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