Where Bill Stands

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was in Nashville today to offer support for Governor Bill Lee’s plan to use public money to fund private schools.

Chalkbeat has more:

“I’m really cheering the governor and all of the legislators on here,” DeVos told reporters during a brief news conference at LEAD Cameron, a middle school operated by a Nashville-based charter network.

“School choice and education freedom is on the march,” she added.

One of Lee’s proposals would start a new type of education voucher program in Tennessee, and the other would create a state commission with the power to open charter schools anywhere across Tennessee through an appeals process.

While evidence from states around the country indicates that vouchers simply don’t improve student achievement, Lee has pushed forward with a plan known as Education Savings Accounts, a type of “voucher” particularly susceptible to fraud.

Lee’s plan is expected to cost at least $125 million a year by the time it is fully implemented, three years from now. It’s likely the plan will effectively create a “voucher school district” and result in local tax increases as a result of money moved from the state’s school funding formula (BEP) to the voucher scheme.

Lee has long been a supporter of DeVos and her anti-public school organization American Federation for Children. In fact, Lee hired a former AFC staffer to a senior role in his administration.

In addition to vouchers, Lee is also pushing a state charter school authorizer plan that would usurp the authority of local school boards and create a climate similar to the one in Arizona, where the charter industry has been riddled with fraud.

Legislators who oppose Lee’s school privatization agenda have been punished by ads from dark money group Tennesseans for Student Success and also have lost key leadership roles.

Lee’s voucher scheme is moving through the legislative process, passing a key House committee today and heading toward a likely floor vote near the end of April.

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Voucher Vulture Set to Descend on Nashville

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee is putting on the full court press in his quest to voucherize our state’s public schools. He’s got allies like dark money group “Tennesseans for Student Success” putting out hit pieces on voucher opponents, and on Monday, he’ll have Education Secretary Betsy DeVos appearing with him at a school choice event in Nashville.

DeVos is perhaps best known for her irrational fear of grizzly bear attacks on schools. Just last week, she appeared before a congressional committee and suggested larger class sizes are good for student learning, despite citing no evidence for that claim.

Now, she’s headed to the Volunteer State to offer up opinions on why Tennessee should adopt the type of voucher scheme most susceptible to fraud and least likely to improve student achievement.

It’s no surprise Lee and DeVos will be joining forces to sing the praises of using taxpayer dollars to fund unaccountable private schools. Soon after winning the governor’s race, Lee named two key DeVos disciples to leadership roles in his administration. Lee also has a track record of backing the DeVos privatization organization.

It should be clear by now that Bill Lee is determined to bring a failed model of “free market” education to Tennessee. Here’s more on what the DeVos agenda brought to Michigan:


Chaos. Uncertainty. Instability. That’s what a free market approach to public education brought Detroit. And, sadly, it also resulted in academic outcomes even worse than those expected in one of the worst public school districts in the country.


Choice advocates would have us believe that having more options will lead to innovation and force the local district to improve or close schools. Instead, in the case of Detroit, it led to chaos. The same fate could be visited upon other large, urban districts who fall into the free market education trap. Another unfortunate lesson from Detroit: Once you open the door, it’s very, very difficult to close.

Bill Lee is pulling out all the stops on an agenda that is destructive to public education and insulting to our state’s teachers. Perhaps his joint appearance with DeVos will convince any doubters of Lee’s true colors. Until then, here’s a message for DeVos:

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Hotbed of Socialism

You might not think the House Republican Caucus of the Tennessee General Assembly is a hotbed of socialism, but Rep. Bill Dunn clearly does. In his opening remarks in support of HB939 — Governor Lee’s school voucher proposal — Dunn likened opponents of the plan to socialists.

Here’s more from the Nashville Scene on Dunn’s remarks:

Despite the bipartisan nature of the opposition, the bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, was quick to inject partisan politics into the debate. In an opening statement, he said Donald Trump and Mike Pence support ESAs while “Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and other socialists” oppose it. Later, he compared education savings accounts to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Dunn’s remarks are noteworthy as four of the nine “no” votes on the bill came from his fellow Republicans. Additionally, one other Republican, Kirk Haston, was “present but not voting” and noted he’s not in favor of the bill.

That makes five potential socialists in the GOP caucus. Further expanding on Dunn’s remarks, perhaps Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders could find support among the Republican members of the House Education Committee? One also wonders if their are more socialists hiding in the midst of the TNGOP. It’s a perfect cover, really.

For more on all the excitement that was Wednesday’s committee hearing on vouchers, check out TN Holler for video clips.

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TN CEC Opposes Vouchers

The Tennessee Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) has announced opposition to school vouchers even as the legislative debate on the issue moves forward. Here’s a general statement from CEC on vouchers and an explanation of the reasons for CEC’s opposition.

CEC opposes school vouchers for children and youth and those with disabilities as being contrary to the best interests of children and youth and their families, the public school system, local communities, and taxpayers. Further, CEC believes that vouchers both contradict and undermine central purposes of civil rights laws designed to protect children and youth with disabilities

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Bye Bye Byrd

Admitted sex offender David Byrd is out as chair of a House Education subcommittee just one day after his vote against Governor Bill Lee’s school voucher plan. While some had speculated Byrd might vote in favor of vouchers in exchange for cover from Lee, Byrd voted NO on Lee’s plan yesterday in the full House Education Committee.

The move to oust Byrd comes after months of controversy surrounding his appointment to the post. Speaker Glen Casada and Governor Bill Lee backed Byrd despite calls from the public for him to resign. In 2018, both Lt. Governor Randy McNally and then-House Speaker Beth Harwell called on Byrd to resign from the General Assembly. Instead, he ran for re-election and won, then was appointed by Casada to a subcommittee chairmanship.

The Tennessean reports on Byrd’s removal:

Citing bipartisan concerns over the controversy surrounding Rep. David Byrd, House Speaker Glen Casada has removed the Waynesboro Republican from his chairmanship of an education subcommittee.  

The move, announced by Casada on Thursday, comes just two months after the speaker appointed Byrd — who has faced allegations that he sexually assaulted three women in the 1980s — to serve as chairman of the House Education Administration Subcommittee.

“Following discussions with members of the House and after careful consideration, I have formally asked Representative Byrd to step down from his position as chairman of the House Education Administration Subcommittee,” the speaker said in a statement.

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That Hurt(s)

On Monday, I noted that shadowy “non-profit issue advocacy group” Tennesseans for Student Success was on the attack, placing online ads against Republicans who opposed Governor Bill Lee’s destructive state charter authorizer legislation in the House Education Committee.

Today, it appears the attacks worked, at least in the case of Rep. Chris Hurt. The House Education Committee heard and ultimately approved Governor Lee’s school voucher plan. While one victim of the TSS attacks, Mark Cochran, stood strong in defense of public schools, Hurt caved to the pressure of being labeled a defender of “Hillary Clinton’s NEA.”

On the other hand, despite speculation that he might now support vouchers in exchange for cover from Bill Lee, embattled Rep. David Byrd (an admitted sex offender), also voted against school vouchers.

Still, the lesson for dark money groups like Tennesseans for Student Success is clear: Your attacks get the attention of key decision-makers. Forget facts, just bring up Hillary Clinton and socialism, and the weak among the legislative branch will do your bidding.

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Opposition to ESAs

JC Bowman of Professional Educators of Tennessee released the following statement today as Governor Lee’s voucher legislation received approval from the House Education Committee:


Professional Educators of Tennessee remain opposed to Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). We know litigation awaits on the constitutionality of the legislation, should it ultimately pass into law. However, it is an opportunity for us to reaffirm our commitment to public education. We believe that the historic accomplishments of public schools in Tennessee demonstrate the incredible job our educators are doing across the state. We acknowledge there are small pockets where success has not been as fully realized. That makes us even more determined to prove Tennessee public schools can meet any challenge and help prepare the necessary workforce to keep up with Tennessee’s growing economy. Professional Educators of Tennessee believes public education will continue to be the best choice for parents and students in our state.

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Bill Lee’s Arizona Dream

Governor Bill Lee is moving to create a state charter school authorizer that would usurp the authority of local school boards. The plan would allow charter operators to apply directly to the state board rather than utilizing the local and state accountability measures currently in place in Tennessee.

The idea is strikingly similar to the state authorizer that helped start charter schools in Arizona in the 1990s. I’ve included some excerpts of the Arizona Republic’s reporting on charter schools in that state. The state authorizer has proven to be an avenue for shady operators to gain access to public funds for nefarious purposes. Perhaps the same fate awaits Tennessee should lawmakers travel down this road.

On a state authorizer:

It provided that charter schools could be established to improve student achievement and provide additional academic choices.At the recommendation of a friend in Colorado, it created the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools.

The board was given conflicting responsibilities: Not only would it oversee the new schools, it would also promote them.

Early Fraud:

Citizen 2000 was one of Arizona’s original 46 charter schools. Its founder and operator, Lawndia White Venerable, claimed that almost 500 students had signed up. It looked like an early success story for a charter that was on its way to becoming a longstanding institution.


A few months into the school’s first year, state officials opened an investigation into the school. A state audit said Venerable had used more than $126,000 in state money to buy jewelry and to make a down payment on her mother’s house. The state Board of Education review found the school violated record-keeping, cash-control and bidding rules. Its enrollment figures had been inflated.

And Now:

For example, Damian Creamer paid himself $10.1 million the past two years running Primavera online charter school, where state records show 49 percent of the kids dropout. State lawmaker Eddie Farnsworth will make $13.9 million selling his Benjamin Franklin charter schools to a non-profit company he created. And American Leadership Academy founder Glenn Way made at least $18.4 million from no-bid contracts to build classrooms for ALA.

When you combine his desire for a state charter authorizer with his push for vouchers, it seems clear Bill Lee is working overtime to undermine Tennessee public schools.

The Tennessee General Assembly can, of course, oppose these privatization efforts. Key votes are happening on both fronts in the coming days. Stay tuned …

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Voucher Opposition Grows Ahead of Key Vote

The House Education Committee will take up Bill Lee’s voucher proposal tomorrow at 8:00 AM. Ahead of this pivotal vote, groups across the state are expressing opposition to the plan. The Tennessee Education Association, TN Parent Teacher Association, and Pastors for Tennessee Children joined in the following press release announcing opposition:

The Tennessee Education Association, Tennessee Parent Teacher Association and Pastors for Tennessee Children stand united in opposition to any form of education savings account voucher programs. As legislators consider the administration’s voucher proposal this week, it is important that they know teachers, parents and faith leaders are adamantly opposed to privatizing our public schools.

“Our state constitution is clear that our elected leaders have an obligation to provide all Tennessee children with access to a quality public education,” said Beth Brown, TEA president and Grundy County High School teacher. “Moving forward with any form of voucher program abandons our commitment to our most vulnerable students. Details of the current voucher proposal reveal the administration’s intentions to provide entitlements to families living comfortably and already able to afford private school tuition. If passed, this ESA program would starve public schools of millions in funding and dramatically worsen the inequities in public education.”

TEA is just one of numerous organizations with serious concerns about Gov. Lee’s voucher plan. With details of the plan indicating that more than $100 million in taxpayer money will be allocated to pay for a program proven in other states to be fraught with abuse and fraud, parents and faith leaders are standing with educators to oppose ESAs.

“Tennessee PTA advocates for all children and for the improvement of public education,” said Cheryl Floyd, Tennessee PTA president. “Tennessee PTA believes that no one educational program is best for all children and supports educational choices which improve outcomes within public schools. Voucher programs have proven ineffective in improving student outcomes, lack accountability to taxpayers and students, divert funds away from public schools, and place the individual rights of students at risk. The governor’s proposed education savings accounts are just another form of vouchers.”  

“Vouchers, especially for the wealthy, are a corruption of God’s common good, and the use of vouchers to underwrite religious schools is a violation of religious liberty,” said Rev. Terry Ladd, pastor at First Baptist East Eighth Street Chattanooga and Pastors for Tennessee Children founding member. “Pastors for Tennessee Children supports the provision of high-quality public education for all children, as a crucial civil rights issue. Vouchers will damage public education in our state.” 

Brad Fiscus, a Williamson County School Board member, lay minister with the United Methodist Church and founding member of Pastors for Tennessee Children, added, “Voucher programs historically have proven to serve students from wealthy families at levels higher than students from low-income families. As a result, vouchers promote segregation and centralization of resources to those who already have the most access.”

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