A Letter of Reservation

JC Bowman, Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, sent a letter to U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander expressing his organization’s concerns about President-elect Donald Trump’s selection of Betsy DeVos to be the next Secretary of Education.

Here’s the press release from PET:

Today, Professional Educators of Tennessee sent a letter to Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander who serves as Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee in the US Senate expressing reservations regarding the nomination of Ms. Betsy DeVos as the Secretary of Education.

There are two issues of immediate concern for our members. The first is that Ms. DeVos has no direct experience with public education as a student, employee, parent, or school board member, of which we are aware. In your case, when you served as Secretary of Education, you had the prerequisite background, having grown up as a child of public school educators and an advocate of public schools as Governor of Tennessee. Ms. DeVos lacks that background and may not fully understand the historical and philosophical basis for public education. Out of the roughly 55.5 million K-12 students in America, 49.5 million of them are in our public schools, which is a little over 89%.

The second issue, her advocacy of vouchers funded through the use of public tax dollars, may well cloud her desired support of public schools. Vouchers are not a magic bullet, and may do little to improve the quality of public schools. Vouchers are also not a solution to problems in urban cities. These cities face societal challenges well beyond the classroom door. Most communities lack the number of high quality private schools to meet any real demand created by vouchers. It is clear that for now and the foreseeable future, a vast majority of children will be educated by public schools. We must focus on making our public schools successful. Therefore, choosing an education secretary that is so pro-voucher sends a negative message to the hard working educators in our public schools.

Here’s the full text of the letter:

Dear Senator Alexander,

Thank you for your continued leadership as Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, as well as the recently-passed Every Student Succeeds Act. A strong public education system is a key to our democracy, a foundation to build our economy, and the means by which we can help all Tennessee children achieve their dreams.

Professional Educators of Tennessee is the fastest growing teacher association in our state. We are non-partisan and our organization is unaffiliated with the national teacher unions. Not all educators are members of the NEA or AFT. In fact, there are more educators that are members of independent education associations than the AFT. We are completely funded by the dues of our members. Our members are educators from the state of Tennessee. We do not endorse political candidates, or use their members’ dues to fund political candidates.

I have worked with you previously on numerous occasions from American Legion Boy’s State as a teenager, to various political endeavors, and to address numerous public education challenges within the state of Tennessee. Today, I am writing to share our organization’s reservations in regards to the nomination of Ms. Betsy DeVos for the position as Secretary of Education.

There are two issues of immediate concern for our members. The first is that Ms. DeVos has no direct experience with public education as a student, employee, parent, or school board member, of which we are aware. In your case, when you served as Secretary of Education, you had the prerequisite background, having grown up as a child of public school educators and an advocate of public schools as Governor of Tennessee. Ms. DeVos lacks that background and may not fully understand the historical and philosophical basis for public education. Out of the roughly 55.5 million K-12 students in America, 49.5 million of them are in our public schools, which is a little over 89%.

The second issue, her advocacy of vouchers funded through the use of public tax dollars, may well cloud her desired support of public schools. Vouchers are not a magic bullet, and may do little to improve the quality of public schools. Vouchers are also not a solution to problems in urban cities. These cities face societal challenges well beyond the classroom door. Most communities lack the number of high quality private schools to meet any real demand created by vouchers. It is clear that for now and the foreseeable future, a vast majority of children will be educated by public schools. We must focus on making our public schools successful. Therefore, choosing an education secretary that is so pro-voucher sends a negative message to the hard working educators in our public schools.

I appreciate your strong support of students, educators, and public education in Tennessee, especially your commitment to local control of public education. We encourage Ms. DeVos to go out and visit our public schools and see the incredible things that educators are doing every day across our state and nation. We think she would be amazed. We welcome a dialogue with Ms. DeVos and yourself to address our concerns and invite you both to talk directly to our members to assure them that as Secretary of Education she will support the mission of public schools and has the necessary experience in improving them.

More on DeVos

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


 

 

Voucher Vulture DeVos Tapped as Education Secretary

President-elect Donald Trump has reportedly offered Michigan-based voucher vulture Betsy DeVos the role of Education Secretary in his cabinet.

Education Week reports:

  1. DeVos is the chairwoman of the American Federation for Children, an advocacy and research organization which advocates for a variety of forms of school choice including vouchers and tax-credit scholarships. Fellow board members include Kevin Chavous, a former District of Columbia Council member, and Campbell Brown, a former CNN anchor and the founder of The 74, an education news organization that says the “public education system is in crisis” in the U.S.

Fortunately, we have a preview of what education policy could look like if DeVos has her way. Unfortunately, that outlook is pretty grim. In June, I wrote about Detroit’s experiment with school choice — an experiment designed and supported by DeVos. Essentially, the system DeVos champions is one based on chaos:

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.

The National Education Association was quick to respond to the reports:

Every day, educators use their voice to advocate for every student to reach his or her full potential. We believe that the chance for the success of a child should not depend on winning a charter lottery, being accepted by a private school, or living in the right ZIP code. We have, and will continue, to fight for all students to have a great public school in their community and the opportunity to succeed no matter their backgrounds or circumstances.

“Betsy DeVos has consistently worked against these values, and her efforts over the years have done more to undermine public education than support students. She has lobbied for failed schemes, like vouchers — which take away funding and local control from our public schools — to fund private schools at taxpayers’ expense.

In fact, the American Federation for Children by way of its Tennessee affiliate, the Tennessee Federation for Children, has spent millions of dollars in Tennessee lobbying for vouchers and supporting pro-voucher candidates for the General Assembly. In four consecutive legislative sessions, those efforts have failed. However, with renewed pressure from the federal government under DeVos, Tennesseans can likely expect an even more aggressive push for dangerous voucher schemes in 2017.

We’ve already seen voucher front group Tennesseans for Student Success spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to elect pro-voucher candidates.

And then there are the reports of voucher lobbyists hiding behind ethics law loopholes to host pro-privatization lawmakers at beach vacation retreats.

To be sure, Betsy DeVos is an advocate of education policies that have failed and she’ll likely seek an expansion of these failed policies through the use of the Department of Education.

MORE ON VOUCHERS:

Million Dollar Baby

Lessons from Louisiana on Vouchers

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


 

 

 

Tennesseans Against Liberals?

Just a group of moms and dads and teachers and administrators and engaged community members working together to make Tennessee schools great. Sounds nice, right?

That’s how the issue advocacy group Tennesseans for Student Success describes itself. Here’s the official description from their website:

Tennesseans for Student Success is made up of moms and dads, teachers and parents, administrators and education leaders, and community and elected officials. If you are interested in joining our work, we have a place for you to be a part of this historic work.

We hope you’ll join us in one of our Coalitions for Student Success. Our students are more prepared for their next steps than they have ever been before. Tennessee’s kids are now better prepared for life after school, but there is more work to be done. We need your help as we all work to spread the message of student success in counties and communities across the state.

See, a perfectly positive group spreading the message of student success all across Tennessee.

And then there’s this:

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They sure don’t like that Gloria Johnson. You know, the former state rep. running for her old seat. The one who stood up to Bill Haslam and to special interests seeking to privatize public schools by way of vouchers.

Their involvement in the 13th district House race is more interesting in light of a twitter encounter back in August relative to the Nashville School Board races.

Here’s that tweet:

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So, they don’t endorse candidates? True, the ads against Gloria Johnson don’t technically ask voters to vote against her. But, the message is pretty clear.

Then, there’s this press release from after the August primary:

“Every election day brings the possibility of changing course in the General Assembly. As Tennessee’s students, teachers, parents, administrators, community leaders, and education advocates continue their work to make sure every child in the state has the opportunity to succeed, it is paramount Nashville stay focused on student success. Tennessee kids are the fastest improving in the nation in education and every elected official must be committed to that work.

“Tennesseans for Student Success this summer spent time across the state engaging with voters about our advocacy for all Tennessee classrooms. From school tours in Knoxville to Days of Action in Brentwood to reading events in Bolivar, we worked to advance and protect education reform throughout the state.

“As we celebrate the victories of Senator Dolores Gresham, Senator Steve Dickerson, Representative Charles Sargent, Representative Jon Lundberg, and Representative John DeBerry we are grateful voters considered the message of student-centered, commonsense education reform and voted for what’s best for their children, their teachers, their classrooms, and their futures.”

Hmm. All the candidates they are celebrating are also lawmakers who support school vouchers. While the candidate they are warning voters about, Gloria Johnson, opposes vouchers.

So, what’s the story? Is Tennesseans for Student Success a nonpartisan issue advocacy group just trying to help our schools? Or do they believe that liberals can’t also support student success? Or are they a front group for a Haslam Administration that supports school vouchers?

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


 

 

Vouchers on the Beach

Joel Ebert and Dave Boucher of The Tennessean reported this weekend on a beach vacation for five Tennessee lawmakers hosted by a prominent school voucher advocate.

Here are some highlights:

The Oscar winner inspired a spirited discussion among the men on the trip, who were hosted by voucher advocate Mark Gill, about leadership and integrity. Reps. Andy Holt, Mike Carter, Billy Spivey and recently ousted lawmakerJeremy Durham stayed at Gill’s condo and left one morning for a half-day deep sea fishing trip paid for by Gill. They didn’t catch many fish, but the captain showed them how to filet the ones they did. Rep. Jimmy Matlock also made the trip but went to the beach instead of fishing because he gets seasick.

Interestingly, the lawmakers who took the vacation at the voucher advocate’s beach house all supported and co-sponsored voucher legislation in subsequent legislative sessions.

From the report:

The “odd duck” Carter referenced is Gill, a member of the board of directors with the Tennessee Federation for Children, an arm of the American Federation for Children that spends hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on contract lobbyists to push lawmakers to legalize school vouchers in Tennessee.

In 2016, all five lawmakers who went to Gill’s condo co-sponsored legislation to allow vouchers in the state.

So, Mark Gill serves on the Board of Directors for the Tennessee Federation for Children, is a large donor to the group, and hosts five Tennessee lawmakers at his beachside condo and then those same lawmakers just happen to co-sponsor pro-voucher legislation at the General Assembly?

No, this isn’t illegal. Yes, it actually happened. This is the type of behavior these same lawmakers decry about DC politicians.

Also: Why is Mark Gill so interested in vouchers?

More on Vouchers:

Million Dollar Baby

What Tennessee Can Learn from Louisiana on Vouchers

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

 

 

New Name, Same Game

StudentsFirst, one of the leading proponents of school vouchers in Tennessee, has a new name.

Jason Gonzales reports:

Pro-voucher student choice group StudentsFirst Tennessee has changed its name to TennesseeCAN as part of working as an official member of the 50CAN: The 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now network.

TennesseeCAN will function as a new organization whose legislative agenda, policy priorities, staff and underlying mission remains unchanged, according to a news release from the group.

StudentsFirst has been one of several organizations supporting legislation to create school voucher programs in Tennessee. These so-called “opportunity scholarships” use public money to pay a qualifying student’s private school tuition. Despite millions in spending on campaigns and lobbying, a broad voucher plan has yet to pass the General Assembly.

A very limited voucher plan focused on a narrowly-defined group of special needs students is now in effect in Tennessee.

More on vouchers:

Craig Fitzhugh on Vouchers

Million Dollar Baby

What TN Can Learn from Louisiana on Vouchers

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


 

 

TEA on New Voucher Program

The state launched a voucher program this week aimed at students with disabilities.  The IEA voucher program was created legislatively in 2015 and the vouchers are available this year. The Tennessee Education Association (TEA) expressed concerns about the program during the legislative fight and continues to express concerns as the program launches.

Here’s the statement from TEA:

The Tennessee Education Association again expressed concern over the state’s new IEA Voucher program and urged parents to proceed with caution.

“Programs like the one the Tennessee Department of Education is launching today have been subject to fraud and abuse in other states,” said TEA President Barbara Gray. “This is of even greater concern to TEA because this program is targeted toward our most vulnerable children who need strong educational services.”

The new voucher program came about after legislative action in 2015. The program is designated for certain students with disabilities. A similar program in Florida has been subject to millions of dollars in fraud, mostly by way of individuals establishing schools that don’t adequately serve the disability population.

“Parents should proceed with extreme caution. This program will create large financial incentive for vendors to seek this public money, and may attract unscrupulous providers who do not have children’s best interests at heart,” said Gray. “Likewise, we ask that the state exercise strong oversight to ensure children and families are protected.”

One portion of the legislation indicates that when parents accept this voucher, they forfeit certain protections under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA).

“By removing these kids from public school, parents may not understand the huge ramifications of surrendering their child’s rights under IDEA to free, public education. The state of Tennessee also loses a portion of the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal assistance currently educating Tennessee’s children with special needs. This lost federal money will have a ripple effect throughout the state and will harm all special education students, even those who stay in public school,” said the TEA president.

“Every effort must be made to protect children and ensure the viability of programs approved to accept these new vouchers. Fraud in programs like this hurts both taxpayers and those whom the program is intended to serve.”

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


 

 

The Hunger Games for Schools

What happens when a large, urban school district expands charters and maximizes “school choice?”

One policy advocate in Detroit described the environment this way:

“I often describe this whole environment as ‘The Hunger Games’ for schools,” said Tonya Allen, president of the Skillman Foundation, which invests $17 million a year to try to improve the lives of Detroit’s poorest children. “You get these kids who are moving three or four times in the elementary school years. I did that, but it was because my mother couldn’t keep her rent together. Here, it’s being incentivized.”

This from a recent story in the New York Times about education in Detroit and the impact of an education environment that places a premium on choice.

The story is worth noting in Tennessee because the National Charter School Conference just left Nashville and because so many education reform advocates in Nashville and at the Tennessee General Assembly are pushing an agenda of “free market education.”

So, what happens when you have virtually unlimited choices?

Michigan leapt at the promise of charter schools 23 years ago, betting big that choice and competition would improve public schools. It got competition, and chaos.

“The point was to raise all schools,” said Scott Romney, a lawyer and board member of New Detroit, a civic group formed after the 1967 race riots here. “Instead, we’ve had a total and complete collapse of education in this city.”

It all started with a focus on bringing a free market approach to public education:

The 1993 state law permitting charter schools was not brought on by academic or financial crisis in Detroit — those would come later — but by a free-market-inclined governor, John Engler. An early warrior against public employee unions, he embraced the idea of creating schools that were publicly financed but independently run to force public schools to innovate.

So, how’s that free market working out?

By 2015, a federal review of a grant application for Michigan charter schools found an “unreasonably high” number of charters among the worst-performing 5 percent of public schools statewide. The number of charters on the list had doubled from 2010 to 2014.

And here’s what the competition among schools for students looks like:

The competition to get students to school on count day — the days in October and February when the head count determines how much money the state sends each school — can resemble a political campaign. Schools buy radio ads and billboards, sponsor count day pizza parties and carnivals. They plant rows of lawn signs along city streets to recruit students, only to have other schools pull those up and stake their own.

Another key policy analyst describes the issues this way:

“People here had so much confidence in choice and choice alone to close the achievement gap,” said Amber Arellano, the executive director of the Education Trust Midwest, which advocates higher academic standards. “Instead, we’re replicating failure.”

Oh, and here’s what happened when city leaders and legislators tried to introduce a level of accountability to rein-in the chaos created by too many operators and a wide open market:

In the waning days of the legislative session, House Republicans offered a deal: $617 million to pay off the debt of the Detroit Public Schools, but no commission. Lawmakers were forced to take it to prevent the city school system from going bankrupt.

Translation: Still no real oversight, still a wide-open, chaotic market for schools.

Often we hear legislators and choice advocates say that the situation in certain urban districts is so bad we may as well try to expand choices and even add vouchers or expand charter options because it can’t get worse.

Guess what? In Detroit, it got worse. A lot worse. As the article notes:

Detroit now has a bigger share of students in charters than any American city except New Orleans, which turned almost all its schools into charters after Hurricane Katrina. But half the charters perform only as well, or worse than, Detroit’s traditional public schools.

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.

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


 

Fitzhugh: Vouchers “Wrong Answer” for Tennessee Schools

State Representative Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley is the Democratic Leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives.

Every one of us learns something new every day.  Whether it is in a classroom, something we read or hear through media, or just a new fact we get from a friend or family member, we are constantly learning new things about our communities, our state and country, and our world.

Being educated doesn’t mean you will always know the answers; it means you have the tools to go and find the answers.  As a young man growing up, there is no way that my friends and I could have imagined the technological advances that we see today.  But my teachers in tiny Ripley, Tennessee worked hard to make sure that we went out into the world prepared to learn throughout our lives, and I know our state is full of dedicated teachers who are continuing in this tradition.

HB 1049, the Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act, is the latest version of the voucher program that we have discussed in the General Assembly.  On Monday, February 8th, members of the Tennessee House of Representatives will vote on whether or not to take money from our already underfunded public schools.  A state that is ranked 47th nationally in school funding cannot take more money from its students.  We must listen to the people of our state and vote no.

Consider this: the Tennessee School Board Association has 141 member boards.  I asked their representative in a committee meeting how many of their school boards are against vouchers.  His answer: 141.  Not one school board in our state is for this program, but the proponents of the bill would have you believe that there is a ground swell for vouchers; there is not.  School board members have some of the closest relationships with their constituents, and they are positively not for vouchers.

Vouchers are not only the wrong answer for Tennessee; they aren’t addressing the true question of why schools and districts are having problems.  Kids who struggle in school are almost always having a deficiency in some areas of their life: they may be hungry, their home life may not be stable, and they may struggle with the hurdle of a learning disability, or simply may need glasses to see the board.  Vouchers do not address these issues.  Changing the location where a child goes during the school day does not change the environment to which they return every night.  We have large-scale issues that must be addressed to improve our schools.  A child that is hungry, tired and not prepared for the school day cannot be a success, no matter where their classroom is.

Voucher programs leave kids behind.  We as a government, and as a society, are tasked with making sure each and every child receives a quality education.  And kids are left behind in two ways: the first is that a child that doesn’t receive a voucher is left to what voucher proponents label a failing school.  Second, the school district loses that portion of the Basic Education Program (BEP) funding that is delineated for each student.  If we are removing money from our schools—to the tune of $130 million under this voucher bill—how will our public schools ever survive?  To take money from our schools is akin to tying a milestone around someone’s neck, tossing them into a lake, and then ask them why they are drowning.

Public schools are the backbone of our society. They are what drive our communities.  Good public school systems attract businesses and homebuyers.  One of the first questions a prospective homeowner will ask—even if they aren’t parents—is the quality of the local schools.  Any fall Tennessee evening you will find thousands of our neighbors at the local high school, cheering on their kids: the future of our state.   Schools make our communities.

I do understand—and agree—that many of our schools and our students are struggling to achieve their goals.  I know that not every school is the best it can be, and that to get all our students scoring were we want them to will be a Sisyphean effort, one that every student, teacher, administrator, parent and officeholder will have to work together to achieve.  This is hard work, but not impossible work.  As I heard a Metro Nashville Public School parent say during a committee meeting on vouchers, his kids didn’t need a voucher: they need a new school building, instead of the portable classrooms they learn in today.

The answer for successful Tennessee schools is this: we have to fully fund our public schools, support our students, teachers and administrators, and realize that we have no greater responsibility as a society than to make sure our children are healthy and educated.  Our future literally depends on it.

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

TC Weber’s Voucher Party

TC Weber has something to say to school voucher proponents.  And it sounds like he wants them to throw a party.

Just look at his opening:

Dear True Believers,

Y’all got to be excited! Here you sit on the cusp of making history in Tennessee, despite a few pesky parents, educators, newspaper columnists, members of the Tennessee County Commissioners Association, school board members, students, and community members, who can’t appreciate all you do, by this time next week, you’ll be celebrating Tennessee joining the forward-thinking states who have provided a pathway out  for all those trapped kids in failing schools. Never mind that vouchers have never worked anywhere else, we all know Tennessee is different. So ignore the haters, this has been a long time coming, and Lord knows, you’ve worked hard for it and deserve it.

He continues in a fashion that would be hilarious if it didn’t contain so many stubborn facts.

Read on>

More on vouchers:

Million Dollar Baby

What TN Can Learn from Louisiana on Vouchers

The Price is Right

Voucher Week

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

Million Dollar Baby

Since 2011 (the 2012 election cycle), two pro-voucher groups (Students First and the American Federation for Children) have given nearly $1 million to Tennessee legislators by way of direct or in-kind contributions, according to reports filed with the Registry of Election Finance.

Two of the biggest recipients?

House Speaker Beth Harwell has received more than $43,000 via donations to either her campaign account or her political action committee (PAC).

Senate Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham has received $28,500 in contributions and support.

See the full list:

Students First-AFC Contributions 2011-present