Money Grabber

Not to be outdone by edu-opportunist Pearson, Tennessee’s favorite virtual vultures over at K12, Inc. are seeking to cash in on the COVID-19 pandemic. Peter Greene reports that K12’s CEO serves on something called the National Coronavirus Recovery Commission — a Heritage Foundation project closely connected to the Trump Administration. When it comes to education policy, this commission has some pretty interesting recommendations.

States should immediately restructure per-pupil K–12 education funding to provide education savings accounts (ESAs) to families, enabling them to access their child’s share of state per-pupil funding to pay for online courses, online tutors, curriculum, and textbooks so that their children can continue learning. Students are currently unable to enter the K–12 public schools their parents’ taxes support. They should be able to access a portion of those funds for the remainder of the school year in the form of an ESA.

So, go ahead and rob public schools RIGHT NOW — while many have moved to alternative models of instruction and are anticipating revenue shortfalls for the next school year due to the economic impacts of COVID-19.

Then, there’s this:

Additionally, state restrictions on teacher certification should be lifted immediately to free the supply of online teachers and tutors, allowing anyone with a bachelor’s degree to provide K–12 instruction online.

Because, of course. Why pay a premium for certified talent when you can capitalize on the legions of Americans now unemployed due to a global emergency?

But, hey, we’ve seen these assholes before. Here’s more (from Education Week) on the K12 story in Tennessee:

Those issues are not unique to online charter schools—full-time online programs run through school districts have run into many of the same problems. And especially for a small, rural school system, the opportunity to enroll students in their district from across the state can offer a powerful financial incentive.


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.


Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have proposed bills that would have shuttered failing virtual schools. One, sponsored by a Democrat in 2013, was killed in committee, even after the lawmaker produced a leaked email from a K12 Inc. staff member that appeared to instruct teachers to change students’ grades. Lawmakers did go on to approve a bill that session that gave the state education commissioner the power to close a failing virtual school after three consecutive years of poor performance, but they struck language from the bill that would have capped enrollment.


Republican state Senator Dolores Gresham—who sponsored the original legislation to allow virtual schools—introduced a bill in 2015 that would have also cracked down on failing virtual schools, but it never came to a vote.


That same year, Gresham also sponsored a bill to extend the state’s virtual school program through 2019.


That one passed.


When Kevin Huffman, a former state education commissioner, tried to shutter the Tennessee Virtual Academy with the authority given to him under that 2013 legislation, it devolved into a years-long saga. Parents sued state officials to keep the school open and a judge ruled in their favor. The school could stay open through the 2015-16 academic year.
Then K12 Inc. caught another break.


A botched roll-out of Tennessee’s computerized testing system in 2015-16 forced officials to toss out all student testing data. That extended the life of the Tennessee Virtual Academy another year.


K12 Inc. said the school has persisted not because of lobbying on behalf of the management company, but because it should never have been targeted for closure in the first place. Although company officials acknowledge that the Tennessee school has struggled academically, they say the school was unfairly singled out by state education officials.
The experience led Huffman, a staunch supporter of charter schools who is now a fellow at New America, a Washington-based think tank, to shift his stance on full-time online schools and for-profit companies that run them.


“I don’t see evidence of for-profit models that work,” he said in an email to Education Week. “Theoretically, a for-profit operator could run effective schools, but in practice, the top charter school operators are all non-profits, and I don’t think it’s accidental.”

In spite of K12 consistently failing both students and taxpayers in Tennessee, the state’s Treasury Department apparently sees the company as a sound investment:

The Tennessee Treasury Department has INCREASED its stake in problematic virtual school operator K12, Inc. The news comes from a report from market analysts:


State of Tennessee Treasury Department purchased a new stake in K12 Inc. (NYSE:LRN) in the 3rd quarter, according to its most recent filing with the Securities & Exchange Commission. The fund purchased 12,460 shares of the company’s stock, valued at approximately $329,000.

Yes, Pearson wants ALL the money. But, they’ve got some pretty stiff competition from K12, Inc.

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Just the Facts on Vouchers

Advocacy Group Public Funds for Public Schools is out with a fact sheet on the impact of school vouchers. Here are some highlights:

Many public schools around the nation are chronically underfunded. Diverting muchneeded funding from public schools to pay for private school vouchers makes that situation worse. For example, the cost of Arizona’s private school voucher program has increased 50-fold in 16 years, even as private school attendance in the state has decreased. A study of the voucher program in Wisconsin found that the program’s expansion posed “a significant fiscal threat to public schools.” Moreover, these diverted funds are often mis-spent. In Florida, investigative journalists found voucher recipient schools had hired teachers without college degrees and falsified health and safety records. In Arizona, an audit of the voucher program found parents received funds after enrolling students in public schools and after purchasing items that were not permitted.

For many years, studies of voucher programs across the country have found no improvement in student achievement. Studies in Washington, D.C. and Alabama found no significant improvement in student test scores. Studies in Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio found that students who attended private schools using vouchers actually performed worse than their similar peers in public schools. These negative effects persisted over years, meaning they were not a temporary result of students’ transition to a new school. The negative impact on academic achievement of attending a voucher school may be even worse than the impact of high teacher turnover and feeling unsafe at school. Additionally, the Louisiana voucher program did not increase the rates of college enrollment among high school graduates. And parents do not report greater satisfaction with schools, nor a greater sense of safety, with the use of private school vouchers.

READ MORE and find links to all the studies cited.

It’s worth noting here that in spite of this evidence, Gov. Bill Lee insisted on funding vouchers in the emergency budget the General Assembly passed before recessing due to COVID-19.

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Parents Ask Courts to Halt Voucher Scheme

A press release from the advocacy group Public Funds for Public Schools explains that a group of parents suing to stop the state’s voucher plan from being implemented are seeking immediate relief to halt the program.

Parents and community members in Shelby and Davidson Counties who are challenging the constitutionality of the Tennessee Education Savings Account (ESA) voucher law filed a motion Friday asking the Chancery Court for Davidson County to halt implementation of the program before the state begins diverting taxpayer funds to private schools. 


The motion asks the court to stop implementation of the law — which applies only to students living in those counties — that would illegally siphon much-needed taxpayer funds away from their public schools. 
Although Tennessee’s voucher program was originally slated to begin in the 2021-2022 school year, Governor Bill Lee’s administration has rushed to distribute private school vouchers in the fall of 2020, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which caused hundreds of millions to be slashed from education funding in the emergency budget passed by the state legislature in March.   


Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools were already underfunded before the COVID-19 pandemic. The current crisis will only increase the need for funding and resources in these schools.  
“Schools throughout Tennessee have been chronically underfunded for years. Diverting money to pay for private school vouchers in Shelby County and Nashville is not going to solve this problem, and will only exacerbate the challenges these districts face to provide all students with a quality education,” said Chris Wood, partner at Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP, which has joined with the ACLU of Tennessee, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Education Law Center to represent the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Southern Poverty Law Center and Education Law Center collaborate on the national Public Funds Public Schools campaign.
The lawsuit challenging the ESA voucher program, McEwen v. Lee, was filed last month. It charges that the law violates several provisions of the state’s constitution and laws.


The temporary injunction motion filed Friday asserts that the voucher program violates the Tennessee Constitution’s “Home Rule” provision, which prohibits the General Assembly from passing laws that apply only to certain counties. In this case, the voucher program will be instituted only in Shelby and Davidson counties. Because the legislature failed to appropriate funding for the first year of the law’s implementation, yet paid over $1 million to a private company for its administration using funds from an unrelated program, the voucher law also violates constitutional and statutory requirements governing appropriation of public money. 

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Voucher Scheme Goes Live

After receiving support from a mail campaign paid for by the voucher vultures at American Federation for Children, Gov. Bill Lee’s scheme to divert public money to private schools is now accepting applications.

The website is now live and includes an illuminating FAQ.


What is the ESA program?
The ESA program allows eligible students who are zoned to attend a Shelby County district school, a Metro Nashville public school, or a school that was in the Achievement School District (ASD) on May 24, 2019, to use state and local money toward education expenses, including tuition and/or fees at approved private schools.

This is true. The ESA program (vouchers) diverts taxpayer money to private schools by way of a platform administered by ClassWallet. ClassWallet, of course, is the company that “won” a no-bid state contract worth millions of dollars.


How can ESA funds be used?
Funds in an ESA may only be used for educational purposes. This includes:
Tuition or fees at a participating school
Required school uniforms at a participating school
Required textbooks at a participating school
Tuition and fees for approved summer education programs and specialized after-school education programs
Tutoring services provided by an individual who meets department requirements.
Tuition and fees at an eligible postsecondary institution
Transportation to and from a participating school or education provider by taxi or bus service
Textbooks required by an eligible postsecondary institution
Fees for early postsecondary opportunity courses, exams, or exams related to college admission
Educational therapies or services for participating students provided by a department-approved therapist
Computer hardware, technological devices, or other department-approved technology fees. (This is applicable only if the technology is used for educational needs, is purchased at or below fair market value, and is purchased through a participating school, private school, or provider.)

The broad guidelines for use of voucher funds make the program susceptible to fraud, as the Daily Memphian reports has happened in other jurisdictions:


Reports from across the nation show situations in which private-school officials and parents spent voucher money for items unrelated to education. Cards were used at beauty supply stores, sporting good shops and for computer tech support, in addition to trying to withdraw cash, which was not allowed.

Can an ESA be used for a participating private school outside of Shelby or Davidson County?

Yes, while your student must be zoned for a Shelby County district school, a Metro Nashville public school, or a school in the Achievement School District, the ESA may be used for an out-of-county participating private school.

So, the voucher scheme is taking money from cash-strapped Shelby and Davidson counties and diverting it to private schools in neighboring districts.

Oh, and let’s be clear: Lee insisted that vouchers be funded in his emergency coronavirus budget — and did so at the expense of an investment in public schools.

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Vouchers and School Budgets

At a time when the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is creating uncertainty for school budgets, Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher scheme received full funding in the state budget that passed just before the General Assembly left town on recess.

Williamson County School Board member Eric Welch makes this point succinctly in a tweet expressing frustration over the impact of the revised state budget on the district’s plan to invest in teachers:

Yes, with the coronavirus crisis wreaking havoc on local economies and school system and county budgets, Lee chose to stand with the Betsy DeVos agenda he’s long supported.

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Voucher Mail

The American Federation for Children is sending targeted mailers to families in Nashville and Memphis advertising for the state’s voucher program that is slated to start in the upcoming school year. The voucher plan, once thought to be in doubt due to a range of problems, was funded in Gov. Bill Lee’s amended COVID-19 budget.

The American Federation for Children (AFC) is an organization previously headed-up by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. DeVos and Lee have a long-standing relationship, with Lee providing financial support to AFC.

Here are those mailers:

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Vouchers vs. Teachers

There’s a budget showdown looming this afternoon pitting Tennessee teachers versus Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher scheme. Erik Schelzig has more:


Tennessee lawmakers are gearing up for a long day Thursday in which they hope to come to an agreement over deep budget cuts before going into recess until the coronavirus crisis subsides.


One of the biggest sticking points is Gov. Bill Lee’s plan to keep funding in the budget to launch his school voucher program this fall while cutting a planned 4% teacher pay raise in half.

More on vouchers, teacher pay, and Lee’s amended budget>

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Public School Advocates Push Back on Vouchers in Tennessee

Even as Gov. Bill Lee’s amended budget cuts planned improvements to teacher pay while maintaining funding for a voucher scheme, this article details the persistence of public school advocates in Tennessee. Here are some highlights:


Another factor making it difficult for vouchers to move smoothly through the process in Tennessee has been grassroots resistance. Ahead of the voucher vote, parent groups and civil rights organizations joined together to express opposition. But those groups didn’t stop just because a group of powerful white men got their way the first time around. 


Rather, they kept organizing. Using social media to stay connected, groups like Tennessee Teachers and Parents Against School Vouchers and Tennessee Strong focused on the long game—stopping implementation of a voucher plan expected to cost as much as $335 million.


The unrelenting focus of grassroots activists helps keep every single misstep of the voucher scheme in the public eye. Whether it’s the no-bid contract for the vendor overseeing administration of the program, or how the scheme’s rules were written in a way that allows for discrimination, no bad voucher deed goes unreported. 

Read MORE about the voucher fight in Tennessee.

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Senate Education Chair Not Seeking Re-Election

State Senator Dolores Gresham will not be seeking re-election this year, the AP reports:


Tennessee Republican state Sen. Dolores Gresham says she will not be seeking reelection this year.


The Somerville lawmaker made the announcement in an email this week to constituents in her 26th District.


Gresham served six years in the state House before she was elected to three four-year terms in the Senate. She became Education Committee chairwoman as a freshman senator.

Gresham’s leadership was a critical element in securing passage of Tennessee’s school voucher program. In fact, in litigation filed by the school systems in Nashville and Memphis, reference is made to Gresham’s captaining of the voucher bill from the Senate floor.


Amendment No. 1 did not apply to Sen. Gresham’s home county of Fayette County or to any of the other six counties in Sen. Gresham’s district, despite Fayette County having two out of seven schools (28.6%) on the 2017 bottom 10% list and one out of seven schools (14.3%) on the 2018 list of priority schools.

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Voucher Scheme Facing Second Lawsuit

In February, the school districts in Nashville and Memphis filed a lawsuit challenging Gov. Bill Lee’s signature legislative achievement, school vouchers. Today, parents in both districts filed a second suit challenging the so-called “Education Savings Accounts.” Here’s more from a press release:

Public school parents and community members in Nashville and Memphis today filed suit in the Chancery Court for Davidson County challenging the Tennessee Education Savings Account (ESA) voucher law as an unconstitutional diversion of public education funding to private schools.

In the lawsuit, McEwen v. Lee, the plaintiffs contend that diverting millions of dollars intended for Memphis and Nashville public schools to private schools violates public school students’ rights to the adequate and equitable educational opportunities guaranteed under the Tennessee Constitution. The lawsuit also charges that the voucher law violates the constitution’s “Home Rule” provision, which prohibits the state legislature from passing laws that apply only to certain counties.

The Tennessee voucher program would siphon off over $7,500 per student – or over $375 million in the first five years – from funds appropriated by the General Assembly to maintain and support the Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) and Shelby County (Memphis) Schools, according to the lawsuit. The controversial state law could go into effect as early as the 2020-21 school year.

The voucher law passed by a single vote in May 2019, over the objections of legislators from Shelby and Davidson Counties, as well as others.

If the voucher program is implemented, Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools will lose substantial sums from their already underfunded budgets, resulting in further cuts to educators, support staff, and other essential resources, the lawsuit states.

“We love my daughter’s school, but it is already underfunded,” said Roxanne McEwen, whose child is an MNPS student. “There isn’t enough money for textbooks, technology, to pay teachers, or to keep class sizes down. Taking more money away from our schools is only going to make it worse. I joined this lawsuit because I want to be a voice for my child and for kids who don’t have a voice.”

“I believe that Shelby County Schools do not have enough funding to provide all children with the resources they need to learn. At one of my son’s middle school, they do not offer geometry, and one of my other sons did not have a science teacher for two years in a row,” said Tracy O’Connor, whose four children attend Shelby County Schools. “If the district loses more funds due to the voucher program, I worry that we will lose more guidance counselors, reading specialists and librarians, and there will be more cuts to the foreign language and STEM programs.”

The complaint highlights numerous ways in which private schools receiving public funds are not held to the same standards as Tennessee public schools, in violation of the state constitution’s requirement of a single system of public education. Private schools do not have to adhere to the numerous academic, accountability, and governance standards that public schools must meet. They can discriminate against students on the basis of religion, LGBTQ status, disability, income level, and other characteristics. And they are not required to provide special education services to students with disabilities.

“Public schools are open to all children, while private schools receiving voucher funds are not held to the same standards,” said Nashville mother Terry Jo Bichell. “My son is non-verbal and receives extensive special education and related services in his MNPS school, including being assigned a one-on-one paraprofessional. I do not know of a single private school in the state that would be willing or able to enroll a student like my son. Even if a private school was willing to enroll my son, we would have to waive his right to receive special education.”

The voucher law also violates the Tennessee Constitution’s requirement that the General Assembly appropriate first-year funding for each law it passes. No money was appropriated for the voucher law, and recent hearings have revealed that the Tennessee Department of Education used funds from an unrelated program to pay over $1 million to a private company for administration of the voucher program.

The plaintiffs are represented by Education Law Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which collaborate on the Public Funds Public Schools (PFPS) campaign. PFPS opposes all forms of private school vouchers and works to ensure that public funds are used exclusively to maintain, support and strengthen our nation’s public schools. The plaintiffs are also represented by the ACLU of Tennessee and pro bono by the law firm Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP.

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