They Were Warned

Back in 2015 when the Tennessee General Assembly passed the first round of voucher legislation limited to a select group of students, opponents of the plan warned that the program as designed would be susceptible to fraud. Now, a new report from the Associated Press confirms those fears.


Some Tennessee parents were accused of misspending thousands of dollars in school voucher funds while using state-issued debit cards over the past school year, a review by The Associated Press has found, and state officials say they do not know what many of those purchases were for.

In 2015, I wrote:


A similar program in Florida, started in 1999, has been expanding rapidly. And, it’s been subject to fraud. When asked about what safeguards Tennessee’s plan will have, the sponsors said that the bill calls on the departments of education and health to qualify vendors. When asked what standards may be used to qualify vendors, the sponsors said they didn’t know.


When asked if the money will be distributed as a debit card or a bank account or a voucher, the sponsors didn’t know.

It’s almost as if the bill’s sponsors should have cleared these matters up BEFORE barreling ahead with legislation that led to problems in other states. Instead, here we are.

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It’s the Air Filters

While Tennessee has a clear need for school infrastructure upgrades, especially as it relates to lead in water, it’s also worth noting that improving air quality in schools could have tremendous benefits for students — both in terms of health and academics. A new study highlighted in Vox notes that student achievement improves when schools install air filters.


The impact of the air filters is strikingly large given what a simple change we’re talking about. The school district didn’t reengineer the school buildings or make dramatic education reforms; they just installed $700 commercially available filters that you could plug into any room in the country. But it’s consistent with a growing literature on the cognitive impact of air pollution, which finds that everyone from chess players to baseball umpires to workers in a pear-packing factory suffer deteriorations in performance when the air is more polluted.

A study following the installation of the air filters noted a significant impact on student performance:


He finds that math scores went up by 0.20 standard deviations and English scores by 0.18 standard deviations, and the results hold up even when you control for “detailed student demographics, including residential ZIP Code fixed effects that help control for a student’s exposure to pollution at home.”

These findings are consistent with other data on the subject:

But Sefi Roth of the London School of Economics studied university students’ test performance relative to air pollution levels on the day of the test alone. He found that taking a test in a filtered rather than unfiltered room would raise test scores by 0.09 standard deviations. That’s about half the impact Gilraine found, just based on day-of-test air quality. In Gilraine’s natural experiment, students benefited from cleaner air for about four months. Given that context, it’s not incredibly surprising that you could see an impact that’s about twice as large.

So, a relatively inexpensive change in schools could have a big, positive impact on every student in the state. By contrast, school vouchers represent a very expensive intervention that negatively impacts participating students:


Recent data from the non-partisan Brookings Institute, for example, shows that four rigorous studies done in Louisiana, Washington, D.C., Indiana and Ohio found that struggling students who use vouchers to attend private schools perform worse on achievement tests than struggling students in public schools.  

So, will the Tennessee General Assembly repeal the voucher legislation and move forward with a plan to add air filters to classrooms?

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Bill Lee’s 2020 Vision Blurred by Voucher Scheme

Governor Bill Lee renewed his commitment to fast-tracking the privatization of public schools in a speech in Jackson where he laid out his policy goals for 2020. Lee doubled-down on support of a voucher scheme that is dividing the state Republican Party. The vote on Lee’s controversial plan remains under investigation by both the FBI and TBI. Here’s more on Lee’s remarks from LocalMemphis.com:


The Governor said this year, he’s also optimistic the first Shelby County students in low-achieving public schools will be eligible for an education savings account to cover tuition for private school. SCS leaders opposed vouchers, and the legislation narrowly passed last year.


“Those children who are zoned for those non-performing schools will have an opportunity to have a high-quality education, hopefully starting this fall if that process is rolled out in the way that we hope it will be,” Gov. Lee said.

Lee failed to mention that vouchers have not been proven to help students academically. In fact, there’s growing evidence that voucher schemes actually have a negative academic impact. Neither actual evidence nor the existence of an FBI probe into the vote seems likely to deter Lee from pursuing an agenda that will both cost taxpayers money and actually harm students.

Those following Lee and his alliance with privatizers like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos over the years are not surprised by his antics. In fact, in December of 2018, I noted:


Even though as early as 2016, Bill Lee was extolling the virtues of school voucher schemes and even though he’s a long-time supporter of Betsy DeVos’s pro-voucher Tennessee Federation for Children and even though he has appointed not one, but two voucher vultures to high level posts in his Administration, it is somehow treated as “news” that Bill Lee plans to move forward with a voucher scheme agenda in 2019.

Now, here we are in 2020. Let’s be sure Tennesseans have a clear vision of where Gov. Lee is taking us: Directly down the very expensive road to the privatization of our public schools.

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The Bottom Line

While Governor Bill Lee continues to fast-track his sketchy voucher experiment, more and more voices are raising concerns about the program.

The latest comes from Tonyaa Weathersbee in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Her argument highlights a key fact lawmakers would be wise to take into account as they consider repeal of the voucher scheme in 2020:

Mainly, in their rush to inflict vouchers on one of the poorest, mostly African American counties in the state, they have chosen to overlook the success of Shelby County schools’ Innovation Zone program in favor of an ideological approach that has shown few triumphs in boosting poor students’ academic performance.

That’s paternalism, not improvement.

Recent data from the non-partisan Brookings Institute, for example, shows that four rigorous studies done in Louisiana, Washington, D.C., Indiana and Ohio found that struggling students who use vouchers to attend private schools perform worse on achievement tests than struggling students in public schools.  

Vouchers don’t work. In fact, they actually set students back. Legislators will have an opportunity to support a bipartisan voucher repeal effort in 2020 to correct this egregious mistake. Gov. Lee won’t be happy, but doing what’s best for Tennessee’s kids is more important than pleasing the Plaid Privatizer.

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Voucher Vultures on the March

It seems Governor Bill Lee’s HVAC buddy Bob Luddy is bringing his no frills private school pitch to Wilson County, too. I previously reported on Luddy and his Thales Academy as they held an initial interest meeting in Nashville in July. Here’s more on the interest meeting the school held in Wilson County:

Informational meeting for parents interested in Thales Academy in Wilson County, TN featuring Thales Academy Academic Director Dr. Tim Hall

About this Event

At Thales Academy, our mission is to provide an excellent and affordable education for students through the use of Direct Instruction and a Classical Curriculum that embodies traditional American values.

Thales provides a rigorous academic environment that fosters ethical behavior, critical thinking, virtuous leadership, lifelong learning, and truth seeking with a firm foundation in cognitive, non-cognitive, and technical skills. As a result, Thales Academy students are well prepared to succeed in higher education, career, and life while positively impacting the world around them.

We’ll discuss this and more on Thursday, August 1 with Thales Chief Academic Officer, Dr. Tim Hall, PhD.

Join us for an evening of learning Thursday, Aug 01 from 6:00 pm to 7:30 pm

It’s interesting that Thales is attempting to recruit students from Wilson County, even though Wilson is not (yet) a part of the Education Savings Account voucher scheme.

As noted before, here’s the deal with Thales:

No special education. No transportation. No cafeteria. Luddy calls it “no frills” and hails the use of “direct instruction.”

And here’s more on Luddy’s past dealings in Tennessee:

Thales and Luddy are not new to Tennessee. In fact, in 2015, voucher advocate Lee Barfield paid for a private plane to take former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and then-House Speaker Beth Harwell to North Carolina to visit the Thales schools. Like Bill Lee, Barfield is a long-time supporter of Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children and even served on the group’s Board of Directors.

Not surprisingly, tuition at Thales roughly mirrors the amount available to parents under the ESA program.

This is exactly the kind of “pop-up” private school critics of vouchers have warned about. In fact, new House Speaker Cameron Sexton once said:

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.”

Maybe all this expansion talk by the likes of Thales will lead to even more momentum for a repeal of the voucher scheme.

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Republican Joins Voucher Repeal Effort

Legislation that would repeal Governor Bill Lee’s signature legislative victory on school vouchers has gained bipartisan support. Republican Bruce Griffey of Paris became the first GOP legislator to sign-on to a bill sponsored by Nashville Democrat Bo Mitchell and co-sponsored by every House Democrat except John DeBerry of Memphis.

The repeal effort is gaining momentum even as both the FBI and TBI continue investigations into the narrow House vote that led to passage of Education Savings Accounts (Lee’s euphemistic name for his voucher scheme).

In addition to the investigations into the House vote, the Senate sponsor of the voucher bill is facing a separate FBI investigation.

I wrote earlier about how the voucher legislation threatens to divide the GOP in Tennessee heading into the 2020 session:

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


It’s worth noting that new House Speaker Cameron Sexton has consistently opposed vouchers, including voting against Lee’s plan this year. Here’s more of what he’s said about vouchers:

“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.”

It will be interesting to see if more Republicans join the repeal effort and what, if any, work Sexton does to undo the voucher plan.

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Quid Pro Quo

Sure, we’re all hearing about Quid Pro Quo as it relates to President Trump and Ukraine. But, what about former Tennessee House Speaker Glen Casada, his Chief of Staff Cade Cothren, and the vote on vouchers that is facing an FBI investigation? Well, as it turns out the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) is still asking lawmakers about a possible quid pro quo on the voucher vote. The Daily Memphian has more:

A House member, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed to The Daily Memphian Tuesday being questioned by TBI agents within the past two months. The lawmaker said it appears the agency is continuing to look into the matter but could not tell by their questions what direction they’re taking in the investigation.


The legislator previously confirmed being questioned by TBI and FBI agents about Casada and his staff and whether they tried to bribe House members in connection with the governor’s ESA bill.

While the House vote remains under scrutiny with rumor of indictments coming down in the FBI investigation soon, it’s worth noting the Senate sponsor of voucher legislation faces a separate FBI investigation.

Additionally, earlier this week, Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn dropped the bombshell revelation that vouchers received by parents will be treated as taxable income by the IRS.

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OUTSOURCED

Governor Bill Lee’s Administration is privatizing his school privatization scheme by hiring a private company to administer funds from the so-called Education Savings Accounts. Chalkbeat has more on the millions being paid to a Florida company to manage money in Tennessee’s voucher plan:

Tennessee has hired a Florida company to oversee online payment and application systems for its new education voucher program for some families in Memphis and Nashville.

ClassWallet started work on Nov. 4 after signing a two-year contract worth $2.53 million with the Department of Education, according to documents obtained by Chalkbeat.

The company becomes the major vendor managing Tennessee’s education savings account program, scheduled to launch for up to 5,000 students next school year under a new state law.

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The Playbook

Dr. Bill Smith of Johnson City clearly and succinctly describes the playbook for school privatizers in recent piece in the Johnson City Press:

A popular refrain of conservative politicians has been the assertion that America has tried everything possible to improve its schools. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our leaders certainly have not done everything possible to help the schools facing the greatest challenges. Instead, they have repeatedly applied one ill-conceived policy prescription: testing children and shaming and punishing educators when the results aren’t deemed acceptable.

For almost two decades we have clung to this approach as if it is a matter of faith. As economic and racial inequalities in academic performance have persisted, our leaders have doubled down with increased determination. To them there is never any consideration of the possibility that so-called accountability measures might not be the solution to all educational concerns. If schools don’t succeed, it’s their fault. They are failures.

By purposefully characterizing schools in poor urban and rural areas as “failing schools,” elected officials have promoted the view that these schools are beyond redemption. Not surprisingly, these leaders now feel empowered to suggest that the only way forward is give up on struggling schools and enact voucher and charter programs.

That’s it. That’s the game. That’s the playbook used by Governor Bill Lee and those like him who wish to advance a school privatization agenda. Former Governor Haslam played this game, too.

Test. Punish. Underfund. Repeat. Until the results are so abundantly clear that the “only hope” is privatization.

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More FBI Trouble for Senate Voucher Sponsor

State Senator Brian Kelsey is under increasing scrutiny from the FBI into how he financed his failed 2016 campaign for Congress.

Erik Schelzig reports on a story out of the Tennessean noting individuals who have been interviewed related to the case:

Former Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey is among officials interviews by federal officials investigating fundraising related to state Sen. Brian Kelsey’s failed 2016 congressional bid, The Tennessean reports.


Also interviewed was Nashville Councilman Steve Glover, who gave money to Kelsey’s federal PAC during a 2016 after receiving money from the senator’s state PAC.

Schelzig notes:

Candidates are prohibited from using money raised for state races in federal campaigns. As The Tennessean reported in 2017 (and
later augmented by a complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission), Kelsey’s state committee, Red State PAC, gave thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to fellow state lawmakers, who then turned around and gave donations to his congressional account.

Kelsey was the lead sponsor of Governor Bill Lee’s signature legislative initiative, Education Savings Accounts (vouchers). While Kelsey faces an FBI probe into his campaign finances, the House vote on the voucher legislation is under a separate FBI investigation.

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