Bill Lee and the Voucher Toilet

Knoxville columnist Frank Cagle has some thoughts on Bill Lee’s voucher scheme. To be clear, Cagle thinks it’s a very bad idea. This is because Cagle has actually read evidence and understands basic math — two concepts that seem to escape many at the legislature.

Here’s some of what Cagle has to say:


The plan issues a debit card with $7,300 on it and the parent can spend it on anything deemed “educational.” Field trip to Disney World? A flat-screen TV study aid? These programs have been found to be infested with fraud and abuse elsewhere. Who in Tennessee will police the program and find out if it is being abused? Is the Comptroller’s Office supposed to audit 15,000 students? And who decides if a questionable item is an “educational expense?” An audit of the program in Arizona revealed parents misspent $700,000 in one year.


The plan uses one-time general fund money to set it up and to fool people that the ultimate cost won’t come out of the existing education budget. By 2025 Lee would have spent $125 million to have a program in place for 15,000 students. It is unlikely that the administration would spend this kind of money to set up this program if it did not plan to expand it exponentially. At that point BEP funds to local school systems will be cut to pay for the vouchers. The only thing one can conclude is that this plan will gradually disburse funds to parents to send students to private schools, education funding from the state will be cut to pay for it and the end result is not a happy outcome for public schools.

Cagle is exactly right — the plan is expensive, with a 10-year cost approaching $1 billion. Yes, Bill Lee wants to devote $1 billion of taxpayer money to funding unaccountable private schools even though similar schemes in other states have yet to yield positive results.

Finally, Cagle notes that legislators are being punished by legislative leadership for opposing vouchers. Cagle notes that admitted sex offender David Byrd was given a subcommittee chairmanship, but had that honor stripped after he opposed Lee’s voucher plan. That’s how Glen Casada governs Tennessee’s House of Representatives — admitting to being a sex offender is all well and good, but when you get in the way of Bill Lee’s plan to privatize Tennessee’s public schools, you are suddenly unfit to lead.

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Vouchers and the BEP

The BEP — Tennessee’s funding formula for schools — is a reliable source of revenue for local school districts each year. While projections from the Comptroller’s office suggest the state underfunds the BEP by $500 million a year, the formula is relatively stable and districts can typically predict the amount of new BEP dollars they will receive each year.

That’s why Knox County was surprised this year to see a number about $6 million less than expected. The Knoxville News-Sentinel has more:

The state has typically added roughly $180 million new dollars into the BEP statewide in recent years. This, plus other smaller percentages of state funds, allowed the county to budget roughly $12 million extra BEP dollars each year. Last year it added an extra $14.1 million new BEP dollars after the state added $188.4 million new dollars to the fund.  

However, that number is expected to be down to $117.5 million in new money this year, meaning the county’s share of new dollars is projected to be only $6.2 million, nearly $8 million less than last year, Knox County Finance Director Chris Caldwell said.

Here’s the historic data on BEP funding for Knox County:

  • $196.4 million, $12.9 million (2016-17);
  • $207.9 million, $11.5 million (2017-18);
  • $222 million, $14.1 million (2018-19);
  • $228.2 million estimate, $6.2 million estimate (2019-20)

As you can see, Knox County could reliably count on at least $12 million in increased BEP funding each year in recent years. That number was down more than half in this year’s projection.

What’s different in 2019-20? Well, Governor Bill Lee is proposing a statewide voucher scheme, for one. He’s also increasing funds available for charter schools. This comes after several years of former Governor Bill Haslam adding roughly $100 million a year in teacher salary increases. This year, that number is $75 million, with the other $25 million going to start Lee’s voucher plan.

If teachers in Knox County want to know what happened to their raises, the answer is vouchers. If residents want to know why building new schools is delayed, it’s because Lee is committing a lot of new money to charter schools for their facilities.

Bill Lee’s “school choice” agenda has consequences. The projected shortfall in Knox County is a clear example. Of course, Lee has done nothing to address the persistent low funding of our state’s schools and given no indication he intends to address that issue.

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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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