PET on Voucher Passage

Immediately following yesterday’s passage of Governor Bill Lee’s “Education Savings Account” voucher program, Professional Educators of Tennessee sent out this statement:

The Tennessee General Assembly today voted to support a second Education Savings Account type program.  The legislation which passed today will serve up to 15,000 lower income students in Nashville and Memphis, after five years.  It will very likely face legal challenges.  Education policy must support all children in developing the skills, the knowledge, and the integrity that will allow them to be responsible, contributing members of their community and ultimately gain employment with a sustainable living wage. Public education still provides the best opportunity for most children to obtain that success.  We do not envision this limited pilot program changing that fact.   The vast majority of our schools are incredibly successful, as are the teachers who serve and students who attend them. 

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How Much is that Voucher in the Window?

Both the Tennessee House of Representatives and the Tennessee Senate today passed Governor Bill Lee’s school voucher (Education Savings Account) scheme and the measure now heads to his desk for signing.

The bill passed despite the fact that no one could clearly articulate the ultimate cost of the program. An early version of analysis by the legislature’s Fiscal Review Committee indicated the cost could be as much as $335 million by 2024.

As the Senate began debate on the measure, that large amount caused some concern (our state underfunds schools by at least $500 million). Not long after that concern was expressed, a “new” fiscal analysis appeared. This time, the projected cost was some $165 million. But wait, that still seems pretty high, right.

Not to fear, Finance Committee Chair Bo Watson and Conference Committee Report author Brian Kelsey assured lawmakers the actual cost would be roughly HALF what the fiscal analysis suggest because there won’t be enough students to meet the program’s caps in the early years.

Wait, what?! We’re supposed to count on a program being unpopular so it won’t cost so much? But, Governor Lee says everyone wants this. He campaigned on it, even. In fact, the plan is so desirable, legislators in 93 counties worked their asses off to ensure it didn’t impact their school districts.

During the debate, Senator Richard Briggs of Knoxville noted that once the door to vouchers was opened, it wouldn’t be closed. He cited the example of the failed Tennessee Virtual Academy, operated by K-12, Inc. Despite years of poor performance, the school is STILL allowed to operate.

Of course, there’s also the experience of Indiana. There, a limited voucher program was started by then-Governor Mitch Daniels. Then, under Mike Pence, the program expanded rapidly and now costs more than $150 million per year.

What’s worse, the legislature supported a program backed by the Governor despite overwhelming evidence the plan simply won’t help kids. In fact, research suggests that kids who receive vouchers perform no better than their non-voucher peers in reading and actually fall behind in math.

Oh, and then there’s the fraud. Rep. Mark White of Memphis USED To care about this, until Governor Lee and Speaker Glen Casada told him to stop.

So, to summarize: We don’t know how much this plan will ultimately cost. We don’t know how many kids will use it. We don’t know how large it will grow. We don’t know how the state will prevent fraud. We don’t know how, or even if, we’ll be able to shut it down if the results are as bad as the Tennessee Virtual Academy.

We do know this: Vouchers haven’t worked. Anywhere. We also know that somewhere between $70 million and $200 million will be shifted from current education funding to a voucher scheme. We know the low end of that would give our state’s teachers a badly needed additional 2.5% raise. We know the $200 million+ price tag that’s very possible if our state tracks others in expansion would mean an 8% raise. We know our schools are underfunded by AT LEAST $500 million according to the state’s Republican Comptroller. We know Tennessee is 45th in education funding. We know we spend $67 less (inflation adjusted) per pupil now than we did in 2010.

Instead of addressing any of that, we’ve watched our lawmakers do Governor Lee’s bidding so he can claim victory on one of his signature initiatives.

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BOOM!

A joint statement from Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools on Governor Bill Lee’s ESA voucher scheme:

Shelby County Schools (SCS) and Metro Nashviille Public Schools (MNPS) released a joint statement on Monday in opposition of the highly controversial Education Savings Account bill that passed both the state House and Senate last week.

In the statement, the districts call the bill unconstitutional because it affects only a small portion of school districts, which includes both SCS and MNPS. If the bill is signed into law, both districts say they are prepared to challenge its legality in court.

  You can read the full statement below:

The Education Savings Account (ESA) legislation violates Article XI, Section 9 of the Tennessee Constitution because it is arbitrarily limited to only a portion of the state when the Constitution requires any Act of the General Assembly to apply statewide unless approved by a local legislative body or through a local referendum.

The language, in both the House and Senate versions of the bill, reflects an arbitrary application to Shelby County Schools (SCS) and Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS), as there are school districts, such as Madison County and Fayette County, with larger or nearly the same percentages of schools performing in the bottom 10 percent. The legislation also applies to only certain districts with priority schools from the state’s 2015 priority school list even though there is a more current list from 2018 that includes schools in Campbell, Fayette, Madison and Maury Counties. These districts are arbitrarily left out of the legislation.

Should this legislation be signed into law, an immediate constitutional challenge is likely to ensure equal protection under the law. Shelby County is no stranger to asserting and prevailing on such constitutional challenges as reflected in the November 27, 2012 decision in the case of Board of Education of Shelby County Tennessee et al v. Memphis City Board of Education by federal Judge Hardy Mays which rendered a similar bill void that was local in effect.

“If the Governor and Legislature are determined to pass a general law that would apply arbitrarily only to us or a limited number of school systems, we will be sure to exhaust all of our legal options,” said SCS Superintendent, Dr. Joris M. Ray.

“No matter what you call them, vouchers are a bad idea. They are not what we need for public schools. We owe it to this generation of students — and to all of those who follow them – to fight for a system that is fairly funded,” said Dr. Adrienne Battle, the MNPS Interim Director.

If the ESA bill becomes law, Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools stand prepared to evaluate and pursue all legal remedies that ensure the constitutional guarantees of equal protection under the law remain intact for the children and families of our districts and state

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

Out of the Gate

Bill Powers is brand new to the Tennessee State Senate. He was elected in a special election on Tuesday night to fill the Clarksville-area seat vacated when Mark Green was elected to Congress.

During the campaign, Powers promised he’d be against vouchers if elected. The race, decided by around 1000 votes, was relatively close. It’s possible if he’d said he supported vouchers, he would have lost the race.

While new to the body, he’s apparently not new to the art of creative deception. The very first bill Powers voted on was Governor Bill Lee’s voucher proposal. How did Powers vote? He voted YES.

Less than 48 hours after winning an election where he told voters he had one position on vouchers, he “changed his mind” after talking with Bill Lee and voted the other way.

That seems like a pretty big deal. Powers will face voters again in 2020 should he choose to run for a full 4-year term. It will be interesting to see how he explains his outright lie to the voters next year.

Photo/text courtesy of TN Holler

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Glory Days

Remember when UT was actually good at football? Not just good, the best. The Peyton Manning years. Tee Martin and the perfect season and national title. Remember that? What if I looked at you today and said, “UT Football is the best in the nation?”

You’d think I was crazy. Or that I was wishing for those glory days of the Big Orange that have, for now, passed us by.

What if I started talking about an event that happened SIX YEARS AGO that made Tennessee look really good in the education world? Would you say: Yes, but what about now?

Probably.

But not if you’re a Tennessee lawmaker pushing Governor Bill Lee’s school privatization agenda.

Specifically, House Education Committee Chair Mark White trotted out the “Tennessee is the fastest-improving state in the nation” on NAEP in math and reading line yesterday during debate on Lee’s ESA voucher scheme.

Then, Matthew Hill talked about how much Tennessee has invested in teacher pay over the years, as if our legislature has actually done something meaningful in the form of teacher pay raises.

White’s claim is nothing more than living in the “glory days” of Tennessee education policy. Hill’s claim is clearly, demonstrably false.

Here’s the deal: Back in 2013, Tennessee had a solid year on the NAEP — the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In fact, in key areas, Tennessee saw growth that outpaced the nation. It was, if nothing else, an encouraging sign.

Of course, there was reason to be cautious, even then:

Yes, Tennessee should celebrate its growth.  But policymakers should use caution when seeing the results from the last 2 years as a validation of any particular policy.  Long-term trends indicate that big gains are usually followed by steady maintenance. And, even with the improvement, Tennessee has a long way to go to be competitive with our peers. Additionally, education leaders should be concerned about the troubling widening of the rich/poor achievement gap  – an outcome at odds with stated policy goals and the fundamental principle of equal opportunity.

White might have a point about Tennessee’s tremendous success on NAEP if we’d sustained that growth demonstrated in 2013. But, we didn’t. In fact, it seems the 2013 numbers were a bit of an outlier.

First, notice that between 2009 and 2011, Tennessee saw drops in 4th and 8th grade reading and 8th grade math. That helps explain the “big gains” seen in 2013. Next, note that in 4th and 8th grade reading and 4th grade math, our 2017 scores are lower than the 2013 scores. There’s that leveling off I suggested was likely. Finally, note that in 4th and 8th grade reading, the 2017 scores are very close to the 2009 scores. So much for “fastest-improving.”

Tennessee is four points below the national average in both 4th and 8th grade math. When it comes to reading, we are 3 points behind the national average in 4th grade and 5 points behind in 8th grade.

But maybe we’re closing the achievement gap? Nope.

Back in 2013, Tennessee students eligible for free/reduced lunch had an average NAEP reading score of 256 and scored 20 points below the non-eligible students. Now, that average score is 252 (four points worse) and 19 points below. For 4th grade, there’s a similar story, with free/reduced lunch eligible students scoring 25 points below their non-eligible peers this year. Four years ago, it was 26 points.

So, we had one really good year on the NAEP. Back in 2013. SIX YEARS AGO. And, well, that was awesome — unless you’re actually concerned about kids from low-income families. Oh, and it’s worth noting that this 2013 progress so often lauded by today’s lawmakers happened before a single student took a TNReady test. In fact, our scores have leveled off during the TNReady testing era.

But what about the claim from Hill about teacher pay? So many legislators suggested that Tennessee’s teachers are faring much better with the state’s “big commitment” to teacher pay in recent years. Even Jason “Judas” Zachary cited teacher pay raises in his video explaining his vote in favor of using public money to fund private schools.

Well, about that:


Average teacher salaries in the United States improved by about 4% from the Haslam Promise until this year. Average teacher salaries in Tennessee improved by just under 2% over the same time period. So, since Bill Haslam promised teachers we’d be the fastest improving in teacher pay, we’ve actually been improving at a rate that’s half the national average. No, we’re not the slowest improving state in teacher pay, but we’re also not even improving at the average rate.

So, that one time, Tennessee did that one thing that was kinda awesome. Since then, there’s been a lot of rhetoric and not much tangible improvement.

Oh, and even though we did have a really great year in 2013, we’re still 45th in the nation in school funding we now spend $67 LESS per pupil than we did in 2010 in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Glory days, indeed.

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SOLD!

Governor Bill Lee and his school privatization friends Betsy DeVos and Lee Beaman scored a major victory today as school voucher legislation passed the House on a 50-48 vote and earned approval in the Senate Finance Committee by a vote of 6-5.

The measure advanced in the House after an apparent 49-49 tie vote on the initial tally. After holding the vote open for nearly 40 minutes, Speaker Glen Casada and Majority Leader William Lamberth were able to convince Rep. Jason Zachary (R-Knoxville) to switch his initial NO vote to a YES. No word on what commitments or rewards Zachary secured in exchange for his betrayal of Knox County — a district directly impacted by the voucher legislation. It’s worth noting the school board in Knox County was one of the first in the state to speak out against vouchers and Knox County parents and teachers protested Bill Lee on his latest visit to the area because of Lee’s support for vouchers. Still, Zachary changed his vote after a back porch meeting with Casada, so it’ll be interesting to see how he explains that.

Over in the Senate, the voucher bill looks somewhat different. Just one week ago, Senator Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga indicated his opposition to the Governor’s voucher scheme. Today, the bill passed 6-5 with Gardenhire voting in favor. Some changes were made, ostensibly to secure Gardnehire’s support.

Now, the Senate bill heads to the floor on Thursday (4/25). The Senate and House versions have some key differences, so even if it secures Senate passage, those changes will likely be worked out in a conference committee. Given the extremely close House vote, those changes could spell trouble for the ultimate voucher package.

The question remains: What did Jason Zachary get in exchange for his YES vote?

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Bill Lee’s Wingman

We’ve already seen Bill Lee and his team of school privatizers use desperate measures in order to win votes for their “educational savings account” voucher scheme, but the latest effort reaches a new low. Team Lee turned to conservative mega-donor Lee Beaman (who gave Lee’s gubernatorial campaign $8000 in 2018) to pen an article in defense of school vouchers.

While the opposition to school vouchers includes resolutions from 44 school boards around the state, groups of parents, teachers, charitable foundations, civil rights groups, and even a former Senate sponsor of voucher legislation, the support appears to come from a small group of big money backers. The public face chosen for this group? A guy with a porn addiction who taped himself having sex with prostitutes in order to teach his wife how to better please him. You might say he’s certainly a fan of choice.

Beaman and Lee have been working together for years to bring school privatization to Tennessee. Both Bill Lee and Lee Beaman have been consistent supporters of the Tennessee affiliate of Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children, a group that works to undermine public education and advance school vouchers.

It’s no surprise, then, that after bringing Betsy DeVos to Nashville, Bill Lee would turn to his other voucher buddy, Lee Beaman, to advance his privatization agenda.

In fact, as I wrote in December, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Bill Lee is taking our state down this dangerous road:

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, we’ve got Lee Beaman as the face and voice of vouchers ahead of a week when the privatization scheme known as ESAs will face key votes in the House and Senate.

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TEA to Host March on Monday

The Tennessee Education Association will host a march to the Capitol on Monday, April 22nd to express opposition to Governor Bill Lee’s voucher plan.

The event will begin at TEA headquarters, 801 2nd Ave. North at 3:30 PM and will proceed to the Capitol at 4 PM.

More details here.

Lee’s voucher proposal will face a vote in the Senate Finance Committee on April 23rd and is also slated to be considered on the House floor on the 23rd.

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Maddox Fund Opposes ESAs

A statement from the Dan and Margaret Maddox Fund on Governor Bill Lee’s voucher plan:

Since 2008, the Dan and Margaret Maddox Charitable Fund has been partnering with nonprofit organizations that are working to improve the lives of young people in Middle Tennessee.  Core to our values is knowing that education and knowledge are transformative.  Understanding this as an education funder, we feel that Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs) will be a detriment to ensuring that all children can access high-quality educational opportunities.

Educational Savings Accounts would divert funds away from public schools and the students that need them.

Tennessee currently ranks 45th in the nation for public spending on education.  Allowing these already scarce resources to potentially go to private institutions through ESAs would place a greater strain on our currently under-funded public schools.  ESAs would not be made accessible to all students.  Out of the 145,000 students living in low-income households across the state, only 5,000 would receive an ESA in this first year.  Requirements for documentation would also bar some of Tennessee’s most vulnerable students from these educational opportunities.  The $7,300 provided by ESAs may not fully cover the tuition for students to attend private schools and does little to address the multitude of other barriers that families face like transportation.

Accountability and measurement are important for making sure that education programs are truly making an impact.  Maddox asks its nonprofit partners to be able to demonstrate their success, but studies on ESAs and similar voucher-based interventions have shown that they have little impact on student achievement and are less effective than other programs in addressing attendance and graduation rates.  There is little accountability to the students accessing ESAs.  Students attending private schools will not be held to the same academic assessments.  There are also no provisions to ensure that English language learners, students with Individual Education Plans, or those with special needs are not discriminated against in the admissions process.

ESAs will only make educational opportunities available to a select few and without any oversight, would potentially further disparities for our state’s low-income communities.

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Done Dirt Cheap

Desperate for votes for his voucher scheme to send public tax dollars to unaccountable private schools, Governor Bill Lee appears to be going along with a plan unveiled by House Republicans yesterday to buy off rural legislators with a tiny grant program. Let’s call it what it is: bribery.

Here’s the deal: The new plan eliminates Madison County from the list of districts where students will initially be eligible for Education Savings Accounts. That’s likely intended to win over the votes of Madison County Republicans wavering in their support of Lee’s proposal. It means that only students in Shelby, Knox, Hamilton, and Davidson counties will be eligible for the program when it launches (if it should pass).

Next, the plan redirects funds originally intended to help urban districts to rural districts. Again, this is nothing more than throwing money at lawmakers (and their districts) in order to secure the needed 50 votes for passage in the House.

Here’s a breakdown of how that would work:

In the first year, school districts outside the four counties identified in the program would split up $6.2 million. In the second, schools in the 91 counties would share $12.5 million. In the third year, the aforementioned counties would receive $18.7 million.

91 counties would divide a relatively small amount of funds. In the first year, if the grants were evenly divided among all counties, each county would receive an additional $68,000. That’s barely enough to fund a single position in most districts.

The amended proposal also pushes the amount of the voucher to $7500. That means at full implementation (currently imagined at 30,000 students), the total annual cost would be $225 million.

That’s enough to give every teacher in the state a raise of roughly 8%. That’s $225 million NOT available to fund the BEP or to enhance our current funding formula by improving ratios for RTI or school counselors or nurses.

Instead of adding the elements needed to make our public schools a success, Bill Lee and the House GOP envision giving that money away to private schools that don’t have to take the state’s TNReady test.

The legislation is currently scheduled to be heard in Senate Finance and on the House floor on Tuesday, April 23rd.

Oh, and if you’re a legislator not susceptible to this type of cheap bribery, Lee and his team will ensure you face pain in the form of attack ads paid for by pleasant-sounding dark money groups with names like Tennessee Federation for Children and Tennesseans for Student Success.

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