All the Money, None of the Work

Private school advocates attempting to secure public funding from Governor Bill Lee’s Education Savings Account (ESA) voucher scheme made clear this week they want taxpayer cash without any real accountability. Specifically, Chalkbeat reports these groups, including Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children, are resisting proposed rules requiring strict background checks on school employees.


Leaders of the Tennessee-based Beacon Center, the Florida-based ExcelinEd, and the Washington, D.C.-based American Federation for Children say the rule is unclear as written and could force private schools to run background checks that are far beyond the requirements for public schools. Such a mandate, they say, could place an “undue burden” on private schools wanting to participate in Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account program, as well as on their employees. 


Voucher supporters say they want participating private schools to face the same requirements as their public counterparts when it comes to employee background checks. At the same time, they don’t want private schools to be judged academically using the same state tests used by Tennessee public schools.

While voucher advocates, eager for taxpayer cash, expressed concern about having to follow the rules, a Department of Education representative indicated the rules are clear:


Deputy Education Commissioner Amity Schuyler, who is developing the program on behalf of her department, added that the state’s new law is clear that participating schools must conduct criminal background checks through the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

The resistance to employee background checks from voucher advocates comes just months after a horrifying story out of a Nashville charter school in which a student was in a class taught by a substitute teacher who was also the woman who killed that student’s brother:


But that feeling of safety was shattered Friday when the twins had a substitute teacher in their math class. It was Khadijah Griffis, the same woman who had shot and killed their older brother last month.

This incident happened at RePublic Charter School. The school was using a New Orleans-based firm to source substitute teachers.

Additionally, voucher proponents are attempting to avoid accountability when it comes to state tests:

On the testing issue, the proposed rules would allow either Tennessee’s standardized tests or “any nationally normed assessment” already in use when the state determines if a school will be suspended or terminated from the program for poor results by voucher students. The inclusion of national tests was a concession to private schools, which don’t administer state tests. Board member Wendy Tucker expressed concerns last month that the accommodation wasn’t in keeping with the spirit of new voucher law, which requires all voucher students to take annual state tests in math and English language arts to track student performance.

The voucher vultures are making it clear: They want Tennessee taxpayer dollars and they want minimal accountability. While Bill Lee attempts to fast-track this ill-conceived initiative, perhaps the antics of the money hungry DeVos devotees will boost the chances of a budding repeal movement.

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Repeal Push Gains Support

An effort to repeal Governor Bill Lee’s signature legislative initiative — vouchers — is gaining some support. Frank Cagle offers his take on this effort and on those who constantly criticize public schools (which is much easier than actually funding and supporting them):


I suspect that most of the critics of public education have not been near a public school since they graduated from one. You won’t find the critics running the concession stand on Friday night to raise money for the school. They won’t be out selling coupon books to keep the lights on. I doubt they personally know a teacher who spends her own money to buy school supplies for her classroom. In Tennessee, railing against the abstract notion of union-corrupted government schools is a paranoid delusion.

He might be talking about Governor Bill Lee here — you know, that guy who wears plaid shirts and pretends to care about rural Tennessee while taking money from public schools.

Cagle also warns against the dangers of “crony capitalism:”


A conservative should be wary of public money and public regulations coming to private schools. A conservative should also be wary of crony capitalism in which public money is handed over to private schools. I would urge you to spend some time on the internet examining former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his buddies who operated for-profit schools on the taxpayer’s dime.

The real question: Will any so-called conservative legislator actually take Bill Lee on and stand up for our public schools?

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Integrity

The Republican State Superintendent of Schools in Indiana is campaigning with a Democratic state Senator who hopes to become the state’s next Governor, Chalkbeat reports. The move comes as Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick finds herself at odds with the state’s Republican Governor and with the GOP Supermajority in the legislature. The move raises the question: Would any Tennessee Republican leader go so far as to back a Democrat in order to stop Governor Bill Lee’s school privatization agenda?

Here’s more on McCormick and her differences with her own party on education:


After years of public clashes between former superintendent Ritz and then-governor Mike Pence, some expected McCormick to work more smoothly with the Republican supermajority. But McCormick differentiated her education policy through her skepticism of diverting dollars from public schools, her calls for more accountability for charter schools and private schools accepting taxpayer-funded vouchers, and her push to change the state’s A-F grading system for schools.

For his part, state Senator and gubernatorial candidate Eddie Melton has outlined an aggressive defense of public schools as a key part of his campaign platform:


Melton, a first-term senator from Gary, Indiana, and a former State Board of Education member, also said Tuesday that the state needs to fully fund schools, put an end to high-stakes testing,  and end the “aggressive expansion” of vouchers, among other calls. He’s repeatedly said that education should be a bipartisan issue, including when he launched the listening tour with McCormick.

Will 2022 see Tennessee with a Democratic candidate for Governor who staunchly defends public schools — and earns the support of top Republicans?

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REPEAL

Representative Bo Mitchell of Nashville has filed legislation that would repeal Education Savings Accounts (vouchers), Gov. Bill Lee’s signature legislative achievement from 2019.

The move comes with the House of Representatives now being led by Speaker Cameron Sexton, a long-time opponent of vouchers and supporter of public schools. Sexton told an audience in his home district:


“We should do everything we can to improve all public schools in the state of Tennessee so they can be successful,” he said. “I would rather go that route than the voucher route.”

So far, the voucher repeal bill has only Democratic co-sponsors. It will be interesting to see if Sexton and other anti-voucher Republicans join the effort or put forward their own voucher repeal effort.

While Governor Bill Lee has suggested speeding up implementation of the voucher scheme, Sexton has called for putting on the brakes pending the outcome of an FBI investigation into the House vote on the bill.

It will also be interesting to see if legislators take action in 2020 to address the underlying issues — poverty and funding — impacting school success.

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$300 Million

Here are some interesting facts about Wisconsin’s school voucher program. These could be relevant here as Tennessee’s plan is estimated to cost as much as $300 million when fully implemented. Ask yourself: What happens when $300 million is no longer available for the BEP?

2019: 38,862 students at 284 schools statewide receive publicly funded vouchers to attend private schools in 2018-2019. Total cost: $311,470,259.04 (estimated).

Compare to 2018: 35,420 students at 240 school statewide received vouchers in 2017-2018. Total cost of vouchers in 2017-2018: 274,003,172.65 (estimated).

Over 55% of the entire student population of participating schools receive vouchers in 2018.

Only 28% of students receiving vouchers ever attended a public school.

Every year, the enrollment cap is increased by 1% of the local public school district’s enrollment, allowing more students to enter the program. In the 2026 school year, that cap is set in state law to come off entirely.

Students receiving vouchers in 2018-2019 must qualify by income. For the statewide program, that’s 220% of poverty; for the Milwaukee and Racine programs, it’s 300% of poverty. In contrast, students who qualify for Free & Reduced Lunch in public schools must meet at 185% poverty threshold.

Source: Department of Public Instruction
https://dpi.wi.gov/sms/choice-programs/data

Can Tennessee afford a $300 million voucher scheme that Bill Lee wants to fast track?

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Hot Chicken, Sex, and Vouchers

Originally published in The Progressive, this piece tells the story of the ongoing battle over vouchers in Tennessee:

After a years-long fight, the Tennessee General Assembly and Governor Bill Lee finally succeeded in establishing a school voucher scheme for the state. Lee made vouchers the signature piece of his legislative agenda during the 2019 session, and his push proved pivotal. The so-called Education Savings Account plan passed the state House of Representatives in April by just one vote

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

Lee’s zeal to create and implement a voucher plan a year ahead of schedule—despite all of this controversy and in the face of public opposition—now threatens to divide the Republican supermajority in the state’s political leadership. In fact, on August 23, the House chose an avowed voucher opponent, former GOP Caucus Chair Cameron Sexton, as a new Speaker. Sexton voted against Lee’s plan, and is now expressing opposition to Lee’s plan to accelerate the program.

Does any of this give Bill Lee pause? Not at all. The former head of a heating and air conditioning company he inherited from his family, Lee is used to getting his way. Now, his allies at the American Federation for Children (more about them soon) are using online ads to attack Republican lawmakers who opposed vouchers.

Just to be clear: The Republican Governor of Tennessee is attacking Republican lawmakers (who support most of his agenda) simply because these lawmakers voted against a voucher plan that is now state law and will soon be implemented. 


Why is Lee so adamant about vouchers that he would take out members of his own team? First, he’s been committed to vouchers for some time. In 2016 he wrote of his voucher plan, “The Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act would allow families to take a portion of the funding already spent on their child’s education and send him or her to the private school of their choice. For children languishing in schools that are failing to meet their needs, especially in urban areas like Nashville and Memphis, this proposal represents a much-needed lifeline for Tennessee families.”

Never mind that the evidence suggests vouchers actually cause students to lose ground academically. Bill Lee likes them and he’s going to do all he can to see them implemented—even if that puts him at odds with the new house speaker.

Second, his top policy advisers come from pro-voucher groups. His legislative affairs director is the former state director of TennesseeCAN, and before that headed up StudentsFirst in the state. Both of those organizations are longtime supporters of “school choice” in all its forms. His policy director came to the governor’s office after having served as Tennessee state director of American Federation for Children, an organization Betsy DeVos co-founded and once led.

Third, it’s about money. Records at the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance indicate StudentsFirst spent more than $200,000 lobbying the legislature on school choice in 2014 (when Lee’s current Legislative Affairs Director was heading the group). Additionally, the group spent nearly $600,000 on legislative campaigns that year by way of a political action committee. Likewise, in 2018, the Tennessee arm of American Federation for Children spent just over $250,000 on campaigns. 

That’s a lot of campaign money going out, but where does all the public money these vouchers will spend end up going?

Well, roughly one month after the voucher bill was signed into law, a North Carolina-based private school announced plans to expand into Nashville. The school, Thales Academy, notes it does not offer transportation, a cafeteria, athletic programs, or special education services. They will, however, accept Tennessee tax dollars to pay for student tuition. 

Closer to home, perhaps, is the private school affiliated with the church Lee attends. The school, Grace Christian Academy,  recently expanded and now offers a full K-12 experience for students. 

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.”

Turns out, Sexton was right on target. Now, he’s at odds with a governor from his own party. Based on how Lee has treated others who have opposed his aggressive school privatization agenda, Sexton may be the next in line to receive “friendly fire.”

The question going forward will be whether Sexton can navigate his House colleagues toward a long-term solution that favors public schools as he suggested soon after being appointed as speaker: “We should do everything we can to improve all public schools in the state of Tennessee so they can be successful,” he said. “I would rather go that route than the voucher route.”

Or, will Sexton become a victim of the forces of privatization led by the likes of Betsy DeVos and Bill Lee and backed by seemingly endless funding? 

The result of this internecine struggle over vouchers in Tennessee could determine how the GOP addresses the issue across the country. 


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Dunn Done? Done!

It seems the formal announcement of a challenger was all it took to make Rep. Bill Dunn, the prime sponsor of controversial voucher legislation, decide to retire.

The Tennessee Journal reports:

Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, the longest-serving Republican in the state House, says he won’t run for re-election next year. Dunn was the lead House sponsor of this year’s controversial school voucher legislation. He had already drawn a primary opponent.

“After the 2019 session was over, and we had passed Educational Savings Accounts legislation, as well as one of the most pro-life measures in the country, House Bill 1029, I decided it was the right time to conclude my public service on a high note,” Dunn said in a statement.

Knox County School Board member Patti Bounds is the only announced Republican running for the seat Dunn currently holds.

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Wrong Direction

Even as neighboring districts like Sumner County move to significantly increase teacher pay, teachers in Metro Nashville find their salaries stagnating.

Ben Hall of NewsChannel5 reports that a teacher in Metro with 15 years of experience actually earns LESS money today than a teacher with 15 years of experience earned back in 2012:


It’s hard to believe, but a Metro teacher with a Bachelor’s Degree and 15 years experience is paid less today than a teacher in that same position back in 2012. As you can see in the chart above, in 2012-2013 teachers on Step 15 made just over $52,089. Today, seven years later, Step 15 is valued at $51,772.

This chart shows the stagnation of teacher pay in MNPS

The problem of low teacher pay in Nashville is not new. In fact, in 2015, I reported on teacher pay in Nashville relative to peer districts and noted that at that time, starting pay was reasonably competitive, but pay for experienced teachers lagged behind:

Just three hours north of Nashville in a city with similar demographics and cost of living, a teacher can earn significantly better pay over a career. While a teacher in Louisville starts out making slightly less than a new Nashville teacher, by year 10, the Louisville teacher makes $9,000 more than her Nashville counterpart and by year 20, that difference stretches to $15,000. The lifetime earnings of a teacher in Louisville significantly outpace those of a teacher in Nashville.

In 2017, I updated this analysis with a comparison to Louisville:


A Nashville teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 20 years experience makes $56,000. In Louisville, that teacher makes $71,000. A teacher working in Louisville with 20 years experience earns $22,000 more a year than that city’s “comfortable living” salary. In fact, they earn more than Nashville’s “comfortable” salary.


How about the top of the pay scale? At year 25, a Nashville teacher earns $57,000. In Louisville, it’s just over $72,000.


Some may note that teachers often earn advance degrees over the course of their career and that boosts pay. That’s true. So, a teacher with a master’s degree working in Nashville earns $62,600 at the top of the scale. In Louisville, it’s $78,000.


Imagine working for 25 years in the same profession, earning an advanced degree in your field, and making $7000 less than the “comfortable living” salary for your city? That’s what’s happening in MNPS.

In short, teacher pay in Nashville has been an “area of concern” for years now. So far, little has been done to address it. Yes, the state should absolutely put forward its fair share — though Bill Lee wants that money spent on vouchers. But, Nashville has the resources to significantly boost teacher pay. That the city has chosen not to should tell you all you need to know about the priorities of those in power.

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Dunn Done?

Knox County School Board member Patti Bounds is officially in the race to take on Rep. Bill Dunn, reports KnoxTNToday:

Bounds has been contemplating a race for state representative for some time. The former elementary school teacher has served on the school board for five years, while incumbent Bill Dunn has served in the legislature since 1994. The two Republicans share similar views except on one fundamental issue: school vouchers. Dunn was the prime sponsor of Gov. Bill Lee’s bill for vouchers that passed by one vote after several deals were cut and most counties eliminated. Bounds supports public education and will resist efforts to divert state revenue toward private or church schools through vouchers.

The voucher legislation sponsored by Dunn passed the House by a single vote. That vote is now under investigation by the FBI. The Senate sponsor of the voucher legislation is also facing an FBI investigation.

In fact, while Bounds has experience as an educator and tireless advocate for public school students and teachers, Dunn has been at the forefront of the effort to privatize Tennessee’s public schools for years. That fight highlights the influence of big money from outside special interests:

The answer is shockingly simple and unsurprising: money. The details, though, reveal an unrelenting push to dismantle America’s public schools. Yes, this story includes familiar characters like Betsy DeVos and the Koch brothers joining forces with a Tennessee cast to advance their vision for our nation’s schools. That vision: Public money flowing to private schools with little regard for the impact on students. In fact, the evidence is pretty clear—vouchers simply don’t achieve their stated goal of helping kids improve academic outcomes. Tennessee’s plan could result in taking more than $300 million away from local school districts to support private entities.

Will Republican voters stick with Dunn, who led the effort to use public money for private schools, or will they choose an educator and public school advocate?

Patti Bounds


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No Positive Gains

As Governor Bill Lee seeks to accelerate implementation of his school voucher scheme amid an FBI probe into the House vote on the legislation, more evidence is emerging suggesting school vouchers are harmful to students.

Two professors studying the issue offer this analysis in a recent article in The Hill:


Researchers — including several voucher advocates — have conducted nine rigorous, large-scale studies since 2015 on achievement in voucher programs. In no case did these studies find any statistically positive achievement gains for students using vouchers. But seven of the nine studies found that voucher students saw relative learning losses. Too often, these losses were substantial.


For instance, research on Louisiana’s program indicates that when some children performing squarely in the average range use a voucher to enroll in a private school, their scores fall almost to the lowest performing quartile of students overall. And initial hopes that those losses were temporary have not panned out.

Why would Tennessee’s Governor push a voucher scheme he knows won’t work?

It’s because he doesn’t care.

Bill Lee has long been a voucher advocate and ally of and donor to organizations backed by Betsy DeVos.

His service to the DeVos agenda means more to him than doing what’s best for Tennessee kids. Lee is willing to take money from Tennessee public schools and transfer to unaccountable private entities no matter what the evidence says. Here’s why:

The answer is shockingly simple and unsurprising: money. The details, though, reveal an unrelenting push to dismantle America’s public schools. Yes, this story includes familiar characters like Betsy DeVos and the Koch brothers joining forces with a Tennessee cast to advance their vision for our nation’s schools. That vision: Public money flowing to private schools with little regard for the impact on students. In fact, the evidence is pretty clear—vouchers simply don’t achieve their stated goal of helping kids improve academic outcomes. Tennessee’s plan could result in taking more than $300 million away from local school districts to support private entities.

What’s more disappointing is the willingness of members of the Tennessee General Assembly to go along with this charade.

Instead of improving Tennessee’s investment in public schools, our state continues to lag behind — we’re at least $500 million short of properly funding the BEP – the state’s funding formula for schools.

Let me point out again that the authors reference nine studies — in seven, students LOST GROUND academically as a result of accepting vouchers. There were NO POSITIVE GAINS.

Vouchers don’t work. At all.

Governor Lee knows this. His team knows it. The leaders in the House and Senate know it.

They just don’t care. If they did, we wouldn’t see numbers like this year after year:

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