One Scheme at a Time

The Senate Finance Committee was slated to take up both Governor Lee’s charter authorizer bill and his plan to voucherize Tennessee public schools today. Instead, the committee only completed discussion on the charter bill, ultimately approving it and moving it forward.

Apparently, the voucher legislation will have to wait at least a week as revelations about growing opposition are causing concern among Governor Lee’s team.

In fact, in a budget update presented to the committee, Lee’s Finance Commissioner noted that $25 million was being dedicated to fight Hepatitis C in Tennessee prison. Where’d that money come from? It’s the exact amount previously dedicated to year one of Lee’s voucher scheme.

Commissioner McWhorter said the money shift would not impact the voucher scheme in year one, but the move raised questions among advocates and critics alike.

It’s entirely possible the Senate Finance Committee is waiting to see how the House acts on vouchers before taking a controversial vote. It’s also quite possible the votes simply aren’t there for a voucher plan this year.

Tune in next week to see what, if anything, the Senate does with vouchers. Will a weekend of arm-twisting by Bill Lee move a vote or two? Will the House advance the bill and thereby push the Senate to act?

The drama continues …

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This One’s for Dolores

Last week, Senate Education Committee chair Dolores Gresham accused public school principals of viewing kids as “profit centers” during a hearing on Governor Bill Lee’s voucher legislation. This meme tells the real story: Privatizers seek profit from our kids by way of publicly-funded vouchers.

What’s your meme? Got a message about school privatization? Send it my way: andy@tnedreport.com

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Equity Coalition Opposes Vouchers

Here’s a statement from the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition opposing Governor Bill Lee’s school voucher proposal:

The Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition formed in 2016 in order to harness the influence and voices of a diverse group of civil rights and education advocacy organizations and leaders across the state. From the beginning, our shared policy priorities centered on addressing the chronic disparities in opportunities, achievement and outcomes for students of color, and those learning English, living in poverty or with a disability. We applaud Governor Lee for making education a priority in his first year, and for investing in teacher pay, and increased access to advanced courses, STEM programs, career and technical education, and post-secondary programs for incarcerated Tennesseans. We worked closely with Commissioner McQueen and the Tennessee Department of Education on the design and implementation of the Tennessee ESSA plan, and remain committed to ongoing partnership with the new administration.

However, many of our Coalition members believe that Governor Lee’s Education Savings Account proposal (SB 795/HB 939) is not aligned to our priorities. Parents must be empowered to make the best possible educational choice for their child, but this bill is not in keeping with the course we have set as a state over the past decade, and which has yielded improvement across all student groups. It is not designed to serve our students that are most in need, and it codifies educational practices that are exclusionary and discriminatory.

First, this bill, does not address the needs of low-income students or those attending our lowest performing schools. In fact, it provides middle income students in top-performing public schools the opportunity to access public funds for private instruction. The $7300 voucher is not considered payment in full to participating private schools, and represents only a fraction of the actual cost of most private schools in Tennessee. It is unlikely that low-income families can cover the remainder of tuition cost, fees, and other indirect expenses, reducing their chances of participating. The income threshold, set at $65,000 for a family of four, will expand the number of families that can participate, thereby reducing the number of available vouchers for low-income students. Additionally, students from any school in one of the qualifying districts can apply for a voucher, regardless of its quality.

Second, this ESA bill does not guarantee school choice. Private schools will continue to adhere to their admissions criteria, despite receiving voucher money.  They decide who may enroll in their schools, and can legally deny entry to students based on gender, ability, language of origin, sexual orientation, or religious and social beliefs. The Governor’s legislation explicitly discriminates against undocumented families, prohibiting families with undocumented parents from participating, even if the student is an American citizen. This feature of the ESA bill will trigger an immediate and costly legal challenge. The Supreme Court has long recognized that “where the state has undertaken to provide an educational opportunity, it must be made available to all on equal terms.” Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202, 223 (1982) Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 493 (1954)

Third, families with students with disabilities are required to waive their rights to protections under the Individuals with Disabilities Act once they accept a voucher. These include the right to disciplinary protections, accommodations for instruction or assessments, or access to services laid out in a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).

Additionally, the most recent Senate version of the ESA bill does not require students to take the TNReady assessment, and allows them to take an alternate norm-referenced test. Tennesseans need to know if this financial investment is benefiting students, and families must understand how well private schools are serving students with vouchers. If public dollars are to be diverted to private schools, they should be held accountable according to the framework we use to evaluate all public schools, and that must include the administration of TNReady.

Student achievement ought to be the driving force behind any education reform initiative, and the impact of school vouchers on student success is inconclusive at best. Research does confirm that current initiatives in Tennessee, such as the Innovation Zones, are demonstrating success with our lowest performing schools.  Tennessee must continue to make investments in proven strategies that are making a tangible difference in communities and in the lives of students most in need.

Tennessee has dramatically improved student achievement in K-12 education, setting records for academic progress, and relying on innovative collaboration in order to keep the focus on what is best for students. SB 795/HB 939 will be a step backwards in the progress we have made over the past decade. It is our belief that Governor Lee and our state legislature must set bold goals for all 1 million public school students in Tennessee, and invest our funding and resources on increasing their odds of success. We remain committed to working with the Governor Lee and the Tennessee Department of Education on serving and supporting all students in our state.

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Gardenhire Opposition Puts Vouchers in Doubt

Andy Sher of the Chattanooga Times-Free Press reports that Senator Todd Gardenhire will vote NO on vouchers when Governor Bill Lee’s ESA plan hits the Senate Finance Committee tomorrow. The revelation could spell trouble for Lee’s plan, according to Sher.

Here’s more:

“A week and a half ago, the governor asked to meet with me on another bill,” Gardenhire said. “I told him I was not for the voucher bill, but I’d carried every voucher bill for the past six years. But this was one I could not go along with.”

Among the reasons Gardenhire gave for opposing the current measure are the exclusion of undocumented immigrants and the fact that Lee didn’t consult Hamilton County lawmakers before initiating his proposal.

“Nobody asked any of the legislators at all that I know of for any input,” Gardenhire said. “They just decided just to come up with this plan.”

Gardenhire’s promise of a NO vote comes as parents prepare to descend on the Capitol to express support for public schools and opposition to vouchers. The bill is scheduled for votes in both the Senate and House Finance Committees on Tuesday.

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Bill Lee’s Buddy

At an invitation-only meeting with Bill Lee and Betsy DeVos — a meeting featuring no teachers or public school administrators — a man named Douglas Jahner is in attendance. Jahner is also a frequent commenter on this page, often criticizing public schools while claiming superhero status for his own advocacy of school privatization.

Erik Schelzig tagged a photo of all who attended. Among those not invited, according to Chalkbeat, was the Executive Director of Tennessee’s State Board of Education.

Over in the comments section of this post, Jahner makes an interesting comment:

Doug Jahner April 12, 2019 at 2:38 pm (Edit)

What a screwed up system whereby we open our wallets for illegal alien children yet we forbid legal neighbor child Johnny from education tax dollars simply because he goes to s school not approved by education unions.

Jahner here is encouraging the violation of what DeVos ultimately called “settled law” after her own mishap on the issue.

For all his commentary on support for “all children,” Jahner – a man close enough to Lee to get an invite to a closed door meeting with the U.S. Secretary of Education — appears to only support education for those children he finds worthy of his approval.

So far, the Senate version of Lee’s voucher plan appears to side with Jahner’s unconstitutional view of school attendance. No word from Lee on whether he backs his buddy on this one.

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TNReady for Vouchers

This week is shaping up to be huge for education policy in Tennessee. Tomorrow, the TNReady testing window opens — while many will take pencil and paper tests, there will be significant numbers of students taking online TNReady. Our current Commissioner of Education is not quite sure how that will go.

If you’re an educator, student, or parent and you get wind of TNReady trouble this week, let me know ASAP: andy@tnedreport.com

Of course, during this busy week for our schools and teachers, legislators have planned key votes on voucher legislation. Governor Bill Lee’s “education savings account” voucher scheme will be voted on in the House and Senate Finance Committees on Tuesday. That’s the final step in both bodies before the bill hits the floor, likely the week of April 22nd.

A group of parents and teachers is planning a series of events tomorrow in order to protest the movement on vouchers.

Meanwhile, if you have any great voucher, charter, or TNReady memes, send them my way at andy@tnedreport.com

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Dolores Doesn’t Know

Like US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Tennessee Senate Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham appears not to know how schools actually work.

Yes, apparently Gresham believes that parents in Tennessee must present a driver license, birth certificate, passport, certificate of citizenship, certificate of naturalization or a US citizen ID card to enroll their child in public school. Would she be shocked to know that all you really need is a utility bill with your address? Unless you and your child are homeless and then you just have to declare that you are homeless and living in the district.

Gresham made the remarks during debate on Governor Bill Lee’s voucher plan. The Senate version, sponsored by Gresham, contains a provision previously declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the case of Plyler v. Doe. DeVos made a similar error in explaining how students register for school during testimony last year.

When asked about the provision by committee member Raumesh Akbari, Gresham replied that she believed this was “routine” and “no different than what is required of traditional public school students.”

Perhaps if she actually spent time with public school educators listening to and understanding them — rather than lecturing them on their greed, as she did during the voucher debate — she might know how schools work.

In addition to her remarks demonstrating a basic understanding of what is required to register for school, Gresham said that public school principals too often view students as “profit centers.” Apparently, in Gresham’s world, Tennessee school principals are rounding up kids so they can enroll them and cash in on the huge payout from the state’s BEP funding formula.

She’s been at this for a long time, folks. There’s really just no excuse for this level of ignorance.

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Bounds v. Dunn

In what could be an absolutely epic showdown between supporters of public schools and known backers of school privatization, former Kindergarten teacher and Knox County School Board member Patti Bounds is discussing the possibility of challenging Rep. Bill Dunn for his seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives.

Bounds is, like Dunn, a Republican. Unlike Dunn, she’s an unapologetic supporter of public schools, having taught in Knox County Schools and currently serving on the School Board.

Bounds helped lead a school board that moved toward a more supportive, inclusive environment for teachers.

Sandra Clark summarizes the potential matchup this way:

Both Dunn and Bounds will say their ideas are best for kids. Dunn will be well-funded. But Patti Bounds would run with the full-out support of most teachers and many parents. If Bounds runs, she can beat Dunn. But if he wins, at least he could go back to Nashville speaking truthfully about support or non-support for public education in his district.

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Parents, Teachers Speak Out on Vouchers

As Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher proposal advances through the legislative process and, at least in the Senate, grows to cost significantly more money while reducing accountability, parents around the state are rising up and speaking out against the plan.

Chalkbeat reports on an event in Nashville on Tuesday where parents and teachers expressed opposition to vouchers and also indicated another demonstration was forthcoming.


“What this plan is going to do is take money from over 90 percent of our kids and give it to just a few,” said Lauren Sorensen, a Knox County teacher who helped organize the event.


“Our legislators actually have a constitutional duty in Tennessee to maintain and support a public education. They have no duty to support private education. And simply put, they are not doing their jobs,” Sorensen said.


The rally drew parents too, including Patty Daniel whose two children attend public schools in Williamson County, near Nashville.


“All of the parents I know do not want vouchers, and we are baffled as to why some of our elected officials are so intent on pushing this bill,” Daniel said. “I feel like they are listening to high-powered lobbying groups and not to actual parents and teachers.”

Daniel’s statement is right on the money, literally. Key legislative leaders received significant financial support from pro-privatization groups like the Tennessee Federation for Children and Tennessee CAN.

Meanwhile, dark money groups like Tennesseans for Student Success are attacking any Republicans who deviate from support for Lee’s voucher scheme. Even embattled state Rep. David Byrd, an admitted sex offender, faced attacks and repercussions from legislative leadership — not for his bad behavior but for his vote against vouchers.

The latest version of the plan will now cost a minimum of $219 million at full implementation. That’s enough money to give every teacher in the state a pay raise of around 7.5%.

Debate is sure to heat up in the next two weeks as the proposal moves toward a likely floor vote in both the House and Senate.

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

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