More on the ClassWallet Controversy

I reported previously on the controversy surrounding ClassWallet and their contract to manage the voucher program in Tennessee. This week, members of a key legislative committee questioned Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn about the issue. Here’s more:

https://twitter.com/TheTNHoller/status/1227250936172699649?s=20

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Testing, Vouchers No Recipe for Success in Schools

Dr. Bill Smith of Johnson City writes about the reality of current education policy in his latest piece for the Johnson City Press.


In the 40 years since Anyon’s article was published, accountability measures have standardized public school curricula, and testing pressures have kept teachers from deviating from these standards. Although there has been some effort in recent years to include higher-level learning expectations in mandated curricula, the inherent limitations of standardized testing make it unlikely that many of today’s classrooms — even in the most well-funded schools — can provide the rich, engaging learning experiences children had in the affluent professional and executive elite schools Anyon studied.


However, as Nikhil Goyal wrote in 2016, it’s noteworthy that most of our politicians have enrolled their children “in schools outside the wrath of their own education policies.” Austere budgets and high stakes testing measures that narrow the curriculum and diminish the joy of learning are good enough for our children, but not for theirs.


That’s worth remembering whenever you hear politicians yammering about how they’re going to eliminate the achievement gap with $7,000 vouchers and more incentives to raise test scores.

Smith makes the point that what our leaders have not done so far is actually meaningfully increase investment in schools. Neither a more intense focus on testing nor the offering of vouchers will actually move the needle when it comes to student outcomes.

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FILED

A lawsuit challenging the state’s voucher law has been filed by Nashville and Shelby County. Some highlights from the claim below.

Dolores Gresham

Amendment No. 1 did not apply to Sen. Gresham’s home county of Fayette County or to any of the other six counties in Sen. Gresham’s district, despite Fayette County having two out of seven schools (28.6%) on the 2017 bottom 10% list and one out of seven schools (14.3%) on the 2018 list of priority schools.

Victory at any cost?

Sen. Dickerson expressed concerned about the “unfair” process, noting that House votes were acquired based on promises to exclude certain counties from the bill: 

So, for this bill to really be fair, I think it needs to apply to every child in Tennessee. There are members in this chamber who have said that they will vote for this bill because it does not apply to their county. It’s an okay bill, so long as it does not apply to their county. I think if it’s a good bill, we should embrace it for every county. And not to cut with too fine a point here, but in the, our, our chamber down the hall, the 50th vote came with the specific stipulation that this bill would not apply to the 50th vote’s county. It also came with a significant financial reward for that individual’s county, if reports are to be believed. And I really worry that this is very unfair, and this is not the way that we should be doing our business. I think this comes down to a victory at any cost.

Pilot Project

Sen. Yarbro (D-Nashville) speaking on the Senate floor on April 25, 2019, called references to a “pilot project” a “false premise.” He noted that the bill, unlike true pilot projects, did not have a “sunset” provision. Rather, he said, the bill created a permanent $110 million state program for 15,000 students in only two counties.

Funding Lost

Based on the combined statewide BEP average of $7,593 in 2019-2020, MNPS would lose 2,150 x $7,593 = approximately $16.3 million in funding for that school year. SCS would lose 2,850 x $7,593 = approximately $21.6 million in funding for the first year of implementation. This number likely underestimates the financial impact on MNPS and SCS, since the BEP per-pupil funding for 2020-2021 will likely be higher than the current year.

MNPS’s total funding loss over five years would be at least $163 million over the ESA Program’s first five years and would increase by at least $49 million annually in each succeeding year. The actual funding loss would likely be significantly higher, as the BEP per-pupil funding (whether MNPS’s or the combined statewide average) will undoubtedly increase over time.

SCS’s total funding loss over five years would be at least $216 million over the ESA Program’s first five years and would increase by at least $65 million annually in each succeeding year.

Bottom Line

Vouchers are expensive. The program as designed unfairly impacts Nashville and Shelby County. Pro-voucher lawmakers worked to ensure their own counties would NOT be included in the program.

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Challenging Vouchers in Court

Governor Bill Lee’s signature legislative achievement — school vouchers — will face a legal challenge from the City of Nashville, Chalkbeat reports:


Tennessee’s new voucher law is expected to get its first legal challenge this week from Nashville and its school district.


Attorneys for Metropolitan Nashville government were putting the finishing touches on a complaint Wednesday that’s expected to name Gov. Bill Lee and his education commissioner, Penny Schwinn, concerning the controversial 2019 law.


A special called meeting of the school board for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools is set for Thursday morning, where Mayor John Cooper and his law director, Bob Cooper, are scheduled to deliver an “important announcement,” according to a notice shared Wednesday with news organizati

The vote to authorize vouchers is under separate investigations from both the FBI and TBI.

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The Truth About National School Choice Week

Jeremy Mohler of In the Public Interest tells the real story of National School Choice Week:

Last week was “National School Choice Week,” and odds are you’re confused. Why was there a week dedicated to something nobody would argue against? Shouldn’t every child be able to attend a great school?

The answers lie in who paid for the bright yellow scarves and signs on display at last week’s thousands of events.

Surely some well-meaning parents and students celebrated. But they were joined by powerful people who, despite what they say, don’t believe that every child deserves a great school.

Instead, these people believe in a certain kind of choice over all others. In their worldview, market choice is more important than democracy, parents are consumers rather than members of a broader community, and education is a competition between students, with winners and losers.

National School Choice Week was founded in 2011 by the Gleason Family Foundation, the philanthropy arm of a machine tool manufacturing company in Rochester, New York. As of 2017—the most recent year data is publicly available, albeit incomplete—the foundation gave at least $688,000 to organize the self-described “nonpartisan, nonpolitical, independent public awareness effort.” The total is likely higher—in 2014, the foundation’s spending on the week topped $4.3 million.

The Gleason Family Foundation has little public presence, not even a website, but much can be gleaned from who it supports. As of 2016, it had given money to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Cato Institute, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice (now called EdChoice), and countless other conservative organizations bent on privatizing public education.

So, the “choice” in National School Choice Week clearly means certain educational options, namely private school vouchers and charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated.

But it goes further than that. By recklessly pushing vouchers and charter schools at all costs, the privatizers funding the school choice movement actually aim to eliminate choices for parents, students, and teachers.

Shouldn’t parents have the choice to send their child to a well-funded neighborhood public school? Yet, private school vouchers siphon precious funding from public school districts, many of them already struggling to raise revenue.

Additionally, research has shown that each new charter school that opens diverts money from districts. Charter schools cost Oakland, California’s school district $57.3 million per year, meaning $1,500 less in funding for each student who attends a neighborhood school. Last fall, the struggling district moved forward with a plan to begin closing 24 of its 80 schools. Budget pressure caused by unlimited charter school growth surely contributed to this decision.

Simply put, allowing more and more charter schools to open threatens the existence of by-right, neighborhood public schools.

Polling shows that parents prefer neighborhood public schools, as long as those schools receive adequate investment. A majority of Americans also agree that public schools need more money. Yet, the well-funded, conservative members of the school choice movement don’t agree with these choices.

ALEC and think tanks like Cato are staunch advocates for lower taxes on corporations and the wealthy, which has slowly drained money from America’s public education system, especially in the wake of the 2008 recession.

The majority of states continue to spend less on education than they did ten years ago. More than half of the country’s public schools are in need of repairs. In 2018, more than 60 percent of schools didn’t employ a full- or part-time nurse. Nationally, teacher pay is so low, nearly 1 in 5 teachers works a second job.

This all fits squarely with the school choice movement’s worldview that market competition belongs everywhere, even in public education. Instead of investing in all public schools, and especially those where the needs are greatest, the likes of the Gleason Family Foundation want our communities to leave public education up to private markets.

Simply put, the funders of National School Choice Week don’t share the same values as the many parents who just want a great school for their child.

Here’s what school choice should mean: every family should be able to make their neighborhood school their top choice, and every school should be a first choice for somebody.

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Amy Frogge on “School Choice”

Nashville school board member Amy Frogge takes on the notion of “school choice.” Here’s what she has to say:

Let’s consider for a moment the notion of “school choice.” This phrase is a political term that has been used to promote school privatization (through vouchers and charter schools). We hear the phrase frequently these days because it is spread by political PR machines to pave the way for money-making schemes through public education. This seemingly innocuous term appeals to many parents and citizens who are unaware of education policy debates and just believe that this term means allowing parents to choose great schools for their children. Of course, no one is opposed to giving parents options, but that’s not what “school choice” really means in the context of education discussions now.

As education historian Diane Ravitch documents in her most recent book, “School choice, it should be remembered, was the goal of Southern governors in the decade after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision of 1954. For many years, the term ‘school choice’ was stigmatized because most people, familiar with the backlash to the Brown decision, understood that ‘choice’ was a strategy devised by Southern governors to preserve racial segregation. The racist origins of school choice are well documented.”

Because the history of this phrase is largely forgotten, the use of this term from disparate groups makes for some strange bedfellows in the political world. On one hand, there are there are those who support “choice” from the perspective of need. These folks, primarily people of color, live in marginalized communities that have suffered decades of disinvestment. Their schools, which are segregated, underfunded, and often overcrowded, serve the neediest children without adequate support to meet the needs of those children who have experienced trauma and difficult life circumstances. When these families exercise “choice,” they are contributing to greater equity in the school system, and I am sympathetic to their circumstances. Charter schools appeal to these families, who see charters as a way to escape their neglected neighborhood schools.

On the other hand, “school choice” is also promoted by more affluent, white parents who would prefer more segregated public schools. This agenda is being driven by billionaire white men, who like to utilize (paid) people of color as the face of their movement. The white parents supporting the segregation agenda sometimes openly push to keep black children out of classrooms with their own children. In a bizarre twist, these white parents often end up advocating for “choice” alongside disenfranchised African-American parents who have suffered discrimination.

Ultimately, the real “school choice” debate should come down to equity, or in other words, ensuring that every child gets a fair shot at a great education. When children are bussed off to schools outside their zones or when families select schools across the city, the underlying question is whether those “choices” increase or decrease equity in the school district overall. I have long advocated for families on the west side to try their zoned schools, because this increases equity and also because our schools are very good, despite the bad rap they sometimes receive. I have long opposed charter schools because they decrease funding for schools serving the neediest students, because they increase school segregation, and because they are unregulated, which leads to fraud and misuse of taxpayer dollars. These, again, are equity issues.

But here’s the underlying problem: MNPS has not undertaken the work necessary to create effective pathways for ALL children to be well served. Opening the door wide to random “choice” may provide good options for some families, but leaves many more- almost always children in poverty- behind. I am hopeful that we will finally begin this work with Dr. Battle, who, having grown up in Nashville, truly understands the disparate needs of different areas of the city. The school system and the city, not parents, should be held responsible for ensuring greater equity across our district, and we should invite parents to help us in our work. The feeding frenzy we have created around the MNPS lottery system and certain schools only serves to decrease equity. The ideal is to have well-resourced schools in every neighborhood that are well supported by parents and their communities.

In the end, it’s really about the common good. “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that we must want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.” (John Dewey) We must welcome all children regardless of their circumstances, provide greater resources for schools serving children with the greatest needs, encourage parent involvement, ensure that all of our schools are safe learning environments, and build community through our neighborhood schools, no matter where they are located. That’s the real secret for success.

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TEA Pushes School Funding, Voucher Repeal

The Tennessee Education Association is pushing for increased school funding and a repeal of the state’s voucher law in this legislative session, according to a report from WMOT radio.


TEA President Beth Brown notes that the state’s per-pupil school funding is the second lowest in the Southeast. She says it’s time for lawmakers to spend Tennessee’s excess revenue on education.


“We actually have a $7.6 billion cash reserve. …and so we will be pushing very hard to see some of that revenue that’s going unbudgeted invested in our schools.”


Brown says the TEA will also support efforts this session to repeal Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher plan passed by a single vote last year.

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Gloria Johnson Exposes Voucher Discrimination

The Tennessee Holler has the video of State Rep. Gloria Johnson questioning the rules for Tennessee’s new voucher scheme and exposing the discrimination inherent in the program:

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Dirty Tricks, Bribes, Threats: It’s a Voucher Story!

The Tennessee Holler has the video of Republican State Rep. Kent Calfee explaining just how that voucher bill passed last year:

https://twitter.com/TheTNHoller/status/1222900056140836868?s=20

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ClassWallet Brags About TN Voucher Contract

Even as a legislative committee heard testimony this week acknowledging that the vendor chosen to administer the state’s school privatization program was awarded the contract without competitive bidding, ClassWallet was bragging about inking the Tennessee deal. Here’s the text of a recent company newsletter:


November marked a great milestone for the Company landing our 4th state contract, this one with the Tennessee Department of Education.  It’s exciting when the problem is real and ClassWallet can uniquely solve it. I have no doubt that ClassWallet will save the Department thousands of hours of time, substantially reduce the cost of program administration and provide dramatically more accountability than the alternatives.


ClassWallet has signed a contract to work with the Tennessee Department of Education. The state of Tennessee joins North Carolina, Arizona, and New Mexico as the latest state government agency that will be using ClassWallet to manage educational program fund distribution, reconciliation, and reporting.

It’s worth noting that Arizona’s ESA program has been marked with fraud, and there have been new questions raised about excessive account balances:


Of the nearly 7,000 accounts, nine have a balance of more than $100,000 and 78 were found with more than $60,000. The records were released by the Arizona Department of Public Education, and spokesman Richie Taylor said the amounts reflect the different types of disabilities students have. But the high dollar figures raised questions for some school voucher skeptics.


“If the entire premise of the ESA program is that families need these state dollars in order to go into private schools or the private sector to pay for the education that their kids need, then I’m not sure why funds would be piling up an individual accounts to the tune of $130,000 piled up; $105,000 piled up,” said Dawn Penich-Thacker with Save Our Schools Arizona. “The funds are paid out quarterly every single year because, theoretically, you’re supposed to be paying tuition or paying therapist or paying for services.”

Even pro-voucher groups are not happy with the payment processing:


Two pro-school voucher nonprofits are threatening to sue the Arizona Department of Education for failure to send on-time payments to parents whose kids use a special program to attend non-public schools.


The Goldwater Institute and the Liberty Justice Center filed a Notice of Claim against the department last week.


They allege the agency is forcing parents to pay for tuition costs out of their own pockets because checks were not mailed in time. The students are part of the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program that uses taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition, tutoring or home-school curriculum.

Maybe, like with TNReady, Tennessee will get lucky and everything will work out just fine.

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