The Bottom Line

While Governor Bill Lee continues to fast-track his sketchy voucher experiment, more and more voices are raising concerns about the program.

The latest comes from Tonyaa Weathersbee in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Her argument highlights a key fact lawmakers would be wise to take into account as they consider repeal of the voucher scheme in 2020:

Mainly, in their rush to inflict vouchers on one of the poorest, mostly African American counties in the state, they have chosen to overlook the success of Shelby County schools’ Innovation Zone program in favor of an ideological approach that has shown few triumphs in boosting poor students’ academic performance.

That’s paternalism, not improvement.

Recent data from the non-partisan Brookings Institute, for example, shows that four rigorous studies done in Louisiana, Washington, D.C., Indiana and Ohio found that struggling students who use vouchers to attend private schools perform worse on achievement tests than struggling students in public schools.  

Vouchers don’t work. In fact, they actually set students back. Legislators will have an opportunity to support a bipartisan voucher repeal effort in 2020 to correct this egregious mistake. Gov. Lee won’t be happy, but doing what’s best for Tennessee’s kids is more important than pleasing the Plaid Privatizer.

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Voucher Vultures on the March

It seems Governor Bill Lee’s HVAC buddy Bob Luddy is bringing his no frills private school pitch to Wilson County, too. I previously reported on Luddy and his Thales Academy as they held an initial interest meeting in Nashville in July. Here’s more on the interest meeting the school held in Wilson County:

Informational meeting for parents interested in Thales Academy in Wilson County, TN featuring Thales Academy Academic Director Dr. Tim Hall

About this Event

At Thales Academy, our mission is to provide an excellent and affordable education for students through the use of Direct Instruction and a Classical Curriculum that embodies traditional American values.

Thales provides a rigorous academic environment that fosters ethical behavior, critical thinking, virtuous leadership, lifelong learning, and truth seeking with a firm foundation in cognitive, non-cognitive, and technical skills. As a result, Thales Academy students are well prepared to succeed in higher education, career, and life while positively impacting the world around them.

We’ll discuss this and more on Thursday, August 1 with Thales Chief Academic Officer, Dr. Tim Hall, PhD.

Join us for an evening of learning Thursday, Aug 01 from 6:00 pm to 7:30 pm

It’s interesting that Thales is attempting to recruit students from Wilson County, even though Wilson is not (yet) a part of the Education Savings Account voucher scheme.

As noted before, here’s the deal with Thales:

No special education. No transportation. No cafeteria. Luddy calls it “no frills” and hails the use of “direct instruction.”

And here’s more on Luddy’s past dealings in Tennessee:

Thales and Luddy are not new to Tennessee. In fact, in 2015, voucher advocate Lee Barfield paid for a private plane to take former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and then-House Speaker Beth Harwell to North Carolina to visit the Thales schools. Like Bill Lee, Barfield is a long-time supporter of Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children and even served on the group’s Board of Directors.

Not surprisingly, tuition at Thales roughly mirrors the amount available to parents under the ESA program.

This is exactly the kind of “pop-up” private school critics of vouchers have warned about. In fact, new House Speaker Cameron Sexton once said:

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.”

Maybe all this expansion talk by the likes of Thales will lead to even more momentum for a repeal of the voucher scheme.

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Republican Joins Voucher Repeal Effort

Legislation that would repeal Governor Bill Lee’s signature legislative victory on school vouchers has gained bipartisan support. Republican Bruce Griffey of Paris became the first GOP legislator to sign-on to a bill sponsored by Nashville Democrat Bo Mitchell and co-sponsored by every House Democrat except John DeBerry of Memphis.

The repeal effort is gaining momentum even as both the FBI and TBI continue investigations into the narrow House vote that led to passage of Education Savings Accounts (Lee’s euphemistic name for his voucher scheme).

In addition to the investigations into the House vote, the Senate sponsor of the voucher bill is facing a separate FBI investigation.

I wrote earlier about how the voucher legislation threatens to divide the GOP in Tennessee heading into the 2020 session:

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


It’s worth noting that new House Speaker Cameron Sexton has consistently opposed vouchers, including voting against Lee’s plan this year. Here’s more of what he’s said about vouchers:

“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.”

It will be interesting to see if more Republicans join the repeal effort and what, if any, work Sexton does to undo the voucher plan.

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Quid Pro Quo

Sure, we’re all hearing about Quid Pro Quo as it relates to President Trump and Ukraine. But, what about former Tennessee House Speaker Glen Casada, his Chief of Staff Cade Cothren, and the vote on vouchers that is facing an FBI investigation? Well, as it turns out the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) is still asking lawmakers about a possible quid pro quo on the voucher vote. The Daily Memphian has more:

A House member, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed to The Daily Memphian Tuesday being questioned by TBI agents within the past two months. The lawmaker said it appears the agency is continuing to look into the matter but could not tell by their questions what direction they’re taking in the investigation.


The legislator previously confirmed being questioned by TBI and FBI agents about Casada and his staff and whether they tried to bribe House members in connection with the governor’s ESA bill.

While the House vote remains under scrutiny with rumor of indictments coming down in the FBI investigation soon, it’s worth noting the Senate sponsor of voucher legislation faces a separate FBI investigation.

Additionally, earlier this week, Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn dropped the bombshell revelation that vouchers received by parents will be treated as taxable income by the IRS.

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OUTSOURCED

Governor Bill Lee’s Administration is privatizing his school privatization scheme by hiring a private company to administer funds from the so-called Education Savings Accounts. Chalkbeat has more on the millions being paid to a Florida company to manage money in Tennessee’s voucher plan:

Tennessee has hired a Florida company to oversee online payment and application systems for its new education voucher program for some families in Memphis and Nashville.

ClassWallet started work on Nov. 4 after signing a two-year contract worth $2.53 million with the Department of Education, according to documents obtained by Chalkbeat.

The company becomes the major vendor managing Tennessee’s education savings account program, scheduled to launch for up to 5,000 students next school year under a new state law.

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The Playbook

Dr. Bill Smith of Johnson City clearly and succinctly describes the playbook for school privatizers in recent piece in the Johnson City Press:

A popular refrain of conservative politicians has been the assertion that America has tried everything possible to improve its schools. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our leaders certainly have not done everything possible to help the schools facing the greatest challenges. Instead, they have repeatedly applied one ill-conceived policy prescription: testing children and shaming and punishing educators when the results aren’t deemed acceptable.

For almost two decades we have clung to this approach as if it is a matter of faith. As economic and racial inequalities in academic performance have persisted, our leaders have doubled down with increased determination. To them there is never any consideration of the possibility that so-called accountability measures might not be the solution to all educational concerns. If schools don’t succeed, it’s their fault. They are failures.

By purposefully characterizing schools in poor urban and rural areas as “failing schools,” elected officials have promoted the view that these schools are beyond redemption. Not surprisingly, these leaders now feel empowered to suggest that the only way forward is give up on struggling schools and enact voucher and charter programs.

That’s it. That’s the game. That’s the playbook used by Governor Bill Lee and those like him who wish to advance a school privatization agenda. Former Governor Haslam played this game, too.

Test. Punish. Underfund. Repeat. Until the results are so abundantly clear that the “only hope” is privatization.

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More FBI Trouble for Senate Voucher Sponsor

State Senator Brian Kelsey is under increasing scrutiny from the FBI into how he financed his failed 2016 campaign for Congress.

Erik Schelzig reports on a story out of the Tennessean noting individuals who have been interviewed related to the case:

Former Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey is among officials interviews by federal officials investigating fundraising related to state Sen. Brian Kelsey’s failed 2016 congressional bid, The Tennessean reports.


Also interviewed was Nashville Councilman Steve Glover, who gave money to Kelsey’s federal PAC during a 2016 after receiving money from the senator’s state PAC.

Schelzig notes:

Candidates are prohibited from using money raised for state races in federal campaigns. As The Tennessean reported in 2017 (and
later augmented by a complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission), Kelsey’s state committee, Red State PAC, gave thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to fellow state lawmakers, who then turned around and gave donations to his congressional account.

Kelsey was the lead sponsor of Governor Bill Lee’s signature legislative initiative, Education Savings Accounts (vouchers). While Kelsey faces an FBI probe into his campaign finances, the House vote on the voucher legislation is under a separate FBI investigation.

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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?

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

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