Voucher Expansion

Opponents of Governor Bill Lee’s school voucher scheme have long argued that once the program starts, it will expand significantly and take up ever larger chunks of state education funding. Turns out, the plan hasn’t even been enacted yet and it is already expanding.

Erik Schelzig of the Tennessee Journal reports that the Senate will consider an amendment that would allow the program to grow to 30,000 and will include homeschool students:


Just as in the House bill, the program would be capped at 5,000 students in the first year, followed by increments of 2,500 in the next four years. But while the lower chamber’s bill envisions limiting the pilot program at 15,000, the Senate bill would continue to allow the program to grow by 2,500 students each ensuing year until it reaches an enrollment of 30,000.

At today’s funding levels, that’s a total annual cost of $219 million at full implementation. That’s $219 million NOT available to fill in the gaps of the BEP or raise teacher pay, for example.

Additionally, the Senate envisions removing the requirement that students receiving voucher dollars take at least the math and ELA parts of TNReady. Instead, schools could administer a nationally norm-referenced test of their choosing.

Ironically, education advocates have for years suggested the state allow local school districts the flexibility to choose an alternative test to replace the failed TNReady. Instead, education policy leaders in our state stubbornly hold on to the idea that everything will eventually be “just fine” with testing.

As of this writing, the House version passed another subcommittee on the march toward the House floor. The Senate is scheduled to take up the expanded version this afternoon.

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April 15th

A group of parents gathered at the Tennessee General Assembly today to express opposition to the use of public funds to pay for unaccountable private schools. The move comes as Governor Bill Lee’s privatization plans — through both a state charter school authorizer and so-called education savings accounts — advance in the legislature.

The assembled parents called for a statewide action on April 15th — the first day of the TNReady testing window. Frustration about the state’s failed testing and persistent underfunding of schools was expressed.

Here’s more from Tennessee Strong, the umbrella group of parent advocates coordinating the action:

Fiasco

That’s how one Kindergarten teacher described the state’s portfolio assessment program for teachers at a legislative committee meeting last week. At the final meeting of the House Education Subcommittee on Curriculum, Testing, and Innovation, legislators presented bills that would fundamentally change the way Kindergarten and 1st grade teachers are evaluated. One bill would allow local districts to choose to use the current portfolio model or use an approved alternative evaluation. Another piece of legislation would simply move away from portfolio evaluation altogether.

Readers will remember the story last year that exposed the current portfolio model as a complete failure. Here’s more on that:


Kindergarten teachers I talked to estimate the evidence collection process takes up a minimum of five instructional days. This means students aren’t actively engaged in the learning process during the evidence collection days. As in the scenario with Eric, it requires the full attention of the teacher (and if possible, an assistant) in order to collect the evidence. This doesn’t include the tagging of evidence or the uploading to an often unreliable online platform known as Educopia. Some districts report hiring subs on evidence collection days so teachers can document the evidence from their students.


Eric’s story is just one more example of a Department of Education that claims victory when the evidence suggests much improvement is needed. It’s a Department hellbent on pursuing supposedly lofty goals no matter the consequences to students or their teachers.
Lost instructional time due to portfolio evidence collection? No problem!
Days of stress and chaos because TNReady doesn’t work? Outstanding!
Teachers faced with confusing, invalid evaluations? Excellent!
Eric and his teachers and Tennessee’s schools and communities deserve better.


Many teachers also recall the nightmare that was the portfolio scoring process from last year:


Anyway, after this year’s blame the teachers portfolio event, the state finally agreed to review portfolios and re-score them. In fact, the state offered $500 each to reviewers who would meet at centralized locations and on a single day (September 8th) to assess the portfolios in question. This would allow for immediate feedback and assistance should problems arise.
The good news: No assistance was necessary because problems didn’t arise during the scoring.
The bad news: That’s because there was no scoring as the state’s vendor, Educopia, could not provide access to the portfolios in order for them to be graded.
To be fair, some portfolios were graded in certain locations before the infrastructure was overloaded and all grading stopped.
This means trained reviewers sat in rooms around the state looking at blank screens instead of assessing portfolios. It means they were fed sandwiches and then told to go home. It means they were promised $500 for the lost day.

Since last year, the Department of Education has moved to a new platform for portfolio evaluation — a group called Portfolium. More on this “new” group:


Who is Portfolium?
Portfolium is a startup company designed to provide college students with a way to highlight accomplishments and work samples for future employers. Yes, you read that right: The new evaluation platform is a startup company that was founded in 2013 and just three years ago, began raising a small amount of capital to launch:
Portfolium, a Web-based social network for students preparing to start their careers, said it has closed on $1.2 million in new venture funding, bringing its total funding to $2.1 million since 2013, when the San Diego-based startup was founded.

And, according to teachers, the Portfolium platform is pretty frustrating. Kindergarten teachers report frequently receiving the “Uh-Oh” screen and also note they’ve been told not to upload material during the TNReady testing window so as not to stress the state’s computer system. With dump trucks already preparing to attack this year’s test, it’s certainly not reassuring that there are concerns about capacity.

While teachers were raising concerns with legislators, the Department of Education, always eager to call teachers liars, suggested that MOST Kindergarten teachers loved the portfolio model and were enjoying this year’s experience. No, I’m not joking. A TN DOE representative claimed that more than 80% of Tennessee Kindergarten teachers actually liked the portfolio model.

In any case, the legislation to change portfolios advanced to the full Education Committee in the House. That’s where lawmakers will decide the likely path for next year.

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Byrd Attack

Governor Bill Lee failed to call on admitted sex offender and state Rep. David Byrd to step down from his leadership post on an education subcommittee following a meeting between Lee and one of Byrd’s accusers. However, Lee’s henchman, House Speaker Glen Casada, removed Byrd from his leadership post following Byrd’s vote in opposition to Lee’s school voucher scheme. Now, a group funded by Bill Lee is attacking Byrd with online ads.

The Tennessee Federation for Children, the Tennessee affiliate of Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children, is running ads accusing Byrd of refusing to stand with President Trump and Governor Lee on vouchers.

Before he was elected Governor, Lee gave thousands of dollars to the Tennessee Federation for Children and wrote pieces in favor of school vouchers. Once elected, he hired the former state director of TFC as his policy director.

The message is clear: If you oppose Bill Lee’s school privatization agenda, you’ll face the wrath of dark money political organizations funded by Lee. The attacks on Byrd come after another dark money group, Tennesseans for Student Success, spent money attacking House Education Republicans who stood in the way of Lee’s state charter authorizer. That plan is a way for Lee and his privatizing profiteers to circumvent local school boards and force charters where they aren’t wanted and don’t belong.

The next two to three weeks will be pivotal in the fight for Tennessee’s public schools.

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Parent Group Plans Action on Vouchers

On the heels of a call by some teachers in Tennessee for a sick out to protest bad education policy in the state, a group of parents is planning a major announcement at an event on Tuesday, April 9th in Nashville.

Here’s more from a press release from the group, calling itself Tennessee Strong and comprised of parent advocates from across the state:

On Tuesday, April 9th at NOON parents of public school students will be joined by teachers, clergy, and advocates to protest Gov. Lee’s voucher proposal making its way through the Tennessee legislature.

Gov. Lee’s proposal has advanced only in Tennessee’s House of Representatives, the chamber where a voucher bill has never before cleared all the hurdles necessary to become law. Tennessee Strong believes public education is in the fight for its life and seeks to raise awareness of the urgency and declare solidarity with teachers who choose to strike.

“Vouchers are a failed experiment and rife with fraud in other states. At a time when Tennessee is ranked 45th in the nation in education investment, we need to be robustly investing in public schools so as not to fall further behind. Instead our governor and lawmakers want to divert money away from our school districts into a venture under the auspices of “choice” which only further weakens public schools and disenfranchises our most vulnerable populations,” said Beckie Mostello, Williamson County public school parent.

The event will be held on the Beth Harwell Plaza adjacent to the Cordell Hull legislative office building in Nashville.

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Sick

A Tennessee teacher writes about the education policies that make her sick.

I’m sick.

Sick of my students being over-tested and our schools being underfunded.

Sick of teachers leaving the profession because they are underpaid and undervalued.

Sick of Tennessee being 45th in the nation in per pupil funding. 

Sick of being disrespected by a Governor who has proposed increasing state funding for unaccountable charter schools by 100% while only increasing funding for teachers by 2%.

And how I feel is only going to get worse if the state government passes voucher legislation, which will further drain the resources our students need from public schools and hand them over to unaccountable private companies.

That’s why there’s a movement of teachers planning on calling in sick on Tuesday, April 9th to travel to Nashville and flood the capitol.

We plan on letting our state’s politicians know just how sick we are. And we plan on making it clear to them: the war on public education in Tennessee ends now.

I’m a member of the Tennessee Education Association, but I know that there are many in the state leadership who think that collective action is too aggressive and premature. They still believe that we can work amicably with state politicians. I disagree.

Anyone still entertaining that idea should have had a rude awakening last week when Betsy DeVos visited our state and held closed door meetings with privatizers and politicians.

Several months back, when Governor Lee announced his unfortunate choice for the TN Commissioner of Education, I publicly stated that he had declared war on public education. Some may have thought that was a bit dramatic. However, the Governor wouldn’t have invited the most vilified Secretary of Education in history to the state if he didn’t plan on dropping an atomic bomb on public education. His voucher and charter bills are just that.

With the backing of ALEC and Betsy DeVos those devastating bills will pass unless teachers wake up and do something drastic. Millions upon millions of dollars will be drained from public education and siphoned away from our students.

How do I know this? Because it was perfectly ok to have an admitted child predator be the chair of the House Education Committee until he voted against the voucher bill. Only then was he no longer fit to be the chair.

Strong arm tactics are running rampant and the writing is on the wall.

The go-along to get-along approach of the state teachers association, which means working with the enemies of public education, has been a pipe dream for almost a decade, and it’s time for teachers to wake up. All the emailing and phone calls in the world won’t stop politicians bankrolled by billionaires like the Koch brothers and DeVos family from pursuing devastating legislation that hurts our schools, students, and communities.

Over the last year, I have watched educators in one state after another rise up, take their power back, and force legislators to actually represent THEM and not privatizers. It didn’t matter that the strikes were illegal or sick-outs were risky. When educators stick together and have the backing of the community, they can make real change possible. Teachers can take on billionaires and win. They already have in other states.

In my opinion, the only thing that will stop this insanity is for teachers to walk out. Shut it down. Take back our schools. Take back our profession. Do our job……. and fight for our kids.

I hope to see you in the capitol on Tuesday, April 9.

Lauren Sorensen is a second grade teacher at Halls Elementary School in Knox County and a former president of the Knox County Education Association.

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



Bill Lee and the Voucher Toilet

Knoxville columnist Frank Cagle has some thoughts on Bill Lee’s voucher scheme. To be clear, Cagle thinks it’s a very bad idea. This is because Cagle has actually read evidence and understands basic math — two concepts that seem to escape many at the legislature.

Here’s some of what Cagle has to say:


The plan issues a debit card with $7,300 on it and the parent can spend it on anything deemed “educational.” Field trip to Disney World? A flat-screen TV study aid? These programs have been found to be infested with fraud and abuse elsewhere. Who in Tennessee will police the program and find out if it is being abused? Is the Comptroller’s Office supposed to audit 15,000 students? And who decides if a questionable item is an “educational expense?” An audit of the program in Arizona revealed parents misspent $700,000 in one year.


The plan uses one-time general fund money to set it up and to fool people that the ultimate cost won’t come out of the existing education budget. By 2025 Lee would have spent $125 million to have a program in place for 15,000 students. It is unlikely that the administration would spend this kind of money to set up this program if it did not plan to expand it exponentially. At that point BEP funds to local school systems will be cut to pay for the vouchers. The only thing one can conclude is that this plan will gradually disburse funds to parents to send students to private schools, education funding from the state will be cut to pay for it and the end result is not a happy outcome for public schools.

Cagle is exactly right — the plan is expensive, with a 10-year cost approaching $1 billion. Yes, Bill Lee wants to devote $1 billion of taxpayer money to funding unaccountable private schools even though similar schemes in other states have yet to yield positive results.

Finally, Cagle notes that legislators are being punished by legislative leadership for opposing vouchers. Cagle notes that admitted sex offender David Byrd was given a subcommittee chairmanship, but had that honor stripped after he opposed Lee’s voucher plan. That’s how Glen Casada governs Tennessee’s House of Representatives — admitting to being a sex offender is all well and good, but when you get in the way of Bill Lee’s plan to privatize Tennessee’s public schools, you are suddenly unfit to lead.

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Vouchers and the BEP

The BEP — Tennessee’s funding formula for schools — is a reliable source of revenue for local school districts each year. While projections from the Comptroller’s office suggest the state underfunds the BEP by $500 million a year, the formula is relatively stable and districts can typically predict the amount of new BEP dollars they will receive each year.

That’s why Knox County was surprised this year to see a number about $6 million less than expected. The Knoxville News-Sentinel has more:

The state has typically added roughly $180 million new dollars into the BEP statewide in recent years. This, plus other smaller percentages of state funds, allowed the county to budget roughly $12 million extra BEP dollars each year. Last year it added an extra $14.1 million new BEP dollars after the state added $188.4 million new dollars to the fund.  

However, that number is expected to be down to $117.5 million in new money this year, meaning the county’s share of new dollars is projected to be only $6.2 million, nearly $8 million less than last year, Knox County Finance Director Chris Caldwell said.

Here’s the historic data on BEP funding for Knox County:

  • $196.4 million, $12.9 million (2016-17);
  • $207.9 million, $11.5 million (2017-18);
  • $222 million, $14.1 million (2018-19);
  • $228.2 million estimate, $6.2 million estimate (2019-20)

As you can see, Knox County could reliably count on at least $12 million in increased BEP funding each year in recent years. That number was down more than half in this year’s projection.

What’s different in 2019-20? Well, Governor Bill Lee is proposing a statewide voucher scheme, for one. He’s also increasing funds available for charter schools. This comes after several years of former Governor Bill Haslam adding roughly $100 million a year in teacher salary increases. This year, that number is $75 million, with the other $25 million going to start Lee’s voucher plan.

If teachers in Knox County want to know what happened to their raises, the answer is vouchers. If residents want to know why building new schools is delayed, it’s because Lee is committing a lot of new money to charter schools for their facilities.

Bill Lee’s “school choice” agenda has consequences. The projected shortfall in Knox County is a clear example. Of course, Lee has done nothing to address the persistent low funding of our state’s schools and given no indication he intends to address that issue.

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Return of the Dump Truck

It looks like Tennessee’s TNReady vendor Questar is having problems in New York — again!

The New York PTA issued this press release yesterday following continued problems with online testing there:


NYS PTA is highly disappointed with the recent announcement that the computer based testing system of New York’s testing vendor, Questar Assessment, has failed again, after having serious issues in 2018 as well.


We call for a review of the contract with Questar, as we have little faith that they can provide New York with the services outlined therein. We also call for a review of the computer based testing program, and it’s future implementation, especially until these issues are solved.


We hope today’s problems do not affect children, and know that districts and SED will do their best to ensure that. Questar’s failure put unnecessary stress and anxiety on children, and that is unacceptable.

Tennessee parents can be reassured because our state paused testing for a year and fired the offending vendor.

Oh, wait. No, we didn’t. We followed up last year’s pack of lies with this year’s preemptive excuse-making.

Now there’s this statement from the TN Department of Education:


“We are working with the vendor to determine if the events that occurred in New York could happen in Tennessee and will assess appropriate action as soon as the root cause of the New York incident is known.” —Tennessee education department spokeswoman AE Graham

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