Vouchers a Taxing Proposition

Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn dropped a bombshell yesterday when she told a legislative committee that the value of a voucher under the state’s new education savings account program would be considered taxable income for the purpose of federal taxes. More from NewsChannel9 in Chattanooga:

Tennessee’s education commissioner says the state’s new school vouchers for private education will be considered federally taxable income for parents.

It was immediately pointed out that low-income families are the least likely to be able to absorb the burden of adding $7300 in taxable income reported to the IRS.

The announcement is the latest in a series of potential problems for Governor Bill Lee’s signature legislative initiative.

Just last week, it was revealed that the Department of Education is spending $2.5 million on a contract with a private firm to manage voucher payments. Not one cent of this money will go toward helping a student access a private school nor will it be paid to any private school. That’s just the administrative cost of managing the payments.

It’s also worth noting that there is an ongoing FBI investigation into both the House vote on the voucher legislation AND the Senate sponsor of the plan.

Oh, and there’s a serious effort to actually repeal the entire voucher scheme.

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Penny Doesn’t Know

At a legislative committee meeting today where state representative Andy Holt, often the purveyor of terrible ideas, advocated for allowing Tennessee teachers to carry concealed weapons at school, Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn seemed unable or unwilling to stand for teachers. The Tennessean has more on how Penny dropped the ball:

Ahead of the 2020 legislative session, at least one lawmaker is already expressing interest in allowing teachers to carry guns in schools.

It’s a measure some Republican lawmakers have pushed unsuccessfully in recent years, and one that Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn on Monday declined to give a position on.

“I’m not in a place to comment on that at this time,” Schwinn said after a House budget hearing when asked whether she supported the notion of arming public school teachers. “We’re focusing on the budget hearing.”

Apparently, the issue of allowing guns in schools was too much to handle for the former educator who also noted many times during the legislative hearing that she’s also a parent.

Does Schwinn want teachers at the schools her children attend to be armed? Does she, someone with classroom experience, think it’s wise to arm teachers?

It seems she doesn’t know. Or, well, she’s just unwilling to challenge a bully and blowhard like Holt, known more for his obnoxious cowbell on the House floor than for his legislative efficacy.

Schwinn is running a department that is in disarray and now seems unable (unwilling) to stand up for Tennessee teachers and students when they need it most.

All of this raises yet another question: What does Governor Bill Lee think? Is the HVAC mogul a supporter of arming teachers? Does he support Holt’s idea? Will he continue to back a Commissioner of Education who can’t be bothered to offer support for teachers on a pretty straightforward question?

American cent

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Nothing to Win, Nothing Left to Lose

Nashville can’t live without its teachers, but it seems the city’s leaders can’t live with the idea of actually paying them. While the need to improve pay for teachers has been clear for years, Mayor Cooper recently announced yet another study to determine what can be done with teacher pay. Now, Nashville finds itself in a budget crisis, short the money needed to meet this year’s obligations. That crisis has caused some to question whether the funds for a promised mid-year teacher raise will actually be available.

Metro Nashville Public Schools teachers union leaders are worried that an anticipated 3% raise for educators in January may be in danger after comments from Mayor John Cooper’s administration Friday evening. 

The concern was exacerbated by a weak statement from Mayor Cooper’s office:


“In light of the Comptroller’s report this week, we are doing everything possible to make the raise happen. The finance director is working with MNPS to determine the sources of funds.”

Additionally, at-large Metro Councilman Bob Mendes took to Twitter this weekend to explain how the promised raise came about and indicate a bit of a conflict in terms of whether it should be given:

Here’s the bottom line: Metro Nashville has been giving tax breaks to developers and companies like Amazon for years now. These tax giveaways mean new revenue from growth is already spent. Simultaneously, Nashville has been ignoring the looming crisis in teacher compensation. Now, those two trains are colliding.

The next question: If there’s no raise for teachers in January, will there be teachers in classrooms in January?

Nashville has teachers with nothing to win and now nothing left to lose.

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BEP Black Magic

An article in yesterday’s Chattanooga Times-Free Press indicates that some legislators have no idea how the state’s education funding formula works or even what words actually mean.

The article notes that state Senator Todd Gardenhire and state Representative Mike Carter are frustrated by the state budget process, where funds are passed to increase salaries for educators through the Basic Education Plan (BEP). The lawmakers apparently fail to understand that every single system in the state hires teachers beyond the BEP and that the legislature continues to pass unfunded mandates on to local districts.

Specifically, Gardenhire and Carter want a clear definition of the word “teacher” so that only “teachers” receive state raise money and so that the legislators can continue underfunding schools while cutting taxes for big corporations and wealthy individuals. Seems the two of them could use a math class.

Here’s more from the article:

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and state Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, have long called for one official definition of what a “teacher” is that school districts and the state can stick to, and they have again been raising the issue with Hamilton County’s school leaders and lawmakers.

Are these ALL “teachers?”

Regular classroom teachers, special education teachers, vocational education, music or art teachers, school counselors, guidance counselors, social workers, librarians, principals, assistant principals, and even supervisors such as instructional coaches, teacher supervisors and staff who complete special education assessments for students all fall into the same category.

Gardenhire and Carter apparently would like it if there were differentiations among instructional staff so they could continue allocating paltry sums to fund schools while allowing at least some employees to receive a state-funded raise.

One County Commissioner narrowed the issue quite well:

Hamilton County Commissioner David Sharpe, of District 6, asked the state representatives at the Nov. 7 legislative delegation meeting who has been getting raises who shouldn’t have been, but his question went unanswered.


“Who are we angry [about] that is getting a raise that we don’t think should be getting a raise?” Sharpe said.

Carter made clear he hasn’t spent time seeking to understand the BEP nor has he made any serious effort to improve it:

“We are promising teachers something that we are not delivering. The BEP is all black magic. No one actually understands it, no one wants to,” Carter told the Times Free Press.

Of course, the state publishes a BEP handbook and also has a BEP Review Committee which meets regularly and explores the formula in order to recommend improvements.

One way to solve the dilemma expressed by Gardenhire and Carter? Actually fund the BEP at an adequate level. The state’s Comptroller of the Treasury estimates the BEP is underfunded by some $500 million annually. Fortunately, both Gardenhire and Carter are lawmakers and have the ability to push legislation to actually fund the formula. Unfortunately, neither have made any effort in this area.

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F****** Furious

The head of the teachers’ union in Nashville is furious. Not only that, she’s also taking action. Sure, she ran for and won the presidency of MNEA, but Amanda Kail is not about to rest now. Here’s more straight from Amanda on what’s happening with teachers in Nashville.

In the past two weeks, I have spoken with dozens of teachers in several schools across the district. And you know what? It doesn’t matter what school I am at- the problems are THE SAME. Toxic work environments, overwhelming workloads, not enough teaching resources, unfair evaluations, school buildings badly in need of repair, not enough support for students, violence and trauma, debilitating levels of stress, being expected to work more and more while wages stagnate and our city turns into a playground for the rich that none of us can afford.

Over and over I hear, “What are you going to do about…? When is MNEA going to…Well what about….?”

What am I going to do about it?

As one person, I can use my voice to share those stories to people in power. I can make phone calls, go to meetings, and speak with the press. But I am just one person. I cannot single-handedly change what many powerful people have created over many years.

The current state of our schools and our profession as teachers is no accident. Public education has been deliberately, chronically underfunded by our city and our state. Why? Because there is a lot of money to be made off of “failing schools”. The teaching profession has been hijacked because teacher unions represent the largest and most powerful remaining sector of the labor movement. Because the labor movement brought more wealth and prosperity to everyday people than anything else in history. So if you are a teacher and you feel like every day is some new fresh hell that has been designed to break you, you are correct. They are out to get you.

But here’s the thing. Someone once accused me of being way too positive on social media. They were insulted by what they saw as me refusing to voice the bitterness that so many teachers feel. “You are just too positive to really understand how we feel!” this teacher told me.

Here’s my secret. Just like Bruce Banner, I’m always angry. https://youtu.be/_Qq6dQwLh1s

In fact, I am fucking furious. And I refuse to relinquish one iota of power to the forces that want to tear us down. I refuse to say I am powerless because I’m not.

Instead, I will tell you that together we are powerful. When Nashville teachers stand up together, we can accomplish anything we want. And when we build a movement where we intentionally stand together with other communities and other workers, we will be so big and so powerful that NOTHING. WILL. STOP. US.

So what are you going to do about it?

1. Join MNEA
2. Join Nashville Red4Ed
3. Join us at Bargaining for the Common Good on Thursday.
4. Organize together. Fight like hell. Win everything.

It starts now.

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MNEA Statement on Teacher Raises

In light of recent concerns regarding the financial health of Metro Nashville, the Metro Nashville Education Association (MNEA) put out this statement regarding the planned teacher raises scheduled to take effect in January. It’s worth noting the uncertainty regarding the funds for teacher pay comes at a time when teachers in Nashville are already paid at a rate well below the cost of living.

In MNEA’s first meeting with MNPS leadership after school began in August, and other subsequent meetings, Vice President Michele Sheriff and President Amanda Kail inquired about the status of Briley’s promised 3% raise for teachers in January. After speaking to Mayor Cooper’s office, MNPS leadership assured MNEA the raises were indeed going to occur. No additional monies were required because the necessary funds already existed in the MNPS budget as a TIF (tax increment financing) expenditure that was renegotiated for this year.

With the recent release of the state comptroller’s report that shows Metro Finances short $200-300 million, MNEA reached out to MNPS leadership to confirm the raises are not in jeopardy. MNPS leadership has in turn been waiting for a response from the Mayor to confirm. After MNPS received no response, MNEA contacted Mayor Cooper’s office and this afternoon received this statement:

“In light of the Comptroller’s report this week, we are doing everything possible to make the raise happen. The finance director is working with MNPS to determine the sources of funds.”

While there is no evidence to suggest the funds will not be available, we look forward to a confirmation from Mayor Cooper of the promised 3% raise in January and on which paycheck teachers should expect it to begin.

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Penny’s Problems

An earlier story indicated some staffers in the Tennessee Department of Education are worried the current climate there means the state won’t be ready for this year’s round of TNReady. Now, a new report in Chalkbeat suggests a department in turmoil, with high turnover and chaos in the ranks. Here’s more:

Tennessee’s education department has experienced an exodus under Commissioner Penny Schwinn, with almost a fifth of its employees leaving in the nine months since she took over.


The exits include people with decades of institutional knowledge, leaving many local school leaders wondering whom to call about everything from testing to information technology to early intervention programs for students with learning disabilities. Also gone are dozens of mid- and lower-level employees responsible for executing essential department responsibilities, including the state’s testing program.

American cent

For his part, Governor Bill Lee stands by the disruption led by Schwinn at the DOE:

“The Department of Education has a clear directive to challenge the status quo by developing solutions that best advocate for students and teachers,” Arnold said. “We are confident that changes in structure reflect a desire to build the most effective team that will deliver on this mission.”

While Lee seems ready to “disrupt” both the DOE and public schools, it’s clear that he’s not on board with efforts to disrupt poverty.

An alternative explanation? Bill Lee is not exactly sure how to run state government, so he’s just keeping his head in the sand.

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The Plaid Privatizer

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has a new superhero, none other than Tennessee Governor Bill Lee. Some are calling him “The Plaid Privatizer” for his tendency to buy new plaid shirts, find a nearby farm, and spout off talking points in videos he posts to Twitter. Chalkbeat has the story of how a governor in office for less than a year is already being dubbed a “Champion for Charters” by this national group:

Gov. Bill Lee has been in office for less than six months, but he’s already been named a champion of the charter school movement by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.


Lee — who pushed through new funding and legislation for the state’s growing charter sector — was the only Tennessean and sole governor among 17 local, state, and federal officials named Tuesday to the organization’s 2019 class of “Champions for Charters.”

Lee pushed through legislation doubling the amount of money available for charter school capital projects. That slush fund began doling out cash recently, and plans to spend more soon. He also created a school privatization commission that will soon effectively strip local school boards of their authority to decide on charter schools.

In addition to his aggressive advancement of the charter agenda, Lee spared no ethical expense in order to push through a school voucher scheme. The House vote on that legislation now faces and FBI investigation while the Senate sponsor of the bill is under a separate FBI investigation.

While Lee advances a charter and voucher agenda, Tennessee’s education funding for public schools has earned an ‘F’ in a national analysis.

Because Bill Lee pushes his privatization agenda in plaid no matter the cost (of the shirts or to his integrity), he shall now be nationally known as “The Plaid Privatizer.”

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So Much for Local Control

For the second time in recent weeks, the Tennessee State Board of Education has overturned a local school board’s decision regarding a charter school. Chalkbeat has the story of the State Board reversing a decision by Shelby County Schools to deny a charter for Beacon College Prep:

State officials are recommending that one Memphis charter school applicant be allowed to open its proposed school, a ruling that would overturn the local school board’s September vote against the school and challenge part of the board’s new charter policy.

It’s not yet clear whether Shelby County will now grant the charter, but if they don’t, the State Board would be in charge of the school. Soon, the state’s authorizing function will shift to Governor Bill Lee’s school privatization commission.

Lee has long expressed distrust of local school boards, joining Jeremy Durham (the only legislator ever expelled from the Tennessee House of Representatives) in pushing to silence the advocacy power of local boards of education:

The proposal to silence local school boards because they oppose school vouchers is not a new one. In fact, legislation to that effect was previously proposed by Lee’s Williamson County neighbor, Jeremy Durham.

Lee indicated his support for the measure in 2017 while running for Governor.

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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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