Bill Lee’s Beach Buddy

Governor Bill Lee has appointed unregistered voucher lobbyist Mark Gill to the Tennessee Board of Regents, according to a report in the Tennessean.

Lee appointed Mark Gill, a longtime advocate for school vouchers who made headlines after treating five lawmakers to a stay at his Alabama seaside condo and a deep-sea fishing trip, to the Tennessee Board of Regents.

Gill has served on the Board of Directors of the Tennessee Federation for Children, the Tennessee arm of Betsy DeVos‘s American Federation for Children. Lee is both a long-time voucher advocate and a financial backer of DeVos’s school privatization efforts.

Readers may recall Gill’s pro-voucher antics, including hosting lawmakers at his beachfront condo:

So, Mark Gill serves on the Board of Directors for the Tennessee Federation for Children, is a large donor to the group, and hosts five Tennessee lawmakers at his beachside condo and then those same lawmakers just happen to co-sponsor pro-voucher legislation at the General Assembly?

No, this isn’t illegal. Yes, it actually happened. This is the type of behavior these same lawmakers decry about DC politicians.

Make no mistake, Bill Lee depends on shady characters like Lee Beaman, Shaka Mitchell, and Mark Gill in order to claim victory in his quest to take public money and shift it to private schools.

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

Your support — $2, $4, or $6 today — helps make reporting education news possible.

Ready for Danger

Chalkbeat reports on the state’s Read to be Ready summer camps and the very real danger that funding for them could expire after this year:


Read to be Ready camps first opened in 2016, and Tennessee has expanded the program annually with funding from the U.S. Department of Human Services. But state officials learned in January that the federal grant now has to be used for child care programs, not educational camps. Gov. Bill Lee’s administration then reached into discretionary funds to keep the camps afloat this summer, since Tennessee already had announced $8.9 million worth of grants would be awarded to 218 schools hosting them for about 9,000 students in 2019.


Now the question is whether Read to be Ready summer camps will be funded in 2020 and beyond, especially following the demise last month of the initiative’s 3-year-old network of literacy coaches working with local educators to beef up reading instruction statewide.  


State legislators already have begun to get an earful from their constituents.


“If we’re abandoning this, what’s the plan?” asked Joey Hassell, a West Tennessee school superintendent and an outspoken advocate of Read to be Ready. “Our summer camp in Haywood County Schools means a lot to us. We’ve got 90 kids in it for a month this summer to help them read better, and the legislature didn’t even talk about these funding problems this year.”

While Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn has indicated support for literacy initiatives, she hasn’t yet made assurances about the future of Read to be Ready.

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

Your support makes reporting education news possible.

Briley and MNEA on Teacher Pay

Dueling statements were released today from Mayor David Briley and the Metro Nashville Education Association on a move to boost teacher pay in Nashville.

First, from Mayor Briley:

Mayor David Briley announced today that all MNPS teachers and employees will receive another 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) on January 1, 2020, in addition to the 3 percent COLA the Mayor made possible by allocating nearly $30 million in new funding for schools for FY2020. This allocation was six times the allocation in the last budget.

For weeks, the mayor has been working to find ways to get teachers more money this year while avoiding a tax increase. Thanks to MDHA’s help and the work done by the Council’s Tax Increment Financing Study and Formulating Committee, Mayor Briley is able to free up $7.5 million that would have been paid out of the MNPS budget to repay TIF loans. These funds are recurring, so the raise is “paid for” moving forward. This move does not require Council action since it will simply result in a reduced expenditure for MNPS.

This will bring all teachers to a 6% raise on January 1, 2020, which equates to a 4.5% increase over the course of the year. This is .5% higher than the COLA increase in the proposed substitute budgets that would have raised property taxes.

“I have been working on the MNPS budget with Dr. Battle and Dr. Gentry, trying to find the best possible way to get recurring dollars to teachers while not penalizing the 40% of MNPS teachers who are “topped out” and while avoiding a property tax increase this year – something that would have hurt in-county teachers more than the proposed raises would have helped,” Mayor Briley said. “With this increase in place, we will continue our in-depth talks about comprehensive pay plan restructuring for teachers so the more than half of all teachers who are topped out of receiving meaningful increases will get them in future years. There’s work to be done, but this is an important first step.”

This plan has the support of MNPS School Board Chair Dr. Sharon Gentry and MNPS Director Dr. Adrienne Battle.

“Mayor Briley’s investment shows a deep commitment to our teachers and staff members, and we thank him for his leadership and support for public education,” Dr. Battle said. “When Mayor Briley saw an opportunity for supplemental revenue, he ensured that it was dedicated to funding a raise for staff members, which is in addition to the raise they are receiving at the start of the year. We are only as successful as our amazing staff, and the Mayor’s actions show how he values them. Our goal is that these resources also ensure that we are able to maintain funding for other new strategic investments. MNPS is thankful to partner with the Mayor and Metro Council who are dedicated to the success of our students and staff.”

The $7.5 million will come to schools in the form of a reduction in the $11.2 million they would otherwise have paid to MDHA for TIF loan repayments this year. In short, it cuts that bill by $7.5 million, freeing up those funds for raises. MNPS will continue to pay what it is required to pay MDHA each year.

“I am grateful to Dr. Adrienne Battle, the MNPS Board, MDHA and the members of the TIF Study and Formulating Committee, whose hard work and support made this additional COLA possible,” Mayor Briley continued. “I plan to keep at it, and I know we have more great things to come for all students and teachers in our schools.”

A response from MNEA:

Today, the Metropolitan Nashville Board of Education received a sudden offer of $7.5 million in additional funding from Mayor Briley in the form of an adjustment to $11.2 million previously slated to be diverted from Metro Schools to fund tax increment finance (TIF) debt. While teachers and schools welcome additional funding for our cash-strapped public schools, the method by which this “plan” was developed smells of political intrigue, vote buying, and extortion. Briley’s letter to the board of education intentionally leaves ambiguous the question of whether the $7.5 decrease in TIF funding will extend beyond 2019-2020.

Unfortunately, the Briley plan comes with a demand that the board not fund teachers’ step raises but use his approach to adjust salaries. If Mayor Briley truly wanted to help schools, he should have supported the Vercher amendment rather than threaten a veto designed to hamstring the Metro Council. His games unnecessarily exposed certain brave, schoolsupporting council members to unnecessary risk of criticism by voters on the right and forced other council members to betray organized labor and our schools.

At the end of the 2017-2018 fiscal year, MNPS was compelled to transfer $3.5 million dollars to MDHA to meet increased TIF obligations to MDHA based on tax collections in excess of budgeted projections. In the 2018-2019 budget TIF transfers were budgeted to increase, but MNPS was not required to pay the complete amount. Today, Mayor Briley admitted TIF loan obligations have been overstated, and there is no need to extract additional tax revenue from our schools in 2019-2020. Nashville’s chronically-underfunded schools deserve deliberate, honest funding streams that do not rely on selling assets or require refinancing schemes that ultimate cost more money to our tax payers. No one should mistake Briley’s newest shell game as a magnanimous gesture to support teachers or schools. See it as vote grab!

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

Your investment makes reporting education news possible.

Just Pay the Bill

This story about retailers attempting to be “good citizens” by offering discounts to teachers actually highlights two larger problems: We don’t adequately fund our schools AND we don’t pay teachers what they deserve.

We already know there’s a significant teacher pay gap across the country. That gap is particularly troubling in Tennessee — a state with a teacher pay gap above the national average. In fact, Tennessee has one of the worst teacher pay gaps in the Southeast. Teachers in Tennessee earn 27.3% less than their similarly-educated peers. Not only that, teacher pay in Tennessee is growing at a rate well below the national average:

Average teacher salaries in the United States improved by about 4% from the Haslam Promise until this year. Average teacher salaries in Tennessee improved by just under 2% over the same time period. So, since Bill Haslam promised teachers we’d be the fastest improving in teacher pay, we’ve actually been improving at a rate that’s half the national average. No, we’re not the slowest improving state in teacher pay, but we’re also not even improving at the average rate.

Then, there’s the issue of basic supplies for learning. Here’s the promotion that got the attention of the writer:

Target wants to help teachers stretch their back-to-school dollars on more than just supplies for their classrooms.

For the second year, the Minneapolis-based retailer will offer teachers a weeklong 15% discount on select items starting July 13, officials shared exclusively with USA TODAY Wednesday…

This year, in addition to school supplies and essentials, which include disinfecting wipes and food storage bags, adult clothing and accessories, Pillowfort furniture and Bullseye’s Playground items also are included.

Here’s the bottom line: School systems should just buy the damn supplies. School administrators should find out what teachers need — the basics, yes, paper, pencils, etc. And also find out what else is needed to run an excellent classroom at all levels and then forward that request to the school system.

Lots of these items could be found at reasonable prices due to bulk purchasing discounts. Moreover, it’s important to have a clear understanding of what it takes to run a classroom and a school.

Not once in the 20+ years that I’ve worked professionally have I been asked to purchase and bring in the supplies I need to do my job. But we ask that of teachers ALL THE TIME.

Stop it. As the writer says:

Stores that have “back to school” sales so parents can buy all those necessary supplies that (usually elementary) teachers post on their classrooms doors or windows?  Nope.  If public education is a public good, then the schools should provide the necessary supplies.

Is public education a public good in Tennessee? Our Constitution says so:

Article XI, Section 12 of the Tennessee Constitution says, “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools.”

That obligation was reinforced in the 1993 Tennessee Supreme Court decision in Small Schools v. McWherter:

“The constitution imposes upon the General Assembly the obligation to maintain and support a system of free public schools that affords substantially equal educational opportunities to all students.”

Simply put, Governor Lee and the General Assembly are not living up to this obligation. According to the Comptroller of the Treasury, we under-fund schools by at least $500 million.

We routinely ask underpaid teachers to fill in the gaps when it comes to supplies. And we applaud the businesses who offer discount promotions to teachers or back-to-school sales as if they are actually doing something. If they wanted real change, those business leaders would be at school board and county commission meetings asking for the needed revenue to fund schools adequately. Then, they’d go to the General Assembly — to the very politicians their businesses bankroll – and pursue policy change that resulted in excellent teacher pay and fully-funded schools.

Too often, though, those same businesses beg the state for tax incentives — enriching themselves at public expense while true public goods like education suffer.

Our state needs leaders who will call this out — leaders not beholden to the private entities who want your tax dollars to boost their profits. Our public schools are a priority in our state Constitution. They should be a priority for our political leaders as well.

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

Your investment of $3, $5, or $7 makes reporting education news possible.

Denied

Chalkbeat reports on the Shelby County School Board’s denial of 11 charter school applications:

With scant public discussion, Shelby County Schools board denied 11 new charter school applications this week.

The denials at Tuesday night’s board meeting were not unexpected, since district staff recommended changes to the applications, said Shelby County Schools Chief of Strategy and Performance Management Bradley Leon after the board meeting.

The schools may amend their applications and resubmit, but if denied a second time, would have to appeal to the State Board of Education. Soon, the appeal duties will fall to Bill Lee’s Super Charter Authorizer. A similar entity has created significant problems in Alabama.

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

Failed Charter Leader Pushes Private School Welfare Scheme

Shaka Mitchell, the head of the Tennessee branch of Betsy DeVos‘s school privatization group American Federation for Children, joined two other school privatization advocates in penning an OpEd calling on legislators to ignore legitimate concerns about the way in which the plan passed in the House.

Mitchell’s piece suggests an urgency to moving forward with the incredibly expensive Education Savings Account (ESA) scheme. He glosses over the fierce resistance to vouchers from across the state and fails to mention the win-at-all-costs tactics of voucher advocates that ultimately led to the plan’s passage this year.

Readers may remember Mitchell as the charter school leader who ran Nashville’s Rocketship schools into the ground.

In fact, while Mitchell was failing in his attempts to expand Rocketship, the State Board of Education noted:

In fact, Rocketship’s appeal to the State Board was rejected last year in part because of low performance:

“They did have a level 5 TVAAS composite, which is the highest score overall you can get in growth,” Heyburn said. “But their achievement scores are really low, some of the lowest in their cluster and in the district.”

The MNPS review team addressed this as well:

In summary, with no additional state accountability data to consider, and no compelling evidence presented that provides confidence in the review team, converting an existing low-performing school before Rocketship has demonstrated academic success on state accountability measures would not be in the best interests of the students, the district, or the community.

And then there’s this:

According to the Metro Schools letter, Rocketship is not providing services to children with special learning needs, like English language learners and students with disabilities.

The notice was sent from Metro Nashville Public School’s top administrators after a monitoring team with the Tennessee Department of Education came in to conduct a routine audit of special services, primarily programs adhering to The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

It’s pretty amazing that the guy who literally failed in helping kids when he was in charge of a school is now telling the Tennessee legislature they should heed his advice about education policy. Of course, it’s not at all surprising that Mitchell ignores the evidence that vouchers have simply failed to improve student achievement in state after state. After all, in spite of his troubled past at Rocketship, Team DeVos gave Mitchell a safe landing space. Rather than walking humbly after a fall, though, Mitchell continues boldly making pronouncements on how to fix Tennessee schools.

While Shaka Mitchell and his privatizing friends ignore the facts, lawmakers would do well to ignore their advice. Instead, the General Assembly should move to protect Tennessee’s public schools from a private school welfare scheme that has failed everywhere it has been tried.

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

Your support — $2, $4, or $6 today — helps make publishing education news possible.

Hamilton County Schools will “rework” Budget after Commission removes Tax Increase

The Hamilton County Commission last night removed a proposed 34 cent property tax increase that would have funded a school budget that included raises for teachers and hiring additional school counselors.

Here’s more on what the proposed budget would have provided to Hamilton County Schools:

The Hamilton County School Board put their stamp of approval on next year’s budget Thursday. That includes $34 million more than the 2019 budget. It would increase teacher pay and add more counselors to schools. It would also boost inclusion time for special needs students.

The move in Hamilton County follows a similar property tax increase rejection in Davidson County (Nashville). The financial strains in both Chattanooga and Nashville are indicative of the failing state school funding formula (BEP). By some estimates, the state underfunds the BEP by at least $500 million each year.

There’s currently a lawsuit pending challenging the adequacy of state funding for schools.

It’s also worth noting that the General Assembly passed a voucher plan this year that will mean less money available to fund school districts across the state.

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

Your support helps make reporting education news possible!

Shelby County Commission Moves to Save Pre-K

Chalkbeat has the story of the Shelby County Commission committing local funds to preserve 1000 Pre-K seats previously funded by federal dollars:

Shelby County commissioners signed off Monday on $2.5 million in new prekindergarten funding — replacing federal early childhood funds that are expiring June 30.

The “seed funding” is part of a total $8 million commitment from Shelby County Schools and from city and county governments to preserve 1,000 pre-K seats for the upcoming school year. A federal grant had previously covered these seats, serving some of the neediest 4-year-olds throughout Shelby County.

The multi-year local funding effort will gradually increase over the next three years, while also leveraging private philanthropic dollars.

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

The Voucher Fight in Tennessee

In this piece for The Progressive, I detail the persistence of those interests seeking to privatize our public schools — not just in Tennessee, but around the country.

When a popular governor passes a top legislative priority in his first year in office, one might anticipate that the initiative enjoys broad public support. Not so in Tennessee, where Republican Governor Bill Lee secured passage of a school voucher scheme, referred to as Education Savings Accounts. In fact, recent polling suggests only 40 percent of Tennesseans support school vouchers. Five previous attempts to pass some sort of voucher plan have failed, opposed not only by the handful of Democrats in the General Assembly, but also by a significant number of Republicans (mostly representing rural districts).

How did such an unpopular idea become a top priority of a popular governor? Why did the legislature give approval to the use of public money for private schools in 2019 when a bipartisan group of lawmakers had blocked such legislation in the past?

The answer is shockingly simple and unsurprising: money. The details, though, reveal an unrelenting push to dismantle America’s public schools. Yes, this story includes familiar characters like Betsy DeVos and the Koch brothers joining forces with a Tennessee cast to advance their vision for our nation’s schools. That vision: Public money flowing to private schools with little regard for the impact on students. In fact, the evidence is pretty clear—vouchers simply don’t achieve their stated goal of helping kids improve academic outcomes. Tennessee’s plan could result in taking more than $300 million away from local school districts to support private entities.

Prior to 2019, there were five consecutive attempts by voucher advocates—including DeVos’s American Federation for Children—to pass privatization schemes in Tennessee. All five of those attempts were met with defeat. In fact, the losses were so bad that a number of contract lobbyists hired by Team DeVos quit.

Despite these setbacks, the privatizers were undeterred heading into 2019. Their secret: Incoming Governor Bill Lee.


Prior to his election to the state’s highest office, Lee ran his family’s HVAC company, one of the largest in middle Tennessee. He was a reliable contributor to GOP campaigns and also a strong supporter of the Tennessee arm of American Federation for Children. The signs he’d be making an aggressive voucher push were readily apparent with his early staff hires. Both his policy director and his legislative director had been former staffers of pro-voucher groups.

While Lee was clearly in the pocket of DeVos, he’d need help to convince the legislature to pass an unpopular plan that had failed so many times before. Enter new House Speaker Glen Casada. Casada, a vocal supporter of vouchers, seemed likely to give Lee the legislative victory he wanted, and apparently, he was willing to do so at any cost.

At the time the voucher plan reached the house floor, it appeared to be in trouble. Contentious committee debates indicated faltering support. It was unclear the bill had the needed fifty votes to advance. In fact, when the bill was finally voted on, only forty-nine members voted in favor. It appeared vouchers would again be defeated, even with last-minute tweet-support from Donald Trump. Then, Casada made the unprecedented move of holding the vote open for more than thirty minutes while he conducted “conferences” with members of his caucus who had been recorded as voting against the measure. Finally, Knox County’s Jason Zachary switched his vote and the bill passed, 50-48. Zachary indicated he’d been assured Knox County would be taken out of the final bill.

Zachary’s comment was a familiar refrain among lawmakers who had campaigned in opposition to vouchers but voted in favor. Time and again, rural Republican legislators would announce to constituents that while vouchers were “not right” for their districts, the bill would only apply to Memphis and Nashville. Interestingly, the legislative delegations from those two cities were strong in their opposition to vouchers.

Casada’s strong-arm tactics weren’t the only tools being used to sway votes. Pro-voucher groups backed by funds from Americans for Prosperity ran Facebook ads attacking Republican lawmakers who voted against voucher legislation during the committee process. The ads included text that listed the lawmaker’s name and said they “failed to stand with Donald Trump and Gov. Bill Lee, siding against Tennessee families and their right to access a high-quality public education.”

The FBI is now investigating the house vote that led to the passage of the voucher bill. There’s also an FBI investigation into the campaign finances of the senate sponsor of the bill. And Casada? He’s announced his resignation due to a scandal that earned the attention of John Oliver.

But no matter the outcome of these investigations, backers of school privatization can claim public policy victory. It took a new governor, an unscrupulous house speaker, and untold dark money dollars, but after six attempts, Tennessee now has a school voucher plan—one that could shift more than $300 million away from public schools in the state.

The lesson from Tennessee is clear: Advocates for public education face privatization forces with vast resources and patience. The fight is going to be a long one.

Read this story and more about the fight for America’s public schools at The Progressive.

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

Your support makes reporting education news possible.