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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Only the Best People

Amid reports from staffers that the Tennessee Department of Education is in turmoil under the leadership of Commissioner Penny Schwinn, a story out of Texas notes this isn’t the first time Schwinn has been involved in a situation involving whistleblower complaints from staffers. Here’s more:

Federal officials have ordered the Texas Education Agency to pay a former special education director more than $200,000 in damages for illegally firing her.


Laurie Kash filed a federal complaint Nov. 21, 2017, with the U.S. Department of Education, claiming the TEA had illegally awarded a no-bid contract to a company to analyze private records of students receiving special education services.


Less than a month after firing Kash, the TEA ended its no-bid special education contract — losing millions of dollars — and promised to review its own contracting processes. A year later, state auditors found the TEA had failed to follow all the required steps before awarding the contract.
It also had failed to identify the personal relationship between the subcontractor and the main decision maker for the contract: Penny Schwinn, who was then the agency’s deputy commissioner of academics.

When Schwinn was hired, I noted the Texas Tribune story on Schwinn’s troubles at the Education Department there:

In an audit released Wednesday morning, the State Auditor’s Office reviewed the education agency’s work and found it failed to follow all the required steps before offering a no-bid $4.4 million contract to SPEDx, which was hired to analyze how schools serve students with disabilities and help create a long-term special education plan for the state.

State auditors also said the TEA failed to “identify and address a preexisting professional relationship” between a SPEDx subcontractor and the agency’s “primary decision maker” for the contract. Penny Schwinn — that decision maker and the agency’s deputy commissioner of academics — did not disclose that she had received professional development training from the person who ultimately became a subcontractor on the project.

Now, staff at the TDOE are raising concerns that sound similar to the trouble Schwinn faced in Texas. Problems that a simple Google search could turn up. Still, Governor Bill Lee remains committed to Schwinn and the “disruption” she is causing:

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

That’s not exactly how it worked out in Texas, where the department lost millions of dollars and also now is being orderd to pay damages to a whistleblower.

American cent

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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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Buildings Matter

While Governor Bill Lee’s administration distributes money to charter schools by way of a capital slush fund, schools in Shelby County and across the state are struggling to maintain infrastructure. More on the current challenges in Shelby County from Chalkbeat:

This week, when temperatures in Memphis dipped to an unseasonably chilly 20 degrees, his first two classes had no heat. The problem was partially caused by a gas leak that led to an early dismissal Tuesday, but Scott said cold classrooms are common. Walking into a classroom with no heat, “I could feel this fresh coldness like a window had been opened.”

Building conditions impact student outcomes

Studies have shown that conditions such as cold classrooms can affect student learning. One study found that poor building conditions can lead to higher rates of frequent student absences. Another found that students in deteriorating buildings score 5 to 17 points lower on standardized tests than students in newer facilities. Several studies, including two in Tennessee, show that students learn more when they are in newer facilities.

The report on infrastructure challenges in Shelby County comes on the heels of another report about lead in water at schools across Tennessee.

It’s absolutely clear that the State of Tennessee needs to make significant investments in our schools. It’s also clear that legislative leaders and Governor Lee have shown zero interest in making that happen. Instead, the Plaid Privatizer seems content to push an agenda of disruption while promoting charter schools and voucher schemes.

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A Tennessee Story from North Carolina

A North Carolina teacher wrote her state representative recently to express frustration over low pay and the cost of living. The email, which has gained attention as part of an ongoing budget fight in the state, could just as easily have been written by a Tennessee teacher. It is published below as Butler provided it, without identifying the specific teacher by name:

…a local teacher here in Brunswick County, North Carolina.  I wanted to express my concern and frustration over the requirements and qualifications required for any form of public assistance.  I realize that there are large amounts of families that are in tight financial situations but I am having difficulty with the fact that as a state employee who works extremely hard every day and I am not able to receive help.  I am a single mom with zero support from my child’s father. He has been unable to be located and works under the table so I cannot track his employment. I have been denied any form of help, from Medicaid for my daughter to food stamps and childcare vouchers.  I understand that I am employed and I am thankful for this every day but when I submit my information to try to get any assistance, I am denied because my Gross amount of pay is utilized, rather than my take home pay. According to my paycheck, I make $4,840 a month.  This is not accurate. I have to take into consideration that I only get paid 10 times a year and therefore I have set up at Summer Cash account through SECU to help save money for the months I am not paid in the Summer. I take out $600 from each paycheck for that amount which leaves me with $4,240.  I also have supplemental insurances to help cover emergencies since I am the only income for my family. This costs $440.32 a month. I am now at $3,799 a month. Then I have to take into account that I have state, federal, retirement, social security, and medicare taken from my paycheck for the amount of $1,070.89.  I am now bringing home $2,728.79. With my take home pay, I have monthly bills that I have to pay. I pay $975 a month in rent, $130 in utilities, my phone bill is $143, car insurance is $100, insurance for my daughters health and dental is $84. I have student loan payments at $336 a month. I have personal loan payments each month from trying to cover months that I was extremely in debt.  These total $393. I have to pay day care each week at $90 a week so on average that is $405. I am at $162.79 left. I also have credit card payments each month that cost $156.00. I have $6.79 left in my bank account to now cover gas, groceries, and miscellaneous items that always arise. I am currently in debt from not being able to pay all of my bills each month. I am $504 in debt to one student loan company and $672 to another.  My bank account currently sits at $0.64. I have another week before payday.

If you would so willing to help explain to me what I can do about this I would greatly appreciate it.  I am trying extremely hard each month to make it day to day. I often go without food in order to make sure that my daughter is provided for.  I depend on the charity of friends to help cook me dinner with leftovers since they know how hard I am struggling. I have sold off everything I can in my household to try to supplement my income and I try to pick up babysitting jobs or tutoring to make ends meet.  I am asking for your help as my local representative with this. I know I am not the only teacher in this situation. I realize that some strides are being taken to help with teacher pay but I need help now. If I would be able to get any kind of assistance I would be more than grateful.

If you are a Tennessee teacher with a similar story you’d like to share, you can email andy@tnedreport.com and I’ll help tell your story — anonymity is always protected.

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EXPOSED: Pinkston on NACSA

An innocuous-sounding group called the National Association of State Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) wields tremendous influence in education policy in states across the country. Former Nashville School Board member Will Pinkston exposes their agenda in a recent piece on Medium:

Many districts have fallen into the trap of letting the charter sector exert undue influence on their review process. The most egregious example: For more than a decade, an innocuously named Chicago-based nonprofit organization — the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) — has led the national charter sector’s campaign to set ground rules for how K-12 public school districts should review charter applications.


In fact, NACSA is a thinly veiled charter advocacy group largely funded by the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — the two biggest pro-charter philanthropies in the U.S. Moreover, NACSA’s board and staff is exclusively populated with charter school advocates. According to an Internal Revenue Service filing, NACSA’s mission is simple: “Promote establishment” of charter schools.

Pinkston highlights the Tennessee connection:

Tennessee. A state law written specifically for NACSA requires the State Board of Education to adopt charter review standards based on “national best practices” and orders local school districts to adopt the state board’s standards. Not coincidentally, the state board subscribes only to NACSA’s standards.

A Recommendation:

To counteract NACSA and other opponents of stronger charter review standards, local school districts should consider adopting independent review guidelines that require charter applicants to address the myriad academic, fiscal, and operational complexities associated with opening a new school of any type. For strategic purposes, portions of NACSA’s standards could be incorporated by reference into new nationally validated standards that go farther than the charter movement anticipated.

Strengthening charter application review standards isn’t rocket science. Career educators, researchers, and policy experts who have worked in and around K-12 school districts should get together and articulate new best practices. State and local teachers’ associations and unions can leverage their relationships with district leaders, including superintendents and school boards, in order to persuade them to adopt new or enhanced charter review standards.

READ MORE>

While Tennessee is governed by the Plaid Privatizer, it’s critical that legislative leaders stand up and fight for our public schools. Here, Pinkston offers valuable insight that should guide serious policymaking.

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Wilson County Voters to Decide on Sales Tax to Boost Teacher Pay

The Wilson Post reports that the Wilson County Commission is asking voters to decide on a sales tax increase on the March 3rd ballot, with any proceeds from increased revenue being dedicated to teacher pay raises:

The Wilson County Commission voted unanimously Monday night to put a one-half percent sales tax increase into the hands of voters, this time tying the increase to higher salaries for county teachers.

At the monthly commission meeting, District 6 Commissioner Kenny Reich made a motion to amend the resolution so that any additional revenue would be designated for teacher pay raises. The original resolution did not specify a use for the increased money.

If passed the county sales tax would increase to 9.75 percent from 9.25 percent. The one-half percent increase is the maximum increase allowed under state law. If passed the sales tax on a $100 item would increase 50 cents.

The move comes as Wilson County is feeling the impact of the national teacher shortage, driven in part by low pay for educators. Additionally, new reports indicate teacher pay in Tennessee has actually fallen over the last decade when adjusted for inflation. Wilson County also suffers from a pay scale tied to teacher value-added scores.

Director of Schools Donna Wright noted that a pay raise was essential to keep Wilson County competitive with neighboring districts. A pay raise of $4000 for every teacher in nearby Sumner County goes into effect in January.

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Charter Schools, William Lamberth, and Math

I’ve written recently about Governor Bill Lee’s Charter School Slush Fund and how the funds are beginning to be distributed across the state. This money is dedicated to capital improvements and is available exclusively to charter schools, many of which not only receive BEP funds from local districts but also benefit from support from private funders.

Interestingly, House Majority Leader William Lamberth has been a proponent of capital investment funds for fast-growing districts like Sumner County, where he lives. He’s even sponsored legislation that would provide a mechanism for these districts to access funds. The legislation has failed to advance because of a price tag of just over $18 million.

So, if Lamberth is really focused on securing state funds for capital investment in the district he represents, he COULD suggest that Sumner County convert all of its schools to charter schools. That way, they could access the Charter School Slush Fund.

Based on current enrollment numbers, the Charter School Slush Fund provides roughly $285 per student for charter schools. If every single school in Sumner County became a charter school, the district could access over $8 million in capital funding from the state.

State law specifically authorizes local districts to convert existing schools to charters. TCA 49-13-106 provides:

(g)  A public charter school may be formed by creating a new school or converting a school to charter status pursuant to this chapter.


(3)  An existing public school may convert to a public charter school pursuant to this chapter if the parents of at least sixty percent (60%) of the children enrolled in the school, or at least sixty percent (60%) of the teachers assigned to the school, support the conversion and demonstrate such support by signing a petition seeking conversion, and if the LEA approves the application for conversion. The percentage of parents signing a petition must be calculated on the basis of one (1) vote for each child enrolled in the school.

So, instead of Lamberth running his capital improvement bill next session, he could simply ask the Sumner County School Board to convert their schools to charters. That way, they’d be sure to be on Governor Bill Lee’s radar AND they could access monies from the Charter School Slush Fund.

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Revenue Up, Teacher Pay Down

Economic analysts are predicting a slowing of the growth that has driven the Tennessee economy in recent years, according to an article in the Tennessean. Those same analysts indicate tax revenue growth in the state over the past 10 years has been 7% when adjusted for inflation. Here’s more:

Most of Tennessee’s cities have reaped the benefits during this longest economic boom in history with double-digit jumps in employment and gross domestic product. 

However, Tennessee tax collections have only increased 7% in the past decade, when adjusted for inflation. 

“That’s not a lot of growth,” said William Fox, director of the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “Revenue growth would have been stronger, but we had a number of policy decisions to reduce revenues.”

An analysis provided by the Tennessee Education Association (TEA) indicates that average teacher pay in the state is actually down by 2.6% over the same time period when adjusted for inflation.

TEA also notes:

For the past five years Tennessee has been running huge revenue surpluses as education needs go unmet. Over this five-year span the state collected nearly $3 billion more in general fund revenue than it anticipated. Last year alone the state general fund had a $580 million surplus. These are millions that could have gone to classrooms. 

Not only is Tennessee bringing in more revenue than anticipated but also, as Fox notes, the state has used that good fortune to reduce future revenue. In fact, the state of Tennessee phased-out the inheritance tax (previously paid on estates worth $5 million or more) and is phasing out the Hall Income Tax on investment income. Here’s more on that from the Department of Revenue:

The Hall income tax is being phased out through December 31, 2020.  The tax is fully repealed beginning January 1, 2021.  See important notice 17-09 for more information.

Some estimates indicate completely eliminating the Hall Income Tax means foregoing $180 million in state revenue each year. That’s roughly the equivalent of foregoing a 7% raise in teacher pay each year.

So, let’s be clear about a few things: 1) State lawmakers prioritized tax cuts for wealthy Tennesseans over raising pay for teachers and 2) Even with these tax cuts, there is significant money available to fund teacher raises and 3) Now that the economy is slowing a bit, legislators are being encouraged to exercise caution — which likely means less money to invest in teacher pay and other public service needs.

Shorter: Tennessee policymakers have not made investing in teachers a priority.

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