Where Bill Stands

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was in Nashville today to offer support for Governor Bill Lee’s plan to use public money to fund private schools.

Chalkbeat has more:

“I’m really cheering the governor and all of the legislators on here,” DeVos told reporters during a brief news conference at LEAD Cameron, a middle school operated by a Nashville-based charter network.

“School choice and education freedom is on the march,” she added.

One of Lee’s proposals would start a new type of education voucher program in Tennessee, and the other would create a state commission with the power to open charter schools anywhere across Tennessee through an appeals process.

While evidence from states around the country indicates that vouchers simply don’t improve student achievement, Lee has pushed forward with a plan known as Education Savings Accounts, a type of “voucher” particularly susceptible to fraud.

Lee’s plan is expected to cost at least $125 million a year by the time it is fully implemented, three years from now. It’s likely the plan will effectively create a “voucher school district” and result in local tax increases as a result of money moved from the state’s school funding formula (BEP) to the voucher scheme.

Lee has long been a supporter of DeVos and her anti-public school organization American Federation for Children. In fact, Lee hired a former AFC staffer to a senior role in his administration.

In addition to vouchers, Lee is also pushing a state charter school authorizer plan that would usurp the authority of local school boards and create a climate similar to the one in Arizona, where the charter industry has been riddled with fraud.

Legislators who oppose Lee’s school privatization agenda have been punished by ads from dark money group Tennesseans for Student Success and also have lost key leadership roles.

Lee’s voucher scheme is moving through the legislative process, passing a key House committee today and heading toward a likely floor vote near the end of April.

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

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DeVos Disciple Lands Key Role in Lee Admin


Incoming Governor Bill Lee announced a round of Cabinet and staff appointments yesterday including the appointment of a leading backer of school vouchers to a senior policy role.

Lee named Tony Niknejad as his policy director.

Niknejad served as policy director in the Lee campaign and before that was the Tennessee State Director of Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children. He also served as a policy staffer for state Senator Brian Kelsey, one of the leading advocates of using public money for private schools in the legislature.

Lee has a track record of supporting the DeVos organization and ill-advised voucher schemes.

The announcement is another indicator that Lee intends to move ahead on school vouchers, perhaps as soon as the 2019 legislative session.

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


 

Bill and Betsy: A Tennessee School Voucher Story


While Bill Lee is avoiding talking directly to Tennessee’s education leaders about his plans to use public money to pay for private school tuition by way of voucher schemes, his track record on the issue is clear. Bill Lee supports school vouchers.

Not only did he write an op-ed in 2016 encouraging support for voucher legislation, but he also has consistently supported the Tennessee Federation for Children financially.

The Tennessee Federation for Children is our state’s affiliate of the American Federation for Children, a political organization funded in large part by Betsy DeVos and her family. The mission of TFC is clear: Divert public money to private schools.

Since 2012, DeVos has provided just under $100,000 to the Tennessee organization. She’s been joined by some key local donors, including Lee Beaman and Bill Lee. Yes, since 2012, Bill Lee has given $11,000 to the Tennessee Federation for Children, the state’s leading political organization supporting school vouchers.

Here’s how Chalkbeat reported on the TFC when DeVos was nominated to be Secretary of Education:

This election cycle alone, advocacy groups founded and led by DeVos helped to oust at least one outspoken voucher opponent — and elect two new supporters — in Tennessee’s House of Representatives, the key arena for the state’s voucher debate.

From the helm of groups including the American Federation for Children and the Alliance for School Choice, DeVos, a staunch Republican, has contributed millions of dollars nationally to state legislative candidates in favor of vouchers and against those who do not, regardless of political party.

In Tennessee, most of that work has been done through the state’s affiliate of the American Federation for Children, which launched in 2012. The group has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, reaching more than $600,000 for races in 2014. This year, organizers spent at least $169,777 on House races.

The Tennessee affiliate is currently led by Shaka Mitchell, who previously attempted (unsuccessfully) to expand the Rocketship charter school experiment in Nashville.

Let’s be clear: Bill Lee has written about his support of school vouchers. He’s indicated support of legislation that would silence school boards on the issue. He’s given thousands of dollars to an organization dedicated to enacting vouchers and electing voucher supporters.

While Bill Lee won’t talk to educators about his plans, his record speaks loud and clear.

 

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Don’t Tread on Mike


Educator and blogger Mike Stein writes about being an education activist in the age of Trump and DeVos.

Here’s some of what he has to say:

The bleak reality is that there’s little we can do right now to defend public education against the federal government. I kept thinking of a yellow flag with a snake coiled in the middle and the words “Don’t Tread on Me” printed in all caps at the top. How ironic that many of the same people who proudly boast that motto are the very ones who voted for President Trump, who then appointed DeVos to her post. As a public school teacher and as a parent of two girls in public schools, I am sick and tired of being tread on. I’m exasperated, and “fighting the good fight” takes time and energy that I often don’t have after a mentally and physically exhausting day at work.

Of course, parents and educators can come together and influence state policy, as they’ve done in recent years in resisting the privatization movement that would use public funds to pay for private school tuition.

In 2018, there will be opportunities to influence the testing that goes on in our schools.

And, of course, there are local School Board and County Commission elections — opportunities to vote for candidates who are strong supporters of good public schools.

But, Stein has a point about federal education policy. He also offers a bit of hope. READ MORE>

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


 

Hey, We’re Serious!


Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen sent another letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos last month, urging caution as President Trump’s budget moves forward.

McQueen had written previously to alert DeVos to the negative impacts of the budget on Tennessee.

The latest letter warned of deep impacts in rural communities. The Tennessean reports:

In her letter, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the elimination of Title II, part A funds in the upcoming federal budget would severely hinder the state’s ability to train teachers. McQueen estimated in the letter that the cuts would hit public school students across the state as well as more than 42,000 students in private schools.

Cuts in the overall federal budget could mean Tennessee could see larger class sizes, slashes to grant funding for pre-kindergarten and teacher training and, eventually, the elimination of athletics and band programs, according to superintendents and child advocacy groups.

I’ve noted previously that districts like Dickson County and Williamson County have County Commissions reluctant to fund school budgets.  Many of the state’s rural counties simply don’t have the funds to spend significantly on schools.

It will be interesting to see if County Commissions in the districts most impacted by the DeVos cuts are willing to spend the money to make up for  lost federal funds. Additionally, I’m curious as to whether County Commissions and School Boards are actively lobbying DeVos and their Members of Congress over the proposed Trump education budget.

As McQueen notes, should this budget pass, it will mean stark choices for many districts — and even impact a number of our state’s private schools.

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


 

Where’s Herb?


Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery is no stranger to signing letters or joining lawsuits to make political points or weigh-in on policy. He did so recently in opposing DACA in spite of the benefits the program carries for Tennessee families and communities.

This week, Attorneys General in 18 states filed suit against Education Secretary Betsy DeVos asking her to keep a rule designed to protect student loan borrowers.

NPR reports:

Attorneys general from Massachusetts, New York and 16 other states filed suit against Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her department Thursday, accusing DeVos of breaking federal law and giving free rein to for-profit colleges by rescinding the Borrower Defense Rule.

The filing by 18 states and Washington, D.C., asks a U.S. District Court to declare the Education Department’s delay of the rule unlawful and to order the agency to implement it. The states say they have pursued “numerous costly and time-intensive investigations and enforcement actions against proprietary and for-profit schools” that violated consumer protection laws.

Slatery wasn’t among the Attorneys General signing-on to the suit.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey framed the issue this way:

“Since Day 1, Secretary DeVos has sided with for-profit school executives against students and families drowning in unaffordable student loans,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said in a news release about Thursday’s court filing. “Her decision to cancel vital protections for students and taxpayers is a betrayal of her office’s responsibility and a violation of federal law. We call on Secretary DeVos and the U.S. Department of Education to restore these rules immediately.”

Here’s Slatery’s record: For using state resources to separate families and weaken our economy by suing to end DACA, against using state resources to protect Tennessee students who take out loans to attend for-profit colleges.

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


 

McQueen vs. DeVos


President Trump’s education budget is bad news for Tennessee’s schools. So much so that Tennessee’s Education Commissioner, Candice McQueen, penned a letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos asking that the proposed cuts be reconsidered.

Jason Gonzalez of the Tennessean reports:

Tennessee officials say heavy cuts to children’s programs in President Donald Trump’s budget proposal could hinder the long-term progress the state has made helping poor and disadvantaged kids.

The $4.1 trillion White House budget proposal calls for cuts to school and health care funding that helps the state’s neediest children.

The cuts could mean larger class sizes, slashes to grant funding for pre-kindergarten and teacher training and, eventually, the elimination of athletics and band programs.

McQueen warned:

“Tennessee’s rural areas and poorer districts are especially dependent upon these funds, as their local budgets are unable to provide additional support for professional learning,” McQueen wrote.

According to the State Report Card, federal funding accounts for 11.72% of all education funding in the state. While all of those funds wouldn’t be eliminated in the Trump-DeVos budget, the proposal does make significant cuts. Rural communities are often more dependent on federal funds and so would be hit hardest, as McQueen notes.

While Tennessee has made some progress in recent years on school funding, the state is still behind where it should be in terms of full funding of the BEP — the funding formula for schools. Losing a significant amount of federal dollars would deal a blow to a state finally inching forward in terms of education progress.

The McQueen letter may be the first public evidence that the Haslam administration is at odds with the leadership from Washington. It’s encouraging to see McQueen take this stand and publicly fight for the needs of Tennessee’s poorest districts.

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


 

Lobbyists Quit Amid Voucher Failure


Apparently, the fallout from this year’s defeat of voucher legislation has caused six lobbyists associated with Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children to quit.

Sheila Burke and Erik Schelzig of AP report:

Legislators couldn’t even enact a voucher pilot program limited to Shelby County, which includes Memphis.

The decision to put off the pilot program until at least next year incurred the wrath of the American Federation for Children, a school choice group DeVos once chaired. The group’s Tennessee political action committee has spent more than $1.5 million on direct mail, advertising and candidate contributions since 2012.

 

After the measure’s defeat, the group’s national spokesman, Tommy Schultz, placed the blame for what he called the “dysfunctional House process” on Speaker Beth Harwell, a Nashville Republican who is expected to run for governor next year.

 

“By allowing her hand-picked committee to not even bring the bill to a vote, she demonstrated to Tennessee’s Republican voters exactly how highly she regards them and the Republican Party platform,” Schultz said in a press release.

 

Since that release was sent, six lobbyists hired by the American Federation for Children have quit.

This marks the fifth consecutive year voucher legislation has been defeated, despite millions in spending from groups outside of Tennessee.

It’s telling that after AFC attacked Speaker Harwell, lobbyists decided to move on from an association with them. Of course, losing on your signature issue five years in a row doesn’t exactly help you attract and retain top talent.

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


 

Pinkston: Charter Compact Led to Turmoil


Submitted by MNPS Board Member Will Pinkston

Back in 2010, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a national charter school think tank, convened an elite group of Nashvillians and charter school leaders to ink a “collaboration compact” with Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS). The heart of the compact seemed reasonable: “Collaborate as partners in the city-wide effort to provide an excellent education for all students.”

 

What happened next didn’t resemble collaboration at all, but rather outright hostility. As it turns out, many of those who signed on didn’t really care about public schools. Their sole focus: Expanding the taxpayer-funded private schools known as charters.

 

For example, just two years after signing the compact, then-mayor Karl Dean, who’s now running for governor of Tennessee, roamed the halls of the legislature pitching lawmakers on a bill to strip local elected school boards in Memphis and Nashville of our ability to reject charters, which drain resources from existing schools. Dean’s legislation, which became law, instead gave the appointed State Board of Education the final say-so on charters – even though, here in Nashville, local taxpayers fund two-thirds of K-12 public education and the state is a minority investor.

 

Later, Dean went on to launch Project Renaissance, an anti-public education group funded by backers of charters and private-school vouchers, which would further drain our public-school system of finite resources. In 2016, Dean’s group tried but failed to defeat incumbent Nashville School Board members at the polls – less than three months after the board hired an energetic new director of schools who articulated a big vision.

 

So much for collaboration.

 

Another compact signer, Randy Dowell, CEO of KIPP Nashville charter schools, ditched the pretense of collaboration as soon as he saw an opportunity to ramrod new charter schools through the State Board under Dean’s newly minted law. Meanwhile, this year Dowell is effectively booting 43 MNPS students from Nashville’s Kirkpatrick Elementary School because they don’t fit in his business plan for a gradual conversion of the former public school.

 

Speaking of Kirkpatrick: Marsha Edwards, another compact signer and CEO of a pro-charter nonprofit group, somehow managed – after zero collaboration with the school board – to secure federal funds to build a new charter school right next door to Kirkpatrick. This will have a destabilizing effect on both schools. Last year, Edwards put her organization’s federal tax-exempt status at risk by partnering with Stand for Children, which has become a radical reform group, in failed efforts to upend local school board elections.

 

Jeremy Kane, a politician who finished last in Nashville’s 2015 mayor’s race, also signed on to the compact. Kane founded the local LEAD charter chain, which later declared war on MNPS when it sidled up to the failing state-run Achievement School District, which engineered a hostile state takeover of Nashville’s Neely’s Bend Middle School – a school that already was turning around.

 

Finally, Ralph Schulz, CEO of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, was another compact signer. The business group, a longtime mouthpiece for charter special interests, supported Dean’s law to punish local school boards and has even endorsed vouchers. Schulz and the chamber enthusiastically joined last year’s failed efforts by Dean and others to blow up the school board and MNPS – so perhaps some collaboration was happening, after all.

 

These days, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which attacked the Nashville School Board in 2013, is now ideologically aligned with President Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos – and it’s pushing local school systems to recommit to charter compacts of the past. My view: If the turmoil of the past seven years in Nashville is any indication, I’d say we’ve had enough so-called “collaboration.” I’m guessing other school systems have had similar experiences.

 

Perhaps it’s overdue time to create a “Center on Recommitting to Public Education.” If anyone wants to learn what we’re doing in Nashville to fight the privatization agenda, email me at: will@pinkstonforschools.com

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