The BEP Voucher Plan

Tennessee teacher and education blogger Mike Stein offers his take on Gov. Bill Lee’s latest run at school vouchers. This time, Lee’s plan appears to be to use the state’s school funding formula (BEP) to create a voucher scheme.

Here are some highlights from Stein’s piece, written after he’d been to one of TN DOE’s BEP Town Hall events:

I had so much to say! I wanted to mention how atrocious it is that in 2021 teachers in this state are still limited on how many copies they can make for their classrooms. I wanted to go into how students’ mental health is poor. That fights during school are on the rise because they don’t know how to properly deal with their emotions and the need for school counselors, psychologists, and social workers is at a critical point. I wanted to mention my idea for attacking the substitute teacher crisis in Tennessee, which is to include substitute teacher pay as a component in the BEP. Rural systems like mine can not afford to pay them a decent wage (they can literally make more money at any fast food establishment), so if TDOE creates a baseline pay of $120 per day for non-licensed substitute teachers that is reimbursed to districts, then we will be much more likely to attract and keep quality substitute teachers. The $120 figure comes from paying them the equivalent of $15 an hour for the length of the school day. If the substitute is a certified teacher, then I believe that amount should equal $160 per day. I wanted to raise these points–and more–but the two minute time limit had me rethinking what I was going to say.

Is the answer already decided?

. . . because in January they plan on presenting their new BEP formula to the state legislature

Stop and reflect on that last sentence. If their timeline is to present their plan in January then it can only mean one thing–it’s either already written or close to it. This means that TDOE’s public town halls and their funding review committees are either entirely or mostly a farce. They’re going through the motions of eliciting public feedback because to redo the BEP formula without attempting to do so would mean their suggestion in January would most assuredly be D.O.A.

The tea leaves are not difficult to read here. The new BEP formula will include some form of vouchers (they, of course, won’t be called that) and because the BEP funds public schools across the state, then it will not violate the “Home Rule” provision. State legislators will be put in a position to either vote in favor of the new BEP formula (which will undoubtedly include actual needed improvements that will be popular with their constituents) or reject it. It’s a lose-lose situation for them. Either support the new BEP formula that will actually privatize public schools or be accused of being against public education. 

Stein then does a great job of breaking down the members of the Fiscal Responsibility Committee – noting that many of them are decidedly pro-voucher.

Check out his post for more on Bill Lee’s continued effort to send public money to private schools.

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MicroVouchers

The pursuit of privatization never ends with Gov. Bill Lee. Remember those CARES Act funds the governor and his team were NOT spending? Well, it turns out they now have a plan for those funds – a reading initiative that includes a voucher scheme.

Here’s more from The Center Square:

The new initiative, Reading 360, will provide an array of supports to districts, teachers and families, including opt-in training and coaching in literacy instruction for teachers, regional networks focused on literacy and an online platform for video lessons for teachers and families at home.

The initiative also will fund more than 13,000 microgrants for literacy tutoring for students and families.

Who will provide this tutoring?

The likely answer: Private providers profiting from taxpayer funds intended to help schools address the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key supporters of Lee’s misguided literacy initiative that includes this voucher scheme are long-time public school antagonists Sen. Brian Kelsey and Rep. Mark White.

Not only has Lee failed our state on COVID-19, he’s also using the pandemic as an opportunity to direct dollars to privatizers.

More on Bill Lee, COVID-19, and the Privatization Pandemic:

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Voucher Decline

A professor at Teachers College at Columbia University says interest in vouchers may be waning in part due to poor academic performance. This comes as Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher scheme was delayed by court action.

Here’s more:

The demand by parents for education vouchers and Education Saving Accounts (ESA’s) – which allow them to use government funds to pay for private school tuition — is showing signs of flagging, possibly because private schools are not subject to public regulation and thus not required to meet government standards on measures that range from testing performance to teacher accreditation to instruction for special education students.

Yet the latest studies show that academic performance among voucher and ESA students is trending lower, according to Luis Huerta, Associate Professor of Education and Public Policy. Huerta and Kevin Welner, Professor of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education and co-founding Director of the National Education Policy Center, spoke in a recent webinar about the evolution of conventional school vouchers into vouchers funded by private, tax-free donations and, most recently, into Education Savings Accounts (ESA’s).

Of course, the poor performance and waning demand haven’t stopped Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander from pushing forward legislation to siphon COVID-19 relief funds to private schools.

Huerta also said that proposals by Republican Senators Tim Scott of South Carolina and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee would siphon CARES COVID relief aid to fund private school scholarships. “But again, it’s too soon to know whether this will give private schools the advantage to open more readily compared to publics, especially since the money linked to these proposals is only in the form of portable scholarships and not infrastructure dollars.”

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Voucher Quest

Nashville education blogger TC Weber talks about Gov. Bill Lee’s quest to voucherize Tennessee public schools and includes details on the Governor’s involvement in some key legislative races.

Here’s more:

One only has to take a look at the campaign trail for a clue to see how serious Lee is about vouchers.

Up in the far Northwest corner of the state is Obion County, the seat of Senate District 24. For nearly a decade, District 24 has been represented by Senator John Stevens. It’s a small rural district with a fraction of the economic base of the larger Tennessee districts. So the virus is taking a toll fiscally as well as physically. This year Stevens is being challenged by fellow Republican Casey Hood for the seat.

Hood is a plumber by trade and political newcomer, who is a staunch conservative, but also a staunch supporter of public education – an area that Stevens is weak in. Initially, the Stevens camp gave little credence to the Hood challenge, but recent polls show Hood as either even or slightly ahead, and suddenly things have gotten serious.

Stevens, you see has been an excellent waterboy for the governor, willing to tout any initiative put forth, including vouchers. Hood, not so much. He has yet to hear the argument that demonstrates vouchers as being beneficial for rural districts and therefore has publically stated he would never support voucher legislation. The governor can ill afford to lose this seat, especially in light of rumors that Districts 25 and 26 might also fall to candidates that don’t support voucher legislation.

That probably explains why come Monday the Governor will get in his car and drive to a county that he’s never set foot in to try and arouse support for a loyal soldier. It’s why he’ll be holding a “private rally” at Obion County Central High School in Troy, Tennessee while the Obion County commission meets to try and find additional funding to increase compensation for teachers. Obion County and Hood value the district’s teachers, with Governor Lee the jury is still out.

Over the last several week’s voters have been hit with over 14 pieces of campaign literature from the incumbent. Tennesseans for Student Success alone have spent between $30K and $40K to turn back the Hood threat. Somebody really doesn’t want to lose the seat and is doing whatever they can to hold it.

Teachers at the high school will be holding an in-service day on Monday, meaning the governor will have a captive audience. I wonder if he’ll tell those teachers how safe they are while COVID numbers explode for the county. I wonder if Lee will tell them how much he cares while meeting them for the first time ever. You have to wonder why a seat in a small district that he lost during his gubernatorial campaign has suddenly taken on such importance. I’m also curious how much of Monday’s trip’s cost is being picked up by Tennessee taxpayers.

This is not the only race that Lee is injecting himself into. He’s flooding the market with fliers in the Byrd campaign, as well as targeting Representative Mark Cochrane. I think it’s pretty clear that Lee has a plan on his mind and it ain’t about reopening schools. It’s about further disrupting public education. Much has been made of the negative impact of Lee’s education policies on urban districts, well they ain’t good for rural districts either.

More on Byrd:

More on Tennesseans for Student Success:

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Just the Facts on Vouchers

Advocacy Group Public Funds for Public Schools is out with a fact sheet on the impact of school vouchers. Here are some highlights:

Many public schools around the nation are chronically underfunded. Diverting muchneeded funding from public schools to pay for private school vouchers makes that situation worse. For example, the cost of Arizona’s private school voucher program has increased 50-fold in 16 years, even as private school attendance in the state has decreased. A study of the voucher program in Wisconsin found that the program’s expansion posed “a significant fiscal threat to public schools.” Moreover, these diverted funds are often mis-spent. In Florida, investigative journalists found voucher recipient schools had hired teachers without college degrees and falsified health and safety records. In Arizona, an audit of the voucher program found parents received funds after enrolling students in public schools and after purchasing items that were not permitted.

For many years, studies of voucher programs across the country have found no improvement in student achievement. Studies in Washington, D.C. and Alabama found no significant improvement in student test scores. Studies in Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio found that students who attended private schools using vouchers actually performed worse than their similar peers in public schools. These negative effects persisted over years, meaning they were not a temporary result of students’ transition to a new school. The negative impact on academic achievement of attending a voucher school may be even worse than the impact of high teacher turnover and feeling unsafe at school. Additionally, the Louisiana voucher program did not increase the rates of college enrollment among high school graduates. And parents do not report greater satisfaction with schools, nor a greater sense of safety, with the use of private school vouchers.

READ MORE and find links to all the studies cited.

It’s worth noting here that in spite of this evidence, Gov. Bill Lee insisted on funding vouchers in the emergency budget the General Assembly passed before recessing due to COVID-19.

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Voucher Scheme Facing Second Lawsuit

In February, the school districts in Nashville and Memphis filed a lawsuit challenging Gov. Bill Lee’s signature legislative achievement, school vouchers. Today, parents in both districts filed a second suit challenging the so-called “Education Savings Accounts.” Here’s more from a press release:

Public school parents and community members in Nashville and Memphis today filed suit in the Chancery Court for Davidson County challenging the Tennessee Education Savings Account (ESA) voucher law as an unconstitutional diversion of public education funding to private schools.

In the lawsuit, McEwen v. Lee, the plaintiffs contend that diverting millions of dollars intended for Memphis and Nashville public schools to private schools violates public school students’ rights to the adequate and equitable educational opportunities guaranteed under the Tennessee Constitution. The lawsuit also charges that the voucher law violates the constitution’s “Home Rule” provision, which prohibits the state legislature from passing laws that apply only to certain counties.

The Tennessee voucher program would siphon off over $7,500 per student – or over $375 million in the first five years – from funds appropriated by the General Assembly to maintain and support the Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) and Shelby County (Memphis) Schools, according to the lawsuit. The controversial state law could go into effect as early as the 2020-21 school year.

The voucher law passed by a single vote in May 2019, over the objections of legislators from Shelby and Davidson Counties, as well as others.

If the voucher program is implemented, Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools will lose substantial sums from their already underfunded budgets, resulting in further cuts to educators, support staff, and other essential resources, the lawsuit states.

“We love my daughter’s school, but it is already underfunded,” said Roxanne McEwen, whose child is an MNPS student. “There isn’t enough money for textbooks, technology, to pay teachers, or to keep class sizes down. Taking more money away from our schools is only going to make it worse. I joined this lawsuit because I want to be a voice for my child and for kids who don’t have a voice.”

“I believe that Shelby County Schools do not have enough funding to provide all children with the resources they need to learn. At one of my son’s middle school, they do not offer geometry, and one of my other sons did not have a science teacher for two years in a row,” said Tracy O’Connor, whose four children attend Shelby County Schools. “If the district loses more funds due to the voucher program, I worry that we will lose more guidance counselors, reading specialists and librarians, and there will be more cuts to the foreign language and STEM programs.”

The complaint highlights numerous ways in which private schools receiving public funds are not held to the same standards as Tennessee public schools, in violation of the state constitution’s requirement of a single system of public education. Private schools do not have to adhere to the numerous academic, accountability, and governance standards that public schools must meet. They can discriminate against students on the basis of religion, LGBTQ status, disability, income level, and other characteristics. And they are not required to provide special education services to students with disabilities.

“Public schools are open to all children, while private schools receiving voucher funds are not held to the same standards,” said Nashville mother Terry Jo Bichell. “My son is non-verbal and receives extensive special education and related services in his MNPS school, including being assigned a one-on-one paraprofessional. I do not know of a single private school in the state that would be willing or able to enroll a student like my son. Even if a private school was willing to enroll my son, we would have to waive his right to receive special education.”

The voucher law also violates the Tennessee Constitution’s requirement that the General Assembly appropriate first-year funding for each law it passes. No money was appropriated for the voucher law, and recent hearings have revealed that the Tennessee Department of Education used funds from an unrelated program to pay over $1 million to a private company for administration of the voucher program.

The plaintiffs are represented by Education Law Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which collaborate on the Public Funds Public Schools (PFPS) campaign. PFPS opposes all forms of private school vouchers and works to ensure that public funds are used exclusively to maintain, support and strengthen our nation’s public schools. The plaintiffs are also represented by the ACLU of Tennessee and pro bono by the law firm Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP.

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“Detractors”

Governor Bill Lee isn’t happy that members of his own party aren’t happy with the rocky rollout of the state’s voucher program, according to the Tennessean.


Gov. Bill Lee says the state should continue to move forward with implementing a school voucher program as quickly as possible, despite ongoing concerns being raised by legislators on both sides of the aisle.


Lee said Thursday the implementation of the program was being “hampered” by “detractors to a process,” and reiterated that he pushed for the program to “give kids in our state a high-quality education.”

Those “detractors” are worried about pesky little details like no-bid contracts and overspending.

It’s also worth noting that significant evidence indicates that vouchers don’t actually help kids, and in fact, can leave them lagging behind academically:


The first results came in late 2015. Researchers examined an Indiana voucher program that had quickly grown to serve tens of thousands of students under Mike Pence, then the state’s governor. “In mathematics,” they found, “voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement.” They also saw no improvement in reading.


The next results came a few months later, in February, when researchers published a major study of Louisiana’s voucher program. Students in the program were predominantly black and from low-income families, and they came from public schools that had received poor ratings from the state department of education, based on test scores. For private schools receiving more applicants than they could enroll, the law required that they admit students via lottery, which allowed the researchers to compare lottery winners with those who stayed in public school.
They found large negative results in both reading and math. Public elementary school students who started at the 50th percentile in math and then used a voucher to transfer to a private school dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year. Results were somewhat better in the second year, but were still well below the starting point.


In June, a third voucher study was released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank and proponent of school choice. The study, which was financed by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation, focused on a large voucher program in Ohio. “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools,” the researchers found. Once again, results were worse in math.

It’s no wonder so many “detractors” are trying to “hamper the process.”

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Team Lee Staffs Up with more Voucher Vultures

Governor Bill Lee’s administration is adding more voucher advocates to the mix as Lee continues to pursue a policy of “disruption” rather than investment and support when it comes to public education. Chalkbeat has more on the new staffers:


Gov. Bill Lee’s administration is hiring three more leaders with ties to groups that lobby for school vouchers and charter schools.


Gillum Ferguson, recently communications director for the American Federation for Children in Tennessee, is Lee’s interim press secretary.


Charlie Bufalino, director of policy and strategy for TennesseeCAN, will become the Department of Education’s chief liaison to state lawmakers on legislation and policy.


Chelsea Crawford, who has served as TennesseeCAN’s media contact, will lead communications for the education department.


The hires are expected to further expand the influence of organizations advocating for hot-button education policies such as vouchers and charter schools. 

As Lee was first building his senior staff in late 2018, his early hires reflected a push toward school privatization:


As Governor-elect Bill Lee staffs up ahead of taking office in January, he’s making it clear he plans to push forward heavily on vouchers. He’s already named one key voucher backer to a top policy role and now, he’s announced his Legislative Director will be the former Director of Students First/Tennessee CAN.

Lee has so far made good on his promise to deliver vouchers and charters to Tennessee, securing passage of a voucher bill by a narrow margin and also aggressively pushing charter schools.

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Bill Lee’s 2020 Vision Blurred by Voucher Scheme

Governor Bill Lee renewed his commitment to fast-tracking the privatization of public schools in a speech in Jackson where he laid out his policy goals for 2020. Lee doubled-down on support of a voucher scheme that is dividing the state Republican Party. The vote on Lee’s controversial plan remains under investigation by both the FBI and TBI. Here’s more on Lee’s remarks from LocalMemphis.com:


The Governor said this year, he’s also optimistic the first Shelby County students in low-achieving public schools will be eligible for an education savings account to cover tuition for private school. SCS leaders opposed vouchers, and the legislation narrowly passed last year.


“Those children who are zoned for those non-performing schools will have an opportunity to have a high-quality education, hopefully starting this fall if that process is rolled out in the way that we hope it will be,” Gov. Lee said.

Lee failed to mention that vouchers have not been proven to help students academically. In fact, there’s growing evidence that voucher schemes actually have a negative academic impact. Neither actual evidence nor the existence of an FBI probe into the vote seems likely to deter Lee from pursuing an agenda that will both cost taxpayers money and actually harm students.

Those following Lee and his alliance with privatizers like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos over the years are not surprised by his antics. In fact, in December of 2018, I noted:


Even though as early as 2016, Bill Lee was extolling the virtues of school voucher schemes and even though he’s a long-time supporter of Betsy DeVos’s pro-voucher Tennessee Federation for Children and even though he has appointed not one, but two voucher vultures to high level posts in his Administration, it is somehow treated as “news” that Bill Lee plans to move forward with a voucher scheme agenda in 2019.

Now, here we are in 2020. Let’s be sure Tennesseans have a clear vision of where Gov. Lee is taking us: Directly down the very expensive road to the privatization of our public schools.

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All the Money, None of the Work

Private school advocates attempting to secure public funding from Governor Bill Lee’s Education Savings Account (ESA) voucher scheme made clear this week they want taxpayer cash without any real accountability. Specifically, Chalkbeat reports these groups, including Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children, are resisting proposed rules requiring strict background checks on school employees.


Leaders of the Tennessee-based Beacon Center, the Florida-based ExcelinEd, and the Washington, D.C.-based American Federation for Children say the rule is unclear as written and could force private schools to run background checks that are far beyond the requirements for public schools. Such a mandate, they say, could place an “undue burden” on private schools wanting to participate in Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account program, as well as on their employees. 


Voucher supporters say they want participating private schools to face the same requirements as their public counterparts when it comes to employee background checks. At the same time, they don’t want private schools to be judged academically using the same state tests used by Tennessee public schools.

While voucher advocates, eager for taxpayer cash, expressed concern about having to follow the rules, a Department of Education representative indicated the rules are clear:


Deputy Education Commissioner Amity Schuyler, who is developing the program on behalf of her department, added that the state’s new law is clear that participating schools must conduct criminal background checks through the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

The resistance to employee background checks from voucher advocates comes just months after a horrifying story out of a Nashville charter school in which a student was in a class taught by a substitute teacher who was also the woman who killed that student’s brother:


But that feeling of safety was shattered Friday when the twins had a substitute teacher in their math class. It was Khadijah Griffis, the same woman who had shot and killed their older brother last month.

This incident happened at RePublic Charter School. The school was using a New Orleans-based firm to source substitute teachers.

Additionally, voucher proponents are attempting to avoid accountability when it comes to state tests:

On the testing issue, the proposed rules would allow either Tennessee’s standardized tests or “any nationally normed assessment” already in use when the state determines if a school will be suspended or terminated from the program for poor results by voucher students. The inclusion of national tests was a concession to private schools, which don’t administer state tests. Board member Wendy Tucker expressed concerns last month that the accommodation wasn’t in keeping with the spirit of new voucher law, which requires all voucher students to take annual state tests in math and English language arts to track student performance.

The voucher vultures are making it clear: They want Tennessee taxpayer dollars and they want minimal accountability. While Bill Lee attempts to fast-track this ill-conceived initiative, perhaps the antics of the money hungry DeVos devotees will boost the chances of a budding repeal movement.

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