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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REPEAL

Representative Bo Mitchell of Nashville has filed legislation that would repeal Education Savings Accounts (vouchers), Gov. Bill Lee’s signature legislative achievement from 2019.

The move comes with the House of Representatives now being led by Speaker Cameron Sexton, a long-time opponent of vouchers and supporter of public schools. Sexton told an audience in his home district:


“We should do everything we can to improve all public schools in the state of Tennessee so they can be successful,” he said. “I would rather go that route than the voucher route.”

So far, the voucher repeal bill has only Democratic co-sponsors. It will be interesting to see if Sexton and other anti-voucher Republicans join the effort or put forward their own voucher repeal effort.

While Governor Bill Lee has suggested speeding up implementation of the voucher scheme, Sexton has called for putting on the brakes pending the outcome of an FBI investigation into the House vote on the bill.

It will also be interesting to see if legislators take action in 2020 to address the underlying issues — poverty and funding — impacting school success.

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No Positive Gains

As Governor Bill Lee seeks to accelerate implementation of his school voucher scheme amid an FBI probe into the House vote on the legislation, more evidence is emerging suggesting school vouchers are harmful to students.

Two professors studying the issue offer this analysis in a recent article in The Hill:


Researchers — including several voucher advocates — have conducted nine rigorous, large-scale studies since 2015 on achievement in voucher programs. In no case did these studies find any statistically positive achievement gains for students using vouchers. But seven of the nine studies found that voucher students saw relative learning losses. Too often, these losses were substantial.


For instance, research on Louisiana’s program indicates that when some children performing squarely in the average range use a voucher to enroll in a private school, their scores fall almost to the lowest performing quartile of students overall. And initial hopes that those losses were temporary have not panned out.

Why would Tennessee’s Governor push a voucher scheme he knows won’t work?

It’s because he doesn’t care.

Bill Lee has long been a voucher advocate and ally of and donor to organizations backed by Betsy DeVos.

His service to the DeVos agenda means more to him than doing what’s best for Tennessee kids. Lee is willing to take money from Tennessee public schools and transfer to unaccountable private entities no matter what the evidence says. Here’s why:

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.

What’s more disappointing is the willingness of members of the Tennessee General Assembly to go along with this charade.

Instead of improving Tennessee’s investment in public schools, our state continues to lag behind — we’re at least $500 million short of properly funding the BEP – the state’s funding formula for schools.

Let me point out again that the authors reference nine studies — in seven, students LOST GROUND academically as a result of accepting vouchers. There were NO POSITIVE GAINS.

Vouchers don’t work. At all.

Governor Lee knows this. His team knows it. The leaders in the House and Senate know it.

They just don’t care. If they did, we wouldn’t see numbers like this year after year:

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Bill Lee’s $200 Million Dream

During the voucher debate this past legislative session, I wrote about Governor Bill Lee’s Arizona Dream. I noted that Lee seemed determined to turn Tennessee into the same type of fraud-riddled education mess that decimated school funding in the Grand Canyon State.

Now, of course, the FBI is investigating Tennessee’s voucher vote. But instead of caution, Bill Lee is hitting the gas pedal and trying to move vouchers into our state even faster.

Let’s take a look at how that’s gone in Arizona:


Last year, nearly $200 million which otherwise would have been in the state’s coffers, money which could have been used to boost our shamefully low education budget, is paying for children to go to private schools.


Private school tuition tax credits, the state’s first voucher program, began in 1999. Back then, before vouchers, 44,050 students attended Arizona’s private schools, about 5 percent of the student population.

How did private school enrollment look in 2015, the most recent year I can find data for? In 2015, the number had risen to 46,250, which is an addition of 2,200 students over 17 years of taxpayer-funded vouchers — about 130 new students a year. That doesn’t sound like the kind growth you should expect given the investment we’re making.



Here’s a math problem for you. If Arizona had 2,200 more private school students in 2015 than in 1999, and in 2015, we spent $150 million on vouchers. How much were taxpayers pitching in for each new student? You’ll probably need to grab a calculator to figure it out, so let me give you the answer. It comes to $68,200 per new student.


$68,000 PER STUDENT.

That’s the cost to advance a voucher agenda that all the evidence indicates will fail the children it is designed to help.

That’s Bill Lee’s Arizona Dream. That’s the scheme he’s trying to foist (quickly) on Tennesseans.

Don’t let anyone tell you Bill Lee is a fiscal conservative who cares about protecting taxpayer dollars.

Here’s what his agenda makes clear: Bill Lee wants to take YOUR tax dollars and spend them on private entities regardless of outcome. Just because.

That’s bad policy. It’s fiscally irresponsible. It tells you all you need to know about Bill Lee.

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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.

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