Like Grasshoppers

A public school advocacy group in Ohio has taken notice of the rampant spread of school vouchers across the country and the role Tennessee is playing in the privatization game.

The Tennessee Supreme Court has agreed to hear the plaintiffs’ voucher appeal. In 2019 a trial judge declared the Tennessee Voucher law unconstitutional. Subsequently, the Tennessee Court of Appeals upheld the trial court decision. Now the pro-voucher crowd has been successful in getting the Supreme Court to hear the case.


Vouchers are spreading across the nation like the Kansas Grasshopper Plague of 1874. (The insects ate all the crops, even wool off the back of sheep). Vouchers eat up the funds of public school districts.

It’s really no surprise that a guy who sent out a Christmas card lauding the success of his voucher appeal would be this persistent in pursuit of privatization.

And of course, Gov. Bill Lee has been a long-time supporter of vouchers and a long-time skeptic of public 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.

Lee has consistently and publicly supported voucher schemes. That’s why I’m puzzled when I hear some local elected officials express support for both Bill Lee and public schools – it would seem the two are mutually exclusive.

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. 

Lee has also been an advocate of silencing school boards, embracing a proposal by former state Rep. Jeremy Durham that would allow County Commissions to override board decisions when it comes to advocacy.

So, in Bill Lee, Tennesseans have a candidate for Governor who has expressed unqualified support for a voucher program that has failed in Indiana, Ohio, and Louisiana and that will almost certainly increase state and local costs. Additionally, he wants to be sure local elected officials can’t bring a strong voice of opposition to this proposal.

That’s why I remain shocked that some board members and other elected officials express surprise at Lee’s refusal to invest in public schools even when the state is swimming in cash.

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.

Dear public school supporters: Bill Lee is not your friend. He has never been your friend. He will not be your friend in some magical future world.

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Underwhelming

Gov. Bill Lee delivered his State of the State address tonight and surprising exactly no one, he failed to make bold new investments in public education in spite of a record surplus in excess of $3 billion.

Instead, Lee proposed continuing to “fully fund” the wholly inadequate BEP formula to the tune of an additional $71 million and add $120 million to the teacher compensation component of the BEP. That’s essentially a 4% increase in the BEP allocation NOT a 4% raise in actual teacher compensation.

To be clear, the state needs $1.7 billion to adequately fund the BEP and Lee is proposing adding $71 million. If you add the teacher compensation element to this, you get $191 million. Or, roughly 10 percent of what is actually needed.

Here’s what Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown had to say regarding Lee’s proposal:

Gov. Lee’s proposed increases for public education is not enough to meet current needs and falls far short of what was possible with record state revenue surpluses and collections. Tennessee ranks 46th in the nation on funding per pupil, only ahead of Mississippi and well behind Alabama, Arkansas, and every other southern state. Nothing the governor outlined in his budget changes this intolerable fact. 

Long before the pandemic hit our state, our public schools were already suffering under a plague of chronic underfunding. It is irresponsible and harmful to Tennessee children for Gov. Lee to continue this pattern of insufficient state investment in our schools, especially at a time when Tennessee has the largest revenue surpluses in state history. We can and must do better for our students.     

TEA understands the budget as outlined may not be the same at final passage. As record surpluses continue, TEA will work to see the current budget for K-12 increased.

A significant increase in public education funding could address many challenges plaguing our schools, including not having enough fulltime nurses and counselors, unstaffed libraries with outdated resources, inequities and gaps in technology, and a diminishing talent pool of qualified educators due to low salaries and long hours.  

The Lee administration has an extra $3 billion to budget. There has never been a better time to make the necessary investment for Tennessee students, educators and schools.

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I Don’t Even Have a Headline

So, the General Assembly has passed a bill essentially creating mandatory retention for third grade students who fail to meet certain benchmarks on TNReady tests.

Here’s the key text from HB 7004, that passed overwhelmingly in both chambers:

(1) Beginning with the 2022-2023 school year, a student in the third
grade shall not be promoted to the next grade level unless the student is
determined to be proficient in English language arts (ELA) based on the student’s achieving a performance level rating of “on track” or “mastered” on the ELA portion of the student’s most recent Tennessee comprehensive assessment program (TCAP) test.

The bill outlines a series of potential ways a student may ultimately be promoted even if they fall into this category. Attending a summer “mini-camp,” for example.

But, as Senator Jeff Yarbro points out, 62% of third graders currently fall into the category where retention is the default action. And, students who are retained at this age end up more likely to not complete school or graduate from high school. There’s definitely mixed data on the benefits and drawbacks to retention.

Of course, there is the “Mississippi Miracle.”

There’s a lot to read in that article by Paul Thomas, but here are some key points regarding third grade retention:

But Mississippi has taken the concept further than others, with a retention rate higher than any other state. In 2018–19, according to state department of education reports, 8 percent of all Mississippi K–3 students were held back (up from 6.6 percent the prior year). This implies that over the four grades, as many as 32 percent of all Mississippi students are held back; a more reasonable estimate is closer to 20 to 25 percent, allowing for some to be held back twice. (Mississippi’s Department of Education does not report how many students are retained more than once.)

Thomas adds:

This last concern means that significant numbers of students in states with 3rd-grade retention based on reading achievement and test scores are biologically 5th-graders being held to 4th-grade proficiency levels. Grade retention is not only correlated with many negative outcomes (dropping out, for example), but also likely associated with “false positives” on testing; as well, most states seeing bumps in 4th-grade test scores also show that those gains disappear by middle and high school.

So, we’ve adopted as the official policy of the state of Tennessee a policy that Mississippi used to create a mirage of educational improvement while changing precious little in terms of actual investment in kids.

It seems Tennessee policymakers are once again looking for some sort of “fastest improving” press release instead of looking for meaningful policy change.

Oh, and here’s another interesting note. The test being used to determine retention is the TNReady test. Yes, that one. Yes, THAT one.

While the tests were ultimately suspended last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and are currently envisioned as being delivered on pencil-and-paper, the goal is to return to online testing. However, that return is fraught with potential problems. Not least of which is the fact that our state has had some . . . uh, trouble, with administering an online test.

Here’s how one national expert described Tennessee’s experience with online testing:

“I’m not aware of a state that has had a more troubled transition” to online testing, said Douglas A. Levin of the consulting group EdTech Strategies.

Of course, those third graders also need to watch out for hackers and dump trucks, because we all know those two things can really foul up a test!

Here’s Sen. Yarbro explaining the problems with this bill:

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A Word on the Special Session

Gov. Bill Lee’s “Not So Special Session” on education starts tomorrow at the Tennessee General Assembly. Former Nashville School Board member Amy Frogge offers some insight into what to expect this week.

Here are her thoughts:

The Governor has called a special legislative session this week to address three administration bills. Heads up to educators, parents and friends- we need your help to reach out to legislators who will be voting on these bills!

1. Senate Bill 7001: This testing waiver/hold harmless bill would require school districts to test 80% of students in-person (with pen and paper) in exchange for exemption from the A-F district grading system, placing districts into the Achievement School District, and placing schools on the state priority list (bottom 5%). This bill would require districts to return to in-person instruction. It is unclear how this bill will effect teacher evaluations. The question to ask here is why we are even testing at all this year, during a pandemic and so much chaos. (Hint: follow the money.)

2. Senate Bill 7002 addresses “learning loss” during the pandemic. (This, by the way, is a political- not an education- term.) It would require districts to create in-person, summer mini-camps to help children who are struggling this year. While these camps could be helpful to students, the state is creating another unfunded mandate, because only $67 million will be allotted statewide for the initiative, not nearly enough for implementation. The administration also envisions paying for the camps with stockpiled Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds, which is likely illegal. BUT here’s the biggest concern about the “learning loss” bill: It will require districts to hold back third graders who are not deemed “proficient” in standardized testing. (Proficiency rates can be manipulated by the state through cut scores.) If you google the term “Mississippi miracle,” you will find that Mississippi used this very same trick to create the appearance of a sudden increase on NAEP test scores. Holding back low-performing third graders creates the illusion of huge one-time testing gains, and implementation of the bill would take place just in time for the 2023 NAEP tests. This is not about best serving the children of Tennessee; it’s about gaming the system. Furthermore, the costs for holding back large numbers of third graders, as mandated by this bill, would be astronomical.

3. Senate Bill 7003 would implement a phonics-based literacy program that proponents claim helped Mississippi’s test scores. In reality, holding back low-performing students caused the increase in scores, as I’ve explained above. Aside from the ruse to game NAEP scores, this bill is problematic, just like the “science of reading” literacy bill that Commissioner Schwinn pushed last year. It opens the door to more school privatization. Schwinn, a graduate of the Broad Academy, has been pushing preferred vendors and no-bid contracts (just like our former superintendent). Reducing the complex art of teaching reading to a marketable, scripted phonics curriculum allows school districts to hire cheaper, inexperienced teachers and allows for vendors to make a lot of money by control the curriculum. District should be embracing balanced literacy instead, of which phonics is just one component.

While Tennessee continues to push the narrative that schools and teachers are “failing” in order to open the door to more and more private profit, we should be instead investing in our students, schools and teachers. The state has long failed to properly fund Tennessee’s schools. This year, there is a surplus of $369 million in our rainy day fund, and the state is about to put another $250 million into that fund. We have more than enough to pay our teachers reasonable salaries and to truly address student needs through more social workers, school nurses, guidance counselors and wrap-around services.

The Governor is also expected to announce a 2% statewide teacher raise tomorrow, but beware of the spin on this promise as well. Already, the state is shorting school districts by not paying enough through BEP funds to fully cover teacher salaries. The BEP funds approximately 66,000 teachers, but according to the state’s own report, there are approximately 77,000 teachers in Tennessee. Local districts must make up for this funding shortfall. The 2%, $43 million teacher raise will only be allotted for 66,000 teachers- not all of the teachers in Tennessee, and it will be paid for through non-recurring funds, which means that local districts will cover the difference in future years. Finally, this raise amounts to $10 per week per teacher- 10 cents on the dollar– an insult to teachers. Please reach out to your representatives to share your concerns about these bills. We should particularly focus on those legislators listed in the comments below who are serving on the education committees. Although this is a quick special session, legislators are not expected to vote on these bills right away due to the MLK holiday today. You have time!

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A Tale of Two Bills

House Speaker Cameron Sexton has named Laurie Cardoza-Moore as his appointment to the state Textbook Commission. In addition to being virulently anti-Muslim, Moore also encouraged participation in an insurrection.

Here’s what’s interesting. Back in 2013, Betsy Phillips wrote in the Nashville Scene about then-Gov. Bill Haslam’s weak response to Moore’s constant badgering regarding the selection of state textbooks.

Here’s a bit of what Phillips had to say:

So, surely, Governor Haslam will take a stand against this, right? He’ll look at the people like Cardoza-Moore who want more say in our textbooks and he’ll say “Thanks, but no thanks,” right? I mean, he cannot possibly limp-noodle his way out of this.

“I think some laypeople on it would be fine,” Haslam said. “The important thing is to have people who truly are committed to the idea that in Tennessee, every child can learn.”

Fast forward to 2020-21, and the new guy named Bill who is governor can’t seem to be bothered to say much of anything about Laurie Cardoza-Moore, either.

Here’s more from Phillips, though:

As you may recall, Cardoza-Moore is behind the opposition to the Murfreesboro mosque. Not content to rail against imaginary dangers from Middle Tennessee Muslims, she’s now spearheading the effort to rid our textbooks of secret bias.

So, here we are in 2021 – well into being a state governed by rich Republicans with inherited fortunes who go by the name of Bill. And, apparently, it’s still politically acceptable to coddle religious bigots – even when those oppressors actively encourage insurrectionist activity. Progress, indeed, comes slowly.

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General Assembly Preview

Nashville education blogger TC Weber offers some insight into what the General Assembly may be considering around education policy in 2021.

Here’s some of what he has to say:

First up is addressing BEP funding for schools. State funding is typically contingent on attendance numbers. Due to the pandemic, school districts across the state are losing students. According to Chalkbeat, the statewide decline in student enrollment this fall would normally decrease the allocation by at least $320 million.

Recognizing, that if those lost students come back next year when the Coronavirus is more manageable, districts will be under economic hardship, Representative Cerpicky has introduced a school stabilization bill that would in essence freeze funding at current levels, providing relief to districts.

To his credit, Cerpicky understands that this is just a beginning and he would like the General Assembly to conduct a review of the current BEP formula. Most stakeholders recognize the shortcomings of the current model, which was adopted in 1992, and its failure to adjust for inflation, government mandates, a growing charter school sector, and expenses driven by changes in technology. There seems to be a growing willingness to redress it.

Cerpicky’s thinking is that if a bill keeping districts financially solvent for another year can be passed, it would create a window of opportunity to address the BEP. Legislators would have 14 to 15 months in which to address the BEP formula in Education Committee meetings. I can’t disagree with that thinking.

Legislators for the most part appear to understand the importance of freezing district funding and appear amendable to keeping funding frozen. Well, all except Chairman Sexton who thinks that only schools who have open school buildings deserve protection. Apparently, he is unaware of the level of work teachers are doing remotely to keep students engaged. Somebody needs to hand him a clue. Instead of criticizing Memphis for taking their savings and giving teachers a 1% raise, he should be praising them for recognizing the level of sacrifice being made by teachers and principals.

The funding picture needs to be clarified as soon as possible so that superintendents can begin accurately creating their budgets for the next school year.

Equally important is a decision on whether TNReady will be administered, or not, and if administered, what impact scores will have on schools, teachers, and students. Most recognize that the administration of testing at this juncture is an exercise in futility. But there is a contingency who believes that the tests should be administered though results should not be used for accountability. My argument is that if I hold a scrimmage game and I keep score, despite calling it practice, everybody knows who the winners and losers are.

Not testing this year will not permanently damage kids, in fact, it would provide opportunities for additional instructional time. It’s been floated out there that this year’s tests should be canceled and money instead is allocated to summer school. I don’t know if that’s feasible or not, but it makes a lot more sense.

Here are some notes on the historically underfunded BEP:

Note here that TACIR – a state organization that analyzes state and local government – says the BEP is underfunded by $1.7 billion. Even with the COVID “savings,” it seems our schools need a drastic increase in investment.

Will the General Assembly get serious about actually coughing up that kind of cash? I seriously doubt it.

They should.

But, Gov. Lee has shown his true colors — he’s pushed a privatization agenda and he cancelled a planned teacher pay raise this past year. It’s not clear lawmakers have the courage or fortitude to challenge Lee when it comes to funding. Nor is it clear they will do what it takes to pump $1.7 billion into our schools.

We’re now on our second consecutive governor named Bill. Mr. Haslam revised the BEP in a way that virtually ensured we’d end up where we are now — with an inadequate funding mechanism for our state’s schools. Gov. Lee lacks the imagination to dream big for schools, instead preferring to pursue a privatization agenda that makes his friend Betsy DeVos proud.

The General Assembly “might” do something on school funding. Freezing the normal allocation to prevent significant funding loss as a result of COVID is a good start. But, there’s much more to be done. Lawmakers shouldn’t use the COVID situation as a scapegoat to allow them to get out of the much more challenging work of creating a long-term, sustainable BEP solution.

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Laurie Cardoza-Millions!

Recently, Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton made news by appointing controversial anti-Muslim activist Laurie Cardoza-Moore to the state Textbook Commission.

Let’s take a closer look at Moore and some of her antics.

She’s very interested in “taking back America’s children.” As a dad, this frightens me a bit.

But, here she goes:

She also takes to writing articles about the need to “take back education.

This national profile and all the attendant fundraising begs the question: How much does Laurie Cardoza-Moore make pushing a hate-filled agenda, attacking local school boards, and fundraising off of the evils of Common Core?

Well, her 2017 IRS 990 form offers some insight.

That year, Moore’s group – Proclaiming Justice to the Nations (PJTN) raised just over $1 million.

What’d she do with the cash?

Well, she paid herself $130,000. Then, she paid her husband’s business $67,000. There was a business “office expense” for occupancy at just over $49,000. She runs PJTN from her home, so that means she’s paying her mortgage with the cash. That’s $200,000 in payments to Moore and her husband, and another 50,000 a year to cover their mortgage. Then, there’s another $26,000 paid to Moore as an “occupancy expense.” Oh, and there’s $41,000 on “meals and entertainment.” Finally, her two kids received a total of around $2000 from the organization for “contract labor” that year.

Peddling ignorance is quite profitable, it seems. After all, that’s just one year of her “thriving” business.

Oh, and to be clear, PJTN is not very nice. At all. Here’s a tweet they like:

Yes, the group that Proclaiming Justice to The Nations “likes” is called American White and, well, it’s just about what you think it is.

This, Tennesseans, is who Cameron Sexton – the highest ranking official in the House of Representatives – wants to serve on a state body overseeing textbook selection.

The question? Will House Republicans stand up to Sexton? Will Gov. Bill Lee speak out about both Moore’s bigotry and her profiteering from peddling hate?

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Voucher Vulture Feeding Frenzy

Gov. Bill Lee just keeps adding voucher vultures to his senior leadership team. He’s already tapped former state Rep. Bill Dunn to serve as an advisor (and possible future Commissioner) in the Education Department. Now, he’s added defeated state Rep. John DeBerry to a Cabinet post paying $168,000 a year.

DeBerry is a long-time supporter of school voucher schemes who lost a re-election bid this year. His loss was attributed in part to his consistent support for “disruption” in public education.

Here’s some of what Lee had to say in a press release:

“John DeBerry is a respected leader and man of faith who has served our state with integrity for decades as both a legislator and civil rights champion,” said Gov. Lee. “John has fought to protect life, provide better education options for Tennessee students, and to reform our criminal justice system and I’m honored to have his counsel within the Cabinet.”

One thing DeBerry does not have faith in is Tennessee teachers. Anyone who has sat in a House Education Committee meeting for very long has surely heard DeBerry denigrate teachers in our state, it’s pretty much his favorite topic. When he wasn’t busy attacking teachers or public schools, he was finding new ways to work with school privatizers to send public money to private schools. Dark money groups like Tennesseans for Student Success loved candidates like John DeBerry, because he made them look bipartisan.

Now, DeBerry and Dunn will be advising Lee on ways to advance a voucher and charter agenda.

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In Light of These Outcries

It seems that someone is finally listening to educators from across the state who have consistently complained about poor management at the Tennessee Department of Education. Let’s be clear: Though flippant and abrasive, current Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn is merely carrying out the privatization agenda of her boss, Gov. Bill Lee.

Still, it’s noteworthy that both Senator Dolores Gresham and Rep. Mark White (who chair the education committees in the Senate and House, respectively) are now calling for an investigation into the financial management practices at the DOE under Scwhinn.

Here’s more from Chalkbeat:

Two legislative leaders are calling for an investigation into the Tennessee Department of Education’s management of millions of dollars earmarked for coronavirus relief, as well as the state’s school voucher program for students with disabilities.

Sen. Dolores Gresham and Rep. Mark White, who chair the legislature’s two main education committees, want the state’s chief internal investigator to look into “questions and concerns” raised about both CARES funding and the 4-year-old voucher program known as Individualized Education Accounts.

Neither lawmaker provided details but, in an Oct. 23 letter to Comptroller Justin P. Wilson, said the concerns “come from every level of education across the state.”

“In light of these outcries,” they wrote, “we respectfully request that your office conduct an investigation into the management of these two areas to determine if they are being administered in accordance with both state and federal law.”

That only took — FOREVER. It’s nice to know the legislature would rather placate a governor hellbent on privatizing our schools instead of actually paying attention.

Here’s …. LOTS of evidence that Gresham and White clearly missed because they are either willfully ignorant or … YOU make the call:

Those are a few examples.

Make no mistake, Bill Lee stands by Penny Schwinn. This is HIS agenda.

Today is Election Day 2020. If you want a different outcome for Tennessee schools, the next time you can vote for someone other than Bill Lee is in November of 2022.

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Taking on Testing

Four members of the Tennessee House of Representatives have signed a letter to Gov. Bill Lee calling on him to end TNReady testing and teacher evaluations this year. The move follows a similar request issued by the Tennessee Education Association (TEA) last week. The letter, signed by Representatives John Ray Clemmons, Gloria Johnson, Bill Beck, and Jason Hodges notes that the COVID-19 pandemic has created special challenges that must be taken into account.

Here’s that letter:

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