Bill Lee’s ED

Governor Bill Lee has been on a tour of rural Tennessee counties the last two weeks. During his stops, he’s touting what he’s calling a successful first legislative session. If by success, he means securing passage of a school voucher scheme by any means necessary, sure, he’s been successful. Maybe he means siphoning public money to private schools by way of his Education Savings Account (ESA) plan to the tune of as much as $300 million? Or, perhaps he means demonstrating how he really feels about public school teachers by including the lowest increase in BEP salary funds in the last four budget cycles in his budget — all offering new money and easier access to charter schools.

What Bill Lee hasn’t done on these stops is tell the real story. Because it’s embarrassing. No one likes to talk about it. It’s Bill Lee’s ED. His Education Deficit. Since Bill Lee won’t admit it, I took the liberty of compiling some data to help him talk about it.

Here’s a look at each of the seven counties Lee visited in the past two weeks on his ED tour. I’ve noted first the average salary increase teachers in those counties received since 2015. Next, I’ve indicated the “BEP Gap” — that is, the number of positions each county pays for above what the state funding formula generates. Here’s what this means: The school system NEEDS those employees in order to provide a quality education. But, the state formula won’t pay for them. So, local taxpayers are left footing 100% of the cost of those positions. Data provided by the Comptroller of the Treasury and the Department of Education.

County Avg. salary increase BEP Gap

Bledsoe 3.4% 13

Meigs 1.5% 20

Loudon 1.4% 46

Giles 0.925% 81

Lawrence 1.9% 94

Lincoln 1.8% 49

Bedford 2.25% 24

As you can see, we’ve got some work to do. Teachers in these rural counties have salaries that lag below the state average and receive relatively low annual salary increases. Plus, taxpayers in these communities are left footing the bill for a BEP that simply isn’t adequate to meet the needs of our schools in 2019. Bill Lee did nothing to address the structural deficits in the BEP. Plus, he offered teachers the lowest state funds for raises in the last four budget cycles.

While Lee likes to ride around on a horse to tout his vitality, it’s clear there’s an ED problem he just doesn’t want to talk about.

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

Your support makes reporting education news possible – just $3 or more today makes a difference.

Voucher Vultures Swoop Down on Nashville

Roughly one month after Governor Bill Lee signed his Education Savings Account voucher scheme into law, a North Carolina-based private school announced it is expanding operations to Nashville. Perhaps not surprisingly, tuition at the school is similar to the amount available to families in Nashville and Memphis under the ESA program.

The school, Thales Academy, is operated by the CEO of a commercial kitchen ventilation company. Bob Luddy is also a top GOP donor in North Carolina.

Here’s Luddy on how great his schools are:

“We get results. If you look consistently over a period of time, kindergarten students come in, they can barely walk in the door, they can barely sit down, and then you see them progress as they learn sounds, and they learn to decode. By the time they progress into the 3rd or 4th grade they’re doing very sophisticated work, which is going to prepare them to be excellent students in the long term,” Luddy says in a video on the Thales Academy website.

And here’s more on accreditation straight from the school’s website:

The accreditation process does not align with Thales Academy’s mission and would prevent Thales from maintaining our standard of the highest quality education.

Thales and Luddy are not new to Tennessee. In fact, in 2015, voucher advocate Lee Barfield paid for a private plane to take former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and then-House Speaker Beth Harwell to North Carolina to visit the Thales schools. Like Bill Lee, Barfield is a long-time supporter of Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children and even served on the group’s Board of Directors.

Those in the GOP cozying up to Luddy should beware, though, he’s known for expressing his disappointment where it hurts politicians the most: campaign contributions.

Here’s how he treated the House GOP in North Carolina:

A major conservative donor’s decision this week to divert a planned $25,000 contribution away from state House Republicans highlights an increasingly bitter divide within the party over tax policy and government spending.

Raleigh businessman Bob Luddy, who chairs the board of the conservative Civitas Institute think tank and is an influential financial supporter of conservative candidates, emailed a sharp critique of the House budget to House Republicans, who are in the majority.

Luddy complained that the budget advancing to a major vote on Thursday does not include new tax cuts and extends tax breaks for specific industries. He called the spending plan too “liberal” and said he’s decided to withold his planned, annual donation to the House Republicans’ campaign committee.

Luddy instead directed his money to Americans for Prosperity and then issued this sharp rebuke to those who had taken his money in the past but were not doing his bidding:

But Luddy says the state shouldn’t prop up the solar industry. “These guys couldn’t exist without government subsidies, and those subsidies have to come from every working taxpayer who are capable of creating way more jobs than the solar industry could ever create,” he said.

Here’s a guy who plans on using public money to fund his private school scheme and he’s decrying the use of public funds to support an industry he simply doesn’t like. Perhaps if public money shouldn’t be used to “prop up the solar industry” it also shouldn’t be used to prop up Luddy’s Thales Academy.

Those who warned that passage of vouchers would lead to “pop-up” private schools have already been proven right. Thales Academy and Bob Luddy were invited into Tennessee by Bill Lee and friends and are now perched like hungry vultures ready to suck funds from Nashville’s public schools.

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

Your support makes reporting education news possible.

$1, $3, or $5 makes a difference.

Secret Voucher Man

So we know Governor Bill Lee’s controversial voucher plan narrowly passed after gaining the support of Lee’s besties Lee Beaman and Betsy DeVos while earning opposition from Tennesseans across the state. So much opposition, legislators representing 93 counties opted their districts out of the bill.

Now, we also know the FBI is investigating whether anything improper occurred in the backroom dealings that led to the bill’s passage. We saw at least one lawmaker change his vote at the last minute after arm-twisting by House Speaker Glen Casada. Other lawmakers reported receiving offers from Governor Lee or Speaker Casada in order to switch their votes.

Here’s what Nashville’s NewsChannel 5 is reporting:


FBI agents have begun interviewing Tennessee lawmakers about whether any improper incentives were offered to pass Gov. Bill Lee’s school vouchers bill in the state House, NewsChannel 5 Investigates has learned.

It’s also interesting that in light of all the recent revelations about Glen Casada, Bill Lee has been reluctant to call on Casada to resign. It seems likely that without Casada’s help, Lee would have failed to achieve many of his legislative goals this session. Now, Casada’s true character is coming to light and Bill Lee is refusing to take a clear stand.

But hey, at least we have vouchers and a state charter authorizer, and as an added bonus, Lee signed the legislature’s bill that criminalized voter registration so that even if some Tennesseans are now motivated to vote Lee and his allies out, they’ll find it harder to get that done.

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

Your support — just $2, $4, or $6 today — helps make reporting education news possible.



Bill Lee’s Buddy

At an invitation-only meeting with Bill Lee and Betsy DeVos — a meeting featuring no teachers or public school administrators — a man named Douglas Jahner is in attendance. Jahner is also a frequent commenter on this page, often criticizing public schools while claiming superhero status for his own advocacy of school privatization.

Erik Schelzig tagged a photo of all who attended. Among those not invited, according to Chalkbeat, was the Executive Director of Tennessee’s State Board of Education.

Over in the comments section of this post, Jahner makes an interesting comment:

Doug Jahner April 12, 2019 at 2:38 pm (Edit)

What a screwed up system whereby we open our wallets for illegal alien children yet we forbid legal neighbor child Johnny from education tax dollars simply because he goes to s school not approved by education unions.

Jahner here is encouraging the violation of what DeVos ultimately called “settled law” after her own mishap on the issue.

For all his commentary on support for “all children,” Jahner – a man close enough to Lee to get an invite to a closed door meeting with the U.S. Secretary of Education — appears to only support education for those children he finds worthy of his approval.

So far, the Senate version of Lee’s voucher plan appears to side with Jahner’s unconstitutional view of school attendance. No word from Lee on whether he backs his buddy on this one.

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

Your support makes reporting education news possible.

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

Your support — a one time gift of $5 or more or a monthly gift of as little as $1 — makes reporting education news possible.

Voucher Vulture Set to Descend on Nashville

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee is putting on the full court press in his quest to voucherize our state’s public schools. He’s got allies like dark money group “Tennesseans for Student Success” putting out hit pieces on voucher opponents, and on Monday, he’ll have Education Secretary Betsy DeVos appearing with him at a school choice event in Nashville.

DeVos is perhaps best known for her irrational fear of grizzly bear attacks on schools. Just last week, she appeared before a congressional committee and suggested larger class sizes are good for student learning, despite citing no evidence for that claim.

Now, she’s headed to the Volunteer State to offer up opinions on why Tennessee should adopt the type of voucher scheme most susceptible to fraud and least likely to improve student achievement.

It’s no surprise Lee and DeVos will be joining forces to sing the praises of using taxpayer dollars to fund unaccountable private schools. Soon after winning the governor’s race, Lee named two key DeVos disciples to leadership roles in his administration. Lee also has a track record of backing the DeVos privatization organization.

It should be clear by now that Bill Lee is determined to bring a failed model of “free market” education to Tennessee. Here’s more on what the DeVos agenda brought to Michigan:


Chaos. Uncertainty. Instability. That’s what a free market approach to public education brought Detroit. And, sadly, it also resulted in academic outcomes even worse than those expected in one of the worst public school districts in the country.


Choice advocates would have us believe that having more options will lead to innovation and force the local district to improve or close schools. Instead, in the case of Detroit, it led to chaos. The same fate could be visited upon other large, urban districts who fall into the free market education trap. Another unfortunate lesson from Detroit: Once you open the door, it’s very, very difficult to close.

Bill Lee is pulling out all the stops on an agenda that is destructive to public education and insulting to our state’s teachers. Perhaps his joint appearance with DeVos will convince any doubters of Lee’s true colors. Until then, here’s a message for DeVos:

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

Your support makes reporting education news possible.



Bye Bye Byrd

Admitted sex offender David Byrd is out as chair of a House Education subcommittee just one day after his vote against Governor Bill Lee’s school voucher plan. While some had speculated Byrd might vote in favor of vouchers in exchange for cover from Lee, Byrd voted NO on Lee’s plan yesterday in the full House Education Committee.

The move to oust Byrd comes after months of controversy surrounding his appointment to the post. Speaker Glen Casada and Governor Bill Lee backed Byrd despite calls from the public for him to resign. In 2018, both Lt. Governor Randy McNally and then-House Speaker Beth Harwell called on Byrd to resign from the General Assembly. Instead, he ran for re-election and won, then was appointed by Casada to a subcommittee chairmanship.

The Tennessean reports on Byrd’s removal:

Citing bipartisan concerns over the controversy surrounding Rep. David Byrd, House Speaker Glen Casada has removed the Waynesboro Republican from his chairmanship of an education subcommittee.  

The move, announced by Casada on Thursday, comes just two months after the speaker appointed Byrd — who has faced allegations that he sexually assaulted three women in the 1980s — to serve as chairman of the House Education Administration Subcommittee.

“Following discussions with members of the House and after careful consideration, I have formally asked Representative Byrd to step down from his position as chairman of the House Education Administration Subcommittee,” the speaker said in a statement.

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

Your support makes reporting education news possible.



Bill Lee’s BEP Lies

Is the BEP fully funded? Bill Lee wants you to think so. A recent Tennessean story calls this issue into question, however. Taking into account the reality of the BEP is more complicated, but the bottom line answer is this: No, Bill Lee’s budget does NOT fully fund the BEP and he and his staff should know better.

The Tennessean points out that despite new investments from Governor Haslam and now Governor Lee, educators are not happy with the adequacy of the state’s funding formula.

There is good reason to be concerned. For example, Tennessee is now investing less per pupil than we did in 2010:

To translate, in 2010 (the year before Bill Haslam became Governor), Tennessee spent an average of $8877 per student in 2016 dollars. In 2016 (the most recent data cited), that total was $8810. So, we’re effectively spending slightly less per student now than in 2010. The graph indicates that Tennessee spending per student isn’t really growing, instead it is stagnating.

It’s also worth noting that our teacher salary increases aren’t matching national averages:


Average teacher salaries in the United States improved by about 4% from the Haslam Promise until this year. Average teacher salaries in Tennessee improved by just under 2% over the same time period. So, since Bill Haslam promised teachers we’d be the fastest improving in teacher pay, we’ve actually been improving at a rate that’s half the national average. No, we’re not the slowest improving state in teacher pay, but we’re also not even improving at the average rate.
By contrast, states like California and North Carolina have seen increases of over 9% over the same time period, making them the two fastest improving states. Vermont is close behind at just over a 7% total increase.

While talking about teacher salaries, it’s important to note the BEP does NOT fully fund teacher pay and in fact, funds a level far below the actual average cost of hiring a teacher:


As for teacher compensation, the state pays 70% of the BEP calculated rate — which is now $46,225. The good news: That calculated rate has been increasing in recent years. The bad news: That rate is still $7000 LESS than the average teacher compensation paid by districts in the state.
What does this mean? It means districts have to make up a big difference in order to maintain their level of pay. As one example, Nashville is struggling to pay teachers on par with similar cities nationally. Based on current BEP formula allocations, funding teaching positions at the actual average rate would mean MNPS would receive an additional $21 million for teacher compensation. Those funds would certainly help close the pay gap that plagues the system.

Then, of course, there are unfunded or underfunded mandates. One example, RTI – Response to Intervention:


One possible solution would be to embed funding for school-level RTI2 specialists in the state’s funding formula for schools, the BEP. In fact, Rep. Joe Pitts offered legislation that would do just that last year. His plan would have added funding for three RTI2 specialists at each school for a total projected cost of $167 million. Commissioner McQueen was quick to shoot that idea down and came back this year with the funding proposal of $13 million, or one specialist per district. That’s only $154 million short of adopting a plan that would actually meet the needs of a program many suggest is an important way to improve educational outcomes for Tennessee students.

Our own Comptroller, a Republican, also indicates the state is significantly behind where it should be to adequately fund the BEP:


The Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability is out with a new report that suggests Tennessee is underfunding its schools by at least $400 million. That’s because the BEP (the state’s funding formula for schools) fails to adequately fund education personnel.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Bill Haslam created a fake BEP task force designed to let him out of the responsibility to adequately fund schools and then effectively froze BEP 2.0. In that sense, it’s actually inaccurate to say our state is “fully funding” the BEP. In fact, we’re funding “growth only” in a frozen formula. Facts matter. History is difficult, I know. But those talking about this issue would do well to cite the recent history in their reporting.

Enter Governor Bill Haslam. He appointed his own BEP Task Force independent of the statutorily mandated BEP Review Committee. At the time, I speculated this was because he didn’t like the Review Committee’s recommendations and its insistence that the state was at least $500 million behind where it should be in education funding.

Now, he’s proposing a “BEP Enhancement Act.” This so-called enhancement is sailing through the General Assembly. It is seen as the most likely vehicle to get money to rural districts and in a year when education funds are increasing, why sweat the details?

As I’ve written before, a few districts lose significantly in the move because it eliminates the Cost Differential Factor (CDF).

It also freezes BEP 2.o. Gone are the dreams of full funding of this formula. The law makes permanent the 70% state funding of BEP-generated teaching positions and funds teacher salaries at a rate well below the state average salary.

Someone should tell Bill Lee and legislative leadership about this. They keep going around repeating the lie that the BEP is “fully funded.” The truth is quite different. I suspect Lee’s staffers know the reality, and are just not telling him. Alternatively, they don’t know the facts — in which case, they don’t deserve their jobs.

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

Your support — either a one-time or ongoing gift — makes reporting education news sustainable.



You Don’t Know, Jack

Despite being represented by top voucher advocate Jack Johnson, the Franklin Special School District is speaking out against vouchers. Johnson, best known for his poor math skills and penchant for hypocrisy, is taking the lead in pushing forward Governor Bill Lee’s “Education Savings Account” proposals. Education Savings Accounts, or ESAs, are simply a nicer way to explain the process of taking money from public schools and funneling it to unaccountable private schools.

The Williamson Herald has more:

The Franklin Special School District Board of Education approved unanimously, by consent agenda, a resolution opposing the governor’s Education Savings Account (ESA) proposal, or voucher program, that would use public education dollars to fund private school education.

During his first State of the State address earlier this month, Gov. Bill Lee-R, proposed state funding of an Education Savings Account (ESA), or voucher, program that would allow qualifying parents to use public school funds to enroll their children in a private school, or non-public entity.

In recent days, both Eric Welch and Brad Fiscus of the Williamson County School Board have made their opposition to vouchers known.

While no one should be shocked that Bill Lee supports efforts to dismantle our public schools by way of both vouchers and rapid expansion of charter schools, what’s suprising to me is the number of school board members I talk with who supported Lee. It’s difficult to square support of Lee with support of public education in our state. Lee made clear both during the campaign and by his past involvement in voucher efforts that he is a proponent of using public money to fund private schools.

I suppose some of these same school board members are voting in favor of resolutions opposing vouchers. Perhaps if voucher legislation passes, they’ll explain to their constituents why a local property tax increase is necessary not to support any improvements in what’s offered, but to make up for lost revenue due to an ever-expanding voucher school district.

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

Your support — either a one-time or ongoing contribution — makes publishing education news possible.

A Warning on Vouchers

Williamson County School Board member Brad Fiscus offers thoughts on vouchers.

During Tennessee’s State of the State address, Governor Bill Lee made it clear that privatizing public education would be a significant initiative of his legislative agenda. While he professed his support for public schools, he also laid out his plan to strip away funding from public schools.

The Governor’s plan proposes vouchers that would eliminate public accountability by channeling tax dollars into private schools or home school programs that do not face state-approved academic standards. Private schools do not publicly report on student achievement and do not meet the public accountability requirements outlined in major federal laws– including laws which protect students with special needs. Vouchers are an easy, yet ineffective “out” for our legislators– relieving our state leaders of their responsibility to provide oversight and accountability for public schools as demanded by our state constitution.

Governor Lee has promised to restrict his “Education Savings Accounts” (ESA) to use by students from low-income families from the lowest performing schools. These Education Savings Accounts or education scholarship accounts or individual education savings accounts or education scholarship tax credits are euphemisms for vouchers.

In Indiana in 2011, while now-Vice-President Mike Pence was Governor, vouchers were approved. Similar to Governor Lee’s proposal, Indiana’s program initially limited ESAs to 7500 students from low-income families in low performing districts. As of 2018, over 35,000 students now utilize taxpayer money intended for public education to pay private school fees. Indiana has spent a combined $685 million on this publicly-funded private-school experiment. However, a significant number of participating students were already attending private schools or participating in homeschool programs. What’s more, studies reveal these students are not improving academically. Voucher programs don’t work. Imagine the benefit if Indiana had invested an additional $685 million in its public schools, instead of subsidizing private schools.

Contrary to what proponents purport, voucher programs do not support parent and student choice. Instead of voucher programs providing options for parents and students, private schools have the chance to choose which students will be accepted, while public education districts are expected to provide a local system of free public education for all children.

Governor Lee’s misguided plan will undermine the very schools the State of Tennessee should be supporting. Until we address the socio-economic conditions that are predominant in neighborhoods where underperforming schools operate, we will not solve the issue of suboptimal school performance. We must invest in systems of support and training, such as mentorship and literacy programs, that have been proven effective with underserved children and youth, instead of taking financial resources away.

In Williamson County, a district with some of the highest performing schools in the state despite some of the lowest per-student funding, we’re being told by Senator Jack Johnson and House Speaker Glen Casada that “vouchers won’t affect us because we have strong schools.” We have been told we “shouldn’t be worried.” Why would the state’s top-ranked county want to ensure they are not affected if vouchers are good for public education?

If Indiana’s experience with vouchers is any indication, we can be sure this plan will affect Williamson County schools. Even if it doesn’t, shouldn’t we care enough about public education in other parts of Tennessee to prevent this program from happening there?

Tell your legislators and our Governor that vouchers are not welcome in our state.

Brad Fiscus is a veteran teacher, a leader in the Tennessee Conference of The United Methodist Church, and a member of the Williamson County Board of Education, the following Op-Ed is his personal views and does not represent the thoughts or opinions of Williamson County Schools or the Board of Education.

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

Your support makes reporting education news possible.