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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Policy of Truth

State Senate candidate Ronnie Glynn is holding incumbent Bill Powers accountable for his votes on public education in the 22nd district race. Specifically, Glynn notes in a recent tweet that Powers voted to cut funding to public schools while voting in favor of tax cuts for corporations that donated to his campaign.

It’s worth noting that Powers has a record of selling out public schools in favor of privatization. He also has an aversion to telling the truth. While campaigning for the Senate seat in 2019, Powers assured voters he would oppose private school voucher schemes. Then, less than three hours after being sworn-in, Powers voted in favor of Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account voucher plan.

During the campaign, Powers promised he’d be against vouchers if elected. The race, decided by around 1000 votes, was relatively close. It’s possible if he’d said he supported vouchers, he would have lost the race.

While new to the body, he’s apparently not new to the art of creative deception. The very first bill Powers voted on was Governor Bill Lee’s voucher proposal. How did Powers vote? He voted YES.

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Upheaval

The Tennessee Department of Education is in disarray, and the disruption is impacting students and their families, according to a recent story in Chalkbeat.


… the disbursements she receives to pay for curriculum and tutoring started showing up late, said Moore, who lives in Bartlett, northeast of Memphis. She had to borrow money in December to cover the costs. The state office she had known as responsive and helpful suddenly took weeks to return calls.


“Everything fell apart,” said Moore, who has limited income and receives disability payments.


Tennessee’s Republican-backed Individualized Education Account program, or IEA, is under increased scrutiny. Democrats and other voucher opponents are seizing on problems in the program — including parents being cited for disallowed purchases — to bolster their case that Tennessee can’t be trusted to launch a second, larger school voucher program this summer on Republican Gov. Bill Lee‘s accelerated timeline.


But Moore’s experience, and that of other parents like her, spotlights another aspect of the existing voucher program that has received little public attention: upheaval and uncertainty in the state Department of Education office charged with overseeing the relatively small initiative.


The resignations of the IEA director and her two staff members, a lag in replacing them, a failure by the state to answer pleas for more resources, and the challenges of overseeing a complicated program have all contributed to delayed disbursements and a frustrating information void in recent months, according to parents and current and former education department employees.

The challenges with the IEA voucher program and staff are just one example. Some in the Department of Education suggest the state will have difficulty administering the TNReady test this year:


An employee still with the department sums up her concerns by saying, “There is a complete lack of urgency or understanding regarding the human resource needs to launch an effective assessment in support of the districts, schools, teachers, students and parents of Tennessee.”

And then, there are reports of late night rants via email. Multiple sources confirm these reports.

All of this is occurring while the Department of Education also engages in questionable no-bid contracts such as the one awarded to ClassWallet to oversee the larger voucher program set to start in Memphis and Nashville this year.

Supposedly, all of this “upheaval” will be good for kids in the long-term. I suspect many school leaders, parents, and even legislators are becoming quite skeptical.

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Weingarten Talks DeVos

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten talks about Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s attempts to privatize American public education in a recent article in the Guardian. Here are some highlights:


“We’ve had plenty of Republican as well as Democratic secretaries of education but none of them, even those who believed in alternatives to public education, actually tried to eviscerate public education,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Here is someone who in her first budget tried to eliminate every single summer school programme, every single after-school programme, and who has done everything in her power to try to make it harder for us to strengthen public [sector] schools.”


Weingarten commented: “Here you have someone whose job it is to help students, 90% of whom go to public schools in America, and to help students in higher education navigate through their student debt or try to mitigate it. She’s failed on both accounts. Instead, she’s tried to defund and dismantle public education and make it harder for us to help kids in public education.”


Weingarten commented: “I’m not surprised that a judge held her in contempt because, just like her boss, she mocks the rule of law. Her rule is: she’s rich and she’s a believer in her ideology and that should drive it, not her oath of office, not that this is democracy, not that she is the secretary of education. So the mood [among teachers] is: we told you so, we knew she’d be like this.”

MORE on how DeVos is scheming against America’s public schools.

Still, Governor Bill Lee is fully embracing the DeVos agenda in Tennessee. From fast-tracking vouchers to building a slush fund for charter schools, Lee is all-in on DeVos-style dismantling of public education.

Betsy DeVos testifies before the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee confirmation hearing to be next Secretary of Education on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 17, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

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