Keep Public Money in Public Schools

The Southern Poverty Law Center celebrates victory in case that is stopping the implementation of a voucher scheme in Tennessee. Here’s more:

When Lisa Mingrone taught art in a Tennessee school, her “supply budget” only provided students with a box of crayons, far short of the full range of art supplies they needed for the whole year.

Now a parent of a child in the Metro Nashville Public Schools, Mingrone has an even deeper understanding of the lack of resources – including a dearth of educators – in public schools. Those scant resources in Tennessee public schools were recently at an even greater risk of evaporating after the state Legislature narrowly passed a private school voucher program that threatened to drain more public money from two of the 95 counties in the state.

Mingrone and others scored a milestone victory this week when a judge blocked Tennessee from implementing the voucher program. The ruling came as the program is challenged by two lawsuits, including a lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center and its partners.

The victory stopped a voucher program that was poised to siphon off more than $7,500 per voucher student – more than $375 million in the first five years of the program – from funds dedicated for the Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County (Memphis) Schools. Three days after the initial ruling, the judge ruled that the state could not implement or spend any money on the voucher program during the appeal.

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A Voucher Obituary

Yesterday, a judge in Nashville found that Tennessee’s voucher law is unconstitutional. This effectively kills Gov. Bill Lee’s signature legislative achievement and means there won’t be a voucher program in the 2020-21 school year or anytime in the near future.

Here’s a nice summary of the essence of the decision thanks to WPLN:

“The Court finds, based upon the particular criteria in the ESA Act, and upon the legislative history detailing the extensive tweaking of the eligibility criteria in order to eliminate certain school districts to satisfy legislators (rather than tweaking to enhance the merits of the Act) that the legislation is local in form and effect,” Martin ruled. “Additionally, the legislative history of the General Assembly’s consideration and passage of the ESA Act confirms that the Act was intended, and specifically designed, to apply to MNPS and SCS, and only MNPS and SCS.”

As such, Martin found that the law violates the Tennessee Constitution’s Home Rule Amendment.

Read the rulings here and here

Gov. Bill Lee indicated the state’s legal team will immediately appeal the decision.

The ruling raises questions about what comes next for a program Lee deemed so essential he funded it in his emergency COVID-19 budget while simultaneously slashing a planned investment in teacher compensation.

Also worth asking: What happens to the $2.5 million no-bid contract awarded to ClassWallet to oversee the doomed program?

The General Assembly seems likely to return for a brief session in early June. Perhaps they’ll redirect the voucher funds BACK to public schools.

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Nobody Wants Vouchers

Tennessee’s school voucher program may end up being the ultimate solution in search of a problem as Chalkbeat reports few families are actually applying for the scheme.

Fewer than 300 applications appear to be on track for approval for 5,000 spots in the first year of Tennessee’s school voucher program, while a Nashville judge said she’ll rule by next week whether to allow the program to launch under two legal challenges.

As of Wednesday night, education department data showed 291 completed applications were still active, while 189 have been denied since the state began accepting them in late March.

So, in spite of aggressive marketing for the program, it seems that parents may not actually want vouchers.

What’s most disappointing about this reality is that Gov. Bill Lee slashed a planned investment in teacher compensation in order to fully-fund his voucher scheme. Now, school systems across the state will see less BEP funding while money sits waiting to be used for a voucher program no one wants.

Oh, and the private company managing the voucher scheme for $2.5 million? Yeah, they’re still getting paid.

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Voucher Leader Jumps Ship

Today, Shelby County Director of Schools Joris Ray announced new additions to his leadership team. Among them, Amity Schuyler, previously the Tennessee Department of Education’s point person on school vouchers. Gov. Bill Lee and his team have been counting on Schuyler to fast-track the state’s voucher scheme.

Here’s the announcement via tweet:

It’s unclear what this means for the future of a voucher program that Lee chose to fund in his emergency budget while cutting a planned investment in public schools.

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Voucher Scheme Goes Live

After receiving support from a mail campaign paid for by the voucher vultures at American Federation for Children, Gov. Bill Lee’s scheme to divert public money to private schools is now accepting applications.

The website is now live and includes an illuminating FAQ.


What is the ESA program?
The ESA program allows eligible students who are zoned to attend a Shelby County district school, a Metro Nashville public school, or a school that was in the Achievement School District (ASD) on May 24, 2019, to use state and local money toward education expenses, including tuition and/or fees at approved private schools.

This is true. The ESA program (vouchers) diverts taxpayer money to private schools by way of a platform administered by ClassWallet. ClassWallet, of course, is the company that “won” a no-bid state contract worth millions of dollars.


How can ESA funds be used?
Funds in an ESA may only be used for educational purposes. This includes:
Tuition or fees at a participating school
Required school uniforms at a participating school
Required textbooks at a participating school
Tuition and fees for approved summer education programs and specialized after-school education programs
Tutoring services provided by an individual who meets department requirements.
Tuition and fees at an eligible postsecondary institution
Transportation to and from a participating school or education provider by taxi or bus service
Textbooks required by an eligible postsecondary institution
Fees for early postsecondary opportunity courses, exams, or exams related to college admission
Educational therapies or services for participating students provided by a department-approved therapist
Computer hardware, technological devices, or other department-approved technology fees. (This is applicable only if the technology is used for educational needs, is purchased at or below fair market value, and is purchased through a participating school, private school, or provider.)

The broad guidelines for use of voucher funds make the program susceptible to fraud, as the Daily Memphian reports has happened in other jurisdictions:


Reports from across the nation show situations in which private-school officials and parents spent voucher money for items unrelated to education. Cards were used at beauty supply stores, sporting good shops and for computer tech support, in addition to trying to withdraw cash, which was not allowed.

Can an ESA be used for a participating private school outside of Shelby or Davidson County?

Yes, while your student must be zoned for a Shelby County district school, a Metro Nashville public school, or a school in the Achievement School District, the ESA may be used for an out-of-county participating private school.

So, the voucher scheme is taking money from cash-strapped Shelby and Davidson counties and diverting it to private schools in neighboring districts.

Oh, and let’s be clear: Lee insisted that vouchers be funded in his emergency coronavirus budget — and did so at the expense of an investment in public schools.

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Public School Advocates Push Back on Vouchers in Tennessee

Even as Gov. Bill Lee’s amended budget cuts planned improvements to teacher pay while maintaining funding for a voucher scheme, this article details the persistence of public school advocates in Tennessee. Here are some highlights:


Another factor making it difficult for vouchers to move smoothly through the process in Tennessee has been grassroots resistance. Ahead of the voucher vote, parent groups and civil rights organizations joined together to express opposition. But those groups didn’t stop just because a group of powerful white men got their way the first time around. 


Rather, they kept organizing. Using social media to stay connected, groups like Tennessee Teachers and Parents Against School Vouchers and Tennessee Strong focused on the long game—stopping implementation of a voucher plan expected to cost as much as $335 million.


The unrelenting focus of grassroots activists helps keep every single misstep of the voucher scheme in the public eye. Whether it’s the no-bid contract for the vendor overseeing administration of the program, or how the scheme’s rules were written in a way that allows for discrimination, no bad voucher deed goes unreported. 

Read MORE about the voucher fight in Tennessee.

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FILED

A lawsuit challenging the state’s voucher law has been filed by Nashville and Shelby County. Some highlights from the claim below.

Dolores Gresham

Amendment No. 1 did not apply to Sen. Gresham’s home county of Fayette County or to any of the other six counties in Sen. Gresham’s district, despite Fayette County having two out of seven schools (28.6%) on the 2017 bottom 10% list and one out of seven schools (14.3%) on the 2018 list of priority schools.

Victory at any cost?

Sen. Dickerson expressed concerned about the “unfair” process, noting that House votes were acquired based on promises to exclude certain counties from the bill: 

So, for this bill to really be fair, I think it needs to apply to every child in Tennessee. There are members in this chamber who have said that they will vote for this bill because it does not apply to their county. It’s an okay bill, so long as it does not apply to their county. I think if it’s a good bill, we should embrace it for every county. And not to cut with too fine a point here, but in the, our, our chamber down the hall, the 50th vote came with the specific stipulation that this bill would not apply to the 50th vote’s county. It also came with a significant financial reward for that individual’s county, if reports are to be believed. And I really worry that this is very unfair, and this is not the way that we should be doing our business. I think this comes down to a victory at any cost.

Pilot Project

Sen. Yarbro (D-Nashville) speaking on the Senate floor on April 25, 2019, called references to a “pilot project” a “false premise.” He noted that the bill, unlike true pilot projects, did not have a “sunset” provision. Rather, he said, the bill created a permanent $110 million state program for 15,000 students in only two counties.

Funding Lost

Based on the combined statewide BEP average of $7,593 in 2019-2020, MNPS would lose 2,150 x $7,593 = approximately $16.3 million in funding for that school year. SCS would lose 2,850 x $7,593 = approximately $21.6 million in funding for the first year of implementation. This number likely underestimates the financial impact on MNPS and SCS, since the BEP per-pupil funding for 2020-2021 will likely be higher than the current year.

MNPS’s total funding loss over five years would be at least $163 million over the ESA Program’s first five years and would increase by at least $49 million annually in each succeeding year. The actual funding loss would likely be significantly higher, as the BEP per-pupil funding (whether MNPS’s or the combined statewide average) will undoubtedly increase over time.

SCS’s total funding loss over five years would be at least $216 million over the ESA Program’s first five years and would increase by at least $65 million annually in each succeeding year.

Bottom Line

Vouchers are expensive. The program as designed unfairly impacts Nashville and Shelby County. Pro-voucher lawmakers worked to ensure their own counties would NOT be included in the program.

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ClassWallet Brags About TN Voucher Contract

Even as a legislative committee heard testimony this week acknowledging that the vendor chosen to administer the state’s school privatization program was awarded the contract without competitive bidding, ClassWallet was bragging about inking the Tennessee deal. Here’s the text of a recent company newsletter:


November marked a great milestone for the Company landing our 4th state contract, this one with the Tennessee Department of Education.  It’s exciting when the problem is real and ClassWallet can uniquely solve it. I have no doubt that ClassWallet will save the Department thousands of hours of time, substantially reduce the cost of program administration and provide dramatically more accountability than the alternatives.


ClassWallet has signed a contract to work with the Tennessee Department of Education. The state of Tennessee joins North Carolina, Arizona, and New Mexico as the latest state government agency that will be using ClassWallet to manage educational program fund distribution, reconciliation, and reporting.

It’s worth noting that Arizona’s ESA program has been marked with fraud, and there have been new questions raised about excessive account balances:


Of the nearly 7,000 accounts, nine have a balance of more than $100,000 and 78 were found with more than $60,000. The records were released by the Arizona Department of Public Education, and spokesman Richie Taylor said the amounts reflect the different types of disabilities students have. But the high dollar figures raised questions for some school voucher skeptics.


“If the entire premise of the ESA program is that families need these state dollars in order to go into private schools or the private sector to pay for the education that their kids need, then I’m not sure why funds would be piling up an individual accounts to the tune of $130,000 piled up; $105,000 piled up,” said Dawn Penich-Thacker with Save Our Schools Arizona. “The funds are paid out quarterly every single year because, theoretically, you’re supposed to be paying tuition or paying therapist or paying for services.”

Even pro-voucher groups are not happy with the payment processing:


Two pro-school voucher nonprofits are threatening to sue the Arizona Department of Education for failure to send on-time payments to parents whose kids use a special program to attend non-public schools.


The Goldwater Institute and the Liberty Justice Center filed a Notice of Claim against the department last week.


They allege the agency is forcing parents to pay for tuition costs out of their own pockets because checks were not mailed in time. The students are part of the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program that uses taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition, tutoring or home-school curriculum.

Maybe, like with TNReady, Tennessee will get lucky and everything will work out just fine.

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The Bottom Line

While Governor Bill Lee continues to fast-track his sketchy voucher experiment, more and more voices are raising concerns about the program.

The latest comes from Tonyaa Weathersbee in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Her argument highlights a key fact lawmakers would be wise to take into account as they consider repeal of the voucher scheme in 2020:

Mainly, in their rush to inflict vouchers on one of the poorest, mostly African American counties in the state, they have chosen to overlook the success of Shelby County schools’ Innovation Zone program in favor of an ideological approach that has shown few triumphs in boosting poor students’ academic performance.

That’s paternalism, not improvement.

Recent data from the non-partisan Brookings Institute, for example, shows that four rigorous studies done in Louisiana, Washington, D.C., Indiana and Ohio found that struggling students who use vouchers to attend private schools perform worse on achievement tests than struggling students in public schools.  

Vouchers don’t work. In fact, they actually set students back. Legislators will have an opportunity to support a bipartisan voucher repeal effort in 2020 to correct this egregious mistake. Gov. Lee won’t be happy, but doing what’s best for Tennessee’s kids is more important than pleasing the Plaid Privatizer.

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Voucher Vultures on the March

It seems Governor Bill Lee’s HVAC buddy Bob Luddy is bringing his no frills private school pitch to Wilson County, too. I previously reported on Luddy and his Thales Academy as they held an initial interest meeting in Nashville in July. Here’s more on the interest meeting the school held in Wilson County:

Informational meeting for parents interested in Thales Academy in Wilson County, TN featuring Thales Academy Academic Director Dr. Tim Hall

About this Event

At Thales Academy, our mission is to provide an excellent and affordable education for students through the use of Direct Instruction and a Classical Curriculum that embodies traditional American values.

Thales provides a rigorous academic environment that fosters ethical behavior, critical thinking, virtuous leadership, lifelong learning, and truth seeking with a firm foundation in cognitive, non-cognitive, and technical skills. As a result, Thales Academy students are well prepared to succeed in higher education, career, and life while positively impacting the world around them.

We’ll discuss this and more on Thursday, August 1 with Thales Chief Academic Officer, Dr. Tim Hall, PhD.

Join us for an evening of learning Thursday, Aug 01 from 6:00 pm to 7:30 pm

It’s interesting that Thales is attempting to recruit students from Wilson County, even though Wilson is not (yet) a part of the Education Savings Account voucher scheme.

As noted before, here’s the deal with Thales:

No special education. No transportation. No cafeteria. Luddy calls it “no frills” and hails the use of “direct instruction.”

And here’s more on Luddy’s past dealings in Tennessee:

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.

Not surprisingly, tuition at Thales roughly mirrors the amount available to parents under the ESA program.

This is exactly the kind of “pop-up” private school critics of vouchers have warned about. In fact, new House Speaker Cameron Sexton once said:

This type of opportunistic expansion is just what new House Speaker Sexton warned about in an address to a local school board in his district back in 2017:

“For Sexton, the vouchers offer ‘false hope’ because the vouchers can’t cover the entire cost of private school tuition,” reported the Crossville Chronicle at the time. “That could lead to a boom of private for-profit schools opening that would accept the voucher funds, ‘which may or may not be great schools,’ Sexton said.”

Maybe all this expansion talk by the likes of Thales will lead to even more momentum for a repeal of the voucher scheme.

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

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