Voucher Vultures Getting FBI Scrutiny

NewsChannel5’s Phil Williams reports that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is continuing to investigate the possibility of bribes involved in the 2019 vote to secure passage of Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher scheme.

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NewsChannel 5’s cameras were there last month as Casada woke up last month to an FBI raid on his Franklin condo.

Now, Casada has told associates that the FBI had questions about how he helped pass Lee’s legislation to create school vouchers to pay for private school tuition. Two independent sources, who spoke on the condition that they not be identified, said Casada described being questioned about allegations of bribes being offered for votes

The voucher bill itself has so far been ruled unconstitutional in Tennessee courts. Now, the Tennessee Supreme Court will take up the issue.

Casada and number of his associates faced FBI raids last month connected to an investigation of campaign finance irregularities. Now, it seems that investigation may also include questions about bribes related to the voucher vote.

Lee’s voucher scheme passed the House by a single vote after Casada and his legislative aides and lieutenants negotiated with lawmakers while holding the vote open for more than 30 minutes.

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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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Voucher Vulture Kelsey Named Chair of Education Committee

Lt. Governor Randy McNally has named long-time school voucher advocate Brian Kelsey chair of the Senate Education Committee. Kelsey sponsored Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher scheme (ultimately ruled unconstitutional) in 2019. He’s currently involved in litigation attempting to validate the scheme. He even mentioned it in his Christmas card this year.

The move could signal that legislative leaders will join Lee and again push for voucher legislation in 2021.

It should be noted that one of Kelsey’s first tasks as Education Committee chair will be to weigh-in on the appointment of Laurie Cardoza-Moore to the state Textbook Commission.

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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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Voucher Decline

A professor at Teachers College at Columbia University says interest in vouchers may be waning in part due to poor academic performance. This comes as Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher scheme was delayed by court action.

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The demand by parents for education vouchers and Education Saving Accounts (ESA’s) – which allow them to use government funds to pay for private school tuition — is showing signs of flagging, possibly because private schools are not subject to public regulation and thus not required to meet government standards on measures that range from testing performance to teacher accreditation to instruction for special education students.

Yet the latest studies show that academic performance among voucher and ESA students is trending lower, according to Luis Huerta, Associate Professor of Education and Public Policy. Huerta and Kevin Welner, Professor of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education and co-founding Director of the National Education Policy Center, spoke in a recent webinar about the evolution of conventional school vouchers into vouchers funded by private, tax-free donations and, most recently, into Education Savings Accounts (ESA’s).

Of course, the poor performance and waning demand haven’t stopped Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander from pushing forward legislation to siphon COVID-19 relief funds to private schools.

Huerta also said that proposals by Republican Senators Tim Scott of South Carolina and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee would siphon CARES COVID relief aid to fund private school scholarships. “But again, it’s too soon to know whether this will give private schools the advantage to open more readily compared to publics, especially since the money linked to these proposals is only in the form of portable scholarships and not infrastructure dollars.”

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Voucher Quest

Nashville education blogger TC Weber talks about Gov. Bill Lee’s quest to voucherize Tennessee public schools and includes details on the Governor’s involvement in some key legislative races.

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One only has to take a look at the campaign trail for a clue to see how serious Lee is about vouchers.

Up in the far Northwest corner of the state is Obion County, the seat of Senate District 24. For nearly a decade, District 24 has been represented by Senator John Stevens. It’s a small rural district with a fraction of the economic base of the larger Tennessee districts. So the virus is taking a toll fiscally as well as physically. This year Stevens is being challenged by fellow Republican Casey Hood for the seat.

Hood is a plumber by trade and political newcomer, who is a staunch conservative, but also a staunch supporter of public education – an area that Stevens is weak in. Initially, the Stevens camp gave little credence to the Hood challenge, but recent polls show Hood as either even or slightly ahead, and suddenly things have gotten serious.

Stevens, you see has been an excellent waterboy for the governor, willing to tout any initiative put forth, including vouchers. Hood, not so much. He has yet to hear the argument that demonstrates vouchers as being beneficial for rural districts and therefore has publically stated he would never support voucher legislation. The governor can ill afford to lose this seat, especially in light of rumors that Districts 25 and 26 might also fall to candidates that don’t support voucher legislation.

That probably explains why come Monday the Governor will get in his car and drive to a county that he’s never set foot in to try and arouse support for a loyal soldier. It’s why he’ll be holding a “private rally” at Obion County Central High School in Troy, Tennessee while the Obion County commission meets to try and find additional funding to increase compensation for teachers. Obion County and Hood value the district’s teachers, with Governor Lee the jury is still out.

Over the last several week’s voters have been hit with over 14 pieces of campaign literature from the incumbent. Tennesseans for Student Success alone have spent between $30K and $40K to turn back the Hood threat. Somebody really doesn’t want to lose the seat and is doing whatever they can to hold it.

Teachers at the high school will be holding an in-service day on Monday, meaning the governor will have a captive audience. I wonder if he’ll tell those teachers how safe they are while COVID numbers explode for the county. I wonder if Lee will tell them how much he cares while meeting them for the first time ever. You have to wonder why a seat in a small district that he lost during his gubernatorial campaign has suddenly taken on such importance. I’m also curious how much of Monday’s trip’s cost is being picked up by Tennessee taxpayers.

This is not the only race that Lee is injecting himself into. He’s flooding the market with fliers in the Byrd campaign, as well as targeting Representative Mark Cochrane. I think it’s pretty clear that Lee has a plan on his mind and it ain’t about reopening schools. It’s about further disrupting public education. Much has been made of the negative impact of Lee’s education policies on urban districts, well they ain’t good for rural districts either.

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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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