Bill Lee’s $200 Million Dream

During the voucher debate this past legislative session, I wrote about Governor Bill Lee’s Arizona Dream. I noted that Lee seemed determined to turn Tennessee into the same type of fraud-riddled education mess that decimated school funding in the Grand Canyon State.

Now, of course, the FBI is investigating Tennessee’s voucher vote. But instead of caution, Bill Lee is hitting the gas pedal and trying to move vouchers into our state even faster.

Let’s take a look at how that’s gone in Arizona:


Last year, nearly $200 million which otherwise would have been in the state’s coffers, money which could have been used to boost our shamefully low education budget, is paying for children to go to private schools.


Private school tuition tax credits, the state’s first voucher program, began in 1999. Back then, before vouchers, 44,050 students attended Arizona’s private schools, about 5 percent of the student population.

How did private school enrollment look in 2015, the most recent year I can find data for? In 2015, the number had risen to 46,250, which is an addition of 2,200 students over 17 years of taxpayer-funded vouchers — about 130 new students a year. That doesn’t sound like the kind growth you should expect given the investment we’re making.



Here’s a math problem for you. If Arizona had 2,200 more private school students in 2015 than in 1999, and in 2015, we spent $150 million on vouchers. How much were taxpayers pitching in for each new student? You’ll probably need to grab a calculator to figure it out, so let me give you the answer. It comes to $68,200 per new student.


$68,000 PER STUDENT.

That’s the cost to advance a voucher agenda that all the evidence indicates will fail the children it is designed to help.

That’s Bill Lee’s Arizona Dream. That’s the scheme he’s trying to foist (quickly) on Tennesseans.

Don’t let anyone tell you Bill Lee is a fiscal conservative who cares about protecting taxpayer dollars.

Here’s what his agenda makes clear: Bill Lee wants to take YOUR tax dollars and spend them on private entities regardless of outcome. Just because.

That’s bad policy. It’s fiscally irresponsible. It tells you all you need to know about Bill Lee.

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Vroom Vroom Vouchers

Governor Bill Lee is putting his school privatization scheme on the fast track. Marta Aldrich of Chalkbeat is all over the story, with news of Lee’s desire to rapidly grow the voucher program and reports of a new hire in the Department of Education to advance the voucher agenda.

Here’s more:


When Tennessee lawmakers signed off on an education voucher program this spring, they included a deadline: The program must start by the 2021-22 school year. 


Now, Gov. Bill Lee wants to cut that timeline in half, launching the program just a year from now — a prospect that has advocates and even some allies expressing concerns.


The Republican governor has directed the state education department to work with the Tennessee Board of Education so the controversial program can kick off for the 2020-21 school year, Chalkbeat has confirmed.

And, Amity Schuyler has been tapped to oversee voucher implementation:


“She comes from Florida where they already have education savings accounts, she’s done lots of voucher-ESA work, and she understands what it’s like from a district perspective,” Schwinn said of Schuyler.


“She also believes in education savings accounts. And to take the lead on this project, I need someone who believes in it,” Schwinn said.

Here’s how the Orlando Sentinel views Florida’s voucher scheme:


In its “Schools Without Rules” series, Sentinel reporters found voucher (or “scholarship”) schools faking safety reports, hiring felons, hiring high-school dropouts as teachers and operating in second-rate strip malls. They discovered curricula full of falsehoods and subpar lesson plans.


If you confront defenders of this system, be they legislators or school operators, many start mumbling about the virtue of “choice”— as if funding a hot mess of a school is a swell thing, as long parents choose that mess.


Horse hockey. I choose accountability. And transparency. And standards.

Here’s an example of how Florida’s choice programs are working out for kids:


South Florida Prep received significant funds from the Florida Department of Education under the McKay program. Here’s how that school was run:


Two hundred students were crammed into ever-changing school locations, including a dingy strip-mall space above a liquor store and down the hall from an Asian massage parlor. Eventually, fire marshals and sheriffs condemned the “campus” as unfit for habitation, pushing the student body into transience in church foyers and public parks.


“We had no materials,” says Nicolas Norris, who taught music despite the lack of a single instrument. “There were no teacher edition books. There was no curriculum.”

While it should come as no surprise that Bill Lee is moving quickly to privatize Tennessee’s public schools, it should certainly be of concern that the person chosen to lead the program comes from a state where the voucher program has been a source of fraud and abuse.

Then, there’s the issue of ongoing FBI investigations into both the House vote on vouchers AND the Senate sponsor of voucher legislation.

I will say this again: Bill Lee will stop at nothing in his quest to privatize public education in our state.

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Failed Charter Leader Pushes Private School Welfare Scheme

Shaka Mitchell, the head of the Tennessee branch of Betsy DeVos‘s school privatization group American Federation for Children, joined two other school privatization advocates in penning an OpEd calling on legislators to ignore legitimate concerns about the way in which the plan passed in the House.

Mitchell’s piece suggests an urgency to moving forward with the incredibly expensive Education Savings Account (ESA) scheme. He glosses over the fierce resistance to vouchers from across the state and fails to mention the win-at-all-costs tactics of voucher advocates that ultimately led to the plan’s passage this year.

Readers may remember Mitchell as the charter school leader who ran Nashville’s Rocketship schools into the ground.

In fact, while Mitchell was failing in his attempts to expand Rocketship, the State Board of Education noted:

In fact, Rocketship’s appeal to the State Board was rejected last year in part because of low performance:

“They did have a level 5 TVAAS composite, which is the highest score overall you can get in growth,” Heyburn said. “But their achievement scores are really low, some of the lowest in their cluster and in the district.”

The MNPS review team addressed this as well:

In summary, with no additional state accountability data to consider, and no compelling evidence presented that provides confidence in the review team, converting an existing low-performing school before Rocketship has demonstrated academic success on state accountability measures would not be in the best interests of the students, the district, or the community.

And then there’s this:

According to the Metro Schools letter, Rocketship is not providing services to children with special learning needs, like English language learners and students with disabilities.

The notice was sent from Metro Nashville Public School’s top administrators after a monitoring team with the Tennessee Department of Education came in to conduct a routine audit of special services, primarily programs adhering to The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

It’s pretty amazing that the guy who literally failed in helping kids when he was in charge of a school is now telling the Tennessee legislature they should heed his advice about education policy. Of course, it’s not at all surprising that Mitchell ignores the evidence that vouchers have simply failed to improve student achievement in state after state. After all, in spite of his troubled past at Rocketship, Team DeVos gave Mitchell a safe landing space. Rather than walking humbly after a fall, though, Mitchell continues boldly making pronouncements on how to fix Tennessee schools.

While Shaka Mitchell and his privatizing friends ignore the facts, lawmakers would do well to ignore their advice. Instead, the General Assembly should move to protect Tennessee’s public schools from a private school welfare scheme that has failed everywhere it has been tried.

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Vouchers Already Impacting Teacher Pay, School Resources

A story out of Coffee County explains how Governor Bill Lee’s voucher scheme (currently under investigation by the FBI), is already impacting teacher pay raises and resources dedicated to public schools:

The day it passed in the senate, April 25 (May 1 for an amended version), the Coffee County Board of Education expressed their concerns and decided it would be more frugal to give their faculty a 1 percent raise instead of a 2 percent raise. This decision had multiple factors involved, including balancing the budget, but the uncertainty of the vouchers was part of the discussion, Aaron explained.

In Manchester, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen did not pledge money in their 2019-20 budget to assist College Street Elementary School with renovations due, in part, to the uncertainty of the voucher program as well. Alderman Ryan French pointed out the program has the potential to decimate Average Daily Attendance (a facet of BEP), which will reduce funding and therefore put more strain on the local population.

It’s still unclear what the total cost of Lee’s voucher scheme will be should it be fully implemented. Some estimates put the cost at more than $300 million. That’s a significant hit to the state’s school funding formula. Even at the conservative end of the scale, a total cost of around or just above $100 million would mean a significant loss to all districts across Tennessee. To put that amount in perspective, $100 million would fund a four percent raise for all of Tennessee’s teachers.

Lee has already demonstrated he prefers to spend money on voucher schemes and charter schools instead of teacher salaries. His initial budget proposal provided a big boost for charter school facilities while offering only a minor increase in funding for teacher salaries.

Previous analysis indicates that even if the voucher program grows only modestly, the impact to all school systems will be significant:

Nearly 15,000 students who never attended public school suddenly receiving vouchers would mean a state cost of $98 million. That’s $98 million in new money. Of course, those funds would either be new money (which is not currently contemplated) or would take from the state’s BEP allocations in the districts where the students receive the vouchers.

In other words, don’t believe the lie that just because your school district isn’t in the current voucher plan, vouchers won’t impact your schools. They absolutely will. Taking $100 million off the table means a big hit to the BEP formula, a plan that already struggles to meet the needs of our state’s schools.

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Scary Moon

While Governor Bill Lee’s signature legislative victory, a school voucher plan, faces FBI scrutiny, legislators who backed the scheme are now facing the wrath of voters. Sure, one newly elected state Senator wasted no time in demonstrating his capacity for lying to constituents. Now, a retired teacher from Maryville takes Rep. Jerome Moon to task for his campaign lies:


I worked 34 years as a teacher in Maryville City Schools. I am horrified the voucher bill passed. I live in District 8. I am a constituent of state Rep. Jerome Moon. I hold Moon responsible for killing public schools in Maryville and in Tennessee.
He told representatives from the teachers’ union and school superintendents that he’d vote against the voucher bill, but then voted for it. He was dismissive of educators’ concerns, dodged emails, phone calls and pleas for conversations from his constituents and refuses to be held accountable. I want to know why?

The story told here about Moon is a story heard time and again across Tennessee. Yes, Jason Zachary pledged to be a voucher opponent. That is, until embattled Speaker Glen Casada needed a key vote. Then, there’s state representative Matthew Hill. Until this legislative session, Hill was a staunch opponent of school vouchers. Enter Glen Casada and his regime of lies, racism, backstabbing, lewd sexual conduct, and shady deals. This session, Hill became one of the most ardent supporters of vouchers, likely confusing his constituents while pleasing his new leader, Speaker Casada. How much did Hill’s soul cost? Was it more ore less expensive than Zachary’s?

What about your representative? Did they sell out your local schools? Are you represented by someone who was once a voucher opponent and now shifted their views? If you have a voucher story to share, email me at andy@tnedreport.com.

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How Much is that Voucher in the Window?

Both the Tennessee House of Representatives and the Tennessee Senate today passed Governor Bill Lee’s school voucher (Education Savings Account) scheme and the measure now heads to his desk for signing.

The bill passed despite the fact that no one could clearly articulate the ultimate cost of the program. An early version of analysis by the legislature’s Fiscal Review Committee indicated the cost could be as much as $335 million by 2024.

As the Senate began debate on the measure, that large amount caused some concern (our state underfunds schools by at least $500 million). Not long after that concern was expressed, a “new” fiscal analysis appeared. This time, the projected cost was some $165 million. But wait, that still seems pretty high, right.

Not to fear, Finance Committee Chair Bo Watson and Conference Committee Report author Brian Kelsey assured lawmakers the actual cost would be roughly HALF what the fiscal analysis suggest because there won’t be enough students to meet the program’s caps in the early years.

Wait, what?! We’re supposed to count on a program being unpopular so it won’t cost so much? But, Governor Lee says everyone wants this. He campaigned on it, even. In fact, the plan is so desirable, legislators in 93 counties worked their asses off to ensure it didn’t impact their school districts.

During the debate, Senator Richard Briggs of Knoxville noted that once the door to vouchers was opened, it wouldn’t be closed. He cited the example of the failed Tennessee Virtual Academy, operated by K-12, Inc. Despite years of poor performance, the school is STILL allowed to operate.

Of course, there’s also the experience of Indiana. There, a limited voucher program was started by then-Governor Mitch Daniels. Then, under Mike Pence, the program expanded rapidly and now costs more than $150 million per year.

What’s worse, the legislature supported a program backed by the Governor despite overwhelming evidence the plan simply won’t help kids. In fact, research suggests that kids who receive vouchers perform no better than their non-voucher peers in reading and actually fall behind in math.

Oh, and then there’s the fraud. Rep. Mark White of Memphis USED To care about this, until Governor Lee and Speaker Glen Casada told him to stop.

So, to summarize: We don’t know how much this plan will ultimately cost. We don’t know how many kids will use it. We don’t know how large it will grow. We don’t know how the state will prevent fraud. We don’t know how, or even if, we’ll be able to shut it down if the results are as bad as the Tennessee Virtual Academy.

We do know this: Vouchers haven’t worked. Anywhere. We also know that somewhere between $70 million and $200 million will be shifted from current education funding to a voucher scheme. We know the low end of that would give our state’s teachers a badly needed additional 2.5% raise. We know the $200 million+ price tag that’s very possible if our state tracks others in expansion would mean an 8% raise. We know our schools are underfunded by AT LEAST $500 million according to the state’s Republican Comptroller. We know Tennessee is 45th in education funding. We know we spend $67 less (inflation adjusted) per pupil now than we did in 2010.

Instead of addressing any of that, we’ve watched our lawmakers do Governor Lee’s bidding so he can claim victory on one of his signature initiatives.

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SOLD!

Governor Bill Lee and his school privatization friends Betsy DeVos and Lee Beaman scored a major victory today as school voucher legislation passed the House on a 50-48 vote and earned approval in the Senate Finance Committee by a vote of 6-5.

The measure advanced in the House after an apparent 49-49 tie vote on the initial tally. After holding the vote open for nearly 40 minutes, Speaker Glen Casada and Majority Leader William Lamberth were able to convince Rep. Jason Zachary (R-Knoxville) to switch his initial NO vote to a YES. No word on what commitments or rewards Zachary secured in exchange for his betrayal of Knox County — a district directly impacted by the voucher legislation. It’s worth noting the school board in Knox County was one of the first in the state to speak out against vouchers and Knox County parents and teachers protested Bill Lee on his latest visit to the area because of Lee’s support for vouchers. Still, Zachary changed his vote after a back porch meeting with Casada, so it’ll be interesting to see how he explains that.

Over in the Senate, the voucher bill looks somewhat different. Just one week ago, Senator Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga indicated his opposition to the Governor’s voucher scheme. Today, the bill passed 6-5 with Gardenhire voting in favor. Some changes were made, ostensibly to secure Gardnehire’s support.

Now, the Senate bill heads to the floor on Thursday (4/25). The Senate and House versions have some key differences, so even if it secures Senate passage, those changes will likely be worked out in a conference committee. Given the extremely close House vote, those changes could spell trouble for the ultimate voucher package.

The question remains: What did Jason Zachary get in exchange for his YES vote?

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Bill Lee’s Wingman

We’ve already seen Bill Lee and his team of school privatizers use desperate measures in order to win votes for their “educational savings account” voucher scheme, but the latest effort reaches a new low. Team Lee turned to conservative mega-donor Lee Beaman (who gave Lee’s gubernatorial campaign $8000 in 2018) to pen an article in defense of school vouchers.

While the opposition to school vouchers includes resolutions from 44 school boards around the state, groups of parents, teachers, charitable foundations, civil rights groups, and even a former Senate sponsor of voucher legislation, the support appears to come from a small group of big money backers. The public face chosen for this group? A guy with a porn addiction who taped himself having sex with prostitutes in order to teach his wife how to better please him. You might say he’s certainly a fan of choice.

Beaman and Lee have been working together for years to bring school privatization to Tennessee. Both Bill Lee and Lee Beaman have been consistent supporters of the Tennessee affiliate of Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children, a group that works to undermine public education and advance school vouchers.

It’s no surprise, then, that after bringing Betsy DeVos to Nashville, Bill Lee would turn to his other voucher buddy, Lee Beaman, to advance his privatization agenda.

In fact, as I wrote in December, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Bill Lee is taking our state down this dangerous road:

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.

Now, we’ve got Lee Beaman as the face and voice of vouchers ahead of a week when the privatization scheme known as ESAs will face key votes in the House and Senate.

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Maddox Fund Opposes ESAs

A statement from the Dan and Margaret Maddox Fund on Governor Bill Lee’s voucher plan:

Since 2008, the Dan and Margaret Maddox Charitable Fund has been partnering with nonprofit organizations that are working to improve the lives of young people in Middle Tennessee.  Core to our values is knowing that education and knowledge are transformative.  Understanding this as an education funder, we feel that Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs) will be a detriment to ensuring that all children can access high-quality educational opportunities.

Educational Savings Accounts would divert funds away from public schools and the students that need them.

Tennessee currently ranks 45th in the nation for public spending on education.  Allowing these already scarce resources to potentially go to private institutions through ESAs would place a greater strain on our currently under-funded public schools.  ESAs would not be made accessible to all students.  Out of the 145,000 students living in low-income households across the state, only 5,000 would receive an ESA in this first year.  Requirements for documentation would also bar some of Tennessee’s most vulnerable students from these educational opportunities.  The $7,300 provided by ESAs may not fully cover the tuition for students to attend private schools and does little to address the multitude of other barriers that families face like transportation.

Accountability and measurement are important for making sure that education programs are truly making an impact.  Maddox asks its nonprofit partners to be able to demonstrate their success, but studies on ESAs and similar voucher-based interventions have shown that they have little impact on student achievement and are less effective than other programs in addressing attendance and graduation rates.  There is little accountability to the students accessing ESAs.  Students attending private schools will not be held to the same academic assessments.  There are also no provisions to ensure that English language learners, students with Individual Education Plans, or those with special needs are not discriminated against in the admissions process.

ESAs will only make educational opportunities available to a select few and without any oversight, would potentially further disparities for our state’s low-income communities.

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Done Dirt Cheap

Desperate for votes for his voucher scheme to send public tax dollars to unaccountable private schools, Governor Bill Lee appears to be going along with a plan unveiled by House Republicans yesterday to buy off rural legislators with a tiny grant program. Let’s call it what it is: bribery.

Here’s the deal: The new plan eliminates Madison County from the list of districts where students will initially be eligible for Education Savings Accounts. That’s likely intended to win over the votes of Madison County Republicans wavering in their support of Lee’s proposal. It means that only students in Shelby, Knox, Hamilton, and Davidson counties will be eligible for the program when it launches (if it should pass).

Next, the plan redirects funds originally intended to help urban districts to rural districts. Again, this is nothing more than throwing money at lawmakers (and their districts) in order to secure the needed 50 votes for passage in the House.

Here’s a breakdown of how that would work:

In the first year, school districts outside the four counties identified in the program would split up $6.2 million. In the second, schools in the 91 counties would share $12.5 million. In the third year, the aforementioned counties would receive $18.7 million.

91 counties would divide a relatively small amount of funds. In the first year, if the grants were evenly divided among all counties, each county would receive an additional $68,000. That’s barely enough to fund a single position in most districts.

The amended proposal also pushes the amount of the voucher to $7500. That means at full implementation (currently imagined at 30,000 students), the total annual cost would be $225 million.

That’s enough to give every teacher in the state a raise of roughly 8%. That’s $225 million NOT available to fund the BEP or to enhance our current funding formula by improving ratios for RTI or school counselors or nurses.

Instead of adding the elements needed to make our public schools a success, Bill Lee and the House GOP envision giving that money away to private schools that don’t have to take the state’s TNReady test.

The legislation is currently scheduled to be heard in Senate Finance and on the House floor on Tuesday, April 23rd.

Oh, and if you’re a legislator not susceptible to this type of cheap bribery, Lee and his team will ensure you face pain in the form of attack ads paid for by pleasant-sounding dark money groups with names like Tennessee Federation for Children and Tennesseans for Student Success.

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