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.

Here’s more:

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.

Here’s more:

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.

More on Byrd:

More on Tennesseans for Student Success:

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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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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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