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.

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Republican Joins Voucher Repeal Effort

Legislation that would repeal Governor Bill Lee’s signature legislative victory on school vouchers has gained bipartisan support. Republican Bruce Griffey of Paris became the first GOP legislator to sign-on to a bill sponsored by Nashville Democrat Bo Mitchell and co-sponsored by every House Democrat except John DeBerry of Memphis.

The repeal effort is gaining momentum even as both the FBI and TBI continue investigations into the narrow House vote that led to passage of Education Savings Accounts (Lee’s euphemistic name for his voucher scheme).

In addition to the investigations into the House vote, the Senate sponsor of the voucher bill is facing a separate FBI investigation.

I wrote earlier about how the voucher legislation threatens to divide the GOP in Tennessee heading into the 2020 session:

The story of how Tennessee became the latest state to succumb to the Betsy DeVos-backed voucher craze involves more than just an earnest first-term governor using his political goodwill to secure passage of controversial legislation. There’s an ongoing FBI probe. There’s a scandal that took down the pro-voucher House Speaker featuring cocaine and texts about a sexual encounter in a hot chicken restaurant


It’s worth noting that new House Speaker Cameron Sexton has consistently opposed vouchers, including voting against Lee’s plan this year. Here’s more of what he’s said about vouchers:

“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.”

It will be interesting to see if more Republicans join the repeal effort and what, if any, work Sexton does to undo the voucher plan.

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OUTSOURCED

Governor Bill Lee’s Administration is privatizing his school privatization scheme by hiring a private company to administer funds from the so-called Education Savings Accounts. Chalkbeat has more on the millions being paid to a Florida company to manage money in Tennessee’s voucher plan:

Tennessee has hired a Florida company to oversee online payment and application systems for its new education voucher program for some families in Memphis and Nashville.

ClassWallet started work on Nov. 4 after signing a two-year contract worth $2.53 million with the Department of Education, according to documents obtained by Chalkbeat.

The company becomes the major vendor managing Tennessee’s education savings account program, scheduled to launch for up to 5,000 students next school year under a new state law.

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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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