Pastors vs. Vouchers

As 2019 starts, a new group has plans to stand up to efforts to voucherize Tennessee public schools.

Pastors for Tennessee Children has announced an event on the opening day of legislative session:

Dear Pastors for Tennessee Children Partners and Friends,

I hope all of you are enjoying a warm and happy holiday break with your families and friends.

Please save the date for our public launch of Pastors for Tennessee Children. On Tuesday, January 8th at 11 a.m., the opening day of this year’s legislative session, we will gather in Nashville for a prayer event at the Tennessee Capitol (specific location to be determined). Key clergy from across Tennessee will speak and pray on behalf of our great public schools and schoolchildren. We would love for you to join us!

We will share more details soon. In the meantime, please mark your calendar!

 

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Voucher Backers Earn Leadership Roles

While it is certainly clear that incoming Governor Bill Lee is a supporter of using public money to fund private schools by way of vouchers, it’s also worth noting that top leadership in both legislative bodies have a record of supporting school vouchers and receiving support from pro-voucher groups.

Soon-to-be House Speaker Glen Casada has long been a proponent of vouchers and has received thousands of dollars in campaign funding from groups like Students First/TennesseeCAN and the Betsy DeVos-backed Tennessee Federation for Children.

Likewise, newly-elected House Republican (and Majority) Leader William Lamberth has consistently received backing from pro-voucher groups.

Over in the Senate, the Lt. Governor’s spot continues to be held by Randy McNally, a long-time supporter of voucher schemes.

The number two job in the Senate again falls to Ferrell Haile of Sumner County, who between 2012 and 2016 was among the largest recipients (more than $20,000) of campaign backing from pro-voucher groups. Haile has also co-sponsored voucher legislation in spite of his local School Board opposing the measure.

The bottom line: The hot topic in the 2019 legislative session figures to be school vouchers.

One key fact to keep in mind as this debate rages: Vouchers don’t work.

What’s more, Indiana’s experience with what started as a relatively small voucher program quickly ballooned into millions of dollars in public money diverted to private schools:

Reports suggest this provision means Indiana is spending some $54 million supporting private schools — money that would not have been spent without the voucher program:

A report on the program released by the Department of Education shows the program costs $54 million.

“If the idea behind a voucher program is we’re going to have the money follow the student, if the student didn’t start in a public school, the money isn’t following them from a public school, it’s just appearing from another budget,” [Researcher Molly] Stewart said. “And we’re not exactly sure where that’s coming from.”

Vouchers, then, create $54 million in new expenditures — an education funding deficit — in Indiana.

So, even as our state’s policy leaders are squarely in the corner of voucher schemes — some bought and paid for by voucher backers, others, like Bill Lee, among those doing the buying — it’s important to stay focused on the facts. Vouchers are expensive and vouchers don’t work.

 

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Knox School Board Says: NO VOUCHERS!

As it becomes ever more clear that incoming Governor Bill Lee plans to aggressively pursue a voucher scheme agenda that will undermine Tennessee’s public schools, the Knox County School Board voted 7-2 last night to urge the General Assembly to reject any voucher plan.

Here’s the text of the resolution sponsored by Board Member Jennifer Owen:

WHEREAS, the Knox County Board of Education is responsible for managing all public schools established or that may be established under its jurisdiction;

WHEREAS, there is pending legislation before the Tennessee General Assembly that would create a voucher program allowing students to use public education funds to pay for private school tuition (voucher programs also are known as “opportunity scholarships,” “education savings,” “tax credits” or similar terms); and

WHEREAS, proponents have spent millions to convince the public and lawmakers of their efficacy, yet, more than five decades after introduction, vouchers remain controversial, unproven and unpopular; and

WHEREAS, the Constitution of the State of Tennessee requires that the Tennessee General Assembly “provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools;” and

WHEREAS, the State of Tennessee has established nationally recognized standards and measures for accountability in public education; and

WHEREAS, vouchers eliminate accountability, by channeling taxes to private schools without the same • academic or testing requirements, • public budgets or reports on student achievement, • open meetings and records law adherence, • public accountability requirements in major federal laws, including special education laws; and

WHEREAS, vouchers have not been effective at improving student achievement or closing the achievement gap; and

WHEREAS, vouchers leave students behind, including those with the greatest needs, because vouchers channel tax dollars into private schools that are not required to accept all students, nor offer the special services they may need; and

WHEREAS, underfunded public schools are less able to attract and retain teachers; and

WHEREAS, vouchers give choices to private entities, rather than to parents and students, since the providers decide whether to accept vouchers, how many and which students to admit, and potentially arbitrary reasons they might dismiss a student; and

WHEREAS, the Knox County Board of Education provides numerous academic choices (magnet, STEM, International Baccalaureate, career/technical programs, community schools, etc.) and has a liberal transfer policy which allows students to attend other traditional schools in the district; and

WHEREAS, vouchers divert critical funds from public schools to pay private school tuition for a few students, including those who already attend private schools; and

WHEREAS, vouchers are inefficient, compelling taxpayers to support two school systems: one public and one private, the latter of which is not accountable to all taxpayers supporting it;

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Knox County Board of Education opposes any legislation or other similar effort to create a voucher program in Tennessee that would divert money intended for public education to private entities.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that a copy of this Resolution shall be delivered to the Governor, each member of the Tennessee General Assembly, the Knox County Mayor and County Commission, the Knoxville City Mayor and City Council, and the Mayor, Vice Mayor, and Aldermen of the Town of Farragut.

ADOPTED BY THE ELECTED KNOX COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, meeting in regular session on the 12th of December, 2018, with this Resolution to take immediate effect, the public welfare requiring it.

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SHOCKING!

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.

Here’s what he wrote in 2016:

This is where opportunity scholarships come in. The Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act would allow families to take a portion of the funding already spent on their child’s education and send him or her to the private school of their choice. For children languishing in schools that are failing to meet their needs, especially in urban areas like Nashville and Memphis, this proposal represents a much-needed lifeline for Tennessee families.

This despite growing evidence that vouchers don’t actually help students and, in fact, may cause harms:

Writers Mary Dynarski and Austin Nichols say this about the studies:

Four recent rigorous studies—in the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio—used different research designs and reached the same result: on average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students that do not attend private schools. The Louisiana and Indiana studies offer some hints that negative effects may diminish over time. Whether effects ever will become positive is unclear.

While rigorous academic studies tell a tale of a failed education policy, Bill Lee put his money behind Betsy DeVos’s pro-voucher group:

The Tennessee Federation for Children is our state’s affiliate of the American Federation for Children, a political organization funded in large part by Betsy DeVos and her family. The mission of TFC is clear: Divert public money to private 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.

In spite of years of evidence of where Bill Lee stands when it comes to supporting our public schools (he doesn’t), many school board members and county commissioners across the state supported his successful campaign. These local elected officials often touted his business acumen and support of vocational education as reasons to back him. However, it’s difficult to imagine these same officials just “didn’t know” Bill Lee backs a scheme to divert public money to private schools — a scheme that has failed miserably time and again in other states and localities.

More likely, they just didn’t care. Bill Lee was on the right team and spoke the right, religiously-tinged words and so earned the support of people who will look at you with a straight face and say they love Tennessee public schools.

The Tennessee County Commissioners Association provided an analysis of the potential cost to each local government of a modest voucher scheme. Here’s a look at the potential fiscal impact of a “small” voucher program:

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.

Let’s look at Davidson County as an example. If three percent of the student population there took vouchers, and half of those were students who had never attended a public school, the loss to the district would be a minimum of $8.4 million.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t support vouchers and also be 100% behind our public schools. It’s likely no mistake that more than 90% of all schools eligible to receive state voucher funds are private, Christian-affiliated schools.

Stay tuned for a legislative session focused on undermining our public schools. Brought to you by a Governor who has been advertising this desire since at least 2012.

 

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Another Voucher Vulture Joins Team Lee

As Governor-elect Bill Lee staffs up ahead of taking office in January, he’s making it clear he plans to push forward heavily on vouchers. He’s already named one key voucher backer to a top policy role and now, he’s announced his Legislative Director will be the former Director of Students First/Tennessee CAN.

More on this:

Brent Easley will lead the Legislative Affairs office in the Office of the Governor. He currently serves as the state director for TennesseeCAN, an education advocacy group. Previously, he served as the state director for StudentsFirst Tennessee. Prior to that, he worked in the Tennessee House of Representatives as the senior research and policy analyst for the Tennessee House Republican Caucus.

Students First/Tennessee CAN has a long history of attempting to foist misguided education policy on Tennessee schools:

StudentsFirst “spent as much as $213,907 on lobbying in 2014, with its political action committee spending $573,917 during the two years leading up to the 2014 election, according to state finance records.”

In 2016, pro-voucher StudentsFirst Tennessee (now TennesseeCAN) pushed for Rep. Glen Casada’s “Jeb Bush School [A-F] Grading System” bill and thanked Casada for his support. The law “requires the department of education to develop a school grading system that assigns A, B, C, D, and F letter grades to schools” and is viewed as a path to education vouchers.

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


 

DeVos Disciple Lands Key Role in Lee Admin

Incoming Governor Bill Lee announced a round of Cabinet and staff appointments yesterday including the appointment of a leading backer of school vouchers to a senior policy role.

Lee named Tony Niknejad as his policy director.

Niknejad served as policy director in the Lee campaign and before that was the Tennessee State Director of Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children. He also served as a policy staffer for state Senator Brian Kelsey, one of the leading advocates of using public money for private schools in the legislature.

Lee has a track record of supporting the DeVos organization and ill-advised voucher schemes.

The announcement is another indicator that Lee intends to move ahead on school vouchers, perhaps as soon as the 2019 legislative session.

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


 

Vouchers Gone Wrong

While significant evidence suggests that even with proper implementation, vouchers don’t improve student performance (and sometimes, make it worse), a cautionary tale out of Florida raises even greater concerns. What if a voucher program goes horribly, terribly wrong?

This question seems especially relevant given gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee’s backing of vouchers.

Here’s what the Orlanda Sentinel had to say about a range of problems in that state’s voucher program:

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.

I’ve written before about the mess made of schools (and of children’s lives) when voucher schemes go awry:

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.”

That’s just one example, of course. The Sentinel series exposes significant problems across a variety of schools. Among the problems were schools closing with little notice, evictions, and teachers without credentials.

Those supporting a voucher-backing candidate for Governor should be very aware of what that policy could mean for Tennessee’s families.

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Bill and Betsy: A Tennessee School Voucher Story

While Bill Lee is avoiding talking directly to Tennessee’s education leaders about his plans to use public money to pay for private school tuition by way of voucher schemes, his track record on the issue is clear. Bill Lee supports school vouchers.

Not only did he write an op-ed in 2016 encouraging support for voucher legislation, but he also has consistently supported the Tennessee Federation for Children financially.

The Tennessee Federation for Children is our state’s affiliate of the American Federation for Children, a political organization funded in large part by Betsy DeVos and her family. The mission of TFC is clear: Divert public money to private 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.

Here’s how Chalkbeat reported on the TFC when DeVos was nominated to be Secretary of Education:

This election cycle alone, advocacy groups founded and led by DeVos helped to oust at least one outspoken voucher opponent — and elect two new supporters — in Tennessee’s House of Representatives, the key arena for the state’s voucher debate.

From the helm of groups including the American Federation for Children and the Alliance for School Choice, DeVos, a staunch Republican, has contributed millions of dollars nationally to state legislative candidates in favor of vouchers and against those who do not, regardless of political party.

In Tennessee, most of that work has been done through the state’s affiliate of the American Federation for Children, which launched in 2012. The group has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, reaching more than $600,000 for races in 2014. This year, organizers spent at least $169,777 on House races.

The Tennessee affiliate is currently led by Shaka Mitchell, who previously attempted (unsuccessfully) to expand the Rocketship charter school experiment in Nashville.

Let’s be clear: Bill Lee has written about his support of school vouchers. He’s indicated support of legislation that would silence school boards on the issue. He’s given thousands of dollars to an organization dedicated to enacting vouchers and electing voucher supporters.

While Bill Lee won’t talk to educators about his plans, his record speaks loud and clear.

 

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Bill Lee Skips TOSS

Every year, the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (TOSS) holds a conference in Gatlinburg. The event is an opportunity for the state’s education leaders to come together, receive training, and learn from each other. Historically, during gubernatorial election years, the event has also featured the major party candidates for Governor outlining their education views and taking questions.

Not this year. Democratic candidate Karl Dean did attend the conference and gave a presentation on his agenda for public education in Tennessee.

However, Republican candidate Bill Lee did not attend. It’s true that Bill Lee has some education policy views that might not be welcomed by professional educators, but he certainly should take advantage of the opportunity to explain his vision in front of a nonpartisan group of state education leaders.

Back in 2016, Bill Lee wrote on op-ed supporting that year’s version of an education voucher scheme — one of many that have failed in the legislature in recent years. He’s also expressed support for legislation that would prevent school boards from actively lobbying against vouchers. During this year’s campaign, Lee has also indicated he would support a “voucher-like” program to use public funds to pay for private school tuition.

Lee’s support for vouchers is problematic not just because it represents a shift in taxpayer dollars away from public schools but also because recent evidence suggests vouchers don’t get results:

Recent evidence tells us that’s not the case. In fact, studies of voucher programs in D.C., Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio indicate students lose ground academically when accepting a voucher and attending a private school.

Writers Mary Dynarski and Austin Nichols say this about the studies:

Four recent rigorous studies—in the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio—used different research designs and reached the same result: on average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students that do not attend private schools. The Louisiana and Indiana studies offer some hints that negative effects may diminish over time. Whether effects ever will become positive is unclear.

Lee has also expressed support for arming teachers, the Tennessean reports:

With school safety at the forefront of a national debate, Williamson County businessman Bill Lee said Monday he supports arming some teachers as a “cost-effective” way to increase security.

 

It seems likely the state’s school system leaders would like further information on Lee’s plans for schools, but Lee was unwilling to attend their annual gathering and provide that information.

Why won’t Bill Lee talk directly to those most likely to be impacted by his policies — or seek input from school system leaders on how a voucher scheme or armed teachers would work in practice? Moreover, why wouldn’t Bill Lee want educators to be able to clearly compare his views to those of Karl Dean’s?

If Bill Lee believes he’s the best candidate on education, he should be willing to stand in front of educators and make that case.

 

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Lightning Can Strike at Any Time

One of Tennessee’s top advocates of using public money to fund private schools through unproven voucher schemes issued a bit of a warning for defenders of public schools recently. After offering up a number of excuses about why voucher legislation has failed in recent legislative sessions, Tommy Schultz of the ironically named American Federation for Children said:

“We understand,” Schultz said, “that lightning can strike at any time.”

The comment was in reference to a surprise voucher win through a wolf in sheep’s clothing tactic in Illinois last year. As Chalkbeat noted:

But he pointed out that school choice legislation can move forward under surprising circumstances — such as in Illinois last year where a legislature dominated by Democrats created a massive tax-credit scholarship program.

While pro-schools lawmakers and advocates should certainly remain vigilant, it does appear that voucher legislation won’t advance during the 2018 legislative session.

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