TNReady for Vouchers

This week is shaping up to be huge for education policy in Tennessee. Tomorrow, the TNReady testing window opens — while many will take pencil and paper tests, there will be significant numbers of students taking online TNReady. Our current Commissioner of Education is not quite sure how that will go.

If you’re an educator, student, or parent and you get wind of TNReady trouble this week, let me know ASAP: andy@tnedreport.com

Of course, during this busy week for our schools and teachers, legislators have planned key votes on voucher legislation. Governor Bill Lee’s “education savings account” voucher scheme will be voted on in the House and Senate Finance Committees on Tuesday. That’s the final step in both bodies before the bill hits the floor, likely the week of April 22nd.

A group of parents and teachers is planning a series of events tomorrow in order to protest the movement on vouchers.

Meanwhile, if you have any great voucher, charter, or TNReady memes, send them my way at andy@tnedreport.com

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Bye Bye Byrd

Admitted sex offender David Byrd is out as chair of a House Education subcommittee just one day after his vote against Governor Bill Lee’s school voucher plan. While some had speculated Byrd might vote in favor of vouchers in exchange for cover from Lee, Byrd voted NO on Lee’s plan yesterday in the full House Education Committee.

The move to oust Byrd comes after months of controversy surrounding his appointment to the post. Speaker Glen Casada and Governor Bill Lee backed Byrd despite calls from the public for him to resign. In 2018, both Lt. Governor Randy McNally and then-House Speaker Beth Harwell called on Byrd to resign from the General Assembly. Instead, he ran for re-election and won, then was appointed by Casada to a subcommittee chairmanship.

The Tennessean reports on Byrd’s removal:

Citing bipartisan concerns over the controversy surrounding Rep. David Byrd, House Speaker Glen Casada has removed the Waynesboro Republican from his chairmanship of an education subcommittee.  

The move, announced by Casada on Thursday, comes just two months after the speaker appointed Byrd — who has faced allegations that he sexually assaulted three women in the 1980s — to serve as chairman of the House Education Administration Subcommittee.

“Following discussions with members of the House and after careful consideration, I have formally asked Representative Byrd to step down from his position as chairman of the House Education Administration Subcommittee,” the speaker said in a statement.

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

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Opposition to ESAs

JC Bowman of Professional Educators of Tennessee released the following statement today as Governor Lee’s voucher legislation received approval from the House Education Committee:


Professional Educators of Tennessee remain opposed to Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). We know litigation awaits on the constitutionality of the legislation, should it ultimately pass into law. However, it is an opportunity for us to reaffirm our commitment to public education. We believe that the historic accomplishments of public schools in Tennessee demonstrate the incredible job our educators are doing across the state. We acknowledge there are small pockets where success has not been as fully realized. That makes us even more determined to prove Tennessee public schools can meet any challenge and help prepare the necessary workforce to keep up with Tennessee’s growing economy. Professional Educators of Tennessee believes public education will continue to be the best choice for parents and students in our state.

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

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Bill Lee’s Arizona Dream

Governor Bill Lee is moving to create a state charter school authorizer that would usurp the authority of local school boards. The plan would allow charter operators to apply directly to the state board rather than utilizing the local and state accountability measures currently in place in Tennessee.

The idea is strikingly similar to the state authorizer that helped start charter schools in Arizona in the 1990s. I’ve included some excerpts of the Arizona Republic’s reporting on charter schools in that state. The state authorizer has proven to be an avenue for shady operators to gain access to public funds for nefarious purposes. Perhaps the same fate awaits Tennessee should lawmakers travel down this road.

On a state authorizer:

It provided that charter schools could be established to improve student achievement and provide additional academic choices.At the recommendation of a friend in Colorado, it created the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools.

The board was given conflicting responsibilities: Not only would it oversee the new schools, it would also promote them.

Early Fraud:

Citizen 2000 was one of Arizona’s original 46 charter schools. Its founder and operator, Lawndia White Venerable, claimed that almost 500 students had signed up. It looked like an early success story for a charter that was on its way to becoming a longstanding institution.


A few months into the school’s first year, state officials opened an investigation into the school. A state audit said Venerable had used more than $126,000 in state money to buy jewelry and to make a down payment on her mother’s house. The state Board of Education review found the school violated record-keeping, cash-control and bidding rules. Its enrollment figures had been inflated.

And Now:

For example, Damian Creamer paid himself $10.1 million the past two years running Primavera online charter school, where state records show 49 percent of the kids dropout. State lawmaker Eddie Farnsworth will make $13.9 million selling his Benjamin Franklin charter schools to a non-profit company he created. And American Leadership Academy founder Glenn Way made at least $18.4 million from no-bid contracts to build classrooms for ALA.

When you combine his desire for a state charter authorizer with his push for vouchers, it seems clear Bill Lee is working overtime to undermine Tennessee public schools.

The Tennessee General Assembly can, of course, oppose these privatization efforts. Key votes are happening on both fronts in the coming days. Stay tuned …

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Lee Laments Inability to Articulate a Clear Message

Despite dressing up in farmer clothes and standing next to actual farm equipment every Saturday, Bill Lee still hasn’t been able to overcome significant skepticism about his scheme to use public funds to pay for private schools — a plan he’s calling “Education Savings Accounts.”

Erik Schelzig of Tennessee Journal has more on Lee’s bafflement over school voucher messaging gone awry:


But a lot of the confusion about the proposal comes from members of Lee’s own party. For example, freshman Rep. Robin Smith (R-Hixson) took to twitter to declare a news account a “pure lie” for stating the education savings account, or ESA, program would also apply to students who don’t currently attend failing schools. It would.


Fellow freshman Rep. Scott Cepicky (R-Columbia), a member of the House Education Committee scheduled to vote on the bill this week, said in a Facebook post that “because of the risk of fraud, as seen in other states with Educational Savings Accounts, homeschooling is not allowed in this bill.”


That’s in contrast to what Lee said last week when reporters asked him whether home-schooling would qualify for the ESAs.
If a family is in the district that qualifies, and they are currently in a public school, then they would qualify for an ESA,” Lee said.

Here are some important facts about Governor Lee’s voucher people from the Tennessee School Boards Association – a group that has actually read the bill. It’s not yet clear whether Lee has, in fact, read his own bill or even if members of his own party are reading actual legislation, or just spouting off talking points in order to confuse the issue.

What is clear: Bill Lee and his “team” aren’t quite on the same page. Of course, it may not matter, as they seem to have some tricks up their sleeves.


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Byrd in the Hand

Bill Lee has had his eye on the privatizing of Tennessee public schools long before he became Governor. However, when he announced his “Education Savings Account” plan along with a state charter authorizer that would undermine local school boards, many predicted he’d face some difficulty this legislative session. Turns out, Lee may have a Byrd in the hand by way of a clever move to gain a vote for his ill-designed plan.

Recently, Governor Lee met with one of the women who has accused state representative David Byrd of inappropriate sexual conduct when he was her high school basketball coach. Byrd apologized directly and has not denied the conduct. Lee refused to condemn Byrd or suggest he resign. This despite former House Speaker Beth Harwell calling on Byrd to resign and current Lt. Governor Randy McNally have called for Byrd’s resignation in 2018 and more recently, suggesting an ethics investigation might be in order.

Why is Bill Lee reluctant to make a strong statement on Byrd? Well, Erik Schelzig of Tennessee Journal may have the answer:

The charter authorizer bill advanced out of that committee on a 13-9 vote, but only after House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) came to the panel to personally intervene. Casada was able to get several freshman Republican who voiced concerns about the measure to get on board.

The bill also got the support of embattled Rep. David Byrd (R-Waynesboro), whom school choice advocates have tried for years to to defeat because of his support for traditional public schools.

By all accounts, Lee is working overtime to get the votes he needs to pass his voucher plan. With Byrd’s support, Lee may be able to move the plan one step closer to final passage. Some have suggested Lee won’t criticize Byrd as long as Byrd goes along with a plan to devastate the state’s public school systems.

The next vote on vouchers is Wednesday at 8:00 AM in the full House Education Committee. David Byrd sits on that committee and his vote could be pivotal. Does Bill Lee really have a Byrd in the hand?

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

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Amy Frogge on Vouchers

Nashville school board member Amy Frogge talks about a key vote on Governor Bill Lee’s voucher plan — a vote scheduled for Wednesday, March 27th.

HEADS UP, everyone! THIS IS IT. Vouchers will be up for a key vote this coming Wednesday, March 27th, at 8 am in the full House Education Committee, and this is our best chance to stop them in Tennessee. IT IS SUPER IMPORTANT THAT WE ACT NOW.

Here’s information on the bill: HB 939/SB 795 would create a new form of vouchers in Tennessee called Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). ESAs have been described as “vouchers on steroids.” This proposed legislation is targeted not toward “children trapped in failing schools,” but toward wealthier families, with virtually no regulation or public accountability. Vouchers would be available in any district containing at least three schools in the bottom 10% of schools in the state, but vouchers would be made available to ALL students in that district, including those enrolled in high-performing schools and private schools. Families making up to around $100,000 per year would be eligible for the voucher, and private schools would not be required to accept the voucher as payment in full. This means that more affluent families with children already enrolled in private schools could use the voucher to help offset their current payments for private school. It will also allow students to cross county lines with their vouchers, which could wreak havoc on many rural school districts.

Local school districts will have to pay for the bulk of these vouchers. (For example, in Davidson County, the state would pay only about $3,600 toward the cost of the voucher, while Davidson County would be required to pay about $8,100 per voucher.) On top of this, the state would withhold a 6% management fee for the voucher program. The governor has claimed that a limited amount of funding will be available to school districts to help offset the cost of the vouchers for three years, but this money could be revoked at any time- and worse, vouchers will create ongoing recurring costs that school districts will be unable to cover for an indefinite period of time.

Once the door to vouchers has been opened, it cannot be shut. Under this legislation, vouchers would become an entitlement for upper middle class private school parents and homeschool parents.

HERE’S HOW YOU CAN HELP:

1. We need as many people as possible to attend the hearing. It will be in House Hearing Room 1 of the Cordell Hull Building.

2. Contact members of the committee NOW, and encourage your friends to do so. (Obviously, constituents of these members will make the greatest impact.)

Mark White, Chair 615-741-4415
rep.mark.white@capitol.tn.gov

Kirk Haston, Vice Chair 615-741-0750
rep.kirk.haston@capitol.tn.gov

Debra Moody 615-741-3774 rep.debra.moody@capitol.tn.gov

Charlie Baum 615-741-6849 rep.charlie.baum@capitol.tn.gov

David Byrd 615-741-2190
rep.david.byrd@capitol.tn.gov

Scott Cepicky 615-741-3005
rep.scott.cepicky@capitol.tn.gov

Mark Cochran 615-741-1725
rep.mark.cochran@capitol.tn.gov

Jim Coley 615-741-8201
rep.jim.coley@capitol.tn.gov

John DeBerry, Jr. 615-741-2239 rep.john.deberry@capitol.tn.gov

Vincent Dixie 615-741-1997 rep.vincent.dixie@capitol.tn.gov

Jason Hodges 615-741-2043
rep.jason.hodges@capitol.tn.gov

Chris Hurt 615-741-2134
rep.chris.hurt@capitol.tn.gov

Tom Leatherwood 615-741-7084 rep.tom.leatherwood@capitol.tn.gov

Bill Dunn 615-741-1721 rep.bill.dunn@capitol.tn.gov

Harold Love, Jr. 615-741-3831
rep.harold.love@capitol.tn.gov

Antonio Parkinson 615-741-4575
rep.antonio.parkinson@capitol.tn.gov

John Ragan 615-741-4400
rep.john.ragan@capitol.tn.gov

Iris Rudder 615-741-8695
rep.iris.rudder@capitol.tn.gov

Jerry Sexton 615-741-2534
rep.jerry.sexton@capitol.tn.gov

Kevin Vaughn 615-741-1866
rep.kevin.vaughn@capitol.tn.gov

Terri Lynn Weaver 615-741-2192
rep.terri.lynn.weaver@capitol.tn.gov

Ryan Williams 615-741-1875
rep.ryan.williams@capitol.tn.gov

John Mark Windle 716-741-1260
rep.john.windle@capitol.tn.gov

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

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A Warning on Vouchers

Williamson County School Board member Brad Fiscus offers thoughts on vouchers.

During Tennessee’s State of the State address, Governor Bill Lee made it clear that privatizing public education would be a significant initiative of his legislative agenda. While he professed his support for public schools, he also laid out his plan to strip away funding from public schools.

The Governor’s plan proposes vouchers that would eliminate public accountability by channeling tax dollars into private schools or home school programs that do not face state-approved academic standards. Private schools do not publicly report on student achievement and do not meet the public accountability requirements outlined in major federal laws– including laws which protect students with special needs. Vouchers are an easy, yet ineffective “out” for our legislators– relieving our state leaders of their responsibility to provide oversight and accountability for public schools as demanded by our state constitution.

Governor Lee has promised to restrict his “Education Savings Accounts” (ESA) to use by students from low-income families from the lowest performing schools. These Education Savings Accounts or education scholarship accounts or individual education savings accounts or education scholarship tax credits are euphemisms for vouchers.

In Indiana in 2011, while now-Vice-President Mike Pence was Governor, vouchers were approved. Similar to Governor Lee’s proposal, Indiana’s program initially limited ESAs to 7500 students from low-income families in low performing districts. As of 2018, over 35,000 students now utilize taxpayer money intended for public education to pay private school fees. Indiana has spent a combined $685 million on this publicly-funded private-school experiment. However, a significant number of participating students were already attending private schools or participating in homeschool programs. What’s more, studies reveal these students are not improving academically. Voucher programs don’t work. Imagine the benefit if Indiana had invested an additional $685 million in its public schools, instead of subsidizing private schools.

Contrary to what proponents purport, voucher programs do not support parent and student choice. Instead of voucher programs providing options for parents and students, private schools have the chance to choose which students will be accepted, while public education districts are expected to provide a local system of free public education for all children.

Governor Lee’s misguided plan will undermine the very schools the State of Tennessee should be supporting. Until we address the socio-economic conditions that are predominant in neighborhoods where underperforming schools operate, we will not solve the issue of suboptimal school performance. We must invest in systems of support and training, such as mentorship and literacy programs, that have been proven effective with underserved children and youth, instead of taking financial resources away.

In Williamson County, a district with some of the highest performing schools in the state despite some of the lowest per-student funding, we’re being told by Senator Jack Johnson and House Speaker Glen Casada that “vouchers won’t affect us because we have strong schools.” We have been told we “shouldn’t be worried.” Why would the state’s top-ranked county want to ensure they are not affected if vouchers are good for public education?

If Indiana’s experience with vouchers is any indication, we can be sure this plan will affect Williamson County schools. Even if it doesn’t, shouldn’t we care enough about public education in other parts of Tennessee to prevent this program from happening there?

Tell your legislators and our Governor that vouchers are not welcome in our state.

Brad Fiscus is a veteran teacher, a leader in the Tennessee Conference of The United Methodist Church, and a member of the Williamson County Board of Education, the following Op-Ed is his personal views and does not represent the thoughts or opinions of Williamson County Schools or the Board of Education.

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Voucher Fraud

While there is clear evidence suggesting vouchers don’t improve academic outcomes for students, a new concern is getting the attention of Tennessee lawmakers: Fraud.

The Daily Memphian has more:

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.

The Arizona Republic found many parents there put voucher funds into college-savings accounts then sent their children to public schools, among other fraudulent activity, all amid lax oversight. The Phoenix newspaper also reported the state investigated one case in which voucher funds were allegedly used to pay for an abortion after it adopted an Empowerment Scholarship Account program in 2011.

The Wisconsin State Journal reported in 2014 the state paid $139 million over 10 years to schools it wound up removing from its voucher program for not following Wisconsin’s financial reporting rules and other guidelines.

It’s not clear if voucher legislation will move forward this session, though Governor Bill Lee has consistently supported using public money to fund private schools.

 

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A Voucher By Any Other Name

Is still bad for Tennessee students and a raw deal for Tennessee taxpayers.

The Tennessee Education Association has some analysis:

It is clear that privatizers are favoring Education Savings Accounts as a new means to try to change the conversation after five years of stinging defeats when peddling more traditional voucher legislation.  While ESAs are referred to by some as “vouchers light,” nothing could be further from the truth.

ESAs are vouchers on steroids, as recipients are sent money directly rather than applying it toward the cost of private school tuition.  As such, parents can then spend the funds however they like, even if that means keeping their children home and not attending school at all.

This super voucher has been used in other states with disastrous results.  Sending funds directly to parents has invited widespread fraud and abuse of voucher funds.

“The fact is, we have truant officers for a reason,” says TEA chief lobbyist Jim Wrye.  “The state will be providing a monetary incentive for the misuse of funds and children will suffer as a result.”

Stay tuned as the legislative session develops and vouchers in some form emerge at the General Assembly.

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