Nail in the Coffin

Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher scheme is not only constitutionally suspect, but also the likely cause of Rep. Matthew Hill’s ouster from the legislature. WJHL has more on how Hill’s turn against public education led to his defeat in the August Republican primary.

A controversial 2002 income tax vote helped usher in the Matthew Hill era in Northeast Tennessee politics. Another controversial vote — this one over school vouchers — likely contributed to that era’s end.

“Year after year he voted ‘no’ on voucher legislation,” area public school teacher Jenee Peters said. “He voted ‘no’ every year up until he didn’t.”

“I would like to think the local area teachers were the final nail in his coffin, but there were clearly other issues that brought about the demise of his campaign,” Peters said.

Peters communicated often with Hill and said he gave teachers “a few good years” starting in 2014 after an early adversarial relationship with them. But a seeming focus on political power within the Capitol became pretty clear to people, culminating for the education community in Hill’s abandonment of his anti-voucher position.

“He wasn’t grounded in his community,” Peters said. “He was more interested in playing politics in Nashville and currying favor with the governor and making a bid for the speakership.”

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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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MCS Takes Stand Against Vouchers

The Murfreesboro City School Board has outlined top legislative priorities for 2020 and shared them with local legislators, reports the Murfreesboro Post. The agenda includes opposition to school vouchers and a call for a reduction in state testing.


Vouchers — The Murfreesboro City School Board opposes any legislation or effort to create or expand programs that would divert money intended for public education to private schools or organizations.


Equity of Assessment — The Murfreesboro City School Board urges the General Assembly to require any private education institution receiving funds through the Education Savings Account program to be held to the same testing requirements as public schools. Currently, only the children receiving vouchers are tested; the schools they are attending are not. Therefore, all children in receiving schools should be tested just as are all children in public schools are tested. Without such testing, comparisons are invalid.


Reduction of Testing — The Murfreesboro City School Board encourages legislation that changes requirements of assessments to math and ELA in grades 3-8; science at least once during grades 3-5, grades 6-9 and grades 10-12.

The renewed opposition to vouchers comes as a new report reveals fraud in the state’s existing, limited voucher program. It also comes while Gov. Bill Lee is seeking to fast-track his voucher scheme. The ESA voucher bill was passed by one vote in the House last session and that vote is now facing both FBI and TBI investigations.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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

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