A Warning on Privatization

This article originally appeared in The Progressive.

In 2012, Tennessee’s began a scheme known as the Achievement School District, or ASD. The goal was simple and bold: Take a handful of schools in the bottom 5 percent of student achievement, according to state test scores, and move those schools into the top 25 percent in student achievement in just five years.

This miraculous shift, officials claimed, would be accomplished by placing schools under a new state agency, which would then determine an intervention strategy that might include turning a standard public school over to a charter operator. Any school anywhere in the state would be eligible, so long as it was on the “priority schools” list. As a whole, the schools would be governed by their own “district,” complete with a superintendent who reported directly to the commissioner of education.

Tennessee’s commissioner of education at the time, Kevin Huffman, hired charter operator Chris Barbic to run the new district. Barbic’s arrival coincided with the takeover of a first cohort of schools by the ASD, along with the unveiling of his plan to generate the expected turnaround.

So what was that plan, exactly? 

Well, of course, it was to turn all the priority schools over to charter operators. After all, Barbic reasoned, other charter school leaders would know just what to do with entire schools from urban districts with high levels of entrenched poverty.

But the charter school plan had another, more sinister impact. Tennessee’s charter school law gave charter operators ten year charters from the granting district. Since the ASD had taken over the local schools (most of them in Memphis), the ASD was now the charter-granting district. Now, schools in the ASD would not be eligible to return to their home districts for ten years, rather than the five years envisioned in the initial ASD legislation.

By executing the charter switch, Huffman and Barbic had immediately doubled the amount of time they would have to produce results with their education experiment, even though both of them would be gone by the time the ten-year period was up.

Still, the plan was bold and its promises were big. Almost immediately, there were problems. 

Some charter operators dropped out, and new operators swooped in. A series of directors attempted to run the rapidly sinking ship.

There were even Thunderdome-like contests early on to decide which schools would be handed over to charter operators, despite parent and community objections.

In 2020, New York City math teacher and popular blogger Gary Rubinstein, who tracked the ASD from its inception, reported the ASD’s “initial promise” to take over the bottom 5 percent of schools and “catapult them into the top 25 percent in five years” had “completely failed . . . . Chris Barbic resigned, Kevin Huffman resigned, Barbic’s replacement resigned.  Of the thirty schools, they nearly all stayed in the bottom 5 percent except a few that catapulted into the bottom 10 percent.”

When Barbic resigned after just a few years on the job, Chalkbeat reported, he “offered a dim prognosis” on the fate of the ASD. “As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results,” he wrote. “I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.”

Still, the ASD muddled forward. Now, the failed experiment is at the end of its run. Multiple groups of students have traveled in and out of charter doors with the end result being disruption, displacement, and discouraging results.

As the tenth year runs out, questions remain about exactly how to transition the schools back to their districts. Funny, it always seemed so easy to just move students and their families to charter schools and then to other charter schools as reformers scrambled to manipulate student populations in search of ever-elusive results. 

Even so, it seemed as if the ASD had reached its end.

In March, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, a Repubican, announced yet another plan to continue the district. More specifically, Lee wants to allow a handful of his personal favorite charter operators to continue to manage some select ASD schools. 

Not content to let a really bad idea die, Lee is backing legislation that would allow some schools to move from the ASD to the jurisdiction of the state’s relatively new Charter School Commission. That Commission was created by Lee in his first year as governor in order to circumvent the rejection of charter schools by local school boards.

Another piece of legislation, which has stalled for now, would allow Lee’s commissioner of education to take over an entire district by firing the director of schools and replacing the elected school board. This circumvention of democracy was widely seen as a way for Lee to send a message to the outspoken school boards in Memphis and Nashville that they’d better fall in line or else.

Of course, it hasn’t been lost on observers that Memphis and Nashville are suing the state, challenging the adequacy of the school funding formula. While the legislation is on hold for now, the point is clear: Districts are to do what the governor says and stay quiet when they disagree.

In fact, at a recent press event discussing the use of federal stimulus funds by local districts, Lee suggested that the state’s department of education would be watching districts to ensure they spent the money the right way. House Education Committee Chair Mark White went one step further, saying that he would be expecting tremendous jumps in student performance in exchange for this money. 

Education advocates around the country should beware these sorts of moves—power grabs cloaked in the guise of “assistance or guidance,” legislation to extend failed reform models, and/or the repackaging of proven reform failures as something shiny and new.

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Welcome to the Charter Party

On Friday afternoon before Mother’s Day weekend and just after the Tennessee General Assembly had adjourned, the Tennessee Department of Education announced 15 grants for charter school applicants – including grants for charter applications in several districts that do not currently authorize any charter schools – Rutherford County, Montgomery County, Millington Municipal, Fayette County, and Williamson County. The grants would allow applicants to plan and design their applications, and the applicants could ultimately bypass local school districts and receive charter authorization from Gov. Lee’s “Super Charter Commission.” The grants could also result in usurping the authority of elected school boards in Shelby, Hamilton, and Davidson counties.

Here’s more from a TNDOE press release:

Today, the Tennessee Department of Education announced that 15 applicants have been awarded subgrants under the Charter School Expansion Grant. These funds are intended to support sponsors throughout the planning, design, application, and potential launch of new charter schools in the state.

These subgrants will fund up to 8,800 new high-quality charter school seats that, subject to authorizer approval, will be available to students in five districts that currently do not have any charter schools and in three districts that already authorize charter schools.

Subgrants totaling $6.3 million were awarded primarily from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER), which is the second GEER grant designed specifically to support charter schools, with additional funds from the Charter School Program grant.

And, the key line about subverting the will of voters in these districts:

The review process for charter school applications for the 2022-23 school year is ongoing and the subgrant awards are contingent upon approval of the proposed charter school by the applicants’ respective school districts or, if an appeal occurs, the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission. (emphasis added).

That’s right, school privatization is coming to Tennessee in suburban and rural districts whether voters want it or not. While Lee’s voucher scheme is bogged down in court, Lee is acting unilaterally to charterize Tennessee’s public schools.

This is exactly what Memphis state Rep. Antonio Parkinson said would happen back in 2019:

Of course, this should come as no surprise to anyone paying attention to Lee and his affinity for privatization.

No word yet from Republican lawmakers in Fayette, Montgomery, Rutherford, or Williamson counties on how they feel about Lee pushing charters in their areas without seeking legislative approval.

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Rhetoric vs. Reality: Bill Lee School Funding Edition

As the Tennessee General Assembly passed Gov. Bill Lee’s budget today which included maintaining the woefully inadequate status quo for school funding, the Tennessee Education Association (TEA) offered the following statement expressing their disappointment:

“The budget passed by the General Assembly is disappointing when we have a historic opportunity to get Tennessee out of the bottom five in education funding. With a record revenue surplus and hundreds of millions unappropriated, this was the time to stop underfunding our schools.

There were bills to provide for more nurses, counselors, RTI specialists and social workers that our students need today and moving forward to meet their mental and academic challenges cause by the pandemic and the problems of chronic underfunding. Instead, we saw a trust fund set up that will cover barely a fraction of the needs years down the road.    

It’s unconscionable for state leaders to not include significant increases for K-12 funding, especially at a time when the state has racked up $1.42 billion in surplus year-to-date. The money is there to make a significant increase to K-12 funding, but Gov. Lee and the General Assembly have instead chosen to continue stuffing mattresses full of cash. 

Elected officials love to claim that Tennessee students, educators and public schools are top priorities, but their action on the state budget tells a different story. As the old saying goes, it’s time to put their money where their mouth is.”

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League of Women Voters Calls for Action on School Funding

In an action alert email, the League of Women Voters encouraged members and supporters to push Gov. Bill Lee and the General Assembly to make significant new investments in public education.

Here’s the text of that email:

Tennessee continues to neglect its public schools.  The state consistently ranks as one of the bottom five for public school funding. During the current legislative session, numerous bills have been introduced by members from both sides of the aisle to provide additional funds for some of our public schools’ urgent needs. Among those needs are adequately funding school counselors, social workers, school nurses, and staff to support state-mandated intervention programs.  None of these bills have passed yet.

This is the time to invest in our schools and our children. With a current budget surplus exceeding $2 billion this year and cash reserves exceeding $7 billion, this is the moment for Tennessee to support quality education in  every county.

The League of Women Voters of Tennessee was extremely disappointed that Governor Lee did not address the state’s inadequate funding formula of public schools in his annual budget.  However, it is not too late for the legislature to make meaningful investments in our students through their actions in setting next year’s state budget.

Please write or call the governor and your legislators and urge them to support our students and our schools.

Governor Bill Lee,  bill.lee@tn.gov and copy his assistant, caroleanne.orsborn@tn.gov

Find your senator and representative at https://wapp.capitol.tn.gov/Apps/fmlv3/lookup.aspx.
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Paid For By . . .

At the end of this nice, happy story welcoming a new reporter to the education beat at WPLN, there’s a very interesting sentence:

Nashville Public Radio thanks the Thorne Family Charitable Fund, the Scarlett Foundation, the HCA Healthcare Foundation, the Joe C. Davis Foundation and the Andrew Allen Foundation for their generous support of our education beat.

It’s great that the education beat has some solid financial support. What’s noteworthy, though, is that two of the five sponsors of education news are also hard core privatization advocates.

First, there’s the Scarlett Foundation. This group, headed up by Joe Scarlett, is solidly in the privatization camp. Plus, as the Scarlett Foundation’s page notes about their board chair:

He serves as chairman of the Scarlett Hotel Group and vice-chairman of the Beacon Center of Tennessee.

Yes, THAT Beacon Center – the conservative group pushing policy schemes like school vouchers and opposing meaningful investment in public schools.

Of course, the Scarlett Foundation was also involved in Metro Nashville School Board elections in 2016 under the guise of a group called Nashville Rise:

Project Renaissance Co-CEO Wendy Tucker refused to identify who is currently funding the group’s efforts, saying some of the money people did not want to be identified.

$250,000 from the Joe C. Davis Foundation in Nashville, which boasts that it is focused “on increasing the supply of high-performing charter schools.”

Project Renaissance, of course, was the project of former Nashville Mayor and charter backer Karl Dean.

And, of course, there’s the The Joe C. Davis Foundation which was also involved in that 2016 campaign. Sitting on the board of the Davis Foundation is Bill DeLoache:

In an annual report filed with the Secretary of State earlier this month, Project Renaissance named several members to its board, all with ties to the controversial independently-run publicly-funded schools known as charter schools. Among them is Bill DeLoache, a wealthy charter school backer who also sits on the board for the Tennessee Charter School Center.

DeLoache has a long history of advocacy for charters:

[Charter school company] Beacon was founded as Alternative Public Schools Inc. in Nashville in 1992 by local businessmen Bill DeLoache Jr. and John Eason. Even after the company moved to Westborough, Mass., and changed its name to Beacon, DeLoache remained chairman.

The bottom line is this: Those who would privatize our public schools will go to any lengths to ensure they control the message on education issues. Kudos to WPLN for their transparency here. However, just hearing the list of names of foundations only tells part of the story. It’s important to understand the agenda advanced by those who want to appear to be philanthropic voices just supporting local public radio.

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Mattresses Full of Cash

On the heels of the Department of Revenue’s announcement today that the state has once again exceeded monthly revenue projections, the Tennessee Education Association (TEA) released a statement accusing Gov. Bill Lee of stuffing mattresses full of cash rather than spending money on K-12 education.

Here’s the statement from TEA:

“Today’s announcement on state revenues from the Department of Finance and Administration further validates TEA’s criticism of Gov. Bill Lee’s budget amendment released earlier this week. 

The state has racked up $1.42 billion in surplus year-to-date. The money is there to make a significant increase to K-12 funding. Gov. Lee is choosing to stuff mattresses full of cash instead of investing in Tennessee students. 

We can and must do better by our students, educators and public schools. It’s time for state leaders to choose to get Tennessee out of the bottom five for state investment per student.”

TEA’s statement comes in the same week Lee released a budget amendment with little new money for public schools. Earlier in the week, the Tennessee Public Education Coalition (TPEC) called on Lee to improve his budget amendment by directing more funds to public schools.

Tennessee’s coffers are awash in excess revenue, and our schools’ needs are immense. Tennessee’s surplus for the current fiscal year, with over five months to go, is over $1.3 billion, with lawmakers expected to have at least $3.1 billion in excess revenue to budget in the current cycle. Tennessee also has $7.5 billion in cash reserves. Our children need excellent schools, and our teachers need adequate pay. Public schools need more resources- social workers, school nurses, counselors, and adequate support staff. With tax revenues exceeding state expenses by more than $2 billion per year and more than $7 billion cash reserves, there is no longer any excuse for failing to invest in our children.

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EdCo to Host “Antiracist Classroom” Event

April 24 at 11:30 AM (CT) The Educators’ Cooperative (EdCo) will  host a virtual conversation titled “Antiracist Teaching, Learning, and Leading from the Classroom:  Addressing the legacies of segregation and white supremacy in our schools, and adjusting our lenses with  Critical Race Theory in education.” The teachers of EdCo are dedicated to facilitating this essential antiracist  work cross-sector, for the benefit of all students. Registration for the event, which is offered to educators at  no cost, is now open at educatorscooperative.org. Non-educators may purchase a ticket for $75.  

The event will feature three expert panelists: 

Dr. Gloria Ladson Billings is a Teacher, Author, Professor, and Researcher whose work is fundamental in  the application of Critical Race Theory in education; she coined the terminology “Culturally Relevant  Pedagogy.” Her books include The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children and  Crossing Over to Canaan: The Journey of New Teachers in Diverse Classrooms.  

Dr. Roni Ellington, Assistant Professor in Mathematics Education at Morgan State University, founded  the Transforming STEM Network to promote diversity and inclusion in STEM education. She is the  principal investigator on a National Science Foundation grant focused on incorporating culturally  responsive teaching into university mathematics classrooms.  

Ashford Hughes is the Executive Officer for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion for Metro Nashville Public  Schools, where he designs and implements initiatives that address academic and social-emotional  learning needs of the district’s diverse populations. He is Co-chairman of the Nashville My Brother’s  Keeper Network – a coalition that works to improve life outcomes for boys and young men of color  through internal agency policy review, education, and employment opportunities.  

EdCo Executive Director Greg O’Loughlin is “excited about this unique opportunity for teachers to learn  together from a leading scholar in the field and the researchers and community leaders who do the  work every day.” The no-cost tickets for educators are provided through the generosity of The  Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. 

Education Coalition Calls on Governor to Boost Funding for Schools

Just one day after Gov. Bill Lee introduced his budget amendment that included no new funds for K-12 education, a coalition of education advocates from across the state called on Lee and the General Assembly to improve the amendment and boost funding for public schools. The move follows a statement from the Tennessee Education Association on Tuesday that said Lee’s budget for education comes up “woefully short.”

Here’s more from the Tennessee Public Education Coalition (TPEC):

Members of TPEC are deeply disappointed in Governor Lee’s failure to meet even the minimum funding needs of Tennessee’s schools, teachers, and students. Tennessee has long failed to adequately invest in its children. Tennessee ranks 46th nationally in education funding, and the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations reports that Tennessee’s K-12 funding formula underfunds public schools by $1.7 billion per year. 

Tennessee’s coffers are awash in excess revenue, and our schools’ needs are immense. Tennessee’s surplus for the current fiscal year, with over five months to go, is over $1.3 billion, with lawmakers expected to have at least $3.1 billion in excess revenue to budget in the current cycle. Tennessee also has $7.5 billion in cash reserves. Our children need excellent schools, and our teachers need adequate pay. Public schools need more resources- social workers, school nurses, counselors, and adequate support staff. With tax revenues exceeding state expenses by more than $2 billion per year and more than $7 billion cash reserves, there is no longer any excuse for failing to invest in our children.

Here are some comments from members of TPEC on the education budget:

Jerri Green, public school parent, Memphis:

“We love our school, our teachers and the other staff, but we hate that they underpaid and overworked. Teachers spend hundreds of dollars each year on basic supplies. This would not be necessary if the state supported our schools adequately. Governor Lee, please increase funding for our public schools.”

Peg Watkins, state & local education advocate for more than 30 years, speaking on behalf of the League of Women voters of Tennessee, Memphis:

“Underfunding our schools is not new. The BEP Review Committee has been pointing to these failures for years while Tennessee runs yearly surpluses. This year we are on track to run a $2 billion surplus. We call on the legislature to properly fund our schools.”

Candace Bannister, retired teacher, Knoxville:

“Gov. Lee is right that our school children have unmet mental health needs.  Unfortunately, his budget provides none of the additional resources our schools need to hire enough school counselors, social workers, nurses and mental health professionals.  We call on Gov. Lee to increase BEP funding for in-school mental health staff to meet the needs of our children.”

Amy Frogge– Former Nashville school board representative and Executive Director of Pastors for Tennessee Children:

“The lack of adequate school funding is especially hard on rural schools. In low-income, rural counties, students suffer from inadequate facilities, overcrowded classes, and a lack of opportunities that parents in more prosperous counties take for granted: art, music, and advanced classes, career and technical training, and after-school activities like sports and clubs. I saw this myself recently when I visited a Morgan County high school, which had no money for art and music classes. Students there also wanted to run track and play softball and soccer, but the school had no money for sports fields or a track. I urge Governor Lee to increase school funding so all children have opportunities for after school activities.”

Rev. Laura Becker, parent and pastor of Northminster Presbyterian Church, Chattanooga:

“And any public school parent can tell you that teachers are always begging for school supplies, such as Kleenex, paper, Clorox wipes, pencils, and more. Our church annually collects these items for our neighborhood school, because the state doesn’t provide adequate funding for them, and it is unjust to expect every family to be able to provide them. They really shouldn’t have to beg for basics in a state as prosperous as Tennessee. While adding no additional funds for public schools, Governor Lee is proposing $114 million in tax cuts. It is unconscionable to cut taxes while the needs of our school children go unmet. We call on the governor to adequately fund our public schools.”

Paula Treece– A public school parent, PTA leader and former school board member, Johnson City:

“The state has repeatedly failed to fund the numerous mandates it has placed on local school districts, forcing local taxpayers to bear a greater burden than necessary. Not only should the state fully fund all school mandates that it imposes, but it should also allow local school boards to decide how best to utilize the resources.”

The coalition joins groups like the Nashville Public Education Foundation and the League of Women Voters of Tennessee who have also recently called on Gov. Lee and the General Assembly to make additional investments in schools.

In his own words . . .

In a press release announcing the budget amendment, Lee listed tax cuts first and in a budget amendment that includes no new money for public schools, the release indicated:

This amendment reflects the Governor’s priorities . . .

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Woefully Short

The Tennessee Education responded to Gov. Bill Lee’s budget amendment today calling the announcement and Lee’s overall education investment “woefully short” of what the state needs to fund schools.

Lee unveiled the budget amendment with no appreciable increase in K-12 spending, merely a rehash of previous announcements regarding holding districts harmless in the BEP formula and an investment in mental health that had been planned in 2020.

Lee’s statement says:

This amendment reflects the Governor’s priorities and includes record investments in broadband, economic development, safety and law enforcement, increasing reserves, and education.

The amendment itself actually does not include record investments in education and it’s interesting that on the list of supposed priorities here, education is mentioned last.

Here’s the TEA response:

“With the state bringing in record surplus month after month, there is no excuse to not make significant increases to public education funding. The governor’s budget amendment is woefully short on meaningful K-12 investment.

Without sufficient state investment, school districts cannot afford the nurses, counselors, RTI specialists and social workers our students need. Without sufficient state investment, underpaid teachers will continue to spend hundreds of their own dollars on classroom resources.

The Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) outlined the chronic problems with the BEP, indicating that “fully funding” the state formula would require an additional $1.7 billion in state funding. The current administration proposal is a little more than $200 million.

It is time for the state to do better. The money is there to get Tennessee out of the bottom 5 in state funding. There is no need to raise taxes, only a need to prioritize Tennessee students and public education.”

The budget amendment continues a trend of Lee talking about funding schools while failing to make actual investments in schools.

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Unity Group in Chattanooga Opposes ASD 2.0

Amid reports that Gov. Bill Lee is pushing legislation to extend the life of the failed Achievement School District, the Unity Group of Chattanooga has announced opposition to the move.

In an opinion piece, Sherman Matthews and Eric Atkins (Chair and Corresponding Secretary, respectively) expressed the group’s concerns.

A new proposal being pushed through the Tennessee House Education Committee is the latest saga in the long effort to takeover schools through privatization. In order to accomplish this, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the state would create the Achievement School District 2.0. The ASD has been the embattled mostly charter run district, which operates a majority of its schools in Memphis and Nashville; has been plagued by multiple executive directors; constant teacher turnover; funding irregularities; school closures; dwindling student enrollment numbers; and has failed to demonstrate substantial student academic progress as compared to their traditional counterparts. Despite a 2020 announcement that ASD schools could potentially return to their local districts, what has since developed is a replication of prior practices which are aimed at the ultimate takeover of public schools by the state.  

Unlike a phoenix, the Achievement School District 2.0 will not rise from the ashes but will be like embers charred by smoldering flames. If the legislature chooses to advance this and similar bills, they will be striking the albatross, and students and schools will be the worse for it. We are opposed to granting the commissioner of Education the authority to fire a school system’s superintendent and remove duly elected school board members from any municipality. We are opposed to the privatization of schools, be it through ESAs and neo-vouchers, virtual charter schools, or for- profit charter schools which would decimate and undermine public schools in urban and rural communities alike. We reject the negative over- reliance on high stakes testing to be the sole determinant of a student’s growth and potential when TN Ready has not been ready in five years and can’t account for career and technical education, the digital divide, or achievement gaps. 

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