Happy TNReady Week

Williamson County School Board member Eric Welch offers this commentary on TNReady and vouchers:

HAPPY TN READY WEEK!!! Are you excited???

Oh wow…..that’s a lot of one finger salutes….😟.

So you’re saying you aren’t a fan of the state’s mandated TN Ready testing and your satisfaction levels so far are akin to the Comcast customer service line?

Well you may want to stop reading now because the fact is that under the proposed Voucher bills currently before the Tennessee legislature, those tests are just for your kids. Those using public dollars for private for-profit schools in the form of vouchers wouldn’t be subject to the same apples-to-apples testing requirement.

According to Chalkbeat:

“Students receiving education savings accounts — a newer kind of voucher now under consideration by the Tennessee General Assembly — would have to take half as many tests as their counterparts in public schools.

The retreat in accountability for a proposed pilot program even has some of the new Republican governor’s supporters scratching their heads.

“I would think that we would want the recipients to go through the full battery of assessments that students in public schools would receive,” said freshman Rep. Charlie Baum, a Republican from Murfreesboro, of the need to “compare apples to apples” in measuring the program’s success.”

Testing Time

Here’s a link to the TN Department of Education’s page on testing times for various grade levels.

The information on the site indicates that students in 3rd grade can expect to spend 5 hours and 45 minutes testing. Of course, this all happens over a week, and means students effectively lose days of instructional time.

This year, many Tennessee students are taking tests on pencil and paper since our TNDOE can’t predict when hackers or dump trucks will attack the integrity of our state’s tests.

Next year, as we shift to a new vendor, we’ll also see students take pencil and paper tests. Then, back to online TNReady for testing in the 2020-21 academic year.

No word from our new Commissioner of Education on amending our state’s ESSA application to change testing formats or move away from annual testing altogether.

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One Scheme at a Time

The Senate Finance Committee was slated to take up both Governor Lee’s charter authorizer bill and his plan to voucherize Tennessee public schools today. Instead, the committee only completed discussion on the charter bill, ultimately approving it and moving it forward.

Apparently, the voucher legislation will have to wait at least a week as revelations about growing opposition are causing concern among Governor Lee’s team.

In fact, in a budget update presented to the committee, Lee’s Finance Commissioner noted that $25 million was being dedicated to fight Hepatitis C in Tennessee prison. Where’d that money come from? It’s the exact amount previously dedicated to year one of Lee’s voucher scheme.

Commissioner McWhorter said the money shift would not impact the voucher scheme in year one, but the move raised questions among advocates and critics alike.

It’s entirely possible the Senate Finance Committee is waiting to see how the House acts on vouchers before taking a controversial vote. It’s also quite possible the votes simply aren’t there for a voucher plan this year.

Tune in next week to see what, if anything, the Senate does with vouchers. Will a weekend of arm-twisting by Bill Lee move a vote or two? Will the House advance the bill and thereby push the Senate to act?

The drama continues …

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This One’s for Dolores

Last week, Senate Education Committee chair Dolores Gresham accused public school principals of viewing kids as “profit centers” during a hearing on Governor Bill Lee’s voucher legislation. This meme tells the real story: Privatizers seek profit from our kids by way of publicly-funded vouchers.

What’s your meme? Got a message about school privatization? Send it my way: andy@tnedreport.com

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Equity Coalition Opposes Vouchers

Here’s a statement from the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition opposing Governor Bill Lee’s school voucher proposal:

The Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition formed in 2016 in order to harness the influence and voices of a diverse group of civil rights and education advocacy organizations and leaders across the state. From the beginning, our shared policy priorities centered on addressing the chronic disparities in opportunities, achievement and outcomes for students of color, and those learning English, living in poverty or with a disability. We applaud Governor Lee for making education a priority in his first year, and for investing in teacher pay, and increased access to advanced courses, STEM programs, career and technical education, and post-secondary programs for incarcerated Tennesseans. We worked closely with Commissioner McQueen and the Tennessee Department of Education on the design and implementation of the Tennessee ESSA plan, and remain committed to ongoing partnership with the new administration.

However, many of our Coalition members believe that Governor Lee’s Education Savings Account proposal (SB 795/HB 939) is not aligned to our priorities. Parents must be empowered to make the best possible educational choice for their child, but this bill is not in keeping with the course we have set as a state over the past decade, and which has yielded improvement across all student groups. It is not designed to serve our students that are most in need, and it codifies educational practices that are exclusionary and discriminatory.

First, this bill, does not address the needs of low-income students or those attending our lowest performing schools. In fact, it provides middle income students in top-performing public schools the opportunity to access public funds for private instruction. The $7300 voucher is not considered payment in full to participating private schools, and represents only a fraction of the actual cost of most private schools in Tennessee. It is unlikely that low-income families can cover the remainder of tuition cost, fees, and other indirect expenses, reducing their chances of participating. The income threshold, set at $65,000 for a family of four, will expand the number of families that can participate, thereby reducing the number of available vouchers for low-income students. Additionally, students from any school in one of the qualifying districts can apply for a voucher, regardless of its quality.

Second, this ESA bill does not guarantee school choice. Private schools will continue to adhere to their admissions criteria, despite receiving voucher money.  They decide who may enroll in their schools, and can legally deny entry to students based on gender, ability, language of origin, sexual orientation, or religious and social beliefs. The Governor’s legislation explicitly discriminates against undocumented families, prohibiting families with undocumented parents from participating, even if the student is an American citizen. This feature of the ESA bill will trigger an immediate and costly legal challenge. The Supreme Court has long recognized that “where the state has undertaken to provide an educational opportunity, it must be made available to all on equal terms.” Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202, 223 (1982) Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 493 (1954)

Third, families with students with disabilities are required to waive their rights to protections under the Individuals with Disabilities Act once they accept a voucher. These include the right to disciplinary protections, accommodations for instruction or assessments, or access to services laid out in a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).

Additionally, the most recent Senate version of the ESA bill does not require students to take the TNReady assessment, and allows them to take an alternate norm-referenced test. Tennesseans need to know if this financial investment is benefiting students, and families must understand how well private schools are serving students with vouchers. If public dollars are to be diverted to private schools, they should be held accountable according to the framework we use to evaluate all public schools, and that must include the administration of TNReady.

Student achievement ought to be the driving force behind any education reform initiative, and the impact of school vouchers on student success is inconclusive at best. Research does confirm that current initiatives in Tennessee, such as the Innovation Zones, are demonstrating success with our lowest performing schools.  Tennessee must continue to make investments in proven strategies that are making a tangible difference in communities and in the lives of students most in need.

Tennessee has dramatically improved student achievement in K-12 education, setting records for academic progress, and relying on innovative collaboration in order to keep the focus on what is best for students. SB 795/HB 939 will be a step backwards in the progress we have made over the past decade. It is our belief that Governor Lee and our state legislature must set bold goals for all 1 million public school students in Tennessee, and invest our funding and resources on increasing their odds of success. We remain committed to working with the Governor Lee and the Tennessee Department of Education on serving and supporting all students in our state.

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Roll Tide Roll

Tomorrow, the Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to take up Governor Bill Lee’s “super-charter authorizer” bill that would effectively usurp the authority of local school boards by creating a state board that has the power to authorize charter schools anywhere in Tennessee.

While I’ve warned before of the dangers of such an authorizer by pointing to Arizona, perhaps our neighbors in Alabama offer an even better example of what can go wrong with such an authorizer.

Here’s more from the Alabama Political Reporter:

Woodland Prep is a charter school horror story — and it hasn’t even been built yet.

Located in rural Washington County, Woodland Prep, which will open as a K-7 school this fall and add a grade level each year, is everything state leaders assured us could never happen under Alabama’s charter school laws.

Its land is owned by a shady Utah holding company. Its building is owned by a for-profit Arizona company. It will be managed by a for-profit Texas company that doesn’t employ a single Alabamian. It will pay the head of that management company around $300,000 per year — up front. Its application was rejected by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which Alabama pays a hefty sum to review and approve charter applications. Woodland’s management plan failed to meet basic standards for approval in any of the three plan areas reviewed by NACSA.

In spite of all of those concerns, Woodland Prep was approved by the Alabama Charter School Commission — a board similar to the one envisioned by Lee and his legislative supporters for authorizing charters in Tennessee.

Who is behind this mysterious charter?

Soner Tarim. Tarim is the CEO of Unity School Services and was the founder of Harmony Schools, a mostly-successful charter school group in Texas. Tarim and Harmony also have their very serious problems, not least of which is their ties to a Muslim cleric and controversial preacher from Turkey, Fetullah Gulen, and his Gulen Movement.

Numerous reports from the New York Times to Reuters and other local news outlets linked Harmony and Tarim to Gulen, and some labeled Harmony a financial front for Gulen’s movement. While Gulen espouses a more moderate brand of Islam, his movement has been labeled a terrorist organization by Turkey, which has accused Gulen and his followers of attempting to overthrow the Turkish government. Others dispute those claims, and believe the terrorist label is unfairly applied to Gulen, who has shown no proclivity for violence.

Regardless, other legal questions have been raised about Harmony and Tarim’s use of the schools to exploit a visa program and to skirt hiring laws in order to give contract jobs to Turkish workers and teachers.

Follow the Money

A copy of the USS contract with the Woodland Prep board shows that Tarim will make 15 percent of all federal, state and local funds received by Woodland. Which means that for every student allotment — and Woodland estimates in its application that the per-pupil allotment will be more than $8,200 — Tarim will make 15 percent off the top. If Woodland’s projected enrollment of 260 students is accurate, Tarim will make more than $300,000.

Can this happen in Tennessee?

Yes. Interestingly, the legislation creating the state charter authorizer also contains a provision specifically related to H1B visas — the same program used by Tarim at schools in Texas and contemplated in Alabama. Here’s that provision:

(1) An authorizer may deny a public charter school application if the
proposed public charter school plans to staff positions for teachers,
administrators, ancillary support personnel, or other employees by utilizing, or
otherwise relying on, nonimmigrant foreign worker H1B or J1 visa programs in
excess of three and one half percent (3.5%) of the total number of positions at
any single public charter school location for any school year.
(2) Notwithstanding subdivision (d)(1), an authorizer shall not deny a
public charter school application solely because the proposed public charter
school plans to exceed the limitation in subdivision (d)(1) by employing foreign
language instructors who, prior to employment, meet and, during the period for
which the instructors’ H1B or J1 visas have been granted, will meet all
Tennessee educator licensure requirements. If an authorizer denies a public
charter school application under this subsection (d), then the sponsor may
appeal the authorizer’s decision to deny the application as provided in subsection

Why would Tennessee’s proposed law contemplate this specific issue? The case out of Alabama should be alarming. We’re told again and again that Tennessee’s authorizer will be different, that our law builds in accountability. The Alabama law did the same thing and look what happened. Moreover, the law as proposed in Tennessee — with its H1B provisions — would make Soner Tarim smile.

Tennessee lawmakers would do well to look to Alabama for what could go wrong.

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Gardenhire Opposition Puts Vouchers in Doubt

Andy Sher of the Chattanooga Times-Free Press reports that Senator Todd Gardenhire will vote NO on vouchers when Governor Bill Lee’s ESA plan hits the Senate Finance Committee tomorrow. The revelation could spell trouble for Lee’s plan, according to Sher.

Here’s more:

“A week and a half ago, the governor asked to meet with me on another bill,” Gardenhire said. “I told him I was not for the voucher bill, but I’d carried every voucher bill for the past six years. But this was one I could not go along with.”

Among the reasons Gardenhire gave for opposing the current measure are the exclusion of undocumented immigrants and the fact that Lee didn’t consult Hamilton County lawmakers before initiating his proposal.

“Nobody asked any of the legislators at all that I know of for any input,” Gardenhire said. “They just decided just to come up with this plan.”

Gardenhire’s promise of a NO vote comes as parents prepare to descend on the Capitol to express support for public schools and opposition to vouchers. The bill is scheduled for votes in both the Senate and House Finance Committees on Tuesday.

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Bill Lee’s Buddy

At an invitation-only meeting with Bill Lee and Betsy DeVos — a meeting featuring no teachers or public school administrators — a man named Douglas Jahner is in attendance. Jahner is also a frequent commenter on this page, often criticizing public schools while claiming superhero status for his own advocacy of school privatization.

Erik Schelzig tagged a photo of all who attended. Among those not invited, according to Chalkbeat, was the Executive Director of Tennessee’s State Board of Education.

Over in the comments section of this post, Jahner makes an interesting comment:

Doug Jahner April 12, 2019 at 2:38 pm (Edit)

What a screwed up system whereby we open our wallets for illegal alien children yet we forbid legal neighbor child Johnny from education tax dollars simply because he goes to s school not approved by education unions.

Jahner here is encouraging the violation of what DeVos ultimately called “settled law” after her own mishap on the issue.

For all his commentary on support for “all children,” Jahner – a man close enough to Lee to get an invite to a closed door meeting with the U.S. Secretary of Education — appears to only support education for those children he finds worthy of his approval.

So far, the Senate version of Lee’s voucher plan appears to side with Jahner’s unconstitutional view of school attendance. No word from Lee on whether he backs his buddy on this one.

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Timely Guidance

By now, readers know the TNDOE’s Kindergarten portfolio system is a complete and utter fiasco. The flawed evaluation system takes time away from instruction and, quite simply, doesn’t work. The state is now on its second vendor in two years of the program. Still, the online system for uploading content is sketchy, at best.

Here’s more on the new vendor:

Since last year, the Department of Education has moved to a new platform for portfolio evaluation — a group called Portfolium. More on this “new” group:

Who is Portfolium?
Portfolium is a startup company designed to provide college students with a way to highlight accomplishments and work samples for future employers. Yes, you read that right: The new evaluation platform is a startup company that was founded in 2013 and just three years ago, began raising a small amount of capital to launch:
Portfolium, a Web-based social network for students preparing to start their careers, said it has closed on $1.2 million in new venture funding, bringing its total funding to $2.1 million since 2013, when the San Diego-based startup was founded.

And, according to teachers, the Portfolium platform is pretty frustrating. Kindergarten teachers report frequently receiving the “Uh-Oh” screen and also note they’ve been told not to upload material during the TNReady testing window so as not to stress the state’s computer system.

Now, just two weeks before portfolio materials are due, teachers are receiving “guidance” from the Department of Education. Here’s the email sent last week late in the afternoon:

Thank you for all you have done so far during this year’s portfolio process. We wanted to provide some additional guidance and reminders to help support you during this final push of uploading and submitting your student artifacts. A walkthrough of how to login, choose a model, and upload artifacts has been provided by Portfolium and can be watched here.

Supported Browsers
It has come to our attention that some educators are having challenges utilizing the platform via Internet Explorer. As a reminder, Internet Explorer is no longer supported by Microsoft (meaning using it will reduce your experience on all websites). It is recommended that teachers utilize Chrome or Firefox when accessing the platform. 
When playing back videos, please be sure that you are using the most updated version of your media software (e.g., Quicktime, Windows Media Player, etc.). 

Supported File Formats
The TEAM Portfolio platform supports multiple file formats which include but are not limited to:
Images: .png, .gif, .jpeg
Documents: .doc, .docx, .pdf
Audio/Visual: .mp4, .mp3, .wav, .wma
For a full list of supported file formats, please see the guidance provided here. Please note that Wi-Fi speeds could impact upload time.
Contacting Technical Support
If an educator is having trouble with the technical aspects of the platform, including slow uploads and/or artifacts disappearing or showing up incorrectly, please utilize the chat feature on the platform itself. The educator having the issue should reach out to Portfolium for support via the chat feature so that they can check the individual account. Please be prepared to share some of the following when contacting Portfolium:

What browser were you using when the problem occurred? Did the problem occur right away or after some time in the platform? Please provide any relevant details around any conditions that were present when problems arose.
Does the problem occur when you use a different browser? 
Was there an error code or any messaging when the issue occurred? 
The chat function is the blue circle at the bottom right-hand corner of the platform screen. This feature allows an educator to interact with someone in real-time during Portfolium’s business hours: 11 a.m. CT/12 p.m. ET – 7 p.m. CT/8 p.m. ET. For after-hours issues, teachers can still utilize the chat feature, but will receive a response on the following business day. Educators may also email support@portfolium.com with technical questions. 
Please note there is no phone number for support. All inquiries should be made by direct chat or email.

So, TNReady starts next week, which means teachers heeding the state’s warning will not be uploading material during the school day. I’ve heard from some teachers that uploading very late in the evening or very early in the morning is a great time to do so because the servers are not overloaded.

To be clear: The Tennessee Department of Education is mandating a disastrous portfolio model while providing little support. This model requires teachers to spend the equivalent of 4-6 days away from direct instruction of students. The platform for uploading materials is not reliable. Teachers either spend hours attempting to upload material OR must do so at extremely odd hours — all with no additional compensation.

How are these portfolios evaluated? Well, last year, that process didn’t really work, either. More on that:

The bad news: That’s because there was no scoring as the state’s vendor, Educopia, could not provide access to the portfolios in order for them to be graded.

To be fair, some portfolios were graded in certain locations before the infrastructure was overloaded and all grading stopped.

This means trained reviewers sat in rooms around the state looking at blank screens instead of assessing portfolios. It means they were fed sandwiches and then told to go home. It means they were promised $500 for the lost day.

While lawmakers debate whether or not to continue the portfolio model in coming years, the state continues to make errors and, subsequently, make the lives of Kindergarten teachers miserable.

Will relief in the form of legislation come this year, or will the Senate Education Committee side with the state and against the trained educators doing the actual work in classrooms every day?

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

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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

As always, your support makes reporting education news possible:

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