Unilaterally Altered

Textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) is alleging that the Tennessee Department of Education “unilaterally altered” the textbook adoption process in a way that disadvantaged HMH and possibly benefitted other, preferred vendors.

The complaint, filed in Davidson County Chancery Court, makes the following claims:

However, the Department unilaterally altered the adoption process 
when it had already begun and significant steps already had been completed.

The original schedule was suspended when Dr. Lisa Coons became the 
Department’s new Assistant Commissioner for Standards and Materials

The Department then proposed various changes to the adoption process, 
and the Commission agreed to make certain changes to the re-review process in response thereto.

HMH notes that after the new process was in place, HMH’s Into Reading Tennessee, Grade 3 was failed. While HMH’s materials were failed, HMH suggests competing programs that were failed by the re-reviewers were ultimately awarded passing grades by the Tennessee Department of Education.

The net result: Because HMH’s 3rd grade materials were failed, school districts will be discouraged from adopting the HMH materials as a whole, as the materials build on each other through grade level series.

Here’s the real question: Why was the process changed mid-stream? What was behind Coons’ revamping of the process? Why were some materials that previously failed to meet standards ultimately adopted? Was there a preferred vendor (as was the case in the recent awarding of a contract to ClassWallet)?

So far, the tenure of Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn has been marked by lots of questions and very few answers.

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North Carolina Court Order has Implications for Tennessee School Funding

A court order out of North Carolina could have implications for the ongoing school funding lawsuit in Tennessee. Here’s more:

On January 21, Wake County Judge David Lee signed a consent order in North Carolina’s long-running Leandro v. State school funding case adopting the comprehensive findings and recommendations in a study ordered by the court to bring the state’s public school system into constitutional compliance. The study, conducted by the national research organization WestEd and filed with Judge Lee in late 2019, identifies in detail the State’s current failure to provide students with a constitutional sound basic education and recommends major reforms to ensure adequate funding and essential resources for all students.

Shelby County and Nashville have filed suit against the State of Tennessee alleging inadequate funding. More recently, a group of lawmakers has proposed an additional $1.5 billion investment in Tennessee public schools.

Here are the recommendations made by the funding study in North Carolina:

Adequate and equitable funding: The State should increase school funding by $7 billion over the next eight years: $3.2 billion in the short term focused on at-risk students, followed by an additional $3.7 billion. An additional $1.18 billion is recommended to expand high quality preschool. Beyond increased funding, the State should overhaul the school finance system to ensure stability, predictability and progressivity, and target funds to programs for at-risk students, including preschool; support services, such as counselors and social workers; teacher pipeline reforms; and principal preparation. The finance reforms should also require periodic review and adjustment of the funding formula and direct State funding of charter schools.

Qualified, well-prepared and diverse teaching staff: The State should invest in improving the preparation of qualified teachers in high need schools by increasing support for North Carolina Teaching Fellows; State university teacher preparation programs, including at HBCUs; and district grow-your-own programs. Teacher compensation must be increased, especially for teachers in high-poverty districts, along with funding for ongoing professional development, teacher diversity and culturally responsive teaching.

Qualified and well-prepared principals: The State should update licensure and preparation requirements, expand access to high-quality principal preparation programs, and improve principal compensation and supports.

High Quality Preschool: In addition to a recommended $1.18 billion increase to expand high quality preschool, the State should prioritize access for at-risk children, improve the preschool teacher workforce, and work with high-poverty districts to ensure programs  serve community needs and use aligned instruction to transition children from preschool to the early grades.

Initiatives for At-Risk Students: Reforms are needed to attract and retain highly qualified teachers in high poverty districts; revise the accountability system to be less punitive; provide whole child supports, such as counselors, nurses and social workers; and address out-of-school barriers, such as hunger and homelessness.

Assessments and accountability: Assessment and accountability reforms are necessary to ensure coherence and alignment to curriculum and learning goals provide a broader picture of school/district performance and progress and use evidence-based support to improve performance.

Low-performing and high-poverty schools: A critical (and often-overlooked) recommendation is to rebuild the State Department of Public Instruction’s capacity to support districts and school improvement and to work with high poverty districts  to address out-of-school barriers to academic achievement through a community schools approach.

Continued Court Oversight: Judge Lee  should appoint a panel of experts to assist in monitoring State compliance in the implementation of the recommended remedies and  require  State submission of  reports and annual plans, with metrics to measure progress.

While the actual numbers may be different, many of these items could easily be applied to Tennessee. Our state fails to fund initiatives like RTI and continues to underfund counselors, nurses, and other key support staff. Additionally, the Department of Education reports the state is failing to provide funding for 9000 teachers hired by districts.

As Education Law Center notes:

The WestEd report and Judge Lee’s consent order represent a milestone in the long road to ensure the State effectuates the fundamental right of every child in North Carolina to have the opportunity to receive a sound basic education in a public school. The study and the order also provide a solid roadmap to guide advocates and lawyers working to achieve comprehensive school finance reforms in other states across the nation.  

Instead of waiting for a court order, Governor Lee and the General Assembly could begin moving this session to adequately fund Tennessee public schools.

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TEA Pushes School Funding, Voucher Repeal

The Tennessee Education Association is pushing for increased school funding and a repeal of the state’s voucher law in this legislative session, according to a report from WMOT radio.

TEA President Beth Brown notes that the state’s per-pupil school funding is the second lowest in the Southeast. She says it’s time for lawmakers to spend Tennessee’s excess revenue on education.

“We actually have a $7.6 billion cash reserve. …and so we will be pushing very hard to see some of that revenue that’s going unbudgeted invested in our schools.”

Brown says the TEA will also support efforts this session to repeal Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher plan passed by a single vote last year.

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Gloria Johnson Exposes Voucher Discrimination

The Tennessee Holler has the video of State Rep. Gloria Johnson questioning the rules for Tennessee’s new voucher scheme and exposing the discrimination inherent in the program:

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Dirty Tricks, Bribes, Threats: It’s a Voucher Story!

The Tennessee Holler has the video of Republican State Rep. Kent Calfee explaining just how that voucher bill passed last year:


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Fundamentally Broken

Democratic legislators today unveiled a proposal to add $1.5 billion to the BEP — the state’s funding formula for public schools. Chalkbeat has more:

Democratic lawmakers called Wednesday for $1.5 billion more for public schools and an overhaul of an education funding formula that they called “fundamentally broken.”

Tennessee’s investment of $9,225 per student trails most states in the South and its level of school funding remains the elephant in the room for state government. A trial is expected this year in a 5-year-old lawsuit filed by school districts in Memphis and Nashville over the adequacy of state funding for students and schools. If successful, the case could mean sweeping changes for how much Tennessee spends on K-12 education.

For instance, classroom size requirements have forced districts to hire more than 9,000 teachers beyond what the BEP provides to pay for their salaries, according to a recent analysis presented to the BEP Review Committee.

Back in 2014, I wrote that the BEP formula was broken:

As I mentioned, the BEP includes an instructional component which provides districts funding for teacher salaries. The current instructional component sets a salary number of $40,447. The state then funds this component at 70%, leaving districts to pay 30% of the salary cost for that teacher.

There are a few problems with this. First, nearly every district in the state hires more teachers than the BEP formula generates. This is because students don’t arrive in neatly packaged groups of 20 or 25, and because districts choose to enhance their curriculum with AP courses, foreign language, physical education, and other programs. This add-ons are not fully contemplated by the BEP.

Next, the state sets the instructional component for teacher salary at $40,447. The average salary actually paid to Tennessee teachers is $50,355.  That’s slightly below the Southeastern average and lower than six of the eight states bordering Tennessee. In short, an average salary any lower would not even approach competitiveness with our neighbors.

While those are 2014 numbers, the disparity between the BEP salary allocation and the actual cost of a teacher still exists. It means the state is picking up far less than the 70% of instructional costs contemplated by the BEP. In fact, one possible path forward would be to fund teacher salaries through the BEP at a rate equal to the average actual cost of a teacher. That’s actually what Shelby County proposed back in 2014. The cost? $500 million.

Next, making up the 9000 teacher deficit — the gap between what the BEP generates and the number of teachers ACTUALLY hired by districts. That cost? Around $500 million.

Tennessee has both less teachers than we need AND we pay them less than we should. Addressing those two issues costs about $1 billion.

The other $500 million? Funding for counselors, nurses, and other critical support staff for schools.

Tennessee has the money — with years of record surpluses boosting the state’s coffers. Will the General Assembly elect to spend that money on an investment in our schools?

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ClassWallet Brags About TN Voucher Contract

Even as a legislative committee heard testimony this week acknowledging that the vendor chosen to administer the state’s school privatization program was awarded the contract without competitive bidding, ClassWallet was bragging about inking the Tennessee deal. Here’s the text of a recent company newsletter:

November marked a great milestone for the Company landing our 4th state contract, this one with the Tennessee Department of Education.  It’s exciting when the problem is real and ClassWallet can uniquely solve it. I have no doubt that ClassWallet will save the Department thousands of hours of time, substantially reduce the cost of program administration and provide dramatically more accountability than the alternatives.

ClassWallet has signed a contract to work with the Tennessee Department of Education. The state of Tennessee joins North Carolina, Arizona, and New Mexico as the latest state government agency that will be using ClassWallet to manage educational program fund distribution, reconciliation, and reporting.

It’s worth noting that Arizona’s ESA program has been marked with fraud, and there have been new questions raised about excessive account balances:

Of the nearly 7,000 accounts, nine have a balance of more than $100,000 and 78 were found with more than $60,000. The records were released by the Arizona Department of Public Education, and spokesman Richie Taylor said the amounts reflect the different types of disabilities students have. But the high dollar figures raised questions for some school voucher skeptics.

“If the entire premise of the ESA program is that families need these state dollars in order to go into private schools or the private sector to pay for the education that their kids need, then I’m not sure why funds would be piling up an individual accounts to the tune of $130,000 piled up; $105,000 piled up,” said Dawn Penich-Thacker with Save Our Schools Arizona. “The funds are paid out quarterly every single year because, theoretically, you’re supposed to be paying tuition or paying therapist or paying for services.”

Even pro-voucher groups are not happy with the payment processing:

Two pro-school voucher nonprofits are threatening to sue the Arizona Department of Education for failure to send on-time payments to parents whose kids use a special program to attend non-public schools.

The Goldwater Institute and the Liberty Justice Center filed a Notice of Claim against the department last week.

They allege the agency is forcing parents to pay for tuition costs out of their own pockets because checks were not mailed in time. The students are part of the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program that uses taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition, tutoring or home-school curriculum.

Maybe, like with TNReady, Tennessee will get lucky and everything will work out just fine.

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No Bid? No Surprise!

At a legislative committee meeting Monday, it was revealed that the contract that outsourced administration of the Education Savings Account (ESA) voucher scheme was awarded without competitive bidding. Chalkbeat has more:

A legislative review of new voucher rules gave Mitchell and other Democrats an opportunity to grill state education officials for almost two hours on Monday about details for the program’s start.

Among the revelations: The department did not go through a competitive bidding process or the legislature’s fiscal review committee to secure its contract with ClassWallet.

The lack of adherence to bidding procedures should come as no surprise as Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn faced similar challenges when she held a senior level position in the Texas Education Agency:

On November 21, 2017, then-Texas special education director, Laurie Kash, blew the whistle on the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) entering into a $4.4M no-bid contract with a special education data collecting company, SPEDx; she filed a report with the US Department of Education (USDOE) Office of Inspector General (OIG).

Kash’s supervisor? Penny Schwinn.

In short, Schwinn is doing what she’s always done: Bending the rules to serve her needs.

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Vouchers and Taxes

The Associated Press is reporting that after much debate, Tennessee’s school voucher plan (education savings accounts) will be counted as taxable income for some families.

Tennessee’s top education officials say a small number of parents who participate in the state’s latest school voucher imitative might be taxed for participating in the program.

The development on Monday comes after months of debate between policy officials, education advocates and lawmakers over whether the new school vouchers for private education will be considered federally taxable income for parents.

The announcement on taxes comes following a November statement by Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn that vouchers would be subject to taxes:

… Penny Schwinn dropped a bombshell yesterday when she told a legislative committee that the value of a voucher under the state’s new education savings account program would be considered taxable income for the purpose of federal taxes.

Following that announcement, Gov. Bill Lee said he didn’t believe the vouchers would be taxed. Now, it appears that at least for some recipients, accepting an education savings account will also mean accepting an increased tax burden.

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$1.5 Billion

That’s how much Tennessee is under-funding public schools. Senators Jeff Yarbro of Nashville and Raumesh Akbari of Memphis take on the issue of school funding in a recent OpEd in the Tennessean. Here’s some of their argument:

The “fully funded” story line falls apart every time a teacher digs into their own bank account to purchase essential school supplies for their students. The claim unravels when teachers work second or even third jobs just to make ends meet. When we see children and teachers stacked into mobile trailers, describing schools as fully funded amounts to gaslighting. 

Here’s the truth: The state needs to put at least $1.5 billion more into public education each year just to meet the bare minimum. And even that investment may not be enough to get out of the bottom 10 states for school funding. 

Here’s MORE from Yarbro and Akbari

Their article follows a report from the Department of Education indicating that Tennessee is severely underfunding teaching positions in our state — to the tune of at least $500 million.

The article notes that Tennessee has had significant revenue surpluses in recent years. This means the state CAN fund public schools at an adequate level without raising state taxes. In fact, proper state funding of schools would mean local governments could keep taxes low. It would also relieve the burden that hits poorer districts the hardest.

Here are some likely responses:

  • The state just can’t promise that level of funding year after year
  • We need to try new experiments like expanding charters and moving forward with vouchers
  • Districts simply can’t absorb ALL that money at once
  • Our tax policy is critical to our business climate, so that comes first
  • We’re already getting results, why do we need more money?
  • We can’t just throw money at schools (we’d rather throw it at Amazon)

And here’s the reality: Tennessee consistently receives an “F” in both school funding and funding effort. We’re not even trying.

Yes, we have the money. Yes, our schools deserve it. Yes, WE CAN FUND SCHOOLS!

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

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