They Were Warned

Back in 2015 when the Tennessee General Assembly passed the first round of voucher legislation limited to a select group of students, opponents of the plan warned that the program as designed would be susceptible to fraud. Now, a new report from the Associated Press confirms those fears.

Some Tennessee parents were accused of misspending thousands of dollars in school voucher funds while using state-issued debit cards over the past school year, a review by The Associated Press has found, and state officials say they do not know what many of those purchases were for.

In 2015, I wrote:

A similar program in Florida, started in 1999, has been expanding rapidly. And, it’s been subject to fraud. When asked about what safeguards Tennessee’s plan will have, the sponsors said that the bill calls on the departments of education and health to qualify vendors. When asked what standards may be used to qualify vendors, the sponsors said they didn’t know.

When asked if the money will be distributed as a debit card or a bank account or a voucher, the sponsors didn’t know.

It’s almost as if the bill’s sponsors should have cleared these matters up BEFORE barreling ahead with legislation that led to problems in other states. Instead, here we are.

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

Your support$5 or more today — makes publishing education news possible.

Why Do We Even Have School Lunch Debt

While some legislators are working to end the horrific practice of lunch shaming, Jill Richardson writes that we shouldn’t have school lunch debt at all because school lunch should be free.

A Google search for “paying school lunch debt” reveals a long list of recent news stories about good Samaritans paying off the school lunch debt of children whose families cannot afford it.

A Fredonia, New York man paid off $2,000 in school lunch debt in his area, helping 140 families. A Rigby, Idaho tattoo shop raised $1,200. Nationally, a charity called School Lunch Fairy has raised nearly $150,000 to pay off the school lunch debt of children in need.

These stories are heartwarming, and the people who donate are angels. But let’s look at the bigger picture: Why is there school lunch debt in the first place?

In 2008, Mark Winne wrote in his book Closing the Food Gap that he knew how to end hunger. I was impressed. What could it be? I figured the answer must be terribly complex.

But it wasn’t. End poverty, Winne wrote.

This ties back to the work of Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate in economics who found that hunger was not due to a lack of food, but a lack of a right to food. If you lack the ability to buy food or grow your own food, and nobody gives you food, then in a capitalist economy, you are not legally entitled to food.

Or, in this case, if your parents cannot afford food, then children are not legally entitled to eat at school.

Let’s divide this into two distinct issues, a moral one and a more practical one.

Letting children go hungry in the richest country on earth is wrong. Period. That’s the moral one.

Now, speaking practically, providing free and reduced cost lunch to children of low-income families serves several purposes at once.

It provides for children’s physical needs as an end in itself, while helping them focus on learning while at school. It provides jobs in food service for adults. It even creates demand for commodities to help keep prices up for farmers.

Going one step further, the National School Lunch Act was actually passed as a matter of national security after the Great Depression and World War II. Lawmakers considered undernourishment a liability if it meant young people weren’t healthy enough to fight the next Hitler.

Whatever the reason, ensuring children have enough to eat during the school day is also an economic stimulus and a matter of public good. We all do better if we live in a nation where children grow up healthy, educated, and well nourished.

But we already have the National School Lunch Program, which offers children of low-income families free and reduced price lunch. So why is there still an epidemic of school lunch debt?

For one thing, qualifying for free or reduced price lunch usually involves some burdensome paperwork, so families who should qualify for it don’t always receive it. In other cases, bureaucratic errors can saddle families with thousands in debt for lunches they thought were covered.

The Trump administration is actually making that problem worse by no longer automatically enrolling children in families that qualify for SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, for school lunch assistance.

We live in a nation where food is plentiful but millions of children experience hunger and food insecurity. Feeding our kids shouldn’t fall only to kind strangers and acts of charity.

Instead, a nationwide epidemic of school lunch debt points to a systemic problem that requires a systemic solution. Our kids deserve universal school lunch — and real plans to end poverty in the richest country on earth.

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is pursuing a PhD in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Distributed by

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

Your support$5 or more today — makes publishing education news possible.


Tucked inside this Chalkbeat story on Hamilton County dropping its lawsuit over state funding of public schools is a note about just how inadequate the formula (the BEP) is.

In Tennessee, 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 statewide analysis presented by the Department of Education in December to the BEP Review Committee.

When looking at an average actual salary for Tennessee teachers of around $52,000, this means that local districts are responsible for $468 million in teacher salary expenses before benefits are included. That’s an unfunded mandate that easily exceeds half a billion dollars.

No one is suggesting we hire less teachers. In fact, many districts report needing additional teachers and other staff — such as nurses and counselors — to adequately serve their students.

However, this number does show that our state systematically underfunds public schools in a way not addressed by the current funding formula. It’s likely that when you combine the unfunded salary and benefits of teachers and the needs for programs like RTI2 with the proper staffing levels for nurses and counselors, you’d see a number exceeding $1 billion.

Let’s be clear: The state’s own Department of Education has provided information to the committee responsible for reviewing the state funding formula that indicates we’re at least $500 million behind where we should be in terms of current funding.

It’s also worth noting that these numbers don’t include any significant boost in pay for existing teachers.

In short: Tennessee is not properly funding schools.

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

Your support$5 or more today — makes reporting education news possible.

An End to Lunch Shaming

Nashville State Rep. John Ray Clemmons has filed legislation that would end the practice of “lunch shaming” in Tennessee public schools, WSMV reports.

A state lawmaker has introduced a bill to help students who cannot pay for their lunches.
It’s called the ‘Anti-lunch Shaming’ bill.
Representative John Ray Clemmons has presented the bill two times before.

Students would receive the same lunch as their peers.
This bill would ban schools from taking actions against students who can’t pay for their lunches or those with lunch debt.

This is the third consecutive year Clemmons has introduced the legislation. The last two years saw the bill go down to defeat in legislative subcommittees.

Here’s more on that:

Republicans voted 4-2 to defeat The Tennessee Hunger-Free Students Act—a bill with three measures to ensure students can eat school lunches and not be punished when parents fail to pay meal fees or a meal debt.

Last year, an education subcommittee also rejected a bill sponsored by Clemmons that would have prevented lunch shaming. Every legislator who has opposed this bill in the last two sessions has been a Republican.

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

Your support$5 or more today — makes publishing education news possible.


Here’s an interesting tweet from a Capitol Hill rumor monger:

TN Ed Report has confirmed with multiple sources with inside knowledge of the Department of Education that the substance of this tweet is accurate.

Stay tuned for more details …

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

Your support$5 or more today — makes publishing education news possible!

The Ghost of Big Mac

As races for Knox County School Board come into focus, the ghost of former Director of Schools Jim McIntyre (Big Mac) looms large. Betty Bean has more in KnoxToday:

Four years ago this week, Knox County Schools Superintendent James McIntyre called a press conference and announced his resignation. The first reaction was shock: who walks away from a $227,256 a year job? Then he answered the question himself:

A superintendent who can count to five.

“The current political environment has become increasingly dysfunctional… The focus of the conversation has all too often become about me… There is a new school board essentially coming in on Sept. 1. There will be several new members,” McIntyre said. “The new school board deserves to choose the leader that they want to have in place.”

Bean details the impact of McIntyre’s tenure on the board and political climate and notes there are at least rumors of an attempted Big Mac Attack that would result in the former director returning to his old post.

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

Your support$5 or more today — makes publishing education news possible.

New Name, Same Game

Chalkbeat reports that while Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) may effectively be ending, another state-run charter-centric district may emerge to take its place.

Tennessee’s proposal to move all 30 schools out of its struggling turnaround district is already sparking debate about exactly who should run them if the plan gets legislative approval.

House Education Committee Chairman Mark White says any charter schools in the Achievement School District should be entrusted to the state’s new charter commission — not their local districts.

But Rep. Antonio Parkinson says White’s plan would just create an ASD under a different name:

“Moving these schools to the new charter commission would amount to a sleight of hand,” said Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat. “It would just essentially create another state-run district that’s called by another name.”

In fact, that’s exactly what happened in Nevada:

Nevada took a similar approach last year when closing its achievement district after struggling to attract charter operators and facing intense pushback from the communities it served. Four charters from that district now operate under a state-run charter school authority.

The State Charter Commission, Gov. Bill Lee’s vehicle for usurping local school board authority and privatizing public schools, is still in the startup phase. White’s proposal verifies the intent of the Commission — to undermine public education by continuing the proliferation of charter schools.

Also, it’s not clear why White believes this commission will be any better at managing the ASD charters than the ASD was. By contrast, Shelby County’s iZone schools have proven to be successful and returning the ASD charters to district operation there means sending those schools back to a district with a proven ability to get results.

White’s plan is simple: Change the name, keep playing the same “reform” game.

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

Your support$5 or more today — makes publishing education news possible.

Testing and Teachers

Republicans in the Indiana House of Representatives are taking action to remove test scores from teacher evaluations, the Indianapolis Star reports.

A bill to remove student test scores from performance evaluations that can impact teachers’ pay and promotion prospects unanimously passed a key committee Tuesday. Statehouse leadership is championing House Bill 1002, which could end up being one of the most consequential bills of the 2020 legislative session.

Current state law requires that test scores makeup a significant portion of a teacher’s evaluation, which rates them as highly effective, effective, improvement necessary or ineffective. A teacher’s rating can determine their salary, whether or not they’re eligible for raises or bonuses and impact their movement through the profession.

If this legislation is successful, Indiana will join states like Hawaii, Oklahoma, and New York in moving away from using testing — and, especially, value-added modeling — to evaluate teachers.

A study I reported on last year noted that using value-added modeling (as Tennessee does by way of TVAAS) is highly problematic. In fact, this particular study noted that value-added models suggest that your child’s teacher could impact their future height:

We find the standard deviation of teacher effects on height is nearly as large as that for math and reading achievement, raising obvious questions about validity. Subsequent analysis finds these “effects” are largely spurious variation (noise), rather than bias resulting from sorting on unobserved factors related to achievement. Given the difficulty of differentiating signal from noise in real-world teacher effect estimates, this paper serves as a cautionary tale for their use in practice.

In short, value-added data doesn’t tell us much about teacher performance. Additional data indicates further problems with value-added modeling for teacher evaluation — especially as it relates to middle school teachers:

Well, it could mean that Tennessee’s 6th and 7th grade ELA teachers are the worst in the state. Or, it could mean that math teachers in Tennessee are better teachers than ELA teachers. Or, it could mean that 8th grade ELA teachers are rock stars.

Alternatively, one might suspect that the results of Holloway-Libell’s analysis suggest both grade level and subject matter bias in TVAAS.

In short, TVAAS is an unreliable predictor of teacher performance. Or, teaching 6th and 7th grade students reading is really hard.

The study cited above showed that 6th and 7th grade ELA teachers consistently received lower TVAAS scores and that this was true across various districts. Or, as I noted: The study suggests both grade level and subject matter bias in TVAAS results.

Or, maybe, if your kid gets the “right” teacher, s/he WILL end up taller?!

The bottom line: Using value-added modeling to evaluate teachers is total crap.

Indiana’s lawmakers are finally catching on. It’s time for Tennessee to catch up.

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

Your support$5 or more today — makes publishing education news possible.

It’s the Air Filters

While Tennessee has a clear need for school infrastructure upgrades, especially as it relates to lead in water, it’s also worth noting that improving air quality in schools could have tremendous benefits for students — both in terms of health and academics. A new study highlighted in Vox notes that student achievement improves when schools install air filters.

The impact of the air filters is strikingly large given what a simple change we’re talking about. The school district didn’t reengineer the school buildings or make dramatic education reforms; they just installed $700 commercially available filters that you could plug into any room in the country. But it’s consistent with a growing literature on the cognitive impact of air pollution, which finds that everyone from chess players to baseball umpires to workers in a pear-packing factory suffer deteriorations in performance when the air is more polluted.

A study following the installation of the air filters noted a significant impact on student performance:

He finds that math scores went up by 0.20 standard deviations and English scores by 0.18 standard deviations, and the results hold up even when you control for “detailed student demographics, including residential ZIP Code fixed effects that help control for a student’s exposure to pollution at home.”

These findings are consistent with other data on the subject:

But Sefi Roth of the London School of Economics studied university students’ test performance relative to air pollution levels on the day of the test alone. He found that taking a test in a filtered rather than unfiltered room would raise test scores by 0.09 standard deviations. That’s about half the impact Gilraine found, just based on day-of-test air quality. In Gilraine’s natural experiment, students benefited from cleaner air for about four months. Given that context, it’s not incredibly surprising that you could see an impact that’s about twice as large.

So, a relatively inexpensive change in schools could have a big, positive impact on every student in the state. By contrast, school vouchers represent a very expensive intervention that negatively impacts participating students:

Recent data from the non-partisan Brookings Institute, for example, shows that four rigorous studies done in Louisiana, Washington, D.C., Indiana and Ohio found that struggling students who use vouchers to attend private schools perform worse on achievement tests than struggling students in public schools.  

So, will the Tennessee General Assembly repeal the voucher legislation and move forward with a plan to add air filters to classrooms?

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

Your support$5 or more today — makes publishing education news possible.

Democrats and Education Policy in 2020

Jeff Bryant writes about the 2020 Democratic Presidential candidates and the shift in the national Democratic party on issues like charter schools:

Education has been mostly ignored in previous presidential elections, and the topic had not come up for serious discussion among the candidates in televised debates prior to the Public Education Forum 2020, held in Pittsburgh on December 14. But at an event in which candidates knew they would have to field some tough questions about education issues and be held closely accountable for their answers, most of the leading candidates—including the front-runners—showed up and welcomed the dialogue. Furthermore, the tables were turned on who controlled the dialogue. “How many times have we been dictated to, have we been told to do?” asked American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. Teachers, students, and community organizers who’ve wanted more of a dialogue with political candidates and elected officials have often been “silenced,” Weingarten stated. But what unfolded in Pittsburgh was “a paradigm shift,” she said, because the candidates had to “actually listen” to the folks who inhabit the world that is “the farthest place in the universe,” to use Bennet’s words, from education policymakers in Washington, D.C. The candidates heard that “the priorities of the federal law should be to level the playing field to make sure that kids… actually have the things they need,” she said. “These candidates are listening to us.” The change in heart of Democratic candidates has been a long time in coming.


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

Your support$5 or more today — makes publishing education news possible.