Legal Challenges to Voucher Scheme Continue

While Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher scheme started this year in Memphis and Nashville, legal challenges to the plan continue. All of this while some lawmakers are seeking to expand the program to Chattanooga and possibly beyond.

Chalkbeat reports:

Metropolitan Nashville and Shelby County governments, which jointly challenged the 2019 law that applies only to their counties, notified the Tennessee Court of Appeals late last month that they will appeal the latest ruling. Attorneys representing parents and taxpayers in a second lawsuit submitted a separate notice of appeal.

The appeals will extend the 3-year-old legal battle over Gov. Bill Lee’s controversial Education Savings Account program for at least several more months. The program provides taxpayer money for eligible families in Memphis and Nashville to help cover private school tuition for their children. 

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

Vouchers on Verge of Expansion in Tennessee

Just days after it was revealed that Gov. Bill Lee’s privatizer of choice, Christian Nationalist Hillsdale College, will be again attempting to open publicly funded schools in the state, a move is underway to expand the state’s voucher program.

This despite Lee’s pledge when the program was approved in 2019 that it would be at least five years before vouchers moved beyond Memphis and Nashville.

Readers might well remember all the scandal surrounding that original voucher vote:

Now, Chalkbeat reports that Hamilton County state Senator Todd Gardenhire has introduced legislation that would expand the program to schools in Chattanooga.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican, wants the legislature to expand the eligibility criteria for the education savings account program to include students in districts with at least five of the state’s lowest-performing schools, as identified in the last three “priority school” cycles since 2015.

Under those criteria, Hamilton County Schools, which is based in Chattanooga, would qualify

Make no mistake – the ultimate goal is full privatization of public education in Tennessee. It has been Gov. Lee’s goal all along:

In 2018, I wrote:

In spite of years of evidence of where Bill Lee stands when it comes to supporting our public schools (he doesn’t), many school board members and county commissioners across the state supported his successful campaign. These local elected officials often touted his business acumen and support of vocational education as reasons to back him. However, it’s difficult to imagine these same officials just “didn’t know” Bill Lee backs a scheme to divert public money to private schools — a scheme that has failed miserably time and again in other states and localities.

More likely, they just didn’t care. Bill Lee was on the right team and spoke the right, religiously-tinged words and so earned the support of people who will look at you with a straight face and say they love Tennessee public schools.

Much the same can be said of 2022 – Lee spent four years assaulting public education and yet many local officials stood by him because he wears an “R” on his jersey and is affiliated with a familiar brand of Christianity.

Will these same elected officials be surprised when local taxes rise and public education is replaced by Hillsdale’s theocracy-promoting charters?

Or is this the future they’ve been waiting for?

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

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State’s Negligence Puts Millions in Federal Funding for Schools At Risk

Newschannel 9 in Chattanooga has the story of how the Tennessee Department of Education’s lack of proper documentation and inappropriate spending could jeopardize hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding for schools.

$328 million in school money could soon be lost, after a federal report says the state used the money inappropriately or didn’t provide documentation.

The money is part of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and is designed to support migrant education, low income community schools and special education.

What’s most shocking about this story is that the state was first advised of issues with how it tracks and spends these federal dollars back in 2018. Then, they were warned again in 2021.

Now, they are under a tight deadline to demonstrate they can accurately track and account for this federal money. If they don’t, the cash will stop flowing – leaving school districts with less money on which to operate.

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The Erosion of Local Control

Gov. Bill Lee is no fan of local school boards or public education. Even before he was a candidate for governor, he was advocating for statewide privatization of K-12 education.

Now, Lee’s handpicked charter school commission – an agency of unelected bureaucrats tasked with advancing school privatization – is going about the business of handing taxpayer dollars to private entities.

NewsChannel5’s Phil Williams reports on the Commission’s unanimous decision to overturn a vote by Nashville’s school board:

A state board voted Wednesday to overrule the Metro Nashville school board, approving two new privately operated charter schools in southeast Nashville that local school officials say they don’t need.

By an 8-0 vote, the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission approved a request from KIPP Nashville to open an elementary school and middle school — both funded by taxpayers.

Later this month, the commission will hear an appeal from Founders Classical Academy, a group previously associated with the controversial Hillsdale College, to open charter schools in Franklin and Hendersonville over the objections of the local school boards.

This is no surprise – Lee has consistently expressed a desire to suppress the voices of voters and advance a school privatization agenda.

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Lawmaker Shocked that Gov. Lee Means What He Says

Gov. Bill Lee has been shocking policymakers and pundits for a long time now simply by telling the truth about his school privatization agenda.

At a recent legislative hearing, lawmakers – some of whom supported creating the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission – expressed surprise that the law they passed back in 2019 actually does what it says.

https://twitter.com/TheTNHoller/status/1575487115722227712?s=20&t=OrTFinies5Ueh76rY-s27w

Gov. Lee has been saying this since BEFORE he was even a candidate for governor.

Now that his policies are potentially impacting their districts, policymakers are starting to pay attention. Still no indication they’ll actually do anything to stop it.

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Hillsdale Circus Comes to Rutherford County

Controversial Michigan-based charter school operator Hillsdale College brought its roadshow to Rutherford County this week and parents and public school advocates spoke out against the school locating in their community.

Nashville’s NewsChannel5 reported on the events surrounding a hearing conducted by the Tennessee State Charter School Commission. While the Rutherford County School Board rejected Hillsdale-affiliated American Classical Academy’s charter application, the school has appealed to the unelected state board to override the local decision. All members of the Commission were appointed by current governor and charter school supporter Bill Lee.

The Hillsdale-affiliated American Classical Academy is asking the commission to overturn the decision by the Rutherford County school board to deny their application for taxpayer funding for their privately operated charter school.

Rutherford County officials argue that the Hillsdale schools do not have a good track record when it comes to students with disabilities, those who are economically disadvantaged and the lowest performing children.

Here’s what Rutherford County Schools had to say about the Hillsdale application:

https://twitter.com/TheTNHoller/status/1570150496354140168?s=20&t=mssDevQQu2X0qAeSaVtsAg
street performer standing on a stool
Photo by Ronê Ferreira on Pexels.com

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What’s the Rush?

Gov. Bill Lee has moved quickly to implement his school voucher scheme as courts have cleared the way for it to start this school year.

So far, though, not many families are expressing serious interest.

The Tennessean reports that as of the first day of school in Memphis and Nashville (the only two districts eligible for vouchers), only 30 applications had been submitted for approval.

As of Monday morning, only 30 families had submitted an actual application, according to information from Department of Education spokesperson Brian Blackley. The department received applications from 40 schools, he said, noting that application process has closed.

While Lee has claimed that several thousand families want the vouchers, that has not yet been borne out in the application process.

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$26 Million Harm

Voucher case proceeds despite imminent harm to Memphis, Nashville

A three-judge panel on Friday declined to stop Gov. Bill Lee’s rushed implementation of a school voucher scheme in Memphis and Nashville.

Chalkbeat reports that lawyers for parents opposing the voucher plan had asked the court to halt implementation while their case against vouchers proceeds.

Specifically, lawyers noted that if implementation proceeds, Memphis and Nashville combined could lose up to $26 million in funding this year despite no attendant reduction in costs to operate.

“Nothing requires the state defendants to push this forward at a rocket’s pace after the injunction was lifted, just before the school year started,” said Allison Bussell, Metro Nashville’s associate law director, representing the two local governments.

She argued that allowing the program to start will cause irreparable harm to both districts, which she said stand to lose $26 million this school year if 3,000 students shift from public to private schools — while the districts must maintain and staff the same number of schools. 

A recent article in The Hechinger Report noted that vouchers have not been shown to improve student achievement, and in fact, have in some cases been shown to actually be harmful.

Vouchers are dangerous to American education. They promise an all-too-simple solution to tough problems like unequal access to high-quality schools, segregation and even school safety. In small doses, years ago, vouchers seemed like they might work, but as more states have created more and larger voucher programs, experts like me have learned enough to say that these programs on balance can severely hinder academic growth — especially for vulnerable kids.

So, vouchers not only cost local districts significant money, but they also harm the very students they are intended to help. Nevertheless, Gov. Lee and his allies are persisting with this perilous plan.

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Hillsdale on the March

Despite rhetoric from GOP legislators suggesting that Tennessee will “sever ties” with controversial Hillsdale College, it now appears that all three charter schools with a Hillsdale affiliation are appealing to the State Charter Commission to overturn local school board decisions. If approved, the charter schools would open in Madison, Montgomery, and Rutherford counties in 2023.

While I don’t normally do this, I’m going to go ahead and suggest that the Hillsdale charters will all be approved. Believe me, I’d love to write a story about the denial of all three applications. But that won’t happen.

Here’s the deal: When you vote for Bill Lee’s charter commission, you vote to allow Lee to override local school boards and install whatever charter he likes. When you vote to open the door to charters, you vote to erode local control. When you fail to stop Lee’s agreement with Hillsdale during the 2022 legislative session, you have already decided the wishes of your local school board and county commission don’t matter. By supporting Lee’s backdoor privatization agenda, you have told voters in your communities that they don’t matter.

This development is not at all surprising. It is exactly the kind of scheme Bill Lee promised even before he was a candidate for governor back in 2018. It is what his campaign was about. If there was any doubt, he erased it 100% in his 2022 State of the State.

These three counties are not the end. If Lee and his General Assembly allies have their way, there will be 50 or more Hillsdale charters in communities across the state. Vouchers, too, will take public dollars and funnel them to private schools.

This has been the plan all along, and Bill Lee is executing that plan no matter what he says in the face of pressure from reporters.

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So Much for Severing Ties

While the controversy over remarks made by Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn has Republicans – including Gov. Bill Lee – arguing with Bill Lee’s vision for a Hillsdale takeover of Tennessee public education, that hasn’t stopped Hillsdale-affiliated charter schools from continuing the quest for Tennessee tax dollars.

Phil Williams of NewsChannel5 reports that a Hillsdale-affiliated charter school in Madison County has appealed to the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission to overturn the local decision to reject the school:

And, as Williams notes, while the school claims to be “separate” from Hillsdale, the top three proposed board members (Chair, Treasurer, and Secretary) are all current employees of Hillsdale.

I’ve written a lot about Hillsdale, and you can find a good summary of that here.

If, as Gov. Lee most recently said, a group of Hillsdale charter’s is “not his vision,” then now would be a good time for him to speak up and discourage the American Classical Academy from pursuing its appeal.

Of course, he won’t do that. While I’d love to write an article that says the state charter board has denied this appeal (and the likely similar appeals in Montgomery and Rutherford counties), I seriously doubt that will be the case.

Here’s what American Classical has to say about its work in Tennessee:

K-5 CLASSICAL CHARTER SCHOOLS WILL OPEN IN THESE TENNESSEE COUNTIES IN FALL 2023 (emphasis added).

It doesn’t say they’ve applied to open, or that in cooperation with local school boards, they plan to open. It says, “will open.”

And, despite the resounding rejection by local school boards, American Classical is appealing to the state charter commission which could greenlight them to open in 2023.

The American Classical site also includes this note about the schools it (so far) plans to open in 2023:

Montgomery County Classical Academy will begin by serving Kindergarten-Grade 5 with a planned enrollment of 325 students in our first year and add a grade each year until the school can offer a complete K-12 classical education experience.

That same verbiage is included in Madison and Rutherford counties.

Here’s the deal: 2023 is the first year of school funding under the new, TISA model. This means the charters stand to get more money – based of just under $7000 per student PLUS weights for a variety of categories.

Taking it at just the base, though, each of these districts stands to lose nearly $2.3 million in funding in YEAR ONE of the charter school opening.

While it may SEEM that the transfer of students would lead to a corresponding reduction in local costs, it likely won’t. First, it’s not like these students will all come from the same zone or school, so reducing staff at schools is unlikely. At best, you’d be looking at 2-3 teaching position reductions.

The districts, though, will still have the same fixed costs – transportation, building operation and maintenance, etc. They’ll just have about $2 million LESS to use to operate.

Here’s some insight from the costs associated with charters in Nashville:

In short, thanks to Bill Lee’s vision (the one he’s now trying to unsee), these three districts are likely to see a significant funding hit in 2023. And Hillsdale is likely to be cashing in on Tennessee tax dollars to advance its agenda of evangelical exceptionalism.

Photo by Akinori UEMURA on Unsplash

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

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