Lee Continues Predictable Privatization Push

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is no fan of public schools as he makes clear time and again. Whether it is advancing voucher schemes, creating charter school slush funds, or refusing to invest in our underfunded public schools, Lee is working tirelessly to undermine public education in our state.

Now, Lee is seeking to reward charter schools in Memphis and trap more schools in the failed Achievement School District.

Chalkbeat has more:

When Tennessee started taking over low-performing schools and matching most with charter operators in 2012, the plan was to return the schools to their home districts when they improved in an estimated five years.

Now Gov. Bill Lee is proposing other options for schools that have remained in the state’s turnaround program for nearly 10 years — most notably to let some of the higher-performing ones move from one state-run district to another.

Under legislation introduced this week, Lee proposed letting some charter schools bypass their original district when leaving Tennessee’s Achievement School District, also known as the ASD. Instead, they could apply to move directly to the state’s new charter school commission, which the governor helped to create.

It’s not like we couldn’t see this coming. In fact, warnings about Lee’s aggressive stance about privatization came early. In 2018, I noted:

Even though as early as 2016, Bill Lee was extolling the virtues of school voucher schemes and even though he’s a long-time supporter of Betsy DeVos’s pro-voucher Tennessee Federation for Children and even though he has appointed not one, but two voucher vultures to high level posts in his Administration, it is somehow treated as “news” that Bill Lee plans to move forward with a voucher scheme agenda in 2019.

In addition to the failure of the ASD to do, well, anything there’s also ample evidence of the failure of charter schools. Never mind the facts, though, Lee is committed to privatizing at all costs.

In 2019, I noted that charter schools in Tennessee and elsewhere are the “God That Failed” – taking money while yielding little in the way of results. Then, I suggested that in spite of all the evidence, Tennessee would continue down this path:

In other words, poverty matters. And, making the investments to combat it matters, too.


In other words, money matters. Districts with concentrated poverty face two challenges: Students with significant economic needs AND the inability of the district to generate the revenue necessary to adequately invest in schools.

But, by all means, let’s continue to worship at the feet of the Charter God hoping that our faith in “free markets” will be enough to move the needle for the kids who most need the opportunities provided by public education.

Plus, there was this great video demonstrating what must be the typical conversation around the Lee Administration’s privatization war room:

Remember when education advocates warned that Lee’s charter commission would grow, expand, and take over more schools and we were told that we were just being silly? Well, here’s how that seems to be turning out:

If the ASD bill passes, the commission’s role will expand, and its portfolio of charter schools is likely to grow. (The entity currently oversees three schools in Nashville and one in Memphis.) For now, the commission’s authority is limited as an appellate authorizer of charter organizations deemed to be high quality but rejected by local school boards.

What’s also interesting is the propensity of Tennessee policymakers to do a lot of talking that results in little action that helps students:

Tennessee leaders have been talking for years about how to exit ASD schools that haven’t met early improvement goals acknowledged now as too lofty. But because the transition involves everything from people and property to finances and governance, the state has found it almost as hard to transition schools out of the ASD as it was to take them over.

It’s as if there is no one leading anything other than the charge privatize public schools at all costs. ASD running into problems? Here’s an idea: Let’s let it continue to plague poor communities with little regard to actual results.

Will Gov. Lee creates confusion by attacking Confucius, our schools have real needs. Needs he seems content to ignore. This is not an accident, it’s an intentional act designed to decimate public schools. At this point, with a state experiencing a huge surplus (likely over $2 billion this year alone), refusing to fund public schools is a policy choice. It’s a choice that keeps being made over and over again. Sadly, it’s a choice that is made while some so-called public school supporters stand by and also indicate support for Lee.

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

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Mystery Solved

Amy Frogge solved the mystery:

Here’s the story:

A few days ago, I shared a Tennessee Education Report piece about mailers sent out in the District 3 school board race on behalf of candidate Brian Hubert. It garnered a really interesting response. 

The mailers came from a group called the “Nashville Parents Committee,” and the address listed on the mailers was the same as that of the Tennessee Charter School Center. After TN Ed Report put out its blog post suggesting that the TN Charter Center was responsible for the mailers (a logical assumption), both Brian Hubert and his wife responded that they were unaware of these mailers and did not coordinate with the “Nashville Parents Committee.” Then, a couple of days later, the Tennessee Charter School Center issued a response disavowing the mailers. 

As it turns out, the registered agent for the “Nashville Parents Committee” is Todd Ervin, a tax attorney at the well-heeled Bass, Berry & Sims law firm. (I’m going to hazard a guess here that Mr. Ervin has not formed this committee to advocate for his children’s local public schools.) Mr. Ervin also just happens to be the registered agent for Tennesseans for Student Success.

Tennesseans for Student Success is a pro-school privatization organization that was set up to support Governor Haslam’s education agenda. This group shares the same agenda as the Tennessee Charter School Center and has recently inserted itself into Representative Mike Stewart’s Democratic primary by supporting his opponent James Turner (see comments). Although it appears that Haslam is no longer involved with Tennesseans for Student Success, it is still very active. It promotes charter schools, excessive standardized testing, and teacher “accountability” (our deeply flawed teacher evaluation model that evaluates 70% of TN teachers on classes they’ve never taught). These are all tentacles of the “school choice” movement. Unreliable standardized test scores are used to prove that TN schools are “failing” and thus to market new and “innovative” solutions, such as vouchers, more charter schools, and more tests and test prep to “assess” how our students and teachers are performing. The common theme here is profit for private interests. 

Over and over again, we find ourselves fighting the same battles in different guises against various forms of corruption. It becomes exhausting. During my 8 years on the board, we first had to fight against charter school proliferation (which drains money from public schools and directs it to private interests) and absurd amounts of standardized tests for our children. Then came vouchers (for the moment, defeated!). Now the battle has morphed once again. Former Nashville superintendent Shawn Joseph and current TN Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn, both affiliated with the Eli Broad network, are part of the latest scam to direct public funds to private interests and education vendors in the form of no-bid contracts. (Broad also pushes charter schools.) Millions and millions of dollars are at stake in these efforts. But make no mistake, all of this is ultimately about personal greed at the expense of children.

On a related note, I mentioned in my original post that District 9 candidate Russelle Bradbury is a former Teach for America teacher who has made pro-charter school statements. This matters because TFA and charter schools have a symbiotic relationship, and TFA candidates, like former school board member and TFA executive Elissa Kim, typically view charter schools and standardized testing as the only “solutions” to public school challenges. (I know there are good TFA teachers in our school system, some of whom have even taught my own children, but all of this is beside the point.) Ms. Bradbury denied that she was ever a TFA teacher, to which I responded that she has said (both verbally and in writing) that her “Mom likes to tell people, ‘Russelle did Teach for America, on her own!'” I’ve invited her to respond, but have not heard back. 

Keep your eye on these dark money groups that don’t serve the best interests of Nashville’s students. Even when candidates don’t coordinate with groups like Tennesseans for Student Success, organizations like these typically fight against the candidate whom they view as the most effective advocate for true public education. And, as always, just follow the money!

TC Talks Masters

Nashville education blogger TC Weber extols the virtues of District 3 School Board candidate Emily Masters in his post today. Here’s what he has to say:

District 3 has a fantastic candidate in Emily Masters, one who is knowledgeable, experienced, personable, and capable of seeing the big picture. She understands the need to address teacher recruitment and retention in a meaningful way. She is ready to serve as a champion to reduce inequities, and address the capital needs of our buildings. As a parent of two MNPS children, she is well versed in the history of MNPS but not at the expense of being blind to the future challenges that the district will face.

It’s been said that school board elections are the perfect time to hold conversations about what a community’s schools should look like. Nobody is better poised to host that conversation than Masters. She’s knowledgable and articulate on the subjects that should be the focus.

But those weren’t the subjects that dominated this weekend’s conversation. A mailer for her opponent paid for by a previously undeclared PAC – Nashville Parents Committee – that shared an address with the Nashville Charter School Center hit mailboxes and started tongues a-wagging. Here we go again, talking about dark money, charter school proliferation, and their evil plans to destroy public education. Lost in the conversation were the high-quality traits of Mrs. Masters, and the reason her name should be on every voter’s ballot.

READ MORE>

A Denial

In response to the story on mailers from Nashville Parents Committee in the District 3 Nashville School Board race, I received this statement from the Tennessee Charter School Center:

The following statement is issued by Dr. Maya Bugg, CEO, Tennessee Charter School Center, in reference to Tennessee Education Report’s accusation of the Tennessee Charter School Center being involved in a mailer campaign supporting Brian Hubert: 

On July 24, 2020, the Tennessee Education Report wrote a post accusing the Tennessee Charter School Center of involvement with a mailer that was sent out by a group called the Nashville Parents Committee in support of Metro Nashville Public School Board candidate Brian Hubbert in the 3rd District race.

The accusation was false and based on the Parents Committee’s address being the same office building as the Tennessee Charter School Center operates from. That address is for a large office building in downtown Nashville that, in addition to a number of independent businesses, also houses a coworking space occupied by more than 100 businesses, organizations and individuals including the Tennessee Charter School Center and many others. 

The Tennessee Charter School Center is in no way affiliated with the Nashville Parents Committee or the mailer in question. As a 501(c)3 non-profit advocacy organization, TCSC abides by the legal requirement that it is prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.

It is the responsibility of a site which aims to provide “relevant education news and in-depth analysis of education policy impacting our schools” to also provide accurate information. As always, we at the TN Charter School Center are available to address any questions about our organization’s work or public charter schools in Tennessee. We fully condemn the sharing of false information to the public and hope that the parties involved will post a public correction to statements promptly.

Mystery Mail

The races for Nashville School Board are heating up and there appears to be a new player on the scene. A group called the Nashville Parents Committee is sending out mailers in support of Brian Hubert in the 3rd District race.

What’s interesting about the Nashville Parents Committee is that a google search for them yields no results. The group also hasn’t filed campaign finance disclosures with either the Davidson County Election Commission or the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance. There’s no Facebook page or Twitter feed for this committee of parents.

So, let’s take a look at these pro-Hubert mailers and see if we can find some clues.

Let’s take a look at the return address for “Nashville Parents Committee.”

Well… this is interesting. Look who has the same address:

Yes, that’s right. The Tennessee Charter School Center. That’s the group started by former Nashville Mayor and charter school backer Karl Dean. I wonder how many Nashville “parents” make up this committee. Also, the Tennessee Charter School Center is not registered as a PAC or disclosed (so far) as a donor to Hubert.

Will we ever know who is pumping tens of thousands of dollars into this race in order to move the ball for charter schools? Possibly not, as the mailer doesn’t explicitly say to “vote for” Hubert. It’s pretty damn clear that those behind the mailer want you to vote for Hubert, though.

Should dark money like this be a driving force in our elections? Did Hubert know about the mailer and coordinate with the pro-charter group? Why is a charter school group backing Hubert?

As voters head to the polls, these are important questions that Hubert and his financial backers should answer.

Charters and School Closures in Nashville

Nashville school board member Amy Frogge explains the impact of charter schools on MNPS in a recent Facebook post:

Last night, the board voted to close and consolidate schools in North Nashville. No one wants to close neighborhood schools, and this was a difficult decision. However, MNPS is out of money, and Dr. Battle recommended the closures because she believes MNPS can better serve the impacted students if we consolidate our resources.

These closures are a direct result of charter school expansion in Nashville. What happened last night is part of the charter school playbook. It’s happened in cities throughout the US. When a city opens a number of charter schools, enrollment decreases in traditional schools. The city is then trying to fund two separate, competing schools systems with the same pot of funding. Here in Nashville, our pot of funding was already insufficient. Because of state law, charter schools will always have the advantage because they must be paid, and they are always funded first. So cuts always come from our traditional, neighborhood schools. When money runs out, a city must close neighborhood schools. That’s the charter school playbook.

Nashville is also dealing with the additional threat of state takeover. Through the state-run Achievement School District, the state can reach down and remove any school performing in the bottom 5% of schools statewide and convert it to a charter school. This strategy has not yielded good results for students, since the performance of the ASD has been dismal. All of the schools we closed last night were priority schools (in the bottom 5% of schools in the state). By closing them, we are protecting these schools from state takeover.

Last night, the board voted to request $929 million in operational funding for next year. It’s more likely we will receive $914 million, which is our maintenance of effort budget from last year. Of that amount, approximately $145 million must go towards our charter schools, which serve only a small percentage of our students. In fact, charter costs will actually increase by $6.6 million next year, while we must cut other costs throughout the district. The charters are continuing to expand grade levels while other schools operate without enough funding. Our vote to close schools last night will save us about $3.5 million per year. If we were not trying to fund a charter sector right now, we could afford to keep these schools open. This is exactly what some of us have tried to warn the board about for years. Yet the board has continued to vote for more charter seats.

What happened last night is the very vision of the charter sector. It’s called “disruption,” a term the charter sector has borrowed from the business world. Charter schools have “disrupted the markets” in Nashville. In this case, the “markets” are children and neighborhoods.** [See below.]

Also, back in 2013, I spent nearly a year fighting the passage of the state charter authorizer law. I testified at the legislature and met with lawmakers, all to no avail. The state charter authorizer law was then-mayor Karl Dean’s vision. He pushed to pass a law that removed local control of schools so that Nashville would open more charter schools. So here we now sit- lacking adequate school funding, without local control of our schools, and with increased money going towards the charter sector while we close neighborhood schools. The chickens have finally come home to roost.

None of this is Dr. Battle’s fault. She is dealing with the outcomes of decisions made years ago, as well as a current emergency. Dr. Battle actually found a way to reduce funding for charter schools this year, which surprised me, since we have never been able to cut charter funding before. It’s only fair that if our district schools must suffer cuts, charter schools should, too. The good news here is that the district has no plans to sell any of the vacated buildings or to rent them to charter schools. (Handing over vacated buildings to charter schools is also part of the charter playbook.) Dr. Battle has provided us assurance that this will not happen. Instead the schools will be preserved for district use and can be reopened as neighborhood schools in the future if enrollment increases.

Equity has always been at the heart of the charter debate. Not only do charters receive district funding, but charters also have access to additional funding as well. Our district provides charter schools with the per pupil funding required by state, as well as some free district services. On top of that, charter schools often receive extra funding from investors or philanthropists, and they are sometimes provided with special funding. For example, back in 2010, at a time when we had no funds to renovate other school buildings that had been on a waiting list for years, Mayor Dean gave KIPP $10 million to renovate a historic building for ONE charter school ALONE. And now, in the midst of a pandemic, even though most charter schools are not losing funding, charters are applying for federal aid in the form of small business loans that can be forgiven. None of this is fair or right. By opening charter schools, we have created greater inequities in our school system. Our traditional schools, which serve the most costly and challenging to educate students are on the losing end, and those are the students who will suffer the loss.

I hope this has been an eye-opening experience for Nashville. Charter schools, which make money for wealthy investors, are not the answer. Nashville must focus on supporting our community schools.

[** As one commenter says below: “School closings are the heart of free market based ed ‘reform.’ The entire concept is that schools compete for limited funds, that ‘bad’ schools will lose and close and ‘good’ schools will win and have the funds directed toward them. Besides the fact that this model has not been successful at producing large scale improvements for kids, there is this – If you oppose school closures and the disruption and pain they cause communities and families, you should not support a competition based model as the means to school improvement, because school closings are the inevitable end result and the means by which the market ‘reform’ system is intended to work. If Tennessee continues to pursue this approach, we will see this happen more and more.

Another note – this is why you very rarely see ‘reform’ funders and organizations advocate for large scale increases in investment in public schools, and instead refer to ‘throwing money at the problem.’ Keeping resources limited and requiring educators to compete over them, with winners and losers, is another essential aspect of the competition/market model.”]

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Pilfering Privatizers Seek Profit Amid Pandemic

This article on school privatization efforts in Tennessee originally appeared in The Progressive.

What’s the cure for COVID-19 in schools? Charter schools, of course!

Budget cuts on the horizon because of the economic damage caused by weeks of stay-at-home orders? Sounds like your districts need more charter schools.

Concerned about what the 2020-21 school year might look like?

Charter. Schools.

When it comes to public schools, Tennessee’s answer to the COVID-19 pandemic has been clear and simple: Privatization. 

First, in mid-March, Governor Bill Lee chose to include millions of dollars for a new voucher scheme in his emergency budget before the legislature left Nashville due to the coronavirus. How’d he pay for it? By cutting a planned investment in teacher compensation.

Now, as Tennessee’s two largest school districts, Memphis and Nashville, face significant budget shortfalls for the upcoming school year, the possibility of the state forcing unwanted charter schools on them looms large. These new charters would eat up valuable district resources at a time when funding is scarce. They also will come in the two districts where the state’s “Education Savings Account” voucher scheme will pilfer public dollars for privatizers.

In 2019, the newly-minted governor pushed for and won approval of a State Charter School Commission. This new body will have broad authority to grant charters to schools—even those schools denied a charter by local school districts. If the state body approved a charter school, the commission would manage the school, but the funding for that school would come from the local district.

In other words, whether or not Nashville or Memphis want more charter schools, the Charter Commission can approve and locate a charter in any district in the state without the approval or consent of the local board—then mandate that the local board spend funds to support it. 


Fast forward to May 2020. 

Right now, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is pushing a scheme whereby states can acquire additional federal stimulus funds for education if they agree to advance a school privatization agenda. 

Enter the Tennessee Charter School Commission. While Nashville and Memphis have taken a cautious approach to charter school approval in recent years, the Charter Commission, stacked with Governor Lee’s handpicked privatization proponents, seems primed to put charters where they aren’t wanted. 

Obligating districts to fund charters would also divert money that they need to provide resources for students if a second wave of COVID-19 wreaks havoc this fall. Nashville is already staring down a $100 million budget shortfall for education, and Memphis is considering a tax increase just to maintain its school system. 

How much of a financial bite will new charter schools take from these struggling districts?

That’s hard to calculate exactly. But in 2014, a study conducted by independent research firm MGT of America predicted that “new charter schools will, with nearly 100 percent certainty, have a negative fiscal impact” on Nashville’s school district. MGT calculated a price tag that could exceed $300 million in direct costs to the city’s public schools over a five-year period.

A more recent study in North Carolina found that the financial burden of adding charter schools to one urban county school district, Durham, was between $500 and $700 per student. In rural districts in the state with fewer charters, the impact was less negative but still significant—up to $300 per student.


Added to the estimated cost of charter schools in Tennessee is a whole new disaster: a voucher scheme. Though this program was ruled unconstitutional by a judge on May 5 (and will no longer start next year, as initially planned), it revealed the true aims of education reformers in the state. 

By forcing charters on cash-strapped districts, DeVos and Lee are using the chaos caused by COVID-19 to advance a privatization agenda. Something similar happened when public schools were hollowed out in New Orleans, post-Katrina.  

DeVos, in a statement on May 4, put it diplomatically: 

“The current disruption to the normal model is reaffirming something I have said for years. We must rethink education to better the realities of the twenty-first century. This is the time for local education leaders to unleash their creativity and ingenuity.”

Lee, a longtime financial supporter of DeVos, recently made the same point, in language that’s just as mystifying. “The Department of Education has a clear directive to challenge the status quo by developing solutions that best advocate for students and teachers,” Lee said. 

The COVID-19 crisis has created new opportunities for profit-seeking privatizers to prey on public education. We must continue shining a light on those working to undermine public schools, so that we can continue fighting for the public good. 

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KIPP, COVID, and Memphis

Gary Rubinstein reports on KIPP using COVID-19 as a reason to flee the troubled Achievement School District:

The Tennessee Achievement School District, or ASD, is the Edsel of school reform. Created with a Race To The Top Grant and developed by TFA alum Kevin Huffman, who was state education commissioner at the time, and TFA alum Chris Barbic, the first ASD superintendent, the ASD completely failed in it’s mission to ‘catapult’ schools from the bottom 5% into the top 25% in five years. It is now eight years into the experiment and hardly any of the 30 ASD schools even made it out of the bottom 5%. Not to worry, both Huffman and Barbic resigned and are doing very well with their new project called The City Fund.

Three of the 30 ASD schools are run by KIPP. Five days ago I read in Chalkbeat TN that two of those KIPP schools are shutting down at the end of this school year. On the KIPP Memphis website they explain to the families “While the community welcomed our network with open arms, we’ve been unable to fulfill our academic promise to our students, teachers and families at KIPP Memphis Preparatory Elementary and KIPP Memphis Preparatory Middle. We understand that these closures will have significant implications on our families. However, we strongly believe this decision is in the best interest of our entire KIPP Memphis community and is a step in the right direction to improve our organization’s ability to build a stronger network of schools.”

Tennessee is where the value-added and growth metrics were developed and these two schools ranked at the bottom of the state. Out of a 4 point scale, one of the schools got a 1 and the other got a 0.1 in growth.

Incidentally, KIPP currently has 13 schools in Tennessee. Of those 13 schools, only 11 have growth scores for 2018-2019, five of those (including the two that are now closing) had growth scores between 0 and 1 and two had growth scores between 1 and 2. So of the 11 schools with this rating, 7 had below to very below average ‘growth.’ Reformers are going to have to make up their minds: Is KIPP a fraud or are growth scores a fraud — they can’t have it both ways.

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Charters or Teachers

Nashville school board member Amy Frogge distills the debate about whether to approve new charter school applications during the COVID-19 pandemic down to a simple choice:

“We have a limited pool of funds,” said Nashville board member Amy Frogge, a charter school critic who plans to vote to deny the district’s five applications. “We can choose to pay our teachers or open more charter seats.”

Chalkbeat has more on how Memphis and Nashville are looking at the charter expansion debate in the current fiscal climate.

Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Lee has presented consecutive state budget proposals doubling a charter school slush fund.

While Lee’s emergency “coronavirus” budget ultimately slashed the slush fund this year, he wasted no time in directing millions to his favorite privatization scheme, vouchers. He did this while cutting a planned investment in teacher compensation in half.

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Priorities

At a time when the COVID-19 crisis is wreaking havoc on budgets (including up to $100 million in potential cuts to Nashville schools), it’s important to examine priorities. This means looking for areas of saving while also acknowledging the lessons of the Great Recession.

That’s why Tennessee’s law on funding for charter schools warrants exploration. Specifically, Tennessee Code Annotated (TCA) 49-13-112(a) indicates:

An LEA shall adjust payments to the charter schools, at a minimum, in October, February, and June, based on changes in revenue, student enrollment, or student services

Well, we’ve got changes in revenue. That is, if the city is providing $100 million less, MNPS can prioritize funds and reduce revenue provided to charter schools. Additionally, Gov. Bill Lee’s “emergency budget” included significant funds for vouchers, which could result in changes in overall enrollment in both MNPS and Shelby County Schools.

Why pick on charter schools, one may ask? Well, for starters, charter schools are indicating they will be accessing COVID-19 stimulus funds designated for small businesses. Those are taxpayer funds NOT available to local school districts. Charters already receive public funding from state and local dollars as well as funds from private donors. If fiscal austerity is the name of the game, then charters seem a logical place to look for savings.

It’s worth noting here that a 2014 study highlighted the negative fiscal impact of charter schools on MNPS and a 2015 analysis further explained the financial impact of charter schools.

The ability of charter schools to obtain federal small business stimulus funds and tap outside donors should insulate them from any cuts in payments made by MNPS and Shelby County Schools. Additionally, the districts have an obligation to prioritize spending, especially in a time of fiscal austerity.

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