BOLD! REFORM! NOW!

Tennessee’s purveyors of privatization are going apeshit over a newly-released poll showing a majority of Tennesseans (53%) believe the state’s education system is on the wrong track.

Here’s a tweet from Tennesseans for Student Success:

What’s amusing about this “outrage” is that Tennesseans for Student Success is part of a cabal of pro-privatization groups that has been setting the agenda on education in the state for more than a decade.

In other words, if we need bold reform now, we need to move away from the snake oil sold as solutions by these hucksters.

Oh, and here’s some more about Tennesseans for Student Success, just in case you’re not familiar with them:

Groups like Tennesseans for Student Success are joined by other privatization apologists such as Bill Frist’s ed reform group known as SCORE in an ongoing and seemingly never-ending push for BOLD! REFORM! NOW! It’s odd because one might think that with all the bold reform of the last decade, we’d finally have achieved some element of “success.” Instead, we must keep reforming because our students are still “behind” and there’s all this “learning loss.”

Here’s a little reminder from an earlier post about the results of all the “reform” we’ve been getting under the leadership of Governors Bill Haslam and Bill Lee and a GOP supermajority. All of this supported and pushed forward by SCORE, Tennesseans for Student Success, and similar groups.

  1. $616.5 million sounds great, and it’s neat to aggregate data over a decade, but that BIG number averages out to about $62 million per year. That’s about a 2% increase in the BEP salary allocation (not actual money in paychecks) each year. Calm down a little, already.
  2. Did I mention that $616.5 million might sound great? So, the TN House GOP is all excited about spending $616 million plus over TEN years, while the state is sitting on a $3.1 billion surplus this year alone! That means we could spend $616 million in teacher salaries THIS YEAR and still have more than $2.4 billion LEFT to spend. Read that again. Republicans are bragging about taking an entire decade to allocate in total what is available THIS year and could be funded while still leaving $2.4 billion for other priorities.
  3. A bipartisan group of policymakers reports that we need $1.7 billion in a SINGLE year in order to adequately fund the BEP. That’s because the BEP badly underestimates the number of teachers actually needed to staff schools. Of course, the BEP also fails to take into account proper ratios for school nurses or school counselors. The BEP is pretty much broken, and has been for some time.
  4. It was Republican Gov. Bill Haslam who stopped the BEP 2.0 formula that was an attempt to correct and improve the BEP allocation.
  5. Remember that time when Gov. Haslam got all excited about our NAEP scores and promised a big raise to teachers and then cancelled the raise? Remember how after he cancelled the raise, revenue numbers came in at a level that meant the raise really could have been funded? Good times.
  6. Oh, yeah. School districts fund significantly more teachers than the BEP allocates. Yes, this has been a known problem for some time. Yes, the GOP has been running most of state government for over a decade. No, they haven’t done anything to fix it.
  7. There was also that time when the Haslam Department of Education called on the State Board of Education to give local districts flexibility with BEP salary money. Essentially, this created a situation where the 4% BEP salary allocation increase became a 2% (or less) raise.
  8. Remember the time when Gov. Bill Lee gave a big increase in state funding to charter schools and a tiny raise to teachers? Wonder if teachers remember that? I bet that makes them feel really appreciated.
  9. Remember the year when Gov. Lee became the second governor in a row named Bill to promise teachers a big raise and then cancel it when things got tough? Because, yeah, that was 2020. How’d that tough budget Lee was worried about turn out? Oh, right, that’s the one with the $3.1 billion surplus.
  10. Finally, in the recently concluded special session, Gov. Lee proposed and his legislative leadership secured passage of legislation giving teachers a 10 cents on the dollar COVID raise. That’s right, in a year when there’s plenty of cash and teachers are working more and harder than ever, Gov. Lee is placing the value of teachers at 10 cents on the dollar.
  11. Oh, and yes, Tennessee consistently receives a grade of “F” in both school funding and school funding effort from national groups who analyze state level investment in schools.

All of this outcry over a situation caused by the privatizers would be pretty amusing if it was not also rather familiar. You see, these groups thrive in chaos – when they create the chaos, they swoop in quickly with BOLD! REFORM! NOW! solutions and shiny presentations about how if we just did MORE of what they were saying, we’d be getting all the results Tennesseans actually desire.

Another example of this same phenomenon can be found in the Critical Race Theory hysteria:

This is really about creating another issue for political advantage. Lee, SCORE, and others suspect that no one will notice that it’s the state’s GOP leadership pushing down this curriculum – plus, a little dust-up over seahorses takes attention away from the messed up process.

But, the real goal seems to be the re-election of Bill Lee and the undermining of local school boards. Lee signed the bill banning CRT so he can’t also be promoting it, right?

To be clear, Wit and Wisdom may or may not be great curriculum. But, that’s not really the point. The point is, there are larger forces at work – groups from outside the state seeking to stir up trouble for political wins. A governor who is taking both sides of an issue and hoping no one notices.

Oh, and just to make the point even more clear, Lee used “emergency funds” earlier this year (after the legislature adjourned) in order to foist charter schools on districts that don’t have them and are unlikely to authorize them on their own.

To sum it all up, Tennessee has some actual education problems – we could probably do a better job in math and literacy. And, the BOLD! REFORM! NOW! we have YET to try is this: Funding the schools. We’re still $1.7 billion short of adequate funding. We had a $2 billion+ surplus this past budget year. We have the resources to pay for schools at a high level without raising ANY taxes or cutting ANY services. Doing this would almost guarantee relatively low property taxes in most Tennessee counties.

So, tell me again about all the BOLD! REFORM! NOW! we need, Tennesseans for Student Success.

We don’t get the results we claim to want because policymakers aren’t willing to pay for them. If any agenda is failing, it’s the one pushed by the privatizers – they are the status quo in our state. They set the agenda and have for years. If we’re on the wrong track, it’s because groups like SCORE and Tennesseans for Student Success are not only driving the train but also have built the track we’re currently using.

These groups are right – we are on the wrong track – and we should tell them to get out of the way so parents and educators can get us moving in the right direction.

train in railway
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Missing the Mark

Superintendents in Shelby County are raising concerns about recently-passed legislation that would make retention the default option for a significant number of third grade students. One Superintendent even noted the effort “misses the mark” of its intent and instead of being helpful, will actually have a harmful effect on students.

The Daily Memphian has more:

“I have never seen anything that will hurt students as bad as what they are proposing,” Germantown Municipal School District Superintendent Jason Manuel told the suburb’s Board of Education in a recent meeting.

The response from Manuel comes as his district sent a letter to Gov. Bill Lee and local lawmakers raising concerns about this issue and the insistence on in-person TNReady testing this year.

Meanwhile, it has been pointed out that TNReady is NOT a literacy test and using it for this purpose is ill-advised.

“The legislation is attempting to address third graders who can’t read at grade level, but the TCAP test doesn’t test to see if students can read at grade level,” Lakeland Superintendent Ted Horrell said.

Unsurprisingly, the leadership over at SCORE suggests this idea is a really good one – even though actual educators stand in strong opposition to it. Here’s SCORE CEO Dave Mansouri tweeting about how great this really bad idea is:

It’s almost as if Mansouri gets paid to be a cheerleader for the bad ideas of GOP governors instead of actually advancing sound education policy.

Here’s more on the folly of third grade retention:

But, as Senator Jeff Yarbro points out, 62% of third graders currently fall into the category where retention is the default action. And, students who are retained at this age end up more likely to not complete school or graduate from high school. There’s definitely mixed data on the benefits and drawbacks to retention.

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Told Ya This Would Happen

Back in July, I wrote a post about a newly-created political action committee (PAC) that seemed to be formed by Tennesseans for Student Success. You may recall that Tennesseans for Student Success is the dark money group behind a serious of insidious attacks on any legislator who opposes school privatization.

So, anyway, now they have a cheerily named PAC. Team Kid PAC, they’re calling it. Here’s more from the email they sent announcing this new venture:

Our state has made historic gains in education – twice being named the fastest improving in the nation – but you and our network of parents, teachers, community leaders, and volunteers know we can do better. If we want a better future for our children, we have to elect better leaders. That’s why we formed Team Kid PAC. 

The political action committee of Tennesseans for Student Success, we will serve as the ONLY organization that can and will effectively challenge any elected official or candidate who fails to put Tennessee’s students first –regardless of their political party.

Sounds pretty great, right? I mean, they start out the email with a pretty awesome question:

Do you want to secure effective education for all Tennessee students?

I mean, who is saying no to that? Even Gov. Bill Lee claims to want to secure an effective education for all Tennessee students. Heck, the team over at SCORE often claims they want effective education despite any evidence their presence in our state (or policy advocacy) has improved anything except for their payroll.

Here’s the reality: Tennesseans for Student Success spends their time and money attacking lawmakers who stand up for public schools. If you are not on the pro-privatization train, Tennesseans for Student Success is coming after you. Now, they’ll be doing it under the auspices of Team Kid.

Here’s the other reality: Tennessee needs at least $1.7 billion to make our school funding formula adequate. Tennessee has a huge surplus with even more money on the way. Tennessee has a governor who has no plans to use the current surplus to invest in schools.

So, what’s Team Kid PAC/Tennesseans for Student Success saying about Lee’s policy agenda?

Here are some tweets from them (and a bonus from SCORE CEO Dave Mansouri, a teammate of the Team Kid PAC team):

When Lee proposed an underwhelming raise for teachers:

And here’s Mansouri, acting like a happy cheerleader after his team scores a touchdown even though they’re still down by 50 points:

Oh, and about all those so-called “impressive” gains:

So, just watch out for Team Kid PAC and their gang of seemingly happy marauders out to derail the legislative career of anyone who dares stand and fight for Tennessee’s public schools.

Photo by Rojan Maharjan on Unsplash

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Bill Frist and the BEP

At today’s SCORE conference on the state of education in Tennessee, former U.S. Senator Bill Frist, SCORE’s founder, suggested that based on SCORE’s bold plan, Tennessee could fulfill its pledge to families and students.

Here’s the tweet summarizing his closing remarks:

So, like every SCORE conference (they put these on every year), it all sounds great and generally means nothing.

SCORE, which stands for State Collaborative on Reforming Education, has been in existence since 2009.

Since that time, Tennessee has remained near the bottom in the country in investment in public education.

In fact, based on information from the Comptroller of the Treasury and the Tennessee Department of Education, Tennessee schools are underfunded to the tune of some $1.5 billion. This includes a $500 million shortfall in the funding of teaching positions across the state.

So, all that “bold visioning” over at SCORE hasn’t resulted in meaningful new investments in schools. But maybe, just maybe, SCORE’s policy pushes have nudged the state forward academically.

Nope.

In fact, after that one “fastest-improving” year, we’ve regressed to the mean:

If you analyze NAEP data, Tennessee has not experienced sustained improvements in 4th and 8th grade reading and math tests over the last 3 testing periods. In 2017, 33 percent of Tennessee 4th graders and 31 percent of 8th graders achieved NAEP proficiency in reading. In math, 36 percent of 4th graders and 30 percent of 8th graders achieved NAEP proficiency.

There’s also the declining ACT average:

Tennessee’s average ACT score declined slightly for a second straight year, while the number of students taking the college entrance exam also dropped, according to results released Friday.

Public school students in the Class of 2020 finished with an overall average of 19.9 on a scale of 36, down from 20 last year and 20.2 the year before.

So, SCORE keeps pushing a “bold” agenda while Tennessee’s schools lack funding and Tennessee students are not moving forward academically.

Meanwhile, the organization took in $5.6 million according to its 2018 IRS form 990. That was, admittedly, down from some $10 million in revenue the year before. Still, SCORE reported assets of $11.5 million.

In 2018, then-Chairman and CEO Jamie Woodson was paid $326,000 and President David Mansouri was paid $235,920. Three other employees were paid over $100,000. The group also spent $112,000 on “advocacy support” (lobbying) paid to a company out of North Carolina.

It’s interesting that the folks at SCORE, some of the highest-paid education “advocates” in the state, just aren’t getting the job done in terms of changing the narrative or moving funding into Tennessee schools. Still, year after year, foundations and donors pour cash into their coffers hoping for a different result. Or, maybe, hoping for the same result — more “feel good” conferences and no requests by the state that actual dollars be invested into our schools.

abundance bank banking banknotes
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Bad Vision

New Vision Academy, a Nashville charter school, is in trouble again.

The school, once selected as a winner of the SCORE prize for innovation in education, has faced questions over financial management and now is in violation of the city’s fire code.

The Tennessean notes:


The Nashville charter school New Vision Academy has been violating city fire code by enrolling more students than the capacity allowed at the south Nashville church building where it rents space.
Because of the overcrowding issue, Metro Nashville Public Schools is forced to remove at least 64 students from the school in the coming weeks, according to a letter from the district’s charter school chief.
It’s the latest development for a school that has been embroiled in turmoil. New Vision Academy remains under federal and state investigations related to financial irregularities, special education requirements and compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Back in 2015, SCORE — Bill Frist’s education think tank — romanticized New Vision like this:


A small, single-hallway school with nine instructors on staff, NVA has an exceptionally data-rich culture. Many tools for monitoring student growth are in use at this public charter school in Nashville – assessments, benchmarks, math and reading levels – and NVA sets a new standard for using this information productively. Data improves instruction, facilitates teacher collaboration, and aids communication with students and parents

Turns out, innovation may just mean bending, or even breaking, all the rules.

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SCORE Gets “New” Leader

From SCORE (Statewide Collaborative on Reforming Education):

Beginning January 1, 2019 current SCORE President David Mansouri will become the President and Chief Executive Officer of SCORE, Senator Bill Frist announced, to help ensure a decade of progress in Tennessee student achievement is supported and extended far into the future.
“No one is better prepared than David to lead the organization going forward and to help accelerate the work in making Tennessee’s students the very best in the nation. And in the best of both worlds – we are blessed that Jamie will continue to support the organization as a senior adviser,” said Senator Frist.
In a letter to SCORE partners, Senator Frist highlighted Jamie Woodson’s eight years of tremendous leadership and what has been accomplished for Tennessee students under her vision. Jamie Woodson wrote that because of the collaboration around improving student achievement, she is confident Tennessee’s progress will continue.
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And the Winner is…

Back in 2015, SCORE — The Statewide Collaborative on Reforming Education — awarded the SCORE Prize for Middle Schools to New Vision Academy, a charter school in Nashville.

Here’s a bit of what they wrote about the school:

A small, single-hallway school with nine instructors on staff, NVA has an exceptionally data-rich culture. Many tools for monitoring student growth are in use at this public charter school in Nashville – assessments, benchmarks, math and reading levels – and NVA sets a new standard for using this information productively. Data improves instruction, facilitates teacher collaboration, and aids communication with students and parents.

SCORE lauded the school for an emphasis on TVAAS growth — even though that growth might not mean very much.

Fast forward to this week and a Tennessean story about what’s happening at New Vision Academy:

According to the whistleblower report, students were charged for textbooks even though the school earmarked thousands of dollars for classroom supplies. The top two executives at New Vision, who are married, make a combined $562,000.

The concerns on New Vision highlight the issue of how the district maintains oversight of charter schools. A charter school is funded with taxpayer money, but operates autonomously and is run by its own board of directors.

The teachers who exposed the situation at NVA have been invited to leave:

On Monday, the four teachers who talked to The Tennessean for this story were escorted out of the school.  Three were told not to return. One was allowed back into the school Tuesday to finish teaching the final three days of the school year. All four were told the school is accepting their resignations as of this week.

While the school is small (around 200 students), the top administrators earn more than top-level leaders in MNPS or other large districts in the state:

A financial concern raised in the whistleblower report is the salary of New Vision Academy’s executive director Tim Malone, who made $312,971 in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2017, according to the organization’s most recent public tax documents. His wife, LaKesha Malone is New Vision’s second highest ranking executive. She earned $250,000 during that same period, documents showed.

The accusations prompted multiple investigations from MNPS:

Queen’s office is also investigating the school’s compliance with handicap accessibility laws. The school’s multi-story building does not have an elevator for wheelchair-bound students.

Queen said his office periodically audits charter schools and launches an inquiry when a complaint is levied. The New Vision Academy complaint, Queen said, was extremely detailed and documented, which prompted multiple investigations.

“This was extensive, well written and researched,” he said.

Stay tuned as this story unfolds.

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Keep the education news coming!