Lee Laments Inability to Articulate a Clear Message

Despite dressing up in farmer clothes and standing next to actual farm equipment every Saturday, Bill Lee still hasn’t been able to overcome significant skepticism about his scheme to use public funds to pay for private schools — a plan he’s calling “Education Savings Accounts.”

Erik Schelzig of Tennessee Journal has more on Lee’s bafflement over school voucher messaging gone awry:


But a lot of the confusion about the proposal comes from members of Lee’s own party. For example, freshman Rep. Robin Smith (R-Hixson) took to twitter to declare a news account a “pure lie” for stating the education savings account, or ESA, program would also apply to students who don’t currently attend failing schools. It would.


Fellow freshman Rep. Scott Cepicky (R-Columbia), a member of the House Education Committee scheduled to vote on the bill this week, said in a Facebook post that “because of the risk of fraud, as seen in other states with Educational Savings Accounts, homeschooling is not allowed in this bill.”


That’s in contrast to what Lee said last week when reporters asked him whether home-schooling would qualify for the ESAs.
If a family is in the district that qualifies, and they are currently in a public school, then they would qualify for an ESA,” Lee said.

Here are some important facts about Governor Lee’s voucher people from the Tennessee School Boards Association – a group that has actually read the bill. It’s not yet clear whether Lee has, in fact, read his own bill or even if members of his own party are reading actual legislation, or just spouting off talking points in order to confuse the issue.

What is clear: Bill Lee and his “team” aren’t quite on the same page. Of course, it may not matter, as they seem to have some tricks up their sleeves.


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Ready for Action

A new statewide group of teachers is “ready for action,” including a strike, if necessary.

The Memphis Commercial Appeal has more:


A new group aims to unify Tennessee teachers in advocating for public education, following a blueprint that led to teacher strikes that rocked states like Arizona, Kentucky and West Virginia. 


They are following a blueprint established by teachers in states like West Virginia, Kentucky and Arizona where grassroots efforts outside of union organization resulted in massive teacher work stoppages.

The article notes the group includes current TEA local affiliate leader Tikeila Rucker of Memphis as well as former Knox County Education Association President Lauren Sorenson and Amanda Kail, a candidate for President of Metro Nashville Education Association.

While the three leaders say they aren’t necessarily planning a strike, they indicated that as the group grows, a strike may be an option.

Issues such as persistently low teacher pay, over-testing, and the diversion of public funds to private schools by way of vouchers have caused concerns among teachers.

Tennessee Teachers United plans to raise these issues with key policymakers while organizing across the state to build support among teachers.

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Hacker or Dump Truck

Another testing cycle, more TNReady trouble.

It’s time for testing in Tennessee again. Or, at least, it’s time for schools to begin the time-honored tradition of having students take practice tests to ensure that the state’s testing vendor is getting the job done and the online testing system will work.

Surprising exactly no one, some schools are reporting problems with the testing platform as their students begin practice testing. At least one school reported that at least half the students were unable to access the TNReady test during practice today.

This should definitely encourage students, teachers, and parents as we approach the test-heavy month of April.

Last year, we heard about dump trucks and hackers causing TNReady problems. It’s not clear what the planned excuses are this year.

Certainly, our new Commissioner of Education is working with her team of school choice advocates to devise this year’s round of fake TNReady stories. Then, they’ll come up with lies to tell the General Assembly so no real policy change takes place.

Seriously, though, if your school is or has been engaged in TNReady practice testing, I’d love to know how it’s going. Are you having problems? What are they? Let me know at andy@tnedreport.com


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REFUSED

A Knox County parent has refused to allow her children take the state’s failed TNReady tests each of the last four years. WBIR has more:


A Knox County parent says she has refused to let her kids take TNReady exams for four years.
Elizabeth MacTavish and her husband are educators, and she understands the stress of standardized testing as both a parent and a teacher. 


We are spending millions of dollars on a test that is neither reliable nor valid, the testing companies that we’ve been using continually fail,” MacTavish said. 
Over the past few years, TNReady has had some problems. 
In 2016 the original online testing system failed. In 2017 about 1,700 tests were scored incorrectly. 
In 2018, the state comptroller’s office says there were login delays, slow servers, and software bugs.
Now, the state is looking for a new vendor for TNReady testing. Tuesday, it issued a request for proposal for next school year.
The Department of Education expects the new contract to be $20 million each year. It’s current contract with Questar is $30 million

Former Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen, who presided over all the failed iterations of TNReady, perpetuated the myth that not testing annually would result in a penalty from the federal government. In fact, that’s not entirely accurate:

There’s just one problem: The federal government has not (yet) penalized a single district for failing to hit the 95% benchmark. In fact, in the face of significant opt-outs in New York last year (including one district where 89% of students opted-out), the U.S. Department of Education communicated a clear message to New York state education leaders:  Districts and states will not suffer a loss of federal dollars due to high test refusal rates. The USDOE left it up to New York to decide whether or not to penalize districts financially.

Current Commissioner Penny Schwinn has demonstrated she’s not actually listening to parents and teachers as she travels around the state and visits schools. Instead, she is determined to continue to pursue a testing model that has failed students, teachers, and schools across the state.

More than 80% of teachers believe the state should move to the ACT suite of assessments to replace TNReady. A similar number believe TNReady does not accurately reflect student ability.

For now, the state marches on and nothing changes. But, if more parents took the refusal approach, the state could be forced to truly reckon with a broken system.

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Gold Strike

If Tennessee teachers really want to improve the state’s overall investment in schools, including in teacher compensation, they may need to walk off the job.

A new study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities indicates that in states that have seen recent teacher protests, investment in public education has improved significantly.

More from Chalkbeat:


In four states where teachers walked out of their classrooms in protest last year, education spending is up, helping to make up for deep cuts in those states in the wake of the Great Recession.


That’s according to a new analysis that suggests the walkouts and strikes made a difference in Oklahoma, Arizona, West Virginia, and North Carolina. The report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank, found that baseline state funding jumped 19 percent in Oklahoma last year, while North Carolina and West Virginia both saw 3 percent upticks.

Tennessee’s overall investment in public education is 44th nationally and we actually spend less per pupil in inflation-adjusted dollars than we did in 2010. Additionally, the rate of pay increases for our teachers is relatively small and lags behind the national average:


Average teacher salaries in the United States improved by about 4% from the Haslam Promise until this year. Average teacher salaries in Tennessee improved by just under 2% over the same time period. So, since Bill Haslam promised teachers we’d be the fastest improving in teacher pay, we’ve actually been improving at a rate that’s half the national average. No, we’re not the slowest improving state in teacher pay, but we’re also not even improving at the average rate.

It seems unlikely this will change until policymakers are made uncomfortable. One sure way to cause discomfort is through a massive protest or job action. Tennessee teachers who are tired of the status quo may well need to take to the streets to see real change for them and for their students.

daguerreotype, circa 1852, on display as part of ‘ California Gold Rush’. The Jaunts column will pay a visit to the California Oil Museum in Santa Paula previewing the new exhibit, California Gold Rush. DIGITAL IMAGE SHOT ON 10.31.2000 (Photo by Spencer Weiner/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

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Winning

So, the winner of the 2015 SCORE Prize is now closing its doors for good.

I noted previously that New Vision Academy was in violation of Metro fire code and that a number of students would be forced to leave. Now, it turns out, the entire school is closing down after tomorrow.

The closure of New Vision means some 150 students will now return to traditional public schools in MNPS after 3/4 of the school year has passed.

The troubling development comes as Tennessee Governor Bill Lee is proposing both boosting state tax dollars made available to charter schools and circumventing local school board authority over such schools.

The tireless advocates of “school choice” at any cost will likely note this is just “market forces” making a correction.

The problem is, that “correction” impacts real people. Specifically, 150 middle school kids who are now displaced.

While Governor Lee claims to want to innovate and try new things, he’s simply not looking where he should be. One thing Tennessee has never seriously tried is making a long-term, sustained investment in our schools. In fact, we spend less per student now than we did in 2010 in inflation-adjusted dollars.

We’re seeing Governor Lee propose adding some $200 million to the rainy day fund while students in districts and schools with high concentrations of poverty are facing rain every single day. The numbers suggest we can and must do better.

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Camper vs. Vouchers

House Democratic Leader Karen Camper of Memphis is taking on Governor Bill Lee’s proposed voucher program, which he is calling an “education savings account.”

The Daily Memphian has more:


Camper castigated the governor’s education savings account plan, saying voucher programs in other states resulted in poorer performance by students.
“We must continue to fight against this attack on our public school system,” Camper said in response to Lee’s speech, adding she is “saddened” by governor’s effort to take money from public school programs.

More on Lee’s plan:


Simultaneously, he is asking the Legislature for $25.4 million for education savings accounts and $12 million for a charter schools investment program, doubling the amount of money for charters and setting new rules for access to public facilities while establishing an independent authority to approve charter schools. Formerly known as vouchers, ESAs would provide public money, $7,300 to eligible students, to attend private schools or other alternatives, possibly home schools.

That Lee is advancing an agenda to dismantle public schools should come as no surprise as he has consistently shown his support for voucher programs.

The question for this legislative session is: Will rural legislators join with urban representatives to stop vouchers, or will Bill Lee prevail and begin the privatization of Tennessee’s public schools?

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Bill Lee Doesn’t Trust Your School Board

Governor Bill Lee gave his State of the State address last night and outlined his budget and vision as he begins his first term. Among the items he discussed was the creation of a state charter school authorizer.

Nashville Public Radio has more:


Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is proposing legislation that would make it easier to establish charter schools.
He announced the plan Monday night during his State of the State address. If it passes, it would allow a sponsor to go directly to a state-run authorizer for approval, instead of a local school district.

The proposed change is significant because current law requires a charter operator to submit a proposal to a local school board first. The local board then evaluates the proposal and makes a decision as to whether or not it would be a good fit for the needs of students in the district. If the local board rejects the proposal, the operator may appeal to the State Board of Education.

The State BOE often looks to the local board’s evaluation of the charter application for guidance. Sometimes, operators revise and improve the application. Sometimes, the State BOE determines the local board made a sound decision based on the evidence, as was the case with Rocketship in Nashville not long ago:


Let’s review. Rocketship was denied expansion by MNPS and the State Board of Education last year. Rocketship applied again. MNPS denied them. Rocketship appealed. MNPS denied the amended application by an 8-1 vote. Rocketship is now appealing based on a technicality instead of working with MNPS to find a satisfactory way to address concerns.

Here’s what MNPS said when they reviewed the Rocketship application:


In summary, with no additional state accountability data to consider, and no compelling evidence presented that provides confidence in the review team, converting an existing low-performing school before Rocketship has demonstrated academic success on state accountability measures would not be in the best interests of the students, the district, or the community.

If Governor Lee’s proposal is successful, schools like Rocketship will now be able to circumvent local input altogether. In this case, MNPS identified key problems with Rocketship and decided an expansion was not in the best interests of the students of the district.

Why shouldn’t charters be required to present a proposal to a local board of education first? Shouldn’t the citizens of a community, by way of their duly elected school board, be able to weigh-in on the appropriateness of a given charter school proposal?

Moreover, why doesn’t Bill Lee trust local school boards?

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100% for Charters, 2.5% for Teachers

Tonight, Governor Bill Lee outlined his proposed budget for 2019-2020. Lee’s budget doubles the fund for charter school facilities to $12 million. This amounts to a benefit of $342 per student (there are roughly 35,000 Tennessee students in charter schools).

Meanwhile, he announced a meager improvement to teacher salaries of around 2% – $71 million. This amounts to $71 per student.

So, charter schools — which serve only 3.5% of the state’s students — will see a 100% increase in available facility funding from the state while teachers will see only a 2% increase in pay.

If the two investments were equal and funded at the rate granted to charter schools, there would be a $342 million investment in teacher salaries. That’s roughly a 10% raise. A raise that’s desperately needed as Tennessee leads the nation in percentage of teachers with little to no classroom experience. We also have one of the largest teacher wage gaps in the Southeast.

As one Nashville teacher pointed out, Nashville – and the entire state — have a failed business plan:


I’m starting a business and looking for workers. The work is intense, so the workers should be highly skilled. Experience preferred. Starting salary is 40k with the opportunity to get all the way to 65k after 25 years of staying in the same position. See how dumb that sounds?

Now, those are numbers for Nashville. Some teachers around the state have to teach for 10 years before they even hit $40,000. Still, the point is clear: The value proposition for teachers in our state is not very good. Unfortunately, Governor Lee’s first budget is not doing much to change that. It’s the status quo. A nominal increase that will likely not entirely make it into teacher paychecks.

Tennessee’s numbers when it comes to both investment in schools and educational attainment are disappointing. Continuing along the same path means we’ll keep getting the same results.

The bottom line: Money matters.

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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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