Williamson County Group to Make Stand for Diversity & Inclusion

A group known as OneWillCo plans to be in attendance at tonight’s Williamson County School Board meeting to show support for efforts to promote diversity and inclusion in the district’s schools.

Here’s more from a press statement provided by the group:

A large group of parents and community members will show up at tonight’s school board meeting to show public support of the efforts by the WCS School Board and “Fostering Healthy Solutions”  to promote diversity and equality in Williamson County Schools.

“We are anticipating a large show of support tonight to further the efforts that Williamson County Schools has already started,” said Jennifer Cortez, one of the founders of OneWillCo. “We are grateful to Superintendent Jason Golden and our school board for taking courageous and necessary steps to address the racial harassment that continues to be a blight on our local schools. Our focus is straightforward. We want reasonable measures put in place to give our students of color the value and support they have needed and deserved for far too long. The responsibility rests on our whole community to support these crucial efforts.”

The move from the group comes as issues around race and diversity are receiving increasing attention in Williamson County and across the state.

In fact, the Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation that specifically prohibits the teaching of so-called “Critical Race Theory.”

Chalkbeat has more on that move:

Legal scholars are questioning whether a recently passed bill that seeks to restrict Tennessee educators’ teachings about race and racism will pass legal muster given past precedent, including one case that dates back 50 years.

The GOP-backed measure, which passed in the Tennessee House and Senate among partisan lines, would penalize school districts if teachers tie past and present events to white privilege, institutional racism, and unconscious bias.

“This is a poorly written bill that promotes a specific agenda, threatens academic freedom, and suffers from serious overbreadth and vagueness problems,” said Hudson, a law professor at Belmont University who specializes in first amendment issues.

Not surprisingly, state Senator Brian Kelsey and the law firm where he works support the measure:

One organization that supports the bill is the Chicago-based Liberty Justice Center, a public interest firm where State Senator Brian Kelsey of Germantown serves as a senior attorney. Kelsey supported the Senate version of the bill.

A number of groups across the state are actively encouraging Gov. Bill Lee to veto the measure. These groups include NOAH (Nashville), MICAH (Memphis), and CALEB (Chattanooga) as well as the Tennessee Educators of Color Alliance, the Tennessee Education Association, and the ACLU.

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Always on the Attack

Sen. Brian Kelsey of Shelby County took some time today to attack the Shelby County Schools and get in a jab at the teachers union. He never misses a chance to attack public schools or the educators in them.

Here’s the video:

This is the same guy who sent out a Christmas card crowing about his legal work to voucherize public schools.

This is also the same Brian Kelsey who led efforts to eliminate the Hall Income Tax and $200 million a year in revenue for the state. Then, the issue was what to do with repeated years of surplus revenue. Kelsey’s answer was NOT to invest it in schools, but instead to create a tax giveaway for investors.

Brian Kelsey does not and has not supported our state’s public schools. Now, he’s using his position as chair of the Senate Education Committee to attack public school teachers. In other Kelsey news, he’s the lead sponsor of legislation that would undermine the ability of working Tennesseans to join a union.

MORE ON KELSEY:

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Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

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Kelsey Sends Grinchy Voucher Christmas Card

Tennessee’s “Mr. Voucher” State Senator Brian Kelsey sent Christmas greeting cards with a grinchy message about his non-stop work to privatize Tennessee’s public schools. Apparently, even the “Season of Giving” is one where Kelsey spends his time thinking about how to send taxpayer money to public school privatizers.

Here’s that fun card:

Of course, public school advocates are fighting back, asking the Supreme Court not to hear Kelsey’s appeal. It seems Kelsey’s just mad because after doing all that work to help Gov. Bill Lee pass a voucher scheme, the Tennessee courts have repeatedly held the law to be unconstitutional.

Parents Fight Back

Here’s a press release from the group Public Funds for Public Schools:

Parents of students in the Nashville and Memphis public schools, who are plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging a state law imposing a private school voucher program on their counties, have told the Tennessee Supreme Court there is no basis to review lower court rulings striking down the voucher program as unconstitutional.

In 2019, the Tennessee legislature passed, by a one vote margin, a law to divert funding from the already under-resourced public schools in Shelby (Memphis) and Davidson (Nashville) Counties to private schools through an “education savings account” (ESA) voucher program. ESA vouchers are used to pay private school tuition and other private education expenses.

Two lawsuits were promptly filed to challenge the voucher program, one by Shelby and Davidson Counties and the second by public school parents and community members in those counties.

The plaintiffs in the second lawsuit, McEwen v. Lee, are represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Education Law Center, partners in the national Public Funds Public Schools campaign, as well as by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and pro bono by the law firm Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP.

In May 2020, Chancellor Anne Martin of the Davidson County Chancery Court found that the voucher law violated the home rule provision of the Tennessee Constitution, which prohibits the general assembly from passing laws applicable only to specific counties without local approval. In September, the Tennessee Court of Appeals upheld Chancellor Martin’s ruling, concluding that the trial court had applied well-established precedent in determining the voucher law violated the constitution’s home rule protections.

The defendants in the litigation, led by Governor Bill Lee and joined by pro-voucher groups, have now asked the Tennessee Supreme Court to take up the case. The McEwen plaintiffs have moved to file an amici curiae brief urging the court to reject the appeal.

The brief argues against Supreme Court review of the voucher law for three reasons:

  • The public interest would not be served because private school vouchers have racist origins; voucher programs increase racial segregation; research evidence demonstrates vouchers harm the education outcomes of students who use them; and vouchers drain money from underfunded public schools serving the vast majority of students.
  • There is no constitutional duty to fund vouchers. Establishing and funding a private school voucher program is not within the state’s power and duty under the Tennessee Constitution’s education clause and, therefore, does not implicate a state function at all.
  • The voucher law is not a “pilot program” and has no impact on the state’s ability to improve education through innovative or pilot programs, as long as they comply with all provisions of the constitution.

“If the voucher law had not been struck down, tens of millions of dollars would have been diverted from the budgets of the Memphis and Nashville public schools in the current year alone,” said Jessica Levin, ELC Senior Attorney and Director of the PFPS campaign. “Because the program would automatically increase in size each year for five years, it’s crucial that the lower courts’ rulings invalidating the law are not reversed.”

In this extremely challenging time there is a critical need to increase funding and resources to public schools to address the impacts of COVID-19 on students and families. In addition to the Tennessee litigation, PFPS’s work over the past year has prevented hundreds of millions of public education dollars from being diverted to private schools.

Read more about PFPS litigation here and access additional information about McEwen v. Lee here.

Three Sizes Too Small?

In a year that has seen a devastating pandemic and a Governor who has done nothing to lead, Kelsey simply won’t stop fighting to take from our public schools and their students. We’ve seen cuts to a planned teacher raise and a stubborn insistence on state testing. Now, Brian Kelsey wants you to think about vouchers as the Holidays approach.

Brian Kelsey Gets Ready for the Holidays

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Voucher Sponsor Facing FBI Probe

As Governor Bill Lee signed controversial voucher legislation into law this past week, revelations emerged that the FBI is investigating potentially illegal campaign activity by the Senate sponsor of Lee’s plan.

The Daily Memphian reports Senator Brian Kelsey’s failed 2016 congressional campaign faces an investigation into illegal use of state campaign funds for a federal race.


The Tennessee Journal is reporting the Department of Justice talked recently to state lawmakers about alleged “straw donations” into state Sen. Brian Kelsey’s 2016 congressional campaign.


Kelsey, a Germantown Republican who represents East Memphis and Cordova, came in fourth in the Republican primary three years ago. But reports have raised questions about whether money was funneled from his state accounts into his congressional fund, which is illegal.


During the 2016 campaign, his state political action committee, Red State PAC, contributed about $20,000 to state legislators who then gave funds to his congressional race, according to the Tennessee Journal article.

The FBI is also investigating the House vote on voucher legislation to determine if any improper benefits were offered in exchange for votes in favor of the bill.

All of this comes amid the controversy surrounding soon-to-be former House Speaker Glen Casada, who will resign from his leadership role following a months-long scandal which began with the framing of an African-American political activist and included Casada’s appointment of an admitted sex offender to a key leadership role.

Just to be clear: Governor Bill Lee signed a bill that is currently facing an FBI investigation due to alleged impropriety in securing votes. The lead sponsor of that bill in the Senate is ALSO under an FBI investigation.

Rather than wait for the outcome of these investigations, Lee moved forward and signed the bill into law. Lee is so determined to privatize our state’s public schools that he partnered with the nefarious Glen Casada, ignored a potentially illegal vote, and relied on a Senate sponsor who seems to have displayed blatant disregard for campaign finance law.

Make no mistake: Lee is a win at all costs governor. His prize: Taxpayer dollars funneled to private entities with a record of failing to achieve results.

The losers in Lee’s dangerous, morally bankrupt game are the citizens of Tennessee and especially the students and families impacted by a voucher scheme that both fails to help kids and also sucks money from our chronically under-funded public school system.

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Dead Already?

Is voucher legislation dead before the 2018 legislative session even starts?

Chalkbeat is reporting that the Senate sponsor of voucher legislation won’t bring the bill up for consideration in 2018:

Sen. Brian Kelsey said Monday that he won’t ask a Senate committee to take up his bill — which would pilot a program in Memphis — when the legislature reconvenes its two-year session in January.

Kelsey’s retreat calls into question the future of the voucher legislation in Tennessee, home to a perennial tug-of-war over whether to allow parents to use public money to pay for private school tuition. It also comes as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has focused national attention on the policy.

The early setback for vouchers could mean the legislation won’t advance for a fifth consecutive year.

Polling has shown Tennesseans reject the idea of spending public money on private schools. Additionally, a number of lobbyists ended contracts with pro-voucher groups after the issue failed last session.

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


 

That’s Not What You Said Last Week

Earlier this legislative session, voucher bill sponsor Brian Kelsey said TNReady was a “disaster” and he wouldn’t want to force it on private schools accepting public funds by way of vouchers.

Then, last week, he changed his tune.

Here’s how Grace Tatter of Chalkbeat reported it:

Sen. Brian Kelsey, the architect of Tennessee’s voucher bill, said he would prefer requiring students who use vouchers to take nationally normed tests, like they do in Florida and several other states with voucher programs.

But he said he understands why policymakers want to make “apple to apple” comparisons between public schools and private schools accepting government dollars. “If that gives policymakers greater comfort to vote for the bill, then I am all for that,” said the Germantown Republican.

And, with Kelsey’s blessing, the bill was amended in the House Government Operations Committee last week to include a requirement that students receiving vouchers take the TNReady test. Yes, the one Kelsey called a disaster.

Exactly one week later, this happened:

The panel voted narrowly to amend the bill so that voucher participants could take tests in their private schools that are different from what their counterparts take in public schools. But lawmakers stopped short of sending the amended bill to their finance committee after Rep. Mike Stewart, who opposes vouchers, moved to adjourn.

So, is TNReady a disaster, but one that’s worth risking in order for private schools to get public money? Or, should private schools choose their own tests?

Here’s what we do know: In states like Indiana and Louisiana, students receiving vouchers must take state tests. The results in those states paint a picture of vouchers as an education reform that not only doesn’t help kids, but also pushes them further behind. Yes, students in Indiana and Louisiana who received vouchers actually lost ground academically when they went to private schools.

For now, voucher legislation in Tennessee is stalled in the House Government Operations Committee. The Senate version is sitting in the Finance Committee there, still not scheduled for a vote.

To test or not to test? That seems to be the core question and the final answer may determine whether a voucher bill passes this session.

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


 

Senate Majority Leader Says Vouchers are “Problematic”

Senator Mark Norris, who has supported school voucher bills in the past, calls this year’s voucher plan “problematic.” The plan advancing this year is sponsored by Brian Kelsey — like Norris, from Shelby County — and it is a “pilot” program just for Shelby County.

The Nashville Ledger reports:

“It’s problematic,” Norris said when asked about the legislation in light of a Shelby County Commission vote opposing the voucher bill. The measure targets Shelby County because it has some 30 schools in the state’s lowest 5 percent for student performance.

But the measure is “problematic” for a combination of reasons, Norris said, mainly because of opposition by the Shelby County Commission and concerns about holding private schools “accountable” to the same standards as public schools.

Some opponents point out students who attend private schools as part of the program won’t be required to take the TNReady assessment, as public school students will.

School voucher advocates have failed in each of the last four legislative sessions to advance enabling legislation.

Now, they are trying to start their program only in Shelby County. Even before voucher proponents narrowed their focus to Shelby County in hopes of securing enough votes to advance the bill to the House floor, emerging research warned vouchers could actually be detrimental to student achievement. Those facts didn’t stop a House subcommittee from advancing the legislation, however.

Now, though, it seems the legislation is facing problems as lawmakers face the reality of a community not excited about Kelsey’s plan.

The Ledger notes:

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat who opposes the legislation, commended Norris “for seeing” problems with the measure.

“There’s pressure building and people are sacrificing, taking off from work to be here, because they’re passionate against the fact that they targeted Shelby County, as if Shelby County caused all of the problems with regard to education,” Parkinson said. “It’s becoming personal for a Shelby County legislator to be carrying legislation like that.”

Parkinson pointed out Hamilton County has low-performing schools but is not included in the pilot program legislation, which he termed a “great experiment.”

A program in Indiana that started out six years ago as a small voucher plan has expanded rapidly and now costs $131 million. Research there suggests that while some advocates argued vouchers would save school systems money, they have actually created a $54 million funding deficit:

A report on the program released by the Department of Education shows the program costs $54 million.

“If the idea behind a voucher program is we’re going to have the money follow the student, if the student didn’t start in a public school, the money isn’t following them from a public school, it’s just appearing from another budget,” [Researcher Molly] Stewart said. “And we’re not exactly sure where that’s coming from.”

Vouchers, then, create $54 million in new expenditures — an education funding deficit — in Indiana.

Evidence says vouchers don’t work. Research shows they are expensive. The Senate Majority Leader calls them “problematic.” It’s time for vouchers to go.

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


 

Voucher Wars

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Every single year, in a legislature that meets in Nashville, one issue rises from the ashes again and again. That issue: Vouchers.

This year, there are multiple school voucher proposals and just about all of them will be up for consideration in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday.

Here’s a rundown of the bills and what they would do:

SB161/HB126 – Senator Brian Kelsey/Rep. Harry Brooks

This bill would create a pilot voucher program in Shelby County. Voucher advocates have been pushing some version of a statewide voucher program for the past four years. So far, they haven’t been successful. Now, they are trying to limit the plan to Shelby County to start in hopes they can garner additional votes.

SB380/HB336 — Sen. Todd Gardenhire/Rep. Bill Dunn

This is the voucher bill that has failed the past four years. It would allow students from districts with at least one “priority school” to apply for a voucher.

SB573/HB715 — Sen. Dolores Gresham/Rep. Debra Moody

This bill would expand eligibility to the failing IEA voucher program. Despite claims of widespread demand for this program, so far, only 39 students have taken these vouchers.

SB987/HB1109 — Sen. Kelsey/Rep. John DeBerry

This bill would also change (expand) eligibility for the IEA vouchers. It would allow students who had not previously attended public schools to obtain this voucher.

SB395/HB460 – Gresham/Rep. Roger Kane

This is an Education Savings Account (ESA) bill with no eligibility restrictions. This bill would allow the parents of any student to convert their BEP funding into a debit card or have the money wired into a checking account to use for approved education expenses.

Here’s the deal: Vouchers don’t work. The recent evidence is clear. Here’s what I wrote last week after reading recent research on the issue:

Some state policymakers (State Rep. Bill Dunn, State Senator Brian Kelsey, Governor Bill Haslam) are asking taxpayers to invest in a voucher scheme. These advocates suggest that a voucher program can provide a path to better outcomes for students. However, the results of statewide programs in three different studies indicate just the opposite: Vouchers offer a path to dismal achievement.

Tennessee lawmakers should take a look at the evidence. Vouchers just don’t work. In fact, they harm the very students voucher advocates claim to want to help. Instead of funding voucher schemes we know don’t get results, the state should focus on funding existing programs that will enhance education for all students.

Despite overwhelming evidence that vouchers fail, expect the voucher wars to wage just as hot this session — and next week.

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


 

The Verdict on Vouchers

As the Tennessee General Assembly considers vouchers as part of the education agenda this year, it is important to look at the evidence. That is, do vouchers work? Do voucher programs lead to improved student outcomes. Until now, most research has been mixed, with some suggesting modest gains for students, while some studies showed no significant improvement. These studies focused on older, typically smaller programs.

Now, however, there is data on some statewide voucher efforts. That data suggests, quite strongly, that vouchers don’t work. In fact, the studies indicate vouchers actually cause student achievement to decline.

Kevin Carey writes in the New York Times:

The first results came in late 2015. Researchers examined an Indiana voucher program that had quickly grown to serve tens of thousands of students under Mike Pence, then the state’s governor. “In mathematics,” they found, “voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement.” They also saw no improvement in reading.

The next results came a few months later, in February, when researchers published a major study of Louisiana’s voucher program. Students in the program were predominantly black and from low-income families, and they came from public schools that had received poor ratings from the state department of education, based on test scores. For private schools receiving more applicants than they could enroll, the law required that they admit students via lottery, which allowed the researchers to compare lottery winners with those who stayed in public school.

They found large negative results in both reading and math. Public elementary school students who started at the 50th percentile in math and then used a voucher to transfer to a private school dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year. Results were somewhat better in the second year, but were still well below the starting point.

In June, a third voucher study was released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank and proponent of school choice. The study, which was financed by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation, focused on a large voucher program in Ohio. “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools,” the researchers found. Once again, results were worse in math.

Voucher studies of statewide programs in Ohio, Louisiana, and Indiana all suggest that not only do vouchers not improve student achievement, they in fact cause student performance to decline.

Some state policymakers (State Rep. Bill Dunn, State Senator Brian Kelsey, Governor Bill Haslam) are asking taxpayers to invest in a voucher scheme. These advocates suggest that a voucher program can provide a path to better outcomes for students. However, the results of statewide programs in three different studies indicate just the opposite: Vouchers offer a path to dismal achievement.

Tennessee lawmakers should take a look at the evidence. Vouchers just don’t work. In fact, they harm the very students voucher advocates claim to want to help. Instead of funding voucher schemes we know don’t get results, the state should focus on funding existing programs that will enhance education for all students.

MORE on vouchers:

Vouchers the wrong choice for Tennessee

What Tennessee Can Learn from Louisiana on Vouchers

Fitzhugh on Vouchers

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


 

2017 Education Issues Outlook

The 2017 session of the Tennessee General Assembly is underway and as always, education is a hot issue on the Hill. The bill filing deadline was yesterday and some familiar issues are back again. Namely, vouchers.

While the voucher fight may be the biggest education showdown this session, issues ranging from the scope of the state’s Achievement School District to a “Teacher Bill of Rights” and of course, funding, will also be debated.

Here’s a rundown of the big issues for this session:

Vouchers

Senator Brian Kelsey of Shelby County is pushing a voucher plan that is essentially a pilot program that would apply to Shelby County only. Voucher advocates have failed to gain passage of a plan with statewide application over the past four legislative sessions. The idea behind this plan seems to be to limit it to Shelby County in order to mitigate opposition from lawmakers who fear a voucher scheme may negatively impact school systems in their own districts.

In addition to Kelsey’s limited plan, Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville is back with the “traditional” voucher bill he’s run year after year. This plan has essentially the same requirements as Kelsey’s plan, but would be available to students across the state. It’s not clear which of these two plans has the best chance of passage. I suspect both will be set in motion, and as time wears on, one will emerge as most likely to be adopted. Voucher advocates are likely emboldened by the election of Donald Trump and the subsequent appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education.

Of course, Tennessee already has one type of voucher. The legislature adopted an Individual Education Account voucher program designed for students with special needs back in 2015. That proposal goes into effect this year. Chalkbeat reported that only 130 families applied. That’s pretty low, considering some 20,000 students meet the eligibility requirements.

Achievement School District

Two years ago, I wrote about how the ASD’s mission creep was hampering any potential effectiveness it might have. Now, it seems that even the ASD’s leadership agrees that pulling back and refocusing is necessary. Grace Tatter of Chalkbeat reports:

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would stop the Achievement School District from starting new charter schools, rather than just overhauling existing schools that are struggling.

Rep. David Hawk of Greeneville filed the bill last week at the request of the State Department of Education. In addition to curbing new starts, the legislation proposes changing the rules so that the ASD no longer can take over struggling schools unilaterally. Instead, the state would give local districts time and resources to turn around their lowest-performing schools.

Tatter notes that the Tennessee Department of Education and the ASD’s leadership support the bill. This is likely welcome news for those who have raised concerns over the ASD’s performance and approach.

Teacher Bill of Rights

Senator Mark Green of Clarksville has introduced what he’s calling a “Teacher Bill of Rights.” The bill outlines what Green sees as some basic protections for teachers. If adopted, his proposal would have the effect of changing the way the state evaluates teachers. Among the rights enumerated in SB 14 is the right to “be evaluated by a professional with the same subject matter expertise,” and the right to “be evaluated based only on students a teacher has taught.”

While both of these may seem like common sense, they are not current practice in Tennessee’s public schools. Many teachers are evaluated by building leaders and others who lack subject matter expertise. Further, teachers who do not generate their own student growth scores (those who don’t teach in tested subjects) are evaluated in part on school-wide scores or other metrics of student performance — meaning they receive an evaluation score based in part on students they’ve never taught.

Green’s Teacher Bill of Rights will almost certainly face opposition from the Department of Education.

Funding

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Governor Bill Haslam is proposing spending over $200 million in new money on schools. Around $60 million of that is for BEP growth. $100 million will provide districts with funds for teacher compensation. And, there’s $22 million for English Language Learners as well as $15 million for Career and Technical Education.

These are all good things and important investments for our schools. In fact, the BEP Review Committee — the state body tasked with reviewing school funding and evaluating the formula’s effectiveness, identified teacher pay and funds for English Language Learners as top priorities.

Here’s the full list of priorities identified by the BEP Review Committee for this year:

1. Sustained commitment to teacher compensation

2. English Language Learner funding (to bring ratios closer to the level called for in the BEP Enhancement Act of 2016)

3. Funding the number of guidance counselors at a level closer to national best practices

4. Funding Response to Instruction and Intervention positions

5. Sustained technology funding

Haslam’s budget proposal makes an effort to address 1 and 2. However, there’s no additional money to improve the guidance counselor ratio, no funds for the unfunded mandate of RTI and no additional money for technology.

Oh, and then there’s the persistent under-funding of schools as a result of a BEP formula that no longer works. In fact, the Comptroller’s Office says we are under-funding schools by at least $400 million. Haslam’s budget does not address the funding ratios that create this inadequacy.

Then, of course, improving the ratios does nothing on its own to achieve a long-standing BEP Review Committee goal: Providing districts with teacher compensation that more closely matches the actual cost of hiring a teacher. The projected cost of this, according to the 2014 BEP Review Committee Report, is around $500 million.

The good news is we have the money available to begin addressing the ratio deficit. The General Assembly could redirect some of our state’s surplus dollars toward improving the BEP ratios and start eating into that $400 million deficit. Doing so would return money to the taxpayers by way of investment in their local schools. It would also help County Commissions avoid raising property taxes.

Stay tuned as the bills start moving next week and beyond. It’s expected this session could last into May, and education will be a flash point throughout over these next few months.

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