The Erosion of Local Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lawmaker Shocked that Gov. Lee Means What He Says

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

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

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

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

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

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Williamson Parents Speak Out Against Charter School

Founders Classical Academy is a charter school that has applied to operate in Williamson County. That application was rejected – not once, but twice by the Williamson County School Board.

Now, Founders is appealing to the Tennessee Charter School Commission. If the Commission grants the appeal, Founders will open in Williamson County despite the objection of the elected school board.

Parents in Williamson County don’t seem happy about this possibility.

Here’s more from NewsBreak:

Jeni Davis, lifelong Tennessean, and parent of a Williamson County Schools student and a public school advocate, shared why she wants the State Charter School Commission to vote against Founders Classical Academy forcing themselves into the Williamson County Schools. “First of all, we believe that children across the state – all Tennessee children – deserve access to a high quality education with high quality curriculum that meets state standards and prepares all students to become successful and productive adult members of our community. And these classical charter schools, including Founders Classical Academy, do not meet these standards and putting them into our communities would be a great disservice to our students. This is why the school board has already voted against the school twice.”

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Damage Control

There’s a new player in the Tennessee education news landscape. Really, it’s an old player dressed up in a friendly new package.

Tennessee Firefly is an education news source that effectively serves as a mouthpiece for the forces of school privatization. Sky Arnold heads it up. Sky is formerly of the local FOX affiliate and before Firefly, was the communications chief over at Tennesseans for Student Success. Yes, Tennesseans for Student Success now has its own education news organ.

Here’s how they describe their mission:

That’s interesting because TNEdReport has been offering the truth about education news in the state since 2013. There’s also Chalkbeat. And, of course, Dad Gone Wild.

In short, there’s no shortage of people and outlets offering clear analysis on education news in the state. Heck, the Tennessean and Daily Memphian offer up regular doses of education news. There’s even Center Square.

Still, Tennesseans for Student Success, fresh off some big wins in the August GOP primaries, is hungry for more – and now seeks to drive the media narrative around school privatization with an outlet of their own.

What’s the real deal? It all comes down to Hillsdale College. The controversy over Hillsdale’s charter applications has caused the public – and policymakers – to take a new look at privatization by way of charter school.

Here’s Firefly saying that while the Hillsdale controversy may look bad, it’s cool to go charter:

Seems everyone is running away from Larry Arnn and Hillsdale – even though they have three schools (in Madison, Montgomery, and Rutherford) appealing to the State Charter Commission to gain access to local public funds despite objections from local school boards.

Here’s a bit more about Tennesseans for Student Success and their aggressive pursuit of privatization by any means necessary:

Anyway, watch out for the education firefly offering “news” slanted to promote a privatization agenda.

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So Much for Severing Ties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That same verbiage is included in Madison and Rutherford counties.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Charter Agenda

In two tweets, Metro Nashville Councilmember John Rutherford explains the school privatization agenda by way of charter schools:

Gov. Bill Lee has always been a proponent of privatization:

The call Rutherford received and his summary of it in two tweets makes it abundantly clear: The agenda is to circumvent local school boards and allow the state to funnel public money to private entities.

Lee even outlined such a scheme in his State of the State:

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A Call for Local Control

The Williamson County school board voted unanimously to oppose Gov. Lee’s plan to allow charter schools to bypass local school boards and appeal directly to Lee’s state charter commission.

That Lee continues to aggressively push a privatization agenda should come as no surprise:

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Exceptionally Bad

Gov. Bill Lee made clear in his State of the State that he is a proponent of an alternative history known as “American exceptionalism.”

This theory is grounded in a sort of American evangelicalism – and certainly has strong ties to far-right Christian movements. To advance his “exceptionalism agenda” Lee has announced a partnership with conservative Hillsdale College – a private, Christian school in Michigan. Yes, Tennessee is such a great example of exceptionalism that we have to turn to a private college from Michigan to “properly” teach history.

Here’s a note on that from Lee’s speech:

Two years ago, I traveled to Hillsdale College to participate in a Presidents Day celebration and spend time with champions of American exceptionalism.

For decades, Hillsdale College has been the standard bearer in quality curriculum and the responsibility of preserving American liberty.

I believe their efforts are a good fit for Tennessee, and we are formalizing a partnership with Hillsdale to expand their approach to civics education and K-12 education.

WPLN reports that public education advocates are raising concerns about the transfer of Tennessee tax dollars to a private, religious institution:

Lee has made a deal with a conservative college to open about 50 charter schools in the state.

Lee has made a deal with Hillsdale College, a small Christian liberal arts school in Michigan, to bring their civic education and K-12 curriculum to Tennessee.

Beth Brown, the [Tennessee Education] association’s president, says there is no need to bring in outsiders to implement a new curriculum or to set aside $32 million for new charter schools, a key element in the proposal.

“The concern is that we’re taking taxpayer dollars and we’re going to take those taxpayer dollars away from our public schools and give them to private entities,” said Brown.

It’s noteworthy, too, that Lee cited Ronald Reagan in his address:

I recently watched President Reagan’s farewell address, made just before he left office in January of 1989.

As many other Presidents have done, his farewell address includes a warning to the American people.

He reminds us that what we want to have in this country is “informed patriotism.”

Lee claims that he has been inspired by Reagan’s words. This inspiration is ostensibly the impetus for the focus on an American exceptionalism curriculum from Hillsdale College.

Of course, Reagan is no stranger to efforts to dismantle public education and turn schools over to those on the extreme right of the political spectrum.

In fact, a June piece in the San Francisco Chronicle by education journalists Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider point out that today’s privatization movement has roots in Reaganism:

This crusade against public higher education eerily presaged today’s school culture wars. Where Reagan made a target of ethnic studies and tried to keep Angela Davis, a member of the Communist Party, from teaching philosophy at UCLA, today’s bogeyman is critical race theory or CRT — a legal theory that has become a vague catchall for grievances of the sort that Reagan weaponized so effectively. To date, laws aimed at restricting how public school teachers talk about race and racism have been proposed in 22 states and signed into law in five.

Public schools, GOP leaders have argued, are teaching children to believe that the country is inherently bad. But just as Reagan used his anti-campus campaign to undermine support for public higher education, his disciples are motivated by a similar cause. For a Republican party that has grown increasingly hostile to public education, the K-12 culture war is also an opportunity to advance the cause of school privatization.

State legislators, meanwhile, have introduced a flurry of bills aimed at cutting funds from schools with curricula that the GOP deems unacceptable. In Michigan, a proposed measure would cut 5% of funding if school districts teach “anti-American” ideas about race in America, material from the 1619 Project, or critical race theory. In Tennessee, a new law empowers the state’s education chief to withhold funds from schools found to be teaching components of critical race theory.

The constant drumbeat that public schools are indoctrinating children, however, serves as a powerful nudge to parents to flee them. If their tax dollars are paying for something they’re opposed to, then maybe privatization isn’t such a terrible idea after all. This was Reagan’s move.

This, then, gets to the heart of Lee’s education “reform” agenda. He’s overhauling the school funding formula (BEP) to make it “student-centered.” While his voucher scheme languishes in the courts, Lee is taking the first steps to create a new funding formula that builds a bridge to vouchers. Don’t like all the “indoctrination” at your local school? Take that state money and hand it over to a Hillsdale charter school that proudly evangelizes about America’s “good old days.”

Here’s how he phrases it in the speech:

I’m proposing an innovative approach that sets aside dollars for each student, based on their individual needs, and these dollars will be used in whatever public school they attend.

Guess what? Hillsdale’s charter schools would be public schools under Tennessee law – Lee is proposing handing over state money to a private, religious college to run “public” schools.

Ronald Reagan would most certainly be very proud of the division and discord Lee is sowing in the name of turning public money over to private, right-wing Christian school operators.

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New State Commission Pushes Charters on Nashville

Gov. Bill Lee won approval of a “super charter commission” back in 2019. Now, that commission is imposing an unwanted charter school on Nashville.

The Commission voted today to overturn the decision by the MNPS School Board to reject the charter application from Nashville Classical, which already operates an elementary and middle school in East Nashville. The new school is proposed for West Nashville.

Nate Rau has a great explainer on the fight over Nashville Classical in the Tennessee Lookout.

Nashville Classical, which has already been rejected once by the school board with a 7-1 vote, submitted its appeal last week.

But, the starting point for the local debate over Nashville Classical’s application is a new state law that says the Nashville school board’s decision is functionally irrelevant. If the appeal is rejected, as expected, the school can simply appeal to the new Republican-backed state charter school commission, which would likely grant its approval. Unless a political meteor strikes and creates some unforeseen circumstance, Nashville Classical will be open to enrolling kindergarten beginning next year.

This was written back in June. Now, here we are in mid-October, and Nashville Classical has gained the predicted approval from the Charter Commission.

This should come as no surprise given Gov. Lee’s strong penchant for privatization.

School Board member Abigail Tylor is speaking out on the decision, but the reality is this type of top-down privatization is exactly what Bill Lee wants and exactly why the super charter commission was started.

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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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