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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The Charter Truth

I recently noted the NPE report on failed charters in Tennessee relative to a federal grant program. Now, a message from In the Public Interest succinctly explains the problem:

Thousands have been shuttered since the turn of the century. More than 35 percent of those given federal grant money between 2006 and 2014 either never opened or were shut down, costing taxpayers more than half a billion dollars. Nearly 91 percent have failed in Iowa—in Virginia, 71 percent.

No, these figures aren’t about start-up companies trying to become the next Uber. They’re from a new report by the Network for Public Education, which reveals staggering data about the U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program (CSP).

At least $504 million of the more than $4.1 billion dollars the CSP has spent to fund new charter schools and expand existing charter schools was wasted on defunct schools.

This adds to the bevy of data showing that charter schools are more volatile and disruptive than traditional, neighborhood public schools that, if given adequate funding, can help hold communities together. Students at charter schools are two and a half times more likely to have their school close than those at neighborhood schools.

To the likes of billionaire Education Secretary Betsy DeVos—who calls public education an “industry”—constant churn is a good thing. She’s compared charter schools to food trucks and—you guessed it—the rideshare companies Uber and Lyft.

The deep-pocketed voices aiming to privatize public education are fine with a system that creates winners and losers—in fact, that’s exactly what they want.

But the data overwhelmingly show that school closures harm students. They often damage relationships students have with friends and others. They can end long-standing parent and teacher relationships. They appear to slightly lower test scores. They can increase student absenteeism. They can destabilize families who can’t afford higher transportation costs.

Further research is needed on the psychological effects of closures, but they also likely provoke feelings of grief and loss.

Get this: this past October, a charter school in California’s Central Valley unraveled over the course of a month, abruptly closing its doors in the middle of the school year. Its students have since scrambled to find other options, swelling the class sizes of the local school district.

As the Network for Public Education says, the federal government is “asleep at the wheel” when it comes to bankrolling failing charter schools. Public money should be spent to benefit students, not charter school entrepreneurs.

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

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Making Failure Great Again

Governor Bill Lee has made no secret of his desire to expand charter schools across Tennessee. From doubling the funding available for charter school facilities to creating a “Super Charter Authorizer” that will override local school boards, Lee has made clear his disdain for public schools. A report from the Network for Public Education offers insight into why this strategy is destined to fail.

The report examines funds distributed by the US Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program and finds an alarmingly high 40% failure rate. Tennessee, always a national leader in the wrong categories, exceeds the national average with a 49% failure rate. Here’s more from the report specific to Tennessee:


Tennessee which has a 49 percent grantee failure rate, gave 38 grants of $10,000 each to schools that not only did not have a NCES number, they also did not have a listed name. Where did that $380,000 go? Apparently, the Department of Education has no idea.

Here’s more on the “success” of charters in Tennessee:

One hundred and twenty-one grants were given to open or expand charter schools in Tennessee from the federal charter schools program between 2006-2014. At this time, at least 59 (49%) of those charter schools are now closed or never opened at all. Fourty-three of the 59 grant recipients never opened at all.


Of the 43 that never opened, 38 did not even have a name. Only a grant amount was listed.

How much was spent on failed charter schools?

In total, $7,374,025.00 were awarded to Tennessee charter schools during those years that either never opened or shut down

This is the future Bill Lee wants for Tennessee — schools that never open or shut down just a few weeks into the year. Cash giveaways to private entities with little to no track record of positive impact. Taxpayer dollars wasted in the name of “choice” and the “free market.”

Bill Lee and his team of privatizers surely know these facts. They also don’t care. Steady, reliable service to the DeVos agenda of using public money to support private schools is all that matters.

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

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Policy Shift

Tennessee’s next Governor, Bill Lee, is an unabashed voucher supporter.

As the General Assembly prepares to return in January, it will be important for policymakers to focus on what gets results instead of what the new Governor thinks is the cool new thing for Tennessee schools.

Derek Black, who teaches law at the University of South Carolina and focuses on education policy issues, points out some flaws in arguments in favor of “school choice” in a recent column in Salon.

His argument is essentially that a lack of accountability in many choice programs combined with the financial strain they put on traditional K-12 schools has a devastating impact and must be re-examined:

The current debate over school funding must move beyond teacher salaries and whether the books in public schools are tattered. Those conversations ignore the systematic policies that disadvantage public schools. Increasing public school teachers’ salaries alone won’t fix the problem. The public school teaching force has already shrunk. Class sizes have already risen. And the rules that advantage charter and private schools remain firmly in place.

Long-term solutions require a reexamination of these preferences. As a state constitutional matter, the law requires that states make public education their first priority. It is not enough to make education one of several competing priorities. And as a practical matter, states cannot continue to ask public schools to work with whatever is left over and then criticize them for doing a poor job. This cycle creates a circular justification for dismantling public education when states should be repairing it.

Black’s analysis is especially relevant in a state that consistently brings up the rear in investment in education and also continues to lag behind in overall student achievement.

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


 

Charters on the March?

Charter schools have not gained much ground outside of Memphis and Nashville, but that doesn’t mean potential charter operators and the Tennessee Charter School Center aren’t trying. Just a few years ago, there was quite a fight over a proposed charter school in Cheatham County. That application was ultimately denied.

Yesterday, the Clarksville Rotary Club hosted charter school lobbyist Emily Lilley to talk about charter schools and the process of creating one.

Of course, Clarksville residents might not be too eager to “think outside the box” as their current public schools appear to be performing quite well.

Where else are charter proponents planning to expand?

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


 

Data Wars

Candice McQueen has set up a showdown with the state’s two largest school districts over student data sharing and charter schools.

McQueen sent a letter to Shelby County Schools and shared the same letter with MNPS. In the letter, she notes a new state law requiring school districts to share student data with charter schools upon request. The data is used so that charter schools can market to potential students.

Here’s how Chalkbeat reports on the Shelby County issue:

Commissioner Candice McQueen directed Superintendent Dorsey Hopson on Monday to immediately share the information requested by Green Dot Public Schools. She said the district’s refusal violates a new state law by withholding information that charter operators need to recruit students and market their programs.

Shelby County Schools has not yet said they will comply with McQueen’s request.

The primary sticking point seems to be with the charter schools that are now part of the Achievement School District (ASD). The ASD’s experience in Shelby County has been troubled, at best. From communication challenges to struggling performance, the ASD has not lived up to expectations.

For its part, MNPS is beginning to take steps to restrict the data available to the ASD.

Jason Gonzalez reports in the Tennessean:

The practice of providing charter schools with student contact information has been common in Nashville, but board members bristled on Tuesday over the sharing of information with the Achievement School District.

While not a final vote, the board took a crucial step forward with a new policy that will not release contact information to the Achievement School District.

The policy moved out of committee with 7 board members in favor, Jo Ann Brannon abstaining and Mary Pierce voting against the proposal.

The key question now is: What happens if Shelby County and MNPS refuse to share this data? What penalty might they face?

Gonzalez notes:

In 2012, Metro Schools decided to reject the Great Hearts Academies charter schools application — after the state directed it not to do so — and then-Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman docked Nashville $3.4 million in education funds.

Similarly, during the TNReady testing fiasco, McQueen threatened districts with a funding penalty.

It’s not yet clear what will happen this time, but it seems like a financial penalty will ultimately be on the table if the two districts fail to comply.

Stay tuned, the data wars are beginning.

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


 

Kendreanna Needs You

Earlier this week, I wrote about RePublic Charter’s unsolicited emails to teachers in a district outside of Nashville. Since then, I’ve received a version of an email sent to teachers in MNPS attempting to recruit them to teach at RePublic.

Here’s that email:

Reimagine Public Education in the South.
We’re doing the work where others aren’t – in parts of the country where educational inequity has the deepest roots. We’ve got a reputation for challenging the status quo. RePublic’s are some of the highest performing public schools in the state of Tennessee. Ours were the first charter schools to open in Mississippi history. We’re teaching thousands of kids to code – inside and outside the walls of our schools. Where others are limited by what has been – we’re inspired by what could be.

One Team. One Family.
Working at RePublic isn’t just a job. It’s a movement. It’s a family. It’s a community of staff, students, andfamilies who stop at nothing to ensure that every one of our scholars is prepared to succeed in college and life. With extensive professional development, coaching, content training, and teammates who will have your back with equal parts love and honesty – you’ll be among the best, and thus, become your best.

Pave Your Path – and Make Your Mark.
We’ve got ambitious plans to serve hundreds more kids across the South next year – and are searching the nation for top talent for roles in teaching, operations, culture, school leadership, and on our network team. As a stakeholder in an organization that is growing quickly, you’ll have the chance to help build something extraordinary.

APPLY NOW for 2017-18
Want to learn more about opportunities to join RePublic’s team next year?
Request a meeting with our Talent Team here.

Included in the email was a video of a student named Kendreanna. The pitch? Kendreanna and students like her need teachers — like those that are already working in MNPS and other districts.

My questions remain: Is this a typical recruiting tactic? Do other charter operators send unsolicited mass emails to teachers begging them to apply for jobs? Do district administrators engage in this type of recruiting tactic?

If you’ve received an email like this from RePublic or another charter operator, I’d like to hear about it. Email me: andy@spearsstrategy.com

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


 

A Call for Accountability

Tonight’s MNPS Board meeting will include a call for accountability and transparency in the operation and oversight of the district’s charter schools. The call comes just over a week after the Metro Nashville Education Association (MNEA) released poll results they said indicate voters in Tennessee want charter reforms, especially around the issues of financial accountability and operational transparency.

 

In fact, MNEA Vice President Erick Huth is among those slated to speak. Huth’s remarks are expected to be on the Annenberg Institute’s recommendations for effective oversight of charter schools. Some may recall that prior to his selection as Director of Schools for MNPS, Dr. Jesse Register worked at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, which is located at Brown University.

 

The Annenberg standards include:

  • Traditional school districts and charter schools should collaborate to ensure a coordinated approach that serves all children
  • School governance should be representative and transparent
  • Charter schools should ensure equal access to interested students and prohibit practices that discourage enrollment or disproportionately push-out enrolled students
  • Charter school discipline policy should be fair and transparent
  • All students deserve equitable and adequate school facilities.  Districts and charter schools should collaborate to ensure facility arrangements do not disadvantage students in either sector
  • Online charter schools should be better regulated for quality, transparency and the protection of student data
  • Monitoring and oversight of charter schools are critical to protect the public interest; they should be strong and fully state funded

Also speaking on the issue of accountability and transparency is MNEA President Stephen Henry.

In addition to the poll results, two different recent reports indicate that unabated growth of charter schools could carry significant costs to MNPS.

First, a report by MGT of America noted:

“… it is clear that charter schools impose a cost on MNPS – both directly and indirectly.  It is also clear … that the loss of operating funds caused by the transfer of revenue cannot likely be made up through a reduction in capital or facility costs.  Therefore, approving future charter schools does potentially meet the “bar” described in  Tennessee Code Annotated 49-13-108(b) which encourages local boards of education to consider fiscal impact in determining whether new charter schools may be “contrary to the best interest of the pupils, school district or community.”

More recently, the Operational and Performance Audit of MNPS found:

“The key question for determining fiscal impacts is whether enrollment reductions allow a district to achieve expenditure reductions commensurate with revenue reductions. Fixed costs are incurred regardless of whether students attend traditional or charter schools. The problem is that some fixed costs, such as building maintenance, computer network infrastructure, and health services do not vary based on enrollment. Therefore, teachers and their salaries are a key cost driver tied to student enrollment … However, it is not always possible to reduce teacher costs proportionate to losses in revenue. For these costs to be reduced significantly, the school would need to close altogether.”

Additionally, the Center for Popular Democracy issued a report noting that due to their susceptibility to fraud, charter schools warrant specific oversight.

It’s not clear whether the MNPS Board will move to adopt the Annenberg standards. At this point, it appears to be a discussion item among concerned citizens and community groups who are bringing their request to the Board.

Tonight’s meeting is at 5:00 PM at the Central Office on Bransford Avenue.

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

Fiscal Note Fantasy

The debate over vouchers began this week in the Tennessee House and Senate. A new vehicle for carrying vouchers (HB1049/SB999) is the chosen method for implementing a voucher scheme in Tennessee.

Of particular interest is the Fiscal Note, prepared by the legislature’s new Executive Director of Fiscal Review, who previously worked at the Friedman Foundation — an outfit dedicated to school choice.

The analysis of costs points out a shift of state and local dollars to non-public schools in an amount that goes up to nearly $70 million by FY 18-19 and beyond.

For local education agencies that have schools in the bottom five percent of achievement and are mandated to participate in the statewide scholarship program, the shift of state and required local BEP funding from these local education agencies to the non-public participating schools is estimated as follows: $16,570,000 in FY15-16; $25,473,800 in FY16- 17; $34,815,000 in FY17-18; and an amount exceeding $69,630,000 in FY18-19 and subsequent years.

In an unusual twist, the analysis notes a long-term savings to local governments and LEAs. Specifically:

LEAs with participating students will be relieved of the long-term educational cost burden of educating such students. Using the third year of the statewide program as the baseline, the cost burden relieved in FY17-18 is reasonably estimated to be $24,275,000.  This amount will increase in FY18-19 and each subsequent year. The long-term result of such cost burden relief could be a permissive decrease in local expenditures, a permissive reallocation of local funding, or a permissive cost avoidance of local expenditures. Cost burden relief may also result in a higher per pupil expenditure for students that remain within an LEA school. An LEA’s capacity to make any such permissive choice depends on the number and dispersion of students that participate in the scholarship program.  If the number of participating students is small and widely dispersed across grade levels it is less likely that any such permissive choice could be implemented, but more likely if the number is large and concentrated in just a few grades. 

What is not mentioned is the net loss of $10 million if these assumptions are accurate. That is, the FY17-18 “cost shift” is $34 million and the savings or “relief” is $24 million. In FY18-19 and beyond, the cost shift is nearly $70 million, with no estimate provided for cost relief, though it should “increase.”

First, I’d note this is still a net loss to school systems.

Next, I’d point out that fixed costs would mean the projected relief is more fantasy than reality. This is admitted to some extent when the note says:

If the number of participating students is small and widely dispersed across grade levels it is less likely that any such permissive choice could be implemented, but more likely if the number is large and concentrated in just a few grades. 

Additionally, a recent report on the impact of charter schools on MNPS gets to the same point in terms of students lost versus fixed costs:

“The key question for determining fiscal impacts is whether enrollment reductions allow a district to achieve expenditure reductions commensurate with revenue reductions. Fixed costs are incurred regardless of whether students attend traditional or charter schools. The problem is that some fixed costs, such as building maintenance, computer network infrastructure, and health services do not vary based on enrollment. Therefore, teachers and their salaries are a key cost driver tied to student enrollment … However, it is not always possible to reduce teacher costs proportionate to losses in revenue. For these costs to be reduced significantly, the school would need to close altogether.”

This analysis suggests two things: First, that the Fiscal Note assumptions about cost “relief” may be suspect and second, that the only way to gain true cost savings from a voucher program would be through school closures.

That’s right, to get true savings from a voucher program public schools would have to close. If they don’t, the cost shift noted in the fiscal analysis would mean increased costs to districts who then operate with decreased revenue.

This may be the fantasy of voucher advocates, but it’s a nightmare for public schools and the families they serve.

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

 

 

Struggling ASD to Takeover 9 More Memphis Schools

The Memphis Commercial Appeal reports:

Nine more schools in Memphis will be taken over by the state-run Achievement School District next fall, including Wooddale Middle, Raleigh-Egypt High and South Side Middle, which have already been assigned to charter schools. Nine others — Florida-Kansas Elementary, Denver Elementary, Airways Middle, Brookmeade Elementary, American Way Middle, Hawkins Mills Elementary, LaRose Elementary, A. Maceo Walker Middle and A.B. Hill Elementary — are eligible for takeover, although only six of those will be under new management. The six to be taken over will be determined in part by a community vetting process that suggests which charter operators are best-suited to each school’s needs. The ASD will announce the final matches in December.

A recent analysis of the ASD’s performance indicates that the schools it has taken over in Shelby County would have been better off if they had remained in district hands. The ASD’s student achievement numbers have failed to meet their own ambitious targets and also failed to grow at a rate consistent with that of district schools.

An additional analysis compared schools in the iZone to ASD schools and found that the iZone model consistenly out-performs the ASD model.

When asked recently if he planned to convert iZone schools to charter schools, Shelby County Director of Schools Dorsey Hopson called the idea “absurd.”

Hopson’s statement is noteworthy because converting district schools to charters is exactly what the ASD plans to do.

While it may be fair to give the ASD more time to prove it can be effective with its existing schools, it seems irresponsible to allow the ASD to take on more schools. The leaders of the ASD would not be likely to put more students into a classroom of a teacher who failed to meet their desired student achievement targets. Why should more schools be handed over to a model that’s not only not living up to its own hype, but also failing to outperform the district schools it has taken over?

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