Extreme Privatization

If you are wondering what it looks like when school privatizers are close to total victory, Tennessee is a prime example. Here, the forces that want to take public money and hand it over to private entities are on the verge of completing their conquest. 

Tennessee’s current legislative session features a range of attacks on public schools. Some of these would have immediate impacts, while others take a longer-term approach to fully privatizing K-12 education in the state.

First, it is important to understand that groups backing privatization in the form of charter schools and vouchers are among the top spenders when it comes to lobbying state legislators. For example, the American Federation for Children—an organization founded and previously led by the family of Betsy DeVos, a school privatization advocate and former President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education—spent $887,500. Another big spender, the Tennessee Charter School Center, spent $732,500.

Based on this year’s full-frontal assault, these investments appear to be paying off. There are three key issues that currently pose the most significant threat to Tennessee’s public schools. They include: a partnership with Hillsdale College, a private fundamentalist Christian college in Michigan, to run fifty or more charter schools; legislation that would create a charter school real estate grab; and school funding reforms that set the stage for a statewide voucher program.

In his State of the State address, Governor Bill Lee restated his commitment to set aside $32 million to help launch new charters in Tennessee and announced the Hillsdale College partnership, which could bring close to fifty Hillsdale-run charter schools into the state. 

Beyond the use of public funds to open schools run by a private, Christian college, there is reason to be concerned about the nature of the Hillsdale curriculum. As educator and blogger Peter Greene explained,  “[Hillsdale President Larry] Arnn has been a Trump supporter, and the college has fallen right into MAGAland as well. . . . The college uses Trump mailing lists to raise money. They used to sponsor Rush Limbaugh’s show. They get grads placed on the staff of legislators such as Jim Jordan and Kevin McCarthy.” 

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Of course, any charter schools—Hillsdale or otherwise—must be approved by a local school board, right? Wrong! Tennessee’s State Charter Commission, created by Lee, can override local decisions. And Lee is now seeking to expand the authority of this unelected body. 

Legislation currently advancing in the state Senate (SB2168/HB2833) would allow charter schools to apply directly to the State Charter Commission. This means a group of unelected appointees of a pro-privatization governor could decide to place charter schools in districts where the local elected officials and public don’t want them.

Another part of the same bill creates a real estate grab for charter operators. The relevant section states:

The proposed legislation authorizes a public charter school operating in the LEA to have a right of first refusal to: lease at an annual cost not to exceed the annual capital funding received by the public charter school leasing the building; or purchase at or below fair market value any underutilized or vacant property submitted by the LEA under this section. 

Just to be clear, public money in the form of local property taxes pays for facilities run by public schools. Should this new legislation pass and become law, an unelected state board will be able to place charter schools in a district, and those charter schools can take over public buildings at a reduced cost. So much for the free market.

Potentially millions of dollars worth of real estate assets in local districts across Tennessee could soon be up for grabs at prices below market value. No wonder privatizers tied to the charter industry have spent $8 million lobbying the legislature.

The final element in the push for privatization is being billed as a “reform” of the state’s school funding formula. Governor Lee recently released his plan to revamp how the state directs money to local school districts for public schools. The bottom line, according to Lee, is that the approach is “student-centered” and that funds “follow the child” no matter what. This plan is based on model legislation from the rightwing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

This statement, first of all, creates the erroneous impression that charter schools operate as “public” schools. Although called public schools under Tennessee law (as in most states), these schools function with less government oversight and an array of private operations, from real estate management to the sourcing of substitute teachers to overall school management.

Second, the proposed change to school funding is quite simply the gateway to a full-on voucher scheme. As Tennessee teacher Mike Stein wrote on his personal blog, the final form of funding reform is a workaround for a school voucher law that Lee enacted and was ruled unconstitutional

Step one, according to Stein, is to create a funding allocation for each individual student; step two is to allow that funding to follow the individual student to whatever “public” school they attend; and step three is to let parents take these funds to any school, public or private.

The short-term impact of this formula would be an influx of funds to charter schools and their operators. In the long term, a transition to a fully operational “choice” economy of schools seems likely.

Lee has been fighting to redirect public money to private schools since before he was elected governor. It now looks like a fight he’s poised to win. And if he does, defenders of public education should learn to resist next time the small, subtle cuts to public education that he used to lay the groundwork.

This piece originally appeared in The Progressive

An Open Door to Grift and Corruption

Members of the Tennessee Public Education Coalition spoke out in opposition to Gov. Bill Lee’s education agenda which includes sending public money to private schools by way of school vouchers and charters.

In an OpEd, the group said:

We have a clear choice in Tennessee. We can choose to adequately fund our public schools, pay our teachers a fair wage, and support our neighborhood schools — or we can choose grift.

Here are some of the examples offered by the group to demonstrate the danger of rapid expansion of charter schools:

  • Memphis Academy of Health Sciences closed, displacing 750 students, after three leaders were indicted for stealing $400,000 for personal use – for trips to Las Vegas, a hot tub, NBA tickets, and auto repair.
  • New Vision Academy in Nashville shut down after state and federal investigation into financial irregularities, failure to comply with federal laws concerning special needs students and English language learners, and cramming too many children into classrooms in violation of the fire code. The husband/wife team leading the school of 150 students earned $563,000 per year.
  • Gateway University Charter School in Memphis shut down after it was accused of falsifying grades, using uncertified teachers, giving credits for a geometry class that didn’t exist, and pulling children out of classes to clean the school’s bathrooms and other areas.
  • Knowledge Academies in Nashville lost hundreds of thousands of tax dollars in an online phishing scheme (after which its founder and CEO suddenly disappeared); used uncertified teachers; understaffed the school and stopped paying teachers; operated with a deficit of $835,878, despite an annual revenue of $7.1 million; failed to meet federal requirements for English language learners and special needs students; and ran side businesses out of the school building. Nashville shut the school down, but the state forced it back open. It’s now operating with a $7.9 million deficit.
  • Nashville Global Academy forgot a child on a bus parked offsite all day, misappropriated funds to the tune of $149,000, and collapsed over $400,000 in debt with unpaid bills worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

READ MORE from Tennessee Public Education Coalition on Lee’s efforts to privatize our state’s public schools.

Of course, Lee has some powerful (and wealthy) friends pushing privatization:

And, TC Weber has some pretty solid analysis about why the scheme offered by Lee will lead to vouchers and school district takeovers:

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

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Bill’s Besties

NewsChannel5’s Phil Williams has been following the money to find out who is behind efforts to privatize Tennessee’s public schools. It’s no surprise that Lee’s longtime friend Betsy DeVos is among the key backers of privatization.

As Williams notes, among the big spenders on school privatization efforts when it comes to lobbying the General Assembly is the American Federation for Children. That group is funded by Betsy DeVos. In fact, Bill Lee has even been a donor in the past.

In fact, the American Federation for Children appears to be funded by billionaire Betsy DeVos and her family.

DeVos, who has worked with Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, previously suggested to a gathering of evangelicals that part of her goal is taxpayer funding for religious schools.

“Our desire is to … confront the culture in which we all live today in ways which will continue to advance God’s kingdom,” she said.

Another name that came up in Williams’ story was that of Tennessee’s Shaka Mitchell, now serving in a multi-state lobbying role with the American Federation for Children.

Readers of TNEdReport may remember that Mitchell once led the Rocketship Charter Schools in Nashville.

Here’s what Mitchell had to say about his work on behalf of school privatization when he talked to Phil Williams:

Who speaks for the children? We really view that as our job,” said Shaka Mitchell with the American Federation for Children.

It’s not exactly clear that Mitchell is the best choice to talk about what’s good for kids. At least based on his record as a school leader.

In fact, while Mitchell was failing in his attempts to expand Rocketship, the State Board of Education noted:

In fact, Rocketship’s appeal to the State Board was rejected last year in part because of low performance:

“They did have a level 5 TVAAS composite, which is the highest score overall you can get in growth,” Heyburn said. “But their achievement scores are really low, some of the lowest in their cluster and in the district.”

The MNPS review team addressed this as well:

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.

And then there’s this:

According to the Metro Schools letter, Rocketship is not providing services to children with special learning needs, like English language learners and students with disabilities.

The notice was sent from Metro Nashville Public School’s top administrators after a monitoring team with the Tennessee Department of Education came in to conduct a routine audit of special services, primarily programs adhering to The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

A Michigan billionaire proposing using public funds for religious indoctrination and a guy who repeatedly failed at serving kids while running a questionable charter operation – that’s who Bill Lee is counting on as he continues to push his radical education agenda.

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

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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:

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

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$8 Million

That’s how much groups seeking to privatize Tennessee’s public schools are spending lobbying the General Assembly, according to an analysis by NewsChannel5.

In a story on lobbying expenditures, NewsChannel5 noted that among the “big spenders” were school privatization groups:

Privatization groups pushing charter schools and school vouchers: just under $8 million over the past five years.

With Gov. Bill Lee at the helm, it seems that big money is paying off. Just last month, Lee announced plans to hand over millions in Tennessee tax dollars to a private, Christian college in Michigan to run a network of 50-100 charter schools in the state.

As 2022 is an election year, these special interests seeking to access Tennessee’s treasury to advance their financial interests will also have an opportunity to make campaign contributions. This means they can wine and dine lawmakers and the Governor during the legislative session and then cozy up to them by way of campaign cash in election season.

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

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Do Something

This piece by leaders of Pastors for Tennessee Children exposes the failed agenda of school privatizers and offers a path forward that involves meaningful investment in Tennessee public schools.

When meeting with elected leaders tasked with improving education in Tennessee, we have heard a common refrain: “We have to do something.”

In response to public education challenges, our state has tried various “solutions,” almost all of which have involved privatization: vouchers, charter schools, excessive for-profit standardized testing, and expensive curriculums.

None of these options has made a sustainable difference. In fact, vouchers and charter schools have made it worse, serving to exacerbate existing inequities in school systems by draining desperately needed funding from the neighborhood schools that serve around 90% of Tennessee’s students.

Often, the real impetus behind these privatization efforts is not the well-being of children, but a desire for personal profit.

READ MORE>

MORE on the schemes privatizers are pushing in Tennessee:

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Pilfering Privatizers Seek Profit Amid Pandemic

This article on school privatization efforts in Tennessee originally appeared in The Progressive.

What’s the cure for COVID-19 in schools? Charter schools, of course!

Budget cuts on the horizon because of the economic damage caused by weeks of stay-at-home orders? Sounds like your districts need more charter schools.

Concerned about what the 2020-21 school year might look like?

Charter. Schools.

When it comes to public schools, Tennessee’s answer to the COVID-19 pandemic has been clear and simple: Privatization. 

First, in mid-March, Governor Bill Lee chose to include millions of dollars for a new voucher scheme in his emergency budget before the legislature left Nashville due to the coronavirus. How’d he pay for it? By cutting a planned investment in teacher compensation.

Now, as Tennessee’s two largest school districts, Memphis and Nashville, face significant budget shortfalls for the upcoming school year, the possibility of the state forcing unwanted charter schools on them looms large. These new charters would eat up valuable district resources at a time when funding is scarce. They also will come in the two districts where the state’s “Education Savings Account” voucher scheme will pilfer public dollars for privatizers.

In 2019, the newly-minted governor pushed for and won approval of a State Charter School Commission. This new body will have broad authority to grant charters to schools—even those schools denied a charter by local school districts. If the state body approved a charter school, the commission would manage the school, but the funding for that school would come from the local district.

In other words, whether or not Nashville or Memphis want more charter schools, the Charter Commission can approve and locate a charter in any district in the state without the approval or consent of the local board—then mandate that the local board spend funds to support it. 


Fast forward to May 2020. 

Right now, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is pushing a scheme whereby states can acquire additional federal stimulus funds for education if they agree to advance a school privatization agenda. 

Enter the Tennessee Charter School Commission. While Nashville and Memphis have taken a cautious approach to charter school approval in recent years, the Charter Commission, stacked with Governor Lee’s handpicked privatization proponents, seems primed to put charters where they aren’t wanted. 

Obligating districts to fund charters would also divert money that they need to provide resources for students if a second wave of COVID-19 wreaks havoc this fall. Nashville is already staring down a $100 million budget shortfall for education, and Memphis is considering a tax increase just to maintain its school system. 

How much of a financial bite will new charter schools take from these struggling districts?

That’s hard to calculate exactly. But in 2014, a study conducted by independent research firm MGT of America predicted that “new charter schools will, with nearly 100 percent certainty, have a negative fiscal impact” on Nashville’s school district. MGT calculated a price tag that could exceed $300 million in direct costs to the city’s public schools over a five-year period.

A more recent study in North Carolina found that the financial burden of adding charter schools to one urban county school district, Durham, was between $500 and $700 per student. In rural districts in the state with fewer charters, the impact was less negative but still significant—up to $300 per student.


Added to the estimated cost of charter schools in Tennessee is a whole new disaster: a voucher scheme. Though this program was ruled unconstitutional by a judge on May 5 (and will no longer start next year, as initially planned), it revealed the true aims of education reformers in the state. 

By forcing charters on cash-strapped districts, DeVos and Lee are using the chaos caused by COVID-19 to advance a privatization agenda. Something similar happened when public schools were hollowed out in New Orleans, post-Katrina.  

DeVos, in a statement on May 4, put it diplomatically: 

“The current disruption to the normal model is reaffirming something I have said for years. We must rethink education to better the realities of the twenty-first century. This is the time for local education leaders to unleash their creativity and ingenuity.”

Lee, a longtime financial supporter of DeVos, recently made the same point, in language that’s just as mystifying. “The Department of Education has a clear directive to challenge the status quo by developing solutions that best advocate for students and teachers,” Lee said. 

The COVID-19 crisis has created new opportunities for profit-seeking privatizers to prey on public education. We must continue shining a light on those working to undermine public schools, so that we can continue fighting for the public good. 

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

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