A Warning on Privatization

This article originally appeared in The Progressive.

In 2012, Tennessee’s began a scheme known as the Achievement School District, or ASD. The goal was simple and bold: Take a handful of schools in the bottom 5 percent of student achievement, according to state test scores, and move those schools into the top 25 percent in student achievement in just five years.

This miraculous shift, officials claimed, would be accomplished by placing schools under a new state agency, which would then determine an intervention strategy that might include turning a standard public school over to a charter operator. Any school anywhere in the state would be eligible, so long as it was on the “priority schools” list. As a whole, the schools would be governed by their own “district,” complete with a superintendent who reported directly to the commissioner of education.

Tennessee’s commissioner of education at the time, Kevin Huffman, hired charter operator Chris Barbic to run the new district. Barbic’s arrival coincided with the takeover of a first cohort of schools by the ASD, along with the unveiling of his plan to generate the expected turnaround.

So what was that plan, exactly? 

Well, of course, it was to turn all the priority schools over to charter operators. After all, Barbic reasoned, other charter school leaders would know just what to do with entire schools from urban districts with high levels of entrenched poverty.

But the charter school plan had another, more sinister impact. Tennessee’s charter school law gave charter operators ten year charters from the granting district. Since the ASD had taken over the local schools (most of them in Memphis), the ASD was now the charter-granting district. Now, schools in the ASD would not be eligible to return to their home districts for ten years, rather than the five years envisioned in the initial ASD legislation.

By executing the charter switch, Huffman and Barbic had immediately doubled the amount of time they would have to produce results with their education experiment, even though both of them would be gone by the time the ten-year period was up.

Still, the plan was bold and its promises were big. Almost immediately, there were problems. 

Some charter operators dropped out, and new operators swooped in. A series of directors attempted to run the rapidly sinking ship.

There were even Thunderdome-like contests early on to decide which schools would be handed over to charter operators, despite parent and community objections.

In 2020, New York City math teacher and popular blogger Gary Rubinstein, who tracked the ASD from its inception, reported the ASD’s “initial promise” to take over the bottom 5 percent of schools and “catapult them into the top 25 percent in five years” had “completely failed . . . . Chris Barbic resigned, Kevin Huffman resigned, Barbic’s replacement resigned.  Of the thirty schools, they nearly all stayed in the bottom 5 percent except a few that catapulted into the bottom 10 percent.”

When Barbic resigned after just a few years on the job, Chalkbeat reported, he “offered a dim prognosis” on the fate of the ASD. “As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results,” he wrote. “I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.”

Still, the ASD muddled forward. Now, the failed experiment is at the end of its run. Multiple groups of students have traveled in and out of charter doors with the end result being disruption, displacement, and discouraging results.

As the tenth year runs out, questions remain about exactly how to transition the schools back to their districts. Funny, it always seemed so easy to just move students and their families to charter schools and then to other charter schools as reformers scrambled to manipulate student populations in search of ever-elusive results. 

Even so, it seemed as if the ASD had reached its end.

In March, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, a Repubican, announced yet another plan to continue the district. More specifically, Lee wants to allow a handful of his personal favorite charter operators to continue to manage some select ASD schools. 

Not content to let a really bad idea die, Lee is backing legislation that would allow some schools to move from the ASD to the jurisdiction of the state’s relatively new Charter School Commission. That Commission was created by Lee in his first year as governor in order to circumvent the rejection of charter schools by local school boards.

Another piece of legislation, which has stalled for now, would allow Lee’s commissioner of education to take over an entire district by firing the director of schools and replacing the elected school board. This circumvention of democracy was widely seen as a way for Lee to send a message to the outspoken school boards in Memphis and Nashville that they’d better fall in line or else.

Of course, it hasn’t been lost on observers that Memphis and Nashville are suing the state, challenging the adequacy of the school funding formula. While the legislation is on hold for now, the point is clear: Districts are to do what the governor says and stay quiet when they disagree.

In fact, at a recent press event discussing the use of federal stimulus funds by local districts, Lee suggested that the state’s department of education would be watching districts to ensure they spent the money the right way. House Education Committee Chair Mark White went one step further, saying that he would be expecting tremendous jumps in student performance in exchange for this money. 

Education advocates around the country should beware these sorts of moves—power grabs cloaked in the guise of “assistance or guidance,” legislation to extend failed reform models, and/or the repackaging of proven reform failures as something shiny and new.

selective focus photography of bookshelf with books
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Paid For By . . .

At the end of this nice, happy story welcoming a new reporter to the education beat at WPLN, there’s a very interesting sentence:

Nashville Public Radio thanks the Thorne Family Charitable Fund, the Scarlett Foundation, the HCA Healthcare Foundation, the Joe C. Davis Foundation and the Andrew Allen Foundation for their generous support of our education beat.

It’s great that the education beat has some solid financial support. What’s noteworthy, though, is that two of the five sponsors of education news are also hard core privatization advocates.

First, there’s the Scarlett Foundation. This group, headed up by Joe Scarlett, is solidly in the privatization camp. Plus, as the Scarlett Foundation’s page notes about their board chair:

He serves as chairman of the Scarlett Hotel Group and vice-chairman of the Beacon Center of Tennessee.

Yes, THAT Beacon Center – the conservative group pushing policy schemes like school vouchers and opposing meaningful investment in public schools.

Of course, the Scarlett Foundation was also involved in Metro Nashville School Board elections in 2016 under the guise of a group called Nashville Rise:

Project Renaissance Co-CEO Wendy Tucker refused to identify who is currently funding the group’s efforts, saying some of the money people did not want to be identified.

$250,000 from the Joe C. Davis Foundation in Nashville, which boasts that it is focused “on increasing the supply of high-performing charter schools.”

Project Renaissance, of course, was the project of former Nashville Mayor and charter backer Karl Dean.

And, of course, there’s the The Joe C. Davis Foundation which was also involved in that 2016 campaign. Sitting on the board of the Davis Foundation is Bill DeLoache:

In an annual report filed with the Secretary of State earlier this month, Project Renaissance named several members to its board, all with ties to the controversial independently-run publicly-funded schools known as charter schools. Among them is Bill DeLoache, a wealthy charter school backer who also sits on the board for the Tennessee Charter School Center.

DeLoache has a long history of advocacy for charters:

[Charter school company] Beacon was founded as Alternative Public Schools Inc. in Nashville in 1992 by local businessmen Bill DeLoache Jr. and John Eason. Even after the company moved to Westborough, Mass., and changed its name to Beacon, DeLoache remained chairman.

The bottom line is this: Those who would privatize our public schools will go to any lengths to ensure they control the message on education issues. Kudos to WPLN for their transparency here. However, just hearing the list of names of foundations only tells part of the story. It’s important to understand the agenda advanced by those who want to appear to be philanthropic voices just supporting local public radio.

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Voucher Vultures Continue to Lose in Court

Parent advocacy group Public Funds for Public Schools notes that the Tennessee Supreme Court denied a motion by school privatization advocates to allow implementation of Gov. Lee’s voucher scheme while the issue of the constitutionality of the program is sorted out.

Here’s more from a press release:

On February 22, the Tennessee Supreme Court denied a motion by pro-voucher groups to lift a lower court’s permanent injunction barring implementation of Tennessee’s 2019 “education savings account” voucher law. In May 2020, the Davidson County Chancery Court ruled the voucher law is unconstitutional because it violates the Home Rule provision of the Tennessee Constitution. In August 2020, the Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed the Chancery Court’s decision. The case is now before the Tennessee Supreme Court.

The voucher law, which passed by only one vote in the State Legislature, illegally targeted just two Tennessee counties, Davidson and Shelby, which are home to the Nashville and Memphis public schools. Legislators from the two counties overwhelmingly opposed the voucher law, which would have drained millions of dollars from two school districts that are severely underfunded by the State.

The law was challenged in court by the two counties in Metropolitan Government of Nashville & Davidson County v. Tennessee Department of Education, and by public school parents and community members in a companion case called McEwen v. Lee. The McEwen plaintiffs are represented by Public Funds Public Schools, a collaboration of Education Law Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center, as well as by the ACLU of Tennessee and pro bono by the law firm Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd.

After the Chancery Court granted summary judgment in Metro Government, the State defendants and the pro-voucher groups that had intervened in the case unsuccessfully asked the Chancery Court to lift its injunction. The defendants were then rebuffed again by the Court of Appeals. Immediately thereafter, the defendants tried yet again, asking the Supreme Court to assume jurisdiction over the case and to stay the injunction. The Supreme Court refused both requests.

In an unusual move last month, the intervenors sought a fourth bite at the apple, requesting a “modification” of the injunction that would allow the State to take every step necessary to prepare and implement the voucher program, short of actually delivering the voucher funds. Notably, the State did not join in the intervenors’ motion.

In a one-paragraph order, and without calling for oral argument, the Tennessee Supreme Court summarily denied the intervenors’ motion.

The Supreme Court’s order to let the injunction stand is welcome news for parents and students in the underfunded and under-resourced Shelby County and Nashville public schools. While the appeal is pending, the State continues to be barred from spending any tax dollars on the voucher program.

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Backpack Full of Cash Coming to Nashville

MNPS Board Member Amy Frogge today announced that Matt Damon’s documentary “Backpack Full of Cash” will be coming to Nashville in April. Frogge posted on Facebook:

I’m excited to announce that “Backpack Full of Cash” has been selected for the Nashville Film Festival!

My children, their teachers, and I participated in this documentary, and although I’ve not yet seen it, I believe it will provide an eye-opening view of the school privatization movement affecting Nashville (and our state as a whole), as well as other urban areas across the country. The film, narrated by Matt Damon, focuses on market-based education reform and its impact on public schools.

It will be screened at the Regal Hollywood 27 on:
Sunday, April 23, 2017 at 5:30 pm
and
Tuesday, April 25, 2017 at 5:30 pm.

Join me for a screening (and possibly a Q & A following the film). This should be a timely and informative film!

Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post says of the film:

Actually, it’s a 90-minute documentary about the real and ongoing movement to privatize public education and its effects on traditional public schools and the students they enroll. With actor and activist Matt Damon narrating, “Backpack” tells a scary but important story about corporate school reform policies that critics say are aimed at destroying the U.S. public education system, the country’s most important civic institution.

So, two dates in April offer a chance for those in and around Nashville to check out this important film that also features an MNPS Board member.

backpack

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