BOLD! REFORM! NOW!

Tennessee’s purveyors of privatization are going apeshit over a newly-released poll showing a majority of Tennesseans (53%) believe the state’s education system is on the wrong track.

Here’s a tweet from Tennesseans for Student Success:

What’s amusing about this “outrage” is that Tennesseans for Student Success is part of a cabal of pro-privatization groups that has been setting the agenda on education in the state for more than a decade.

In other words, if we need bold reform now, we need to move away from the snake oil sold as solutions by these hucksters.

Oh, and here’s some more about Tennesseans for Student Success, just in case you’re not familiar with them:

Groups like Tennesseans for Student Success are joined by other privatization apologists such as Bill Frist’s ed reform group known as SCORE in an ongoing and seemingly never-ending push for BOLD! REFORM! NOW! It’s odd because one might think that with all the bold reform of the last decade, we’d finally have achieved some element of “success.” Instead, we must keep reforming because our students are still “behind” and there’s all this “learning loss.”

Here’s a little reminder from an earlier post about the results of all the “reform” we’ve been getting under the leadership of Governors Bill Haslam and Bill Lee and a GOP supermajority. All of this supported and pushed forward by SCORE, Tennesseans for Student Success, and similar groups.

  1. $616.5 million sounds great, and it’s neat to aggregate data over a decade, but that BIG number averages out to about $62 million per year. That’s about a 2% increase in the BEP salary allocation (not actual money in paychecks) each year. Calm down a little, already.
  2. Did I mention that $616.5 million might sound great? So, the TN House GOP is all excited about spending $616 million plus over TEN years, while the state is sitting on a $3.1 billion surplus this year alone! That means we could spend $616 million in teacher salaries THIS YEAR and still have more than $2.4 billion LEFT to spend. Read that again. Republicans are bragging about taking an entire decade to allocate in total what is available THIS year and could be funded while still leaving $2.4 billion for other priorities.
  3. A bipartisan group of policymakers reports that we need $1.7 billion in a SINGLE year in order to adequately fund the BEP. That’s because the BEP badly underestimates the number of teachers actually needed to staff schools. Of course, the BEP also fails to take into account proper ratios for school nurses or school counselors. The BEP is pretty much broken, and has been for some time.
  4. It was Republican Gov. Bill Haslam who stopped the BEP 2.0 formula that was an attempt to correct and improve the BEP allocation.
  5. Remember that time when Gov. Haslam got all excited about our NAEP scores and promised a big raise to teachers and then cancelled the raise? Remember how after he cancelled the raise, revenue numbers came in at a level that meant the raise really could have been funded? Good times.
  6. Oh, yeah. School districts fund significantly more teachers than the BEP allocates. Yes, this has been a known problem for some time. Yes, the GOP has been running most of state government for over a decade. No, they haven’t done anything to fix it.
  7. There was also that time when the Haslam Department of Education called on the State Board of Education to give local districts flexibility with BEP salary money. Essentially, this created a situation where the 4% BEP salary allocation increase became a 2% (or less) raise.
  8. Remember the time when Gov. Bill Lee gave a big increase in state funding to charter schools and a tiny raise to teachers? Wonder if teachers remember that? I bet that makes them feel really appreciated.
  9. Remember the year when Gov. Lee became the second governor in a row named Bill to promise teachers a big raise and then cancel it when things got tough? Because, yeah, that was 2020. How’d that tough budget Lee was worried about turn out? Oh, right, that’s the one with the $3.1 billion surplus.
  10. Finally, in the recently concluded special session, Gov. Lee proposed and his legislative leadership secured passage of legislation giving teachers a 10 cents on the dollar COVID raise. That’s right, in a year when there’s plenty of cash and teachers are working more and harder than ever, Gov. Lee is placing the value of teachers at 10 cents on the dollar.
  11. Oh, and yes, Tennessee consistently receives a grade of “F” in both school funding and school funding effort from national groups who analyze state level investment in schools.

All of this outcry over a situation caused by the privatizers would be pretty amusing if it was not also rather familiar. You see, these groups thrive in chaos – when they create the chaos, they swoop in quickly with BOLD! REFORM! NOW! solutions and shiny presentations about how if we just did MORE of what they were saying, we’d be getting all the results Tennesseans actually desire.

Another example of this same phenomenon can be found in the Critical Race Theory hysteria:

This is really about creating another issue for political advantage. Lee, SCORE, and others suspect that no one will notice that it’s the state’s GOP leadership pushing down this curriculum – plus, a little dust-up over seahorses takes attention away from the messed up process.

But, the real goal seems to be the re-election of Bill Lee and the undermining of local school boards. Lee signed the bill banning CRT so he can’t also be promoting it, right?

To be clear, Wit and Wisdom may or may not be great curriculum. But, that’s not really the point. The point is, there are larger forces at work – groups from outside the state seeking to stir up trouble for political wins. A governor who is taking both sides of an issue and hoping no one notices.

Oh, and just to make the point even more clear, Lee used “emergency funds” earlier this year (after the legislature adjourned) in order to foist charter schools on districts that don’t have them and are unlikely to authorize them on their own.

To sum it all up, Tennessee has some actual education problems – we could probably do a better job in math and literacy. And, the BOLD! REFORM! NOW! we have YET to try is this: Funding the schools. We’re still $1.7 billion short of adequate funding. We had a $2 billion+ surplus this past budget year. We have the resources to pay for schools at a high level without raising ANY taxes or cutting ANY services. Doing this would almost guarantee relatively low property taxes in most Tennessee counties.

So, tell me again about all the BOLD! REFORM! NOW! we need, Tennesseans for Student Success.

We don’t get the results we claim to want because policymakers aren’t willing to pay for them. If any agenda is failing, it’s the one pushed by the privatizers – they are the status quo in our state. They set the agenda and have for years. If we’re on the wrong track, it’s because groups like SCORE and Tennesseans for Student Success are not only driving the train but also have built the track we’re currently using.

These groups are right – we are on the wrong track – and we should tell them to get out of the way so parents and educators can get us moving in the right direction.

train in railway
Photo by Mark Plötz on Pexels.com

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Bill Lee’s Not So Special Session

So, Gov. Bill Lee has decided to call a special session of the Tennessee General Assembly to address education issues he’s largely ignored during his time as governor. While Lee has eagerly pursued a privatization agenda, he’s left teachers and public schools behind. Now, he wants to make it seem like he’s doing something. This is, after all, the same Governor who led Tennessee to the “best in the world” status in transmission rate of COVID-19.

Chalkbeat reports on the topics to be discussed during the session:

He’ll ask the legislature to address state testing challenges next spring during the pandemic, as well as funding for teacher pay and schools for the following academic year. Also on the agenda will be initiatives to address learning loss and a comprehensive literacy package to improve students’ reading proficiency.

Reading this is actually pretty amusing, considering the very problems or challenges Lee is seeking to address were created by a man named Bill Lee who happens to be the Governor. Maybe “Special Session Bill Lee” should go have a talk with “Regular Session Bill Lee” and see what they can work out?

Anyway, let’s look at those issues.

Testing

Bill Lee has consistently pushed the state’s failed testing agenda that means more profits for testing companies and less learning for kids:

Funding and Teacher Pay

This is hilarious. Gov. Bill Lee, who cut a planned teacher pay raise just a few short months ago, now says we need funding for . . . teacher pay? Are you even kidding? Do you think teachers don’t have memories?

Oh, and remember his first proposed budget? The one that made it clear his priorities were with a privatization agenda and NOT with investing in teachers?

Then, there’s the overall issue of school funding. An independent review found that the state’s school funding formula needs at least $1.7 billion to adequately fund schools. Has Lee made any effort to meet this need? NO!

Learning Loss and Literacy

You want to address learning loss and literacy? Fund our schools, pay our teachers, and invest in kids. Lee’s done none of those things and there’s exactly zero indication that he has a plan to change that.

Echo Chamber

Predictably, Lee’s allies chimed in right away applauding his poor excuse for effort as something other than sound and fury signifying nothing.

These two stooges eagerly support Lee and went along with his plans to cut investment in schools in June of this year. Now, they’re acting like Lee is some kind of hero for realizing there’s a crisis — a crisis of his own creation. It’s like a firefighter complimenting an arsonist for at least calling the fire department AFTER the house was almost absorbed in flames.

Forward

If we want to move our state forward in terms of public education, we will do the following:

  1. Cancel TNReady now and forever
  2. Invest in teacher pay – starting with at least a 25% raise to make up for years of inadequacy
  3. Add the $1.7 billion TACIR says our state needs to properly fund schools and distribute it according to a new BEP formula that builds on BEP 2.0.

I’m going to go ahead and predict that Bill Lee and his cronies will do none of those things. Oh, and to no one’s surprise, Lee’s dark money pals over at Tennesseans for Student Success are already out with a statement congratulating Lee for his efforts.

This is kind of like a cow congratulating a chicken for realizing it was a bad idea to go to KFC.

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Tennesseans for Stupid Testing

Dark money lobbying group Tennesseans for Student Success is out with a statement supporting Gov. Bill Lee’s weak ploy on state testing — continuing with the time-wasting tests while taking it easy on so-called accountability measures.

Here’s what Tennesseans for Student Success has to say:

“Tennessee students and teachers have been challenged this year in ways we could not have imagined. We have been inspired by the commitment demonstrated by parents and teachers to provide intellectually challenging learning opportunities for students across the state,” said Adam Lister, TSS President & CEO. “In these uncertain times, abandoning testing and progress reporting for our students would be a mistake and result in leaving some of our students behind. By continuing with end-of-year testing, the governor ensures each Tennessee student will receive the support they need based on objective data to measure learning loss, inequities, and areas of improvement. We also believe, in this extraordinary moment, student growth measures should not be used in teacher evaluations unless it benefits the teacher and supports his or her professional growth. We thank Governor Lee and Commissioner Schwinn for their commitment to student improvement and growth in the future generation.”

So, basically, they say: “Hey, look, we know this pandemic sucks and learning time has been lost, etc. But, let’s take weeks out of the year for a test that hasn’t really worked at all in the past five years.”

Meanwhile, Congressman Mark Green is simply calling for the cancellation of TNReady.

In addition to being dark money spenders and supporters of stupid testing, let’s not forget this group is also pretty good friends with payday predators:

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Turner’s Heroes

State House candidate James Turner has disavowed support from dark money school privatization group Tennesseans for Student Success. But, that hasn’t stopped the group from viciously attacking incumbent State Rep. Mike Stewart in the District 52 Democratic Primary.

Here’s a recent mailer from TSS against Stewart:

Since Turner says he doesn’t want the “help” he’s getting from TSS, one can assume this means he opposes tactics like these and will be calling them out.

Oh, and Turner might want to correct the record while he’s at it. Stewart has consistently supported improving the state’s funding formula for schools (the BEP), has supported teacher pay raises (which Gov. Bill Lee slashed in this year’s COVID-19 emergency budget), and has opposed Lee’s school voucher scheme.

Tennesseans for Student Success is also spending heavily in districts around the state in an attempt to defeat Republicans who oppose school vouchers. This is, of course, in service to the Lee-DeVos school privatization agenda.

It also appears the group is spending heavily (estimates of $30,000-$40,000) in at least one Nashville School Board race.

Meanwhile, the TSS Twitter feed chugs along with innocuous posts like this:

That seems like a great way to build a following while hiding your true mission.

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The Payday Predator’s Pal

A dark money school privatization group also shares something in common with Tennessee’s payday lending political interests. Tennessee First, a political action committee (PAC) is funded largely by contributions from the payday and title loan industry.

Just before the 2020 legislative session, a political action committee (PAC) called Tennessee First doled out some $38,000 in cash to various Tennessee lawmakers. Where does Tennessee First get money? $20,000 came from Advance Financial. Another $7500 came from Community Choice Financial. To top it off, the Tennessee Title Pledge PAC emptied its coffers – $5661.60 – to Tennessee First. So, $33,161.60 of the $38,750 distributed came directly from payday and title lenders.

So, it’s pretty clear Tennessee First is the vehicle of choice used by payday predators to distribute campaign cash. Who else funds the debt trap lending PAC? Well, $5000 came from a group called Tennesseans for Student Success. That’s the same group involved in at least one Nashville School Board race as well as a primary challenge to incumbent House member and public school advocate Mike Stewart.

You may recall Tennesseans for Student Success for their online attacks against Republicans who opposed Gov. Bill Lee’s school privatization agenda.

An attack ad by Tennesseans for Student Success targeting a Republican who opposed school privatization

It really should come as no surprise that TSS chose to use a pro-payday lending PAC as its vehicle for distributing campaign cash. It’s a group that’s no stranger to shady tactics. It’s worth noting, though, that on June 29th of this year, a group called TEAM KID PAC filed papers with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance. Who funds TEAM KID PAC? The initial $10,000+ contribution came from Tennesseans for Student Success. So, now when you see candidates boasting of support from TEAM KID, you’ll know that really means the same dark money group that likes to associate with legalized loan sharks.

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Mystery Solved

Amy Frogge solved the mystery:

Here’s the story:

A few days ago, I shared a Tennessee Education Report piece about mailers sent out in the District 3 school board race on behalf of candidate Brian Hubert. It garnered a really interesting response. 

The mailers came from a group called the “Nashville Parents Committee,” and the address listed on the mailers was the same as that of the Tennessee Charter School Center. After TN Ed Report put out its blog post suggesting that the TN Charter Center was responsible for the mailers (a logical assumption), both Brian Hubert and his wife responded that they were unaware of these mailers and did not coordinate with the “Nashville Parents Committee.” Then, a couple of days later, the Tennessee Charter School Center issued a response disavowing the mailers. 

As it turns out, the registered agent for the “Nashville Parents Committee” is Todd Ervin, a tax attorney at the well-heeled Bass, Berry & Sims law firm. (I’m going to hazard a guess here that Mr. Ervin has not formed this committee to advocate for his children’s local public schools.) Mr. Ervin also just happens to be the registered agent for Tennesseans for Student Success.

Tennesseans for Student Success is a pro-school privatization organization that was set up to support Governor Haslam’s education agenda. This group shares the same agenda as the Tennessee Charter School Center and has recently inserted itself into Representative Mike Stewart’s Democratic primary by supporting his opponent James Turner (see comments). Although it appears that Haslam is no longer involved with Tennesseans for Student Success, it is still very active. It promotes charter schools, excessive standardized testing, and teacher “accountability” (our deeply flawed teacher evaluation model that evaluates 70% of TN teachers on classes they’ve never taught). These are all tentacles of the “school choice” movement. Unreliable standardized test scores are used to prove that TN schools are “failing” and thus to market new and “innovative” solutions, such as vouchers, more charter schools, and more tests and test prep to “assess” how our students and teachers are performing. The common theme here is profit for private interests. 

Over and over again, we find ourselves fighting the same battles in different guises against various forms of corruption. It becomes exhausting. During my 8 years on the board, we first had to fight against charter school proliferation (which drains money from public schools and directs it to private interests) and absurd amounts of standardized tests for our children. Then came vouchers (for the moment, defeated!). Now the battle has morphed once again. Former Nashville superintendent Shawn Joseph and current TN Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn, both affiliated with the Eli Broad network, are part of the latest scam to direct public funds to private interests and education vendors in the form of no-bid contracts. (Broad also pushes charter schools.) Millions and millions of dollars are at stake in these efforts. But make no mistake, all of this is ultimately about personal greed at the expense of children.

On a related note, I mentioned in my original post that District 9 candidate Russelle Bradbury is a former Teach for America teacher who has made pro-charter school statements. This matters because TFA and charter schools have a symbiotic relationship, and TFA candidates, like former school board member and TFA executive Elissa Kim, typically view charter schools and standardized testing as the only “solutions” to public school challenges. (I know there are good TFA teachers in our school system, some of whom have even taught my own children, but all of this is beside the point.) Ms. Bradbury denied that she was ever a TFA teacher, to which I responded that she has said (both verbally and in writing) that her “Mom likes to tell people, ‘Russelle did Teach for America, on her own!'” I’ve invited her to respond, but have not heard back. 

Keep your eye on these dark money groups that don’t serve the best interests of Nashville’s students. Even when candidates don’t coordinate with groups like Tennesseans for Student Success, organizations like these typically fight against the candidate whom they view as the most effective advocate for true public education. And, as always, just follow the money!

No Thanks

School privatization group Tennesseans for Student Success has gotten involved in a Democratic primary for the Tennessee House of Representatives in Nashville. The group is backing James Turner in his challenge to incumbent Mike Stewart in House District 52.

Here’s more on the effort by TSS to influence the Democratic primary:

And here’s James Turner’s campaign stating they don’t really want the “help.”

Looks like Nashville has a clear message for TSS:

The Five Pillars of Privatization

Tennesseans for Student Success recently released a 2020 policy agenda and noted the following five pillars guiding this agenda:


Tennesseans for Student Success is kicking off the 2020 legislative session by outlining our policy pillars and how they affect student success. Our five pillars are higher academic standards, an aligned assessment to those standards, protecting accountability, innovation in education, and securing economic freedom for all. 

This sounds pretty nice, or at least rather innocuous. But, who is Tennesseans for Student Success? Here’s what their website says:


Tennesseans for Student Success is a statewide network of teachers, parents, community leaders, and volunteers who are dedicated to supporting, championing, and fighting for Tennessee’s students and their futures.

This sounds even better, right? Look! It’s everyone! All coming together to fight for our kids! We should ALL love TSS, right?!

Well, let’s take another look. It seems TSS is all about privatizing public schools. Sure, they attacked staunch public education defender and state representative Gloria Johnson a few years back. But, maybe that was an anomaly.

Then, of course, there are the candidates they strongly back.

It’s a who’s who of school voucher backers.

TSS has consistently indicated support for voucher-backers like Senators Dolores Gresham and Brian Kelsey. And, they’ve taken out ads against Republicans who dare stand in the way of Gov. Lee and the school privatization agenda:

The five pillars of TSS are nothing more than the five horsemen of the public education apocalypse. Standards and Assessment simply mean ever more testing. Protecting Accountability means using voodoo science to evaluate (and remove) teachers and keep salaries (costs) low. Education “innovation” means charter schools and vouchers (as seen in the ads above). Economic freedom for all is nothing more than saying the “market” is what should guide education policy — it’s saying we should privatize above all.

TSS is, in fact, non-partisan. They’ll attack anyone, Republican or Democrat, who stands in the way of letting privatizing profiteers get their hands on public schools.

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Tennesseans Against Liberals?

Just a group of moms and dads and teachers and administrators and engaged community members working together to make Tennessee schools great. Sounds nice, right?

That’s how the issue advocacy group Tennesseans for Student Success describes itself. Here’s the official description from their website:

Tennesseans for Student Success is made up of moms and dads, teachers and parents, administrators and education leaders, and community and elected officials. If you are interested in joining our work, we have a place for you to be a part of this historic work.

We hope you’ll join us in one of our Coalitions for Student Success. Our students are more prepared for their next steps than they have ever been before. Tennessee’s kids are now better prepared for life after school, but there is more work to be done. We need your help as we all work to spread the message of student success in counties and communities across the state.

See, a perfectly positive group spreading the message of student success all across Tennessee.

And then there’s this:

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They sure don’t like that Gloria Johnson. You know, the former state rep. running for her old seat. The one who stood up to Bill Haslam and to special interests seeking to privatize public schools by way of vouchers.

Their involvement in the 13th district House race is more interesting in light of a twitter encounter back in August relative to the Nashville School Board races.

Here’s that tweet:

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So, they don’t endorse candidates? True, the ads against Gloria Johnson don’t technically ask voters to vote against her. But, the message is pretty clear.

Then, there’s this press release from after the August primary:

“Every election day brings the possibility of changing course in the General Assembly. As Tennessee’s students, teachers, parents, administrators, community leaders, and education advocates continue their work to make sure every child in the state has the opportunity to succeed, it is paramount Nashville stay focused on student success. Tennessee kids are the fastest improving in the nation in education and every elected official must be committed to that work.

“Tennesseans for Student Success this summer spent time across the state engaging with voters about our advocacy for all Tennessee classrooms. From school tours in Knoxville to Days of Action in Brentwood to reading events in Bolivar, we worked to advance and protect education reform throughout the state.

“As we celebrate the victories of Senator Dolores Gresham, Senator Steve Dickerson, Representative Charles Sargent, Representative Jon Lundberg, and Representative John DeBerry we are grateful voters considered the message of student-centered, commonsense education reform and voted for what’s best for their children, their teachers, their classrooms, and their futures.”

Hmm. All the candidates they are celebrating are also lawmakers who support school vouchers. While the candidate they are warning voters about, Gloria Johnson, opposes vouchers.

So, what’s the story? Is Tennesseans for Student Success a nonpartisan issue advocacy group just trying to help our schools? Or do they believe that liberals can’t also support student success? Or are they a front group for a Haslam Administration that supports school vouchers?

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