Sunday, November 7, 2021

The Empire Strikes Back: Bill Lee Pushes School Vouchers Again


While sitting in the gray plastic pull-out bleachers in the gymnasium of the University of Tennessee, South campus in Pulaski, Tennessee, I feel myself becoming more anxious as the program is about to begin. I am visiting Pulaski for the first time in my life because I am attending a town hall session hosted by the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) regarding how public school money should be spent. 

As a teacher of 18 years and as a father of two girls who attend public schools, I am more than a little interested in the TODE's and Gov. Bill Lee's announcement that they plan on completely re-doing the thirty-year-old school funding formula known as the Basic Education Program (BEP). This is welcome news considering that two days ago, Tennessee received yet another F in school funding and considering that the state faces court battles next year from Memphis and Nashville because the current school funding formula, they correctly argue, is in violation of the state constitution because it is inadequate.

After a general introduction and a short speech from Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, they open the floor to comments from the audience and my name is called first. I am anxious because, when I arrived, I learned that I would only be allowed to speak for two minutes. I had so much to say! I wanted to mention how atrocious it is that in 2021 teachers in this state are still limited on how many copies they can make for their classrooms. I wanted to go into how students' mental health is poor. That fights during school are on the rise because they don't know how to properly deal with their emotions and the need for school counselors, psychologists, and social workers is at a critical point. I wanted to mention my idea for attacking the substitute teacher crisis in Tennessee, which is to include substitute teacher pay as a component in the BEP. Rural systems like mine can not afford to pay them a decent wage (they can literally make more money at any fast food establishment), so if TDOE creates a baseline pay of $120 per day for non-licensed substitute teachers that is reimbursed to districts, then we will be much more likely to attract and keep quality substitute teachers. The $120 figure comes from paying them the equivalent of $15 an hour for the length of the school day. If the substitute is a certified teacher, then I believe that amount should equal $160 per day. I wanted to raise these points--and more--but the two minute time limit had me rethinking what I was going to say.

As a TDOE staffer brings the microphone to me, I have a moment of clarity. I am a high school ESL teacher. Focus on my students. I use my 120 seconds to thank them for the opportunity to address them and discuss this important topic. I push for the need to lower the student-teacher ratio for ESL teachers to a more manageable level. This is a special population of students that requires lots of individual attention if they're actually going to make substantial improvements. I push for the need to include translators as a part of the BEP formula because my students' parents are often left out of education decisions regarding their children due to the language barrier. Finally, I mention the need for increasing the amount of education funding in general because teachers are leaving the profession in droves.

After the comments session of the town hall was over, we moved on to the questions portion. Between the comment and question sessions, I learned that, at the time, the only person who was appointed to the Fiscal Responsibility subcommittee was Justin Owen, the President and CEO of Beacon Center for Tennessee. This lead me to ask Commissioner Schwinn the following question: "You are openly pushing for a student-centered approach to school funding. I have to ask why so many anti-public school voices are included in this process and why Justin Owen of the ultra-conservative Beacon Center is the only member of the Fiscal Responsibility Committee. My daughters deserve to attend schools that are adequately funded, and including these voices is detrimental to their education." She responded that there are, in fact, other members of this committee and the state's website with these committees has not been updated yet. Regarding including the Beacon Center in the school funding process, she relished the opportunity to emphasize that Gov. Lee is open to all voices in this process and that no one was going to be left out. 

Her response sent chills down my spine as it reminded me all too much of former President Trump's defense of white nationalists in Charlottesville, VA in 2017 when he said "There are very fine people on both sides." In the realm of public education, there are not fine people on both sides. Privatizers are eager to get their greedy palms into the large slice of pie of public education funding. There are companies and organizations out there who eagerly await the opportunity to make money from public education, thereby destroying it. They pump millions of dollars into school board races, county commission races, and, of course, state and federal races. They hope that they will get a return on their investment in the form of state vouchers. Indeed, if Gov. Lee and TDOE truly wished to re-do the BEP funding in a way that will improve outcomes, then these people would be left out of the discussion altogether. Instead, in Tennessee, when it comes to funding public education, all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. 

Tennessee is the only state in the southeast that does not have public school vouchers in some form. This is in large part thanks to the Tennessee Education Association (TEA) reminding politicians to vote their districts, where it has been demonstrated time and again that using taxpayer dollars for private school tuition is wildly unpopular. Tennessee's teachers and parents also tend to vote out politicians at a high rate who support vouchers. In fact, from 2014-2020, TEA endorsed candidates have won 87% of the time. This sets up 2022 to be the most consequential election year for public education in this state's history.

Not only will more than 400 of the 944 local school board seats be up for election across the state, but so will Gov. Lee, and he TDOE are going to put state legislators in a sticky spot because in January they plan on presenting their new BEP formula to the state legislature

Stop and reflect on that last sentence. If their timeline is to present their plan in January then it can only mean one thing--it's either already written or close to it. This means that TDOE's public town halls and their funding review committees are either entirely or mostly a farce. They're going through the motions of eliciting public feedback because to redo the BEP formula without attempting to do so would mean their suggestion in January would most assuredly be D.O.A.

So the question remains, why will state legislators be put in a difficult position when Gov. Lee and TDOE reveal their plan? Voting in favor of an allegedly improved education funding plan should be easy. The answer is in the details. 

The Lee administration has already passed an unconstitutional voucher law. It's important to note why that law was unconstitutional--it violates the "Home Rule" provision in the state constitution which says that the state legislature can not pass laws that apply to only one or two counties (like this law did); they can only pass laws that apply to the entire state. Gov. Lee learned a lesson from his failed attempt to privatize education: a voucher law must apply to the entire state. 

The problem, as I stated earlier, is that most state politicians will not support voucher legislation because it's unpopular and will quite possibly lead to them not getting re-elected. So what is a governor to do? Yep, you guessed it--revamp the entire BEP.

The tea leaves are not difficult to read here. The new BEP formula will include some form of vouchers (they, of course, won't be called that) and because the BEP funds public schools across the state, then it will not violate the "Home Rule" provision. State legislators will be put in a position to either vote in favor of the new BEP formula (which will undoubtedly include actual needed improvements that will be popular with their constituents) or reject it. It's a lose-lose situation for them. Either support the new BEP formula that will actually privatize public schools or be accused of being against public education. 

What makes me so sure that vouchers will be included in the new BEP? Look at the composition of the state's Fiscal Responsibility Subcommittee--the one that questioned Commissioner Schwinn about during the town hall in Pulaski. This committee is FULL of pro-voucher members. I have Googled each of them, and while a few have wisely kept a low profile online, here's what I discovered:

The chair of the committee is Justin Owen, President and CEO of Beacon Center of Tennessee. Not only did the Beacon Center openly support Gov. Lee's unconstitutional voucher legislation last year, but their own website states that "the state should fund children, not systems." This wording is identical to that found on TDOE's website that contains the list of the different subcommittees.

Katherine Hudgins is the founder of Rutherford County Heritage Sentinels. This is a sister organization of the Heritage Foundation which has successfully put pressure on states across the country to pass voucher legislation. They have published many pro-voucher articles online, including this one--"Give Vouchers a Chance."

Chris Littleton is the Co-Founder of Rutherford Students First. I'm sure you can already tell by the name of this organization where I'm going with this one. On their website, they advocate "secure parental control of education funding, so dollars follow students, not just school districts." This wording sounds so familiar, doesn't it?

Former State Rep. Harry Brooks of Knoxville sponsored voucher legislation in 2017 that would have violated the "Home Rule" provision because it was limited to Memphis. Unfortunately, its unconstitutionality is not why the bill died. Legislators disagreed on how private schools should be held accountable under the new law.

Michael Hendrix is the Director of State and Local Government for the Manhattan Institute. In addition to being the only organization in this group that is not based in Tennessee, they stand out because they make a different and unfounded argument for school vouchers--that they save taxpayers money

I was initially perplexed about the inclusion of Jim Ethier on this committee. He's the retired chairman of Bush Brothers & Company who make's Bush's Baked Beans. As it turns out, he's also on the board of directors for The Beacon Center.

David Perdue is listed on TDOE's website as the retired CEO of DS Partners Memphis, a now defunct domestic limited liability company that was only open for less than a year. The parent firm, DS Partners LLC also no longer exists and was based out of Georgia. David Perdue has an interesting history in that state as well. On March 21, 2014, while he was campaigning for a Georgia GOP Senate seat, his mislead parents about his father's role in desegregating Houston County Schools in Georgia. Long story short: His father was the superintendent of Houston County Schools when the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education ordered schools across the country to be desegregated. However, David Perdue Sr. dragged his feet on this issue and had to be court-ordered to desegregate schools thanks to a lawsuit from the NAACP. There's a while article about it here. In case there is any question where David Perdue Jr. stands on school vouchers, one only need to look at the website He was asked the following question: "Should the government offer students a voucher that they can use to attend private schools?" to which he responded, "Yes."

Clearly, those who support vouchers have an unequal voice in Gov. Lee's attempt to redo the BEP formula while those who are against vouchers are greatly outnumbered. It is crucial for Tennessee voters in 2022 to ignore the noise of CRT, mask mandates, etc. and focus on how schools will be funded in the future. It has been 30 years since school funding has been redone to this extent, and it may very well be another 30+ years until it is done again. The last thing we need is for Gov. Lee and TDOE to sneak voucher legislation into it though the back door. There will be no coming back from that. It does not matter if a candidate is a Republican, a Democrat, or an Independent: we need to vote for candidates that put public education first. No. Matter. What.

P.S. To the English teachers (or English teachers at heart) out there, I apologize for my mixed metaphor between the title of this blog and my allusions to George Orwell's Animal Farm.

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