Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee answered questions from the media during a visit to Gestamp in Chattanooga last month. (Doug Strickland/Chattanooga Times Free Press/AP)
Reporter

Tennessee’s newly elected governor, Bill Lee, just delivered his first State of the State speech, and he jumped right into an education controversy with his plan to introduce school vouchers in a state in which public school districts are chronically underfunded.

The Republican governor also wants to create a path for operators of charter schools — which are publicly funded but privately run — to circumvent local school boards by going directly to the state for approval. He is doing this even though some school systems, such as Nashville’s, fund the majority of public education locally.

Lee, whose policy and legislative team is populated by pro-voucher advocates from Americans for Prosperity and TennesseeCAN (a “branch campaign” of 50CAN), said in his address that he was sending a letter to every school board member and superintendent in Tennessee to seek input into his reform plans.

In this post, Will Pinkston, a member of the Nashville School Board, offers his rather scathing opinion of Lee’s proposals. Pinkston is the author of “Race to the Bottom: How Bad Actors Tried to Destroy Public Education.” You can follow him on Twitter @WillPinkston.

By Will Pinkston

Nashville — Gov. Bill Lee, in his first State of the State speech, pledged to send letters to Tennessee’s local school board members seeking our input on his controversial plan to pursue vouchers and expand charter schools. Here’s what I’ll write back in response:

Gov. Lee:

In Tennessee, our state constitution guarantees “a system of free public schools” — not a system of taxpayer-funded private schools, which is what you’d be creating with vouchers. Setting aside the unconstitutional nature of vouchers, it’s just bad policy at a time when the state is already underfunding our public schools. If your plan is enacted, it will likely end up in court.

Regarding expansion of charter schools, which I see as taxpayer-funded private schools that are basically vouchers in a different form: You should examine the negative fiscal impact that charter schools have on public schools as well as the meltdown of your capital city’s charter industry.

Over the past couple of months alone in Nashville, we’ve learned:

* New Vision Academy, a charter school celebrated by the Tennessee Department of Education and the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), is under federal and state investigations into academic and financial irregularities. After endangering students by operating in violation of local fire codes, New Vision abruptly closed — but only after sponging millions of dollars from state and local taxpayers and fleecing at least $125,000 from the state’s charter facility fund.

* STEM Prep, another charter school, assigned Coptic Christian students to recite Islamic religious texts — in violation of a state law prohibiting schools from using instructional materials to “proselytize” — then engaged a big PR firm to try to cover it up. Rest assured: If public schools were caught teaching Bible verses to Muslim students, the American Civil Liberties Union or another group would rightly haul us into court.

* LEAD Academy, a charter school that aggressively advertises “100 percent acceptance” to college, for years told students they had to first be admitted to a college or university before they’d be granted a high school diploma — potentially a violation of federal civil rights law. Sending students on a forced march to college, when many of them are unprepared and eventually drop out, is contrary to your interest in supporting kids who instead want to pursue career and technical education.

These latest fumbles follow the collapse of a Rocketship charter school due to lack of student and family demand, state-documented financial irregularities at Valor Collegiate, and violations of federal telecommunications law that led to a $2.2 million legal settlement by the RePublic charter chain.

All of this comes amid a growing body of evidence demonstrating that charters cherry-pick in student admissions, push out kids who aren’t making the grade and, ultimately, don’t outperform, as they claim.

The negative fiscal impact that charter schools have had on our public schools is well documented. In the current school year, charters are siphoning off $130 million in public money from Metro Nashville Public Schools while our teachers and staff aren’t getting pay raises — and our chronically underfunded traditional schools are barely treading water, financially.

Charters proliferated at an unsustainable rate under Republican former governor Bill Haslam’s ill-conceived policies, which also led to the failed charter-heavy Achievement School District. Your plan would further betray the time-honored conservative principle of local control. In Nashville, where the state funds 29 percent of public education, your plan could rapidly confiscate tens of millions of local tax dollars from local taxpayers and public schools.

Again, if your plan is enacted, it will likely end up in court. At this point, it’s time for the state of Tennessee to cure the chaos it has created — not make matters worse with more radical-reform overreach.

Republicans in the Tennessee General Assembly are thankfully awakening to these problems. They know that if your plan advances, it will just be a matter of time before charters and vouchers creep into rural and suburban school systems. Local school boards and superintendents are educating lawmakers about the catastrophic effects that charters and vouchers would have on their cash-strapped budgets.

Gov. Lee: Tennessee is ranked in the bottom seven states in America when it comes to per-pupil funding. Let’s instead have a conversation focused on large-scale priorities like dramatically improving teacher pay, expanding early childhood education, and committing to adequate funding for all public schools — not privatizing our school systems vis-à-vis charters and vouchers. Thank you.