Commentary

Stockard on the Stump: Lawmakers predict new funding formula will change voucher costs – maybe

July 29, 2022 7:00 am
Educators protesting before Thursday's public comment session on a new state education funding plan at Nashville's Ellington Agricultural Center. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Educators protesting before Thursday’s public comment session on a new state education funding plan at Nashville’s Ellington Agricultural Center. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The new K-12 funding formula approved by the Legislature could change the cost of Tennessee’s voucher program, initially set at $25 million three years ago, as well as funding for charter schools.

But lawmakers’ understanding of the relationship between the funding plan and the voucher program varies widely.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Jon Lundberg acknowledges he believes the price tag for the Education Savings Account program will shift, though he’s not certain how as the state moves away from a 30-year-old funding formula in fiscal 2023-24.

“Obviously, changing that to a student-based formula does change those numbers,” says Lundberg.

Under the new law, which went through a hearing Thursday morning in Nashville, student funding will be based on measures such as small and sparse school districts, economically disadvantaged and concentrated poverty, as well as learning disabilities, special education needs and English language learning. Based on those, the cost of a student’s education could jump to about $16,000 annually, rather than the $7,300 identified for vouchers three years ago.

I wish we didn’t have to do this. I wish we didn’t have as many failing schools as we did in Shelby and Davidson County. But we do, and we’ve gotta take action to address that.

– Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, commenting on a new per-student funding formula

The widespread fear among voucher opponents is that the state will take that greater amount and send it to private schools, funneling even more money than expected away from public schools.

Whether that will happen is about as clear as mud, but Metro Nashville and Shelby will have to adjust their charter funding based on the new formula, since those are treated as public schools.

Lundberg, a Bristol Republican, notes it is important to remember the Education Savings Account Act is a three-year pilot program, which will give the Legislature an opportunity to evaluate it and make alterations. Lundberg wasn’t certain how many of the schools committed to the voucher program have religious affiliations, though almost all of those in Davidson, Shelby and Sumner are Christian schools.

“I wish we didn’t have to do this,” he says. “I wish we didn’t have as many failing schools as we did in Shelby and Davidson County. But we do, and we’ve gotta take action to address that.” 

He contends the entire state needs to “raise the bar” in education, but he notes the next three years will determine what impact vouchers make.

I’m against the program period. But … I’m definitely against adding any more funds, any more taxpayer money to fund some sort of Christian, religious, private school.

– Rep. Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville, noting few--if any--private schools in Nashville would be covered by the amount the state is offering.

The state has plenty stashed away to cover the costs no matter what.

The Legislature directed $25 million approved for vouchers toward the Katie Beckett program for fragile children in fiscal 2019-20. Those are recurring dollars, meaning they stay in the budget each year, thus the state had $50 million awaiting court approval of the voucher program, in addition to funds approved for this 2022-23 budget.

If the approved 5,000 students used $7,300 to attend private schools this year, that would amount to $36.5 million in the first year, though it’s unknown how many students will seek vouchers.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie said Thursday he believes the new formula could wind up going on top of the $7,300, raising the amount even more for the voucher program.

“This has been my fear all along. They’re going to get this voucher money plus whatever this student-based formula is,” says Dixie, a Nashville Democrat. 

Dixie, however, says the biggest problem with the program is the “murky” details, which could lead to “misappropriations” and “misuse” of the program.

Gov. Bill Lee contends the program is most likely to help children of color. But few private schools in Nashville charge only $7,300, Dixie points out.

If a child were to aspire to Father Ryan High School or Christ Presbyterian Academy, for instance, parents would have to take out a loan, which seems a little silly when a public school is available at no cost.

“I’m against the program period. But … I’m definitely against adding any more funds, any more taxpayer money to fund some sort of Christian, religious, private school,” Dixie says.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, speaks to teachers and public education advocates protesting a new student funding formula. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, speaks to teachers and public education advocates protesting a new student funding formula. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Meanwhile, state Rep. John Ray Clemmons, who spoke to a group of teachers rallying Thursday against the new funding formula, has a completely different understanding of the funding.

Money for student vouchers will be “taken off the top” and guaranteed, he says. Then all of the money for the new formula (Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement Act) will be based on availability, about $9 billion.

“All of that pot of money is going to shrink because of vouchers,” he says.

Charters will get their cut, and the rest of K-12 education will be funded based on priorities, which haven’t been spelled out clearly and depend on the Legislature’s budget, says Clemmons, a Nashville attorney who serves on the House Education Administration Committee. 

The base amount for each student is $6,860 under the new formula, $460 less than was stated for the voucher program. 

The new funding formula doesn’t guarantee extra funding, either, for factors such as concentrated poverty, Clemmons says.

The Department of Education is somewhat mum on how much money would go toward vouchers based on the new funding formula, saying it’s too early to tell. The injunction wasn’t lifted until July 13.

“For the duration of the injunction, all work was halted on the ESA program,” spokesman Brian Blackley says. “The department is working to hire staff to implement this program, and we are providing as much accurate information as we can to help support folks across the state.”

Speakers during Thursday’s public hearing asked for equity and transparency. Before this program starts, the state needs to let people know exactly how much it will cost and enlighten our legislators as well. 

Their worst fears

Before Thursday’s public hearing at the Ellington Agricultural Center in Nashville, teachers and Democratic lawmakers sounded off on a litany of woes in public education.

Not only did they criticize the voucher program and accuse its supporters of siphoning money from public education, they blasted the new funding formula and the governor’s push to open 50 to 100 Hillsdale College-affiliated charter schools.

Though charter schools are considered part of public school districts, they are operated by charter organizations using local and state funds and don’t have to go through the same bureaucratic hoops as typical public schools.

That’s why people cried foul when Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn was captured on a secretly-recorded video saying teachers are taught in the “dumbest parts” of the “dumbest colleges in the nation,” all while Gov. Bill Lee sat silently.

Arnn this week tried to explain it away in a Tennessean guest column, which varied somewhat from a column he wrote for USA Today (both are owned by Gannett).

But teachers aren’t buying what he’s selling, including the statement that anyone can be a teacher without any training. 

Pearl-Cohn High School teacher Quanita Adams encouraged people who believe anyone can do her job to enroll in a teacher preparation program or sign up to be a substitute.

It might seem easy to teach. But think about getting up in front of 25 high school students five times a day every day and trying to hammer something into their skulls.

Simultaneously, the state could be on the verge of sidestepping school boards that reject Hillsdale charters and untrained teachers.

“When the elected school board makes a decision that aligns with the values of the people, that decision should be upheld,” Adams says.

In fact, the state’s Charter Authorization Board, which is appointed by Lee, holds the authority to override local decisions on charter schools. It is likely to be considering two to three requests for waivers from Hillsdale College-affiliated charter operators in the coming weeks.

If it yields? “You’re taking my voice away from the decisions for my child’s education,” Adams says.

Quantita Adams, a teacher at Nashville’s Pearl-Cohn High, suggested that anyone who thinks they can do her job should go ahead and sign up to be a substitute teacher or enroll in a teacher preparation program.

She called on the Legislature to disband the charter authorizing committee, eliciting a roar of approval from the protesters.

It could be a short-lived cheer unless the governor tells his charter authorizers: Please get me out of this.

Taxpayer who?

Legislators were miffed this week when Americans for Prosperity – Tennessee released its annual Taxpayer Scorecard. 

Some said they could hardly sleep in anticipation of the day all would be revealed. So when the legislator ratings showed that such luminaries as Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Ken Yager joined Democratic Sen. Brenda Gilmore as “Taxpayer Foes,” well, some folks were caught off guard to say the least.

It was no surprise that AFP gave “Taxpayer Zeros” to Democratic Sens. Raumesh Akbari, London Lamar, Sara Kyle, Heidi Campbell and Jeff Yarbro. Those darn liberals are going to be the death of us all.

But trashing McNally and Yager, two of the Senate’s most powerful figures, while putting Sens. Mark Pody and Janice Bowling on a pedestal with “Taxpayer Heroes” status could prove hazardous.

The Americans for Propsperity Naughty List:

  • Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge
  • House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland
  • Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston
  • Rep. Sam Whitson, R-Franklin
  • Rep. Gary Hicks, R-Rogersville
  • Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville
  • Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain
  • And every Senate Democrat.

Not that McNally or Yager would hold a grudge, but if you’re planning to ask them to support or kill a bill, it doesn’t help to call them an enemy of the people.

The same is true on the House side where AFP gave Majority Leader William Lamberth, Finance Chair Patsy Hazlewood, Finance Subcommittee Chairman Gary Hicks and Rep. Sam Whitson, all Republicans, the designation of “Taxpayer Foes.” House Speaker Cameron Sexton barely escaped the trashing, scoring a “Taxpayer Neutral,” along with Reps. Ron Gant and Kevin Vaughan near the bottom of that questionable category.

Coming in as “Taxpayer Zeros,” of course, were all the Democrats. Rep. Bo Mitchell of Davidson County pulled up the rear with a 30, the lowest score in the entire General Assembly, nipping the dratted Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville in the battle for AFP’s biggest loser.

Mitchell had this to say: “If defending public education and our kids and teachers as well as working to bring thousands of high paying jobs to Tennesseans and protecting them in the workplace is not fighting for generational prosperity, then these folks have a different definition or agenda of prosperity than most Americans,” Mitchell says.

On the flipside, Pody, a Lebanon Republican who could be representing Antioch, called it an “honor” to receive the high rating from “such an esteemed organization.”

“AFP is a watchdog for the TN taxpayers. AFP is also known for defending citizens rights and freedoms,” Pody says in their release.

The high and low scores were related mainly to votes dealing with a new domed stadium for the Titans in Nashville and the $1 billion tax incentive for a Ford truck and battery plant at the new Blue Oval City in the new Memphis Regional Megasite. Anyone who voted for those, in addition to an ethics reform bill designed to clamp down on corruption, got a bad grade. The group also inserted a vote on what it calls Hollywood money, subsidies for making movies in Tennessee.

AFP fought the ethics reform bill like a forest fire but made little headway, with McNally and Sexton sponsoring it. The group also came out on the losing end of two Titans stadium votes, one for $500 million in bond notes to help finance the project and another to allow Metro Nashville to increase its hotel/motel tax to fund the domed building.

“This legislative session was a mixed bag for taxpayers. While there were real wins for students and parents, the legislature also pushed through corporate handouts on the taxpayer dime, such as a new football stadium and Hollywood films,” says State Director Tori Venable. “The Legislative Scorecard is a tool for citizens to see how their lawmakers voted on some of the most critical issues affecting Tennessee. It is also an opportunity for us to highlight and thank Taxpayer Heroes like Sen. Mark Pody and Rep. Jay Reedy.”

Americans for Prosperity, a libertarian conservative group founded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, lost a couple of big legislative battles in the last legislative session, including the incentive deal for Ford Motor Co.

She forgot to mention Rep. Jerry Sexton, who had the highest score in the Legislature but spent most of his legislative career failing to make the Bible the official book of Tennessee.

It’s not news that AFP balks at economic incentives. Thus, it was no surprise the group stepped out on a limb by lobbying against the Ford deal. But only six of 132 lawmakers voted against it in a 2021 special session, one of the few times the Legislature has come together nearly unanimously on a critical question during the last few years.

No doubt, all of those West Tennessee counties that have seen zero to negative growth as well as job and population loss over the last decade are happy to know AFP is using the biggest thing to come their way in generations to make a point by manipulating the numbers. It’s one that could be their undoing when the General Assembly convenes again in January, if anyone takes it seriously.

Abortion to be outlawed

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery notified the Tennessee Code Commission this week the U.S. Supreme Court issued its judgment in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization of Mississippi, overturning Roe v. Wade.

The decision returns abortion regulation to the states, enabling Tennessee’s Human Life Protection Act to take effect Aug. 25, Slatery said.

The law makes it a felony for physicians to perform an abortion on woman in Tennessee. It contains no exceptions for rape or incest and requires physicians to defend themselves in court if they are charged with performing an abortion on a pregnant woman whose life is in danger.

Judges have temporarily blocked similar “trigger laws” from taking effect in North Dakota, Wyoming, Kentucky, Louisiana and Utah. But Tennessee voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2014 stating there is no right to have an abortion and giving the Legislature authority to regulate the procedure.

While Tennessee also has a law banning abortions at six weeks until the “trigger law” takes effect, protesters blocked the entrance to the carafem clinic in Mount Juliet this week, allegedly making the false claim that staff workers were violating the state’s abortion laws and encouraging police to arrest them, according to the ACLU.

ACLU of Tennessee legal director Stella Yarbrough pointed out that abortion remains legal in Tennessee until the point fetal electrical activity is detected and that the “trigger law” has not taken effect.

What coordination?

Main Street Nashville reported this week that car dealer Lee Beaman, the treasurer and chairman for 5th Congressional District candidate Andy Ogles, funded a super PAC that made a large advertising buy in support of his campaign.

Beaman put $50,000 into Volunteers for Freedom PAC, which then spent $24,000 to buy an ad backing Ogles, potentially violating the law against coordination between a campaign and a political action committee.

MAD Magazine's Aflred E. Neuman (Art: Archie Rines)
MAD Magazine’s Aflred E. Neuman (Art: Archie Rines)

We know of one state lawmaker under indictment for allegedly funneling money through nonprofit groups to buy ads for a failed congressional campaign.

Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey’s case has been postponed for months on end as he shores up his defense. By the time it goes to trial, he will be out of the Legislature.

In light of this latest revelation, Ogles and Beaman could have a hard time explaining it to the feds. His window for beating former House Speaker Beth Harwell and retired Brig. Gen. Kurt Winstead in the Aug. 4 Republican primary could also be closing quickly.

Not only was he unable to pay property taxes on time for nine years, he couldn’t file his federal campaign finance report by the most recent deadline. He also refused to answer questions about it.

Of course, most of our federal leaders in Tennessee refuse to answer questions, too, so he could fit in well.

Maybe, he’s “only happy when it rains.”

 



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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.

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