This article also appeared in The Tennessean on March 10, 2022

History has shown that unregulated school privatization will provide our neediest students with a substandard education while enriching profit-making entities.

Will Tennessee’s legislature and Governor Lee sell our children’s future to the highest bidder by expanding our already failing and corrupt privatized charter system?

State leaders are considering opening 50 new charter schools in Tennessee, removing all local control of charter school approvals, giving charter school corporations sweetheart real estate deals, and codifying a preference for charter schools by embedding an extra funding weight for charter students in the new funding formula.

A new statewide voucher bill is also pending before our legislature.

It would be wise to consider current outcomes before expanding school privatization across the state. Charter school performance is especially abysmal in Tennessee.


At issue: Success rate and lack of accountability

Only five of the state’s 116 charter schools have a success rate of over 20%, and 37% of the state’s charter schools have a success rate of 5% or less.

Although vouchers have never been implemented in Tennessee, national studies have proven them to be ineffective at improving academic outcomes. Studies show that students who participate in private school voucher programs actually fare worse academically than students educated in public schools.

To make matters worse, voucher programs and charter schools lack adequate oversight and transparency, but divert millions of public tax dollars to unaccountable private operators. Charter schools in Tennessee have opened the door to fraud and corruption.


Here are just a few of many charter school horror stories in our state:

  • Memphis Academy of Health Sciences closed, displacing 750 students, after three leaders were indicted for stealing $400,000 for personal use – for trips to Las Vegas, a hot tub, NBA tickets, and auto repair.
  • New Vision Academy in Nashville shut down after state and federal investigation into financial irregularities, failure to comply with federal laws concerning special needs students and English language learners, and cramming too many children into classrooms in violation of the fire code. The husband/wife team leading the school of 150 students earned $563,000 per year.
  • Gateway University Charter School in Memphis shut down after it was accused of falsifying grades, using uncertified teachers, giving credits for a geometry class that didn’t exist, and pulling children out of classes to clean the school’s bathrooms and other areas.
  • Knowledge Academies in Nashville lost hundreds of thousands of tax dollars in an online phishing scheme (after which its founder and CEO suddenly disappeared); used uncertified teachers; understaffed the school and stopped paying teachers; operated with a deficit of $835,878, despite an annual revenue of $7.1 million; failed to meet federal requirements for English language learners and special needs students; and ran side businesses out of the school building. Nashville shut the school down, but the state forced it back open. It’s now operating with a $7.9 million deficit.
  • Nashville Global Academy forgot a child on a bus parked offsite all day, misappropriated funds to the tune of $149,000, and collapsed over $400,000 in debt with unpaid bills worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Voucher programs across the nation have demonstrated similar grift and lack of regulation. In Arizona, a parent used school voucher funds to buy a high-definition television from Walmart, along with a smart phone and a pair of computer tablets. She also used voucher funds to pay for an abortion.


Are investments in charter schools the best use of tax dollars?

Governor Lee proposed a partnership with Michigan-based Hillsdale College to open 100 new charter schools across Tennessee. Hillsdale has had some disturbing problems of its own.

While championing family values, long-term Hillsdale President George Roche III, engaged in a 19-year affair with his own daughter-in-law. After the affair was revealed, she committed suicide on the Hillsdale College campus. Following the suicide, Roche, who had served as college president for 28 years, was rumored to have received a bailout via a golden parachute, which a family member estimated at $3 million.

We must ask: Are these Tennessee values? Is this the best use of our hard-earned tax dollars?


We have a clear choice in Tennessee.

We can choose to adequately fund our public schools, pay our teachers a fair wage, and support our neighborhood schools — or we can choose grift.

Continuing to privatize Tennessee’s schools through so-called “school choice” initiatives will only increase the chances that our taxes will be misused and wasted through frightening schemes like these.

History has shown that unregulated school privatization will provide our neediest students with a substandard education while enriching profit-making entities with no vested interest in Tennessee students, our most precious asset.

Let’s stand firm in Tennessee and show the country that we are committed to children, not private interests seeking profit at their expense.


Signed by members of Tennessee Public Education Coalition:

Anderson County: David Campbell, Marsha Livingston, Patsye Thurmon

Blount County: Ginny Ayers, Doug Gamble, Nina Gregg

Clarksville: Rosa Ponce

Cleveland: Dan Lawson

Dickson: Larry Profitt

Kingsport: Denny Darnell, Susan Lodal

Knoxville/Knox County: Candace Bannister, Valerie Biberdorf, Chris Buice, Travis Donoho, Dave Gorman, Bob Kronick, Leslie Kurtz, Gordon Gibson, Caroline Mann, Lance McCold, Steve Rodgers, Jane Skinner, Doug Veum

Memphis: Jerri Green, Robin Pearl, Gabby Salinas, Peg Watkins

Nashville: Keri Kidd Cannon, Amy Flatt, Amy Frogge, Mary Holden, Sibyl Reagan, Dave Rosenberg, Jill Speering, Nancy Stetten

Sullivan County: Matthew Hawn

Sumner County: Vanessa Sheehan

Tipton County: Lee-Ann Nolan

Williamson County: Patty Daniel, Tammy Lipsey, Harper-Grace Niedermeyer

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