Get a Flashlight, we are about to enter the Dark Money Zone...
Could someone let the eager beaver, First Lutheran School of Knoxville, know that Rep. Zachary was given the utmost assurances by Governor Bull-Lee and then Speaker Glenn Casada that Knox County would be "protected" and removed from the ESA voucher bill? Seriously, we want to know how a school in Knoxville is going to participate in an ESA voucher program that is eligible only to students in Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools? Does the First Lutheran School of Knoxville knows something we don't know… Is there a plan to expand vouchers to Knox County??? That would not surprise us in the least. Voucher programs always expand to include more students 'cause more students mean more dollars.
And the first rule to being a Momma Bear is to ALWAYS FOLLOW THE MONEY. So, let's do that….
Back in November, Andy Spears reported that "ClassWallet started work on Nov. 4 after signing a two-year contract worth $2.53 million with the Department of Education, according to documents obtained by Chalkbeat." On Monday, we learned a little more about that deal with ClassWallet. Originally, the ESA voucher program was granted nearly $25M in funding but that money was reallocated to fighting Hepatitis C among prisoners leaving ESAs unfunded this year. So, how is TDOE going to pay for the contract with ClassWallet when there is no money in the state budget for it?
The funding is coming "from a defunct merit based teacher pay program that began in the 1980s under Lamar Alexander's administration," according to Deputy Education Commissioner Amity Schuyler who is tasked with overseeing the Tennessee ESA voucher implementation. But the teacher merit pay program may not be so defunct after all as there are still Tennessee teachers receiving Career Ladder salary supplements. And these teachers' salaries may be impacted by the redistribution of funds to the new voucher program.
Another interesting tidbit revealed during the Government Operations Committee hearing was that "the department did not go through a competitive bidding process or the legislature’s fiscal review committee to secure its contract with ClassWallet." Well, well, well…another shady no-bid contract deal. Sound familar? It should. We warned you that screwy Penny Schwinn had experience in no-bid contracts.
While she was Deputy Commissioner of Academics for the Texas Education Agency, Schwinn gave a SPED services contract to one of her TFA (Teach For America) buddies, Richard Nyankori causing a huge uproar. Given Schwinn's history with no-bid contracts, Momma Bears decided we needed to take a closer look at this ClassWallet company.
So, he created "a tool designed to make it easier for teachers to raise, manage, track and spend money for the classroom" and relaunched EarlyShares, a Miami based real estate crowdfunding platform, under the name, ClassWallet in 2014. Of course, there has to be a real estate connection. What Florida reformy education scheme would be complete without a real estate deal somewhere in the mix?
Also hailing from south Florida is none other than Amity Schuyler who now runs Tennessee's ESA voucher program as the state's Deputy Education Commissioner.
"[Schuyler] comes from Florida where they already have education savings accounts, she's done lots of voucher-ESA work, and she understands what it's like from a district perspective," Schwinn said of Schuyler.
"She also believes in education savings accounts. And to take the lead on this project, I need someone who believes in it," Schwinn said.
Schuyler was chief of staff for the superintendent of Palm Beach County Schools when she was recruited from Florida this spring.
Schwinn previously said her department will look to states such as Florida to identify "best practices" to develop Tennessee's version, which will start with up to 5,000 students in the first year.
Florida has been at the forefront of developing programs that supporters say provide parents with more education choices and critics say are ploys to privatize public education. The state has the nation's largest tax credit scholarship program and was one of the first to adopt education savings accounts.
Not so coincidentally, Palm Beach County Schools is under contract with ClassWallet. Hmmm, do you think it was a no-bid contract? Well, we took a look at that contract and found a little surprise. If a teacher makes a purchase that is later deemed to be an inappropriate use of funds then ClassWallet can deduct the amount from the teacher's paycheck. Take a look for yourself:
If purchases or paid reimbursement requests made through ClassWallet are deemed to be an inappropriate use of funds, a payroll deduction will be made for the amount of the inappropriate purchase and the recouped funds will be returned to the school's FY21 School Advisory Council (SAC).
While that might seem fair. It isn't because the Florida "State statute mandates that teachers spend the money on 'classroom materials and supplies for the public school students assigned to them.' It doesn’t explicitly say what items can and cannot be purchased, but says that the money cannot be used for equipment."
This became problematic in Polk County where "Teachers were buying items that were definitely good for the classroom, but the understanding of what is not allowed under statute is not comprehended by all because these statutes are so clear,” Pitts said sarcastically. “It’s clear as mud what teachers can buy.” To remedy the problem, the school district contracted with ClassWallet paying $5 per card.
However, ClassWallet was clearly not well received by Polk County teachers. When the Polk County Education Association conducted a survey, 1,400 teachers responded and identified the following problems with ClassWallet:
- Teachers have a difficult time using ClassWallet when it comes to setting up accounts, putting in bank information and being confused about what they are allowed and not allowed to buy.
- Some vendors on ClassWallet charge “excessive amounts” for shipping costs, limiting the money teachers can use on classroom supplies.
- Teachers prefer to buy from local stores and do not want to be charged money to upload receipts.
From Crowdfunder to Company Store
Among the objections, the proposal failed to provide a new infusion of funds to offset teachers' out of pocket costs. Instead the program would be funded by the nearly $50 million normally allocated to school districts for school supplies. In essence, the bill would funnel monies earmarked for school districts to ClassWallet prompting some critics to call it a “shell game” where "politicians are benefiting financially from promoting Class Wallet." Allegations continued that lawmakers were listening more to lobbyists representing Ed Tech companies than to parents and teachers.
Follow the Money...
Among ClassWallet's big investors is NewSchools Venture Fund which is described as "the most strident in its commitment to disrupting pubic education." We believe it. Just take a look at the dark money donors of the NewSchools Venture Fund.
We recently blogged here and here about another Ed Tech company, YouScience. We told you all about how YouScience, with its connections to high ranking members of Gov. Lee's cabinet, was making money off Tennessee's school children.
And Surprise, Surprise…. YouScience and ClassWallet are both represented by none other than Koch Brother lobbyist, Mark Cate.