“Honest people don’t hide their deeds.”
― Wuthering Heights
“Nobody lives forever, nobody stays young long enough. My past seemed like so much excess baggage, my future a series of long goodbyes, my present an empty flask, the last good drink already bitter on my tongue.”
― The Last Good Kiss
I grew up watching Muhamad Ali fight. These days boxing has surrendered its crown to MMA, but when I was a kid it was king, and nobody held court like Ali. He was brave, fast, strong, funny, and frightening. Easily the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. We all admired him and talks of his exploits dominated our playground conversations.
I was 9 years old in 1974 when Ali challenged then-champion George Foreman in the classic fight that became forever known as the “Rumble in the Jungle”. Younger folks, familiar with Foreman through his infomercials, might not realize that the man was a devastating puncher. Pre-fight, many experts gave Ali little chance at taking the belt. Ali wasn’t just a great athlete though, he was a great tactician.
In the weeks prior to the fight, he would go out of his way to needle Foreman and anger him. During training sessions, he toughened up his mid-section by repeatedly having sparring partners punch him in the stomach. The early rounds of the fight found Ali repeatedly laying on the ropes, looking helpless while Foreman pummeled him with blows. Looks can be deceiving though, as noted by author Norman Mailer, “”Standing on one’s feet it is painful to absorb a heavy body punch even when blocked with one’s arm. The torso, the legs, and the spine take the shock. Leaning on the ropes, however, Ali can pass it along; the rope will receive the strain.”
As the fight entered the eighth round, the toll of throwing so many punches was starting to show on Foreman, as he grew physically exhausted. This is what Ali had been waiting for. Foreman tried to pin Ali against the ropes again, but his punches had little effect. Instead, Ali began to inflict damage, landing several right hooks over Foreman’s attempted jabs. Ali then stepped up and delivered a 5 punch combo that ended with a left hook that brought Foreman’s head straight up. Ali quickly threw a straight punch to Foreman’s face that dropped him to the canvas. 10 seconds later the fight was over and Ali had reclaimed his title as heavyweight champion of the world. That day a new phrase entered the American lexicon, rope-a-dope.
Ali’s rope-a-dope technique has since transcended the boxing world and is often employed, knowingly and unknowingly, in business and politics. In listening to Bill Lee’s press conference on Wednesday, when he called for schools to be open across the state, I had no problem envisioning the governor laying on the ropes, ready to absorb the coming blows of his critics.
“Providing parents a choice in their children’s education is incredibly important. In-person learning is the medically sound, preferred option. Our state is doing everything we can to work with local school districts and ensure that in-person learning is made available in a way that protects the health and safety of our students and educators, and this plan helps us accomplish that goal.”
His opponents were angered by his words and quickly responded. Nashville’s teacher union responded with a strong push back that concluded with the following,
MNEA calls on Governor Lee and Commissioner Schwinn to keep all TN schools online until there is a decreased infection and hospitalization rates in TN for 14 days and an absolute case number that indicates community spread has stopped and transmission rate (R0 rate) is below 1. We also demand that the state release our tax dollars back to local public schools to make sure EVERY district in Tennessee can meet the needs of EVERY student, now and in the future.
They weren’t alone in their demands, several other organizations quickly added their voice to the chorus against Lee’s call to action. But let’s look at what else Lee said in his speech.
He used the phrase “parent choice” a whole lot, frequently evoking its importance. Which begs the question, where is the choice if all kids are required to go back to face 2 face instruction at their zoned school?
He pledged $50 million in increased funding for technology. money for PD for teachers teaching via a virtual platform and touted the free resources the state has provided to districts to assist with distance learning. At the same point that Lee was calling for schools to open for in-person instruction, his co-conspirator in Washington, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, was announcing $180 million dollars in federal grants to 11 states to primarily support remote instruction. Tennessee was one of the lucky winners and planned to use their financial windfall to provide “families with access to instruction and tutoring,” according to information released by the department.
Add up the proposals and you come away with quite the conundrum. On one hand, you have Lee demanding that schools open with in-person instruction, while the other hand makes the alternatives awful attractive.
I suspect that come January, right before the start of the 2021 General Assembly, Lee will come off the ropes with a flurry of his own punches. The blow to the face will be the announcing of a brand new voucher plan that eclipses anything previously discussed. It’ll be a plan that is open to all state residents with an income barrier way higher than previous incarnations. It will be a plan that allows parents to take advantage of the virtual, and hybrid options that will likely be flooding the sate come spring.
They will use statements made by opponents extolling how virtual schools can be just as effective, and play up the feelings of lack of safety in regard to public schools. They’ll cite the success of parent created “pods” and praise non-profits for the work they’ve done with “micro-schools.” Lee will bemoan the trials and tribulations that parents have had to overcome just to secure an education for their children, hailing them as the true heroes and himself as merely a facilitator to ensuring that they and their children are the recipients of their God-given rights. In short, if framed right, it’ll be a hard blow to recover from, especially considering the amount of money the state has at its disposal in order to realize Lee’s vision.
One only has to take a look at the campaign trail for a clue to see how serious Lee is about vouchers.
Up in the far Northwest corner of the state is Obion County, the seat of Senate District 24. For nearly a decade, District 24 has been represented by Senator John Stevens. It’s a small rural district with a fraction of the economic base of the larger Tennessee districts. So the virus is taking a toll fiscally as well as physically. This year Stevens is being challenged by fellow Republican Casey Hood for the seat.
Hood is a plumber by trade and political newcomer, who is a staunch conservative, but also a staunch supporter of public education – an area that Stevens is weak in. Initially, the Stevens camp gave little credence to the Hood challenge, but recent polls show Hood as either even or slightly ahead, and suddenly things have gotten serious.
Stevens, you see has been an excellent waterboy for the governor, willing to tout any initiative put forth, including vouchers. Hood, not so much. He has yet to hear the argument that demonstrates vouchers as being beneficial for rural districts and therefore has publically stated he would never support voucher legislation. The governor can ill afford to lose this seat, especially in light of rumors that Districts 25 and 26 might also fall to candidates that don’t support voucher legislation.
That probably explains why come Monday the Governor will get in his car and drive to a county that he’s never set foot in to try and arouse support for a loyal soldier. It’s why he’ll be holding a “private rally” at Obion County Central High School in Troy, Tennessee while the Obion County commission meets to try and find additional funding to increase compensation for teachers. Obion County and Hood value the district’s teachers, with Governor Lee the jury is still out.
Over the last several week’s voters have been hit with over 14 pieces of campaign literature from the incumbent. Tennesseans for Student Success alone have spent between $30K and $40K to turn back the Hood threat. Somebody really doesn’t want to lose the seat and is doing whatever they can to hold it.
Teachers at the high school will be holding an in-service day on Monday, meaning the governor will have a captive audience. I wonder if he’ll tell those teachers how safe they are while COVID numbers explode for the county. I wonder if Lee will tell them how much he cares while meeting them for the first time ever. You have to wonder why a seat in a small district that he lost during his gubernatorial campaign has suddenly taken on such importance. I’m also curious how much of Monday’s trip’s cost is being picked up by Tennessee taxpayers.
This is not the only race that Lee is injecting himself into. He’s flooding the market with fliers in the Byrd campaign, as well as targeting Representative Mark Cochrane. I think it’s pretty clear that Lee has a plan on his mind and it ain’t about reopening schools. It’s about further disrupting public education. Much has been made of the negative impact of Lee’s education policies on urban districts, well they ain’t good for rural districts either.
I don’t think Lee or his lackey, education superintendent Penny Schwinn, is going to push too hard to get schools open for f2f instruction. To do so, would open both for something they avoid like a vegetarian avoids beef – accepting personal liability. For Schwinn’s part, she already has her hands full trying to get districts to adopt the offerings of her preferred vendors. Vendors like Amplify, creators of CKLA, who have been utilized to create the foundational literacy supplements offered by the TNDOE, as well as being the root for the instructional programming offered by PBS.
You don’t think for one minute that those preferred vendors, having infested millions in partnership with the TNDOE over the last 18 months, are just going to just walk away from the table with a shrug and a sigh now that their financial windfall is falling short do you? Both Schwinn and her deputy superintendent Lisa Coons have been extremely deft in leveraging districts into adopting the materials and supplies of those vendors who’ve earned their favor and I suspect they’ll continue to be creative in rewarding friends. You can’t let a little pandemic get in the way of getting paid, can you?
In opposing the agenda of Governor Lee, it’s important that we avoid falling into the trap of underestimating his commitment to disrupting public education. We also can’t think of the threats as coming from the same old sources. Trust me, if a voucher plan is approved allowing for parents to fund pods and micro-schools, charter schools will be scrambling to hold enrollments every bit as much as traditional schools.
We have to be deliberate in the words that are used to push back against Lee. Mock funerals and tales of teachers writing wills before the start of school are not useful vehicles for instilling confidence in the state’s public schools. That’s not to take teacher safety lightly, but we must never lose sight that eventually students will have to return to schools. Once you instill terror, you can’t alleviate it with a flick of the switch.
Virtual school is not a viable alternative to the nations’ public school system. There is no research that supports distance learning as being comparable to in-person instruction. Even as the revolution around public education swirls, that truism needs to remain a central tenet. Distance learning is a temporary solution to what may be a permanent threat. It should never be considered the primary means of educating Tennessee school children.
A CLOSER LOOK AT TENNESSEE’S COMMISSIONER
In Nashville, we love to talk about the dark money purportedly involved in our local school board races. It seems every election cycle comes with dastardly tales of outside forces trying to manipulate outcomes. But what about at the statehouse? Do we look close enough at who’s peddling influence at that level?
Let’s take a closer look at the current occupant of the big chair at the TNDOE, Penny Schwinn. Schwinn’s resume makes particularly interesting reading. It was less than two decades ago that Schwinn began her professional journey in the field of education as a young TFA corp member in Baltimore. She taught there 2 years before heading out west to LA, to be a teacher trainer. Equally impressive, since the difficulties of a first-year teacher are well documented, is that Schwinn managed to not only teach in the Baltimore schools but simultaneously earn her Masters’s degree from John Hopkins.
Unfortunately, the coach position with TFA position didn’t seem to work out. 2005 found her working for McMaster Carr Data Information Systems, a bolt and screw company – ah, the irony, as she’s proven to be adept at both. During her last year at McMaster Carr, she found time to join a pro-charter foundation, St Hope Foundation, as the head of student achievement. Schwinn’s husband Paul Schwinn was also employed at St. Hope as a history teacher and then principal before going to work for the Michelle Rhee founded organization TNTP. To date, St Hope remains Dr. Schwinn’s longest employment stint.
It’s worth noting that in 2009 St. Hope was being investigated by the federal government for the misuse of federal grants. During that investigation, evidence of sexual harassment arose involving Mayor Kevin Johnson. President Obama fired the inspector general, Gerald Walpin, responsible for the investigation due to a lack of confidence. At the time, many thought the motivation was political as Johnson was a huge supporter of Obama.
Now here is where things get interesting. In 2011 Schwinn founded her very own charter school where she served as principal for 9-months. That’s when Schwinn joined the Sacramento School Board. A look at her campaign literature shows that for a political neophyte, she’d earned the endorsement from some pretty heavy hitters.
There’s the Democrats for Education Reform(DFER). Locals here may be familiar with DFER from when they had a Tennessee branch led by Natasha Kamrani, wife of former Achievement School District head Chris Barbic, and tried to influence local school board elections. Both Kamrani and Barbic are former TFA corp members who transferred from Texas and often found themselves at odds with retired school board member Will Pinkston. Barbic has since become a colleague of Schwinn’s, along with former Tennessee state superintendents Candice McQueen and Kevin Huffman, in Chiefs For Change, another reform group founded by Jeb Bush.
Also on Schwinn’s endorsement list is the aforementioned then-mayor of Sacramento Kevin Johnson. Johnson is the husband of Micheel Rhee and has had his own share of controversy. After retiring from basketball, the former NBA star had moved back to Sacramento where he founded St. Hope. His term was riddled with sexual harassment controversies and as a result of being on the losing end of several public initiatives, he quietly faded away at the end of his second term. Rhea and Johnson quietly got married in 2011 at a resort in Tennessee.
The most interesting endorsement might be that of former Sheriff Lou Blanas. Blanas apparently headed up quite the political machine in Sacramento despite several controversies that cost the city millions involving the use of excessive force and police brutality.
I can’t help but wonder how a career educator with less than 10 years of experience managed to cultivate such a stable of supporters. None of whom were immune from controversy or the appearance of fiscal impropriety.
After a year on the school board, Schwinn quit in order to become an Associate Superintendent for Sacramento City Unified School District. A move that raised a few eyebrows. Per Newsreview.com,
She’s now SCUSD’s new assistant superintendent of performance management—which comes with a $133,617 salary. The job is one of many, many six-figure gigs in the administration, and is described as being “the accountability leader” for the district, which is also the job description of the district’s chief accountability officer ($149,914).
Not bad compensation for someone who’d only taught for 2 years and been a principal for 9 months. Alas, it wasn’t to be long-lived. 10 months later the Schwinns were off to Delaware where she was named Chief Accountability/Performance Officer for the state. Unfortunately, the family brought their friends controversy and conflict of interest with them from Cali.
In less than 7 months there were questions around the employment of her husband. You know the one she supervised at St. Hope. Paul Schwinn was hired as the Director of Leadership Development for the Delaware Leadership Project, which is funded by the Delaware DOE, Rodel, and Vision. Interestingly enough, and if there wasn’t precedent I wouldn’t mention it, rumors have been circling that after being released by STEM Prep Charter School, Mr. Schwinn has gone to work training teachers in Wit and Wisdom, a curriculum created by one of the state’s prefered vendors Great Minds inc.
In May of 2016, the missus became the Deputy Commissioner of Academics for the state of Texas. We all know the story of Texas and how Mrs. Schwinn awarded a contract to a friend that as a result, has ended up costing the state roughly $5 million. What you might not know is that the founder of the company Richard Nyankori was a deputy chancellor that was brought to DCPS by…wait for it… former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee from the New Teacher Project, her teacher recruitment and training nonprofit. Starting to notice a pattern yet?
So you might be wondering what any of this has to do with Tennessee. Well, StudentsFirst the organization founded by Michelle Rhee has morphed several times into its current incarnation of Tennessee Students For Success. An organization that counts Governor Lee’s Chief of Staff Blake Harris and Legislative Director Bill Easly as alumni. Easly was the state director of Students First from 2012 – 2016. I think it’s safe to say that Schwinn didn’t end up in Tennessee by accident or via a vigorous vetting process.
The two common themes that run through Schwinns career are controversy sans success and Michelle Rhee. Earlier this year education journalist Peter Greene reviewed Rhee’s career, best summed up by this paragraph,
In 2010, Rhee appeared to stand at the forefront of a group of people who, we might have predicted, would in ten years time be the Grand Masters of US Education. Instead they have become as transparent, as weightless, as the Emperor’s new clothes in hot noonday sun. They scuttle from job to job like cockroaches escaping from one opened window after another. They are human vaporware. And in DC, folks are still trying to clean up after Rhee’s mess.
I guess the only question that remains is, how long will it take for Tennessee to wisen up? I really hope that the state comptroller’s office takes up the task of auditing the Tennessee Department of Education. If the past is any indication, it’s not unlikely that they’ll find lots of friends and family on the payroll.
That’s it for now. We’ll see you on Monday.
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