The second most-read article of 2020 comes from September and focuses on the Schwinigans at the Tennessee Department of Education. The Department has been a constant source of bad practices and ineptitude since Ms. Schwinn arrived from Texas, where he ran herd over a number of controversies, just like in Delaware, and California. Remember those words of Maya Angelou, “When somebody shows you who they are, believe them, the first time.
There is no reason to believe that anything will change in the coming year, as Governor Lee adds former legislators to the payroll in an effort to circumvent current legislators. Knowing the events of the previous year can only serve to prepare you for the coming year. Unfortunately, when it comes to Ms. Schwinn, I fear that ultimately be the biggest winner. She’ll be the Commissioner of Education till she’s not, that a Lee decision. But when dismissed she’ll just return to California and resume her duties as Executive Director for a charter school that serves a little over 400 kids from mostly economically disadvantaged backgrounds and is financed by the state of California’s taxpayers. A position that only pays a paltry $140K a year.
Enjoy the piece, hopefully, it informs. I look forward to reading any comments you may choose to share.
The education world ain’t nothing if it ain’t a big old hamster wheel. People exit stage right only to re-enter stage left in a new costume. In the early part of this decade, the disruption movement was on the rise in Tennessee. But after a few initial success stories, the losses were beginning to mount. By the close of 2016 most of the controversial forces trying to disrupt public education scattered to the seven winds.
The end of 2014 brought signaled the beginning of the disintegration. First was the resignation of Kevin Huffman as Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education. Elliot Smally from the ASD left in 2015 for South Carolina and took former charter school administrator Taylor Fulcher with him. Ravi Gupta of RePublic Charter Schools headed back to NYC, 2 years later RePublic would settle a 2.2 million dollar lawsuit over “spam text messages” sent out during his tenure. Oprah’s favorite charter school guru Chris Barbic left in 2015 after failing in his promise to take the lowest-performing 5% of schools to the top 25% in 5 years. Yea, these weren’t the halcyon days predicted when the decade dawned.
But here we are in 2020, and some of the players are starting to pick up their instruments again and thinking about putting the band back together. Fulcher is back in town, though only for a day to celebrate her brother’s CMA nomination. Thom Drueffel who was soundly beaten by Amy Frogge in his bid for a school board seat is now a councilman and was recently named as chair of the council’s education committee. Huffman has been openly commenting on virtual learning after years of relative silence. And then yesterday brought word that the old snake oil salesman himself, Barbic, had hitched the horses back up to the wagon and is ready to start peddling his wares again to Tennesseans as a member of the board of the Tennessee Charter School Center. Hot diggity! The old lead guitarist was about ready to start laying down some hot riffs again.
Time will tell if they have any new hits in them, or if this is just another peddling of the old standards.
Unfortunately for the YES Prep alumni association, the return of one founder marked the departure of another. The end of the day found Tennessee Assistant Commission Robert Lundin unemployed.
I first introduced you to Mr. Lundin last week when I was telling you about Commissioner Schwinn’s part-time work, full-time compensation job with a charter school back in Sacramento. Lundin had worked with Schwinn and Capitol Collegiate principal Kristin Fiorelli back in 2016 at St. Hope, the scandal-ridden charter school founded by Michelle Rhee’s husband Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johson. He’d spent the better part of the last decade in Houston working for the public school district.
Last summer Commissioner Schwinn created two cabinet-level positions for former Texas residents Lundin and Katie Houghtlin – positions that paid in excess of $125k. Houghtlin led her department, which oversaw the department’s “Whole Child” initiatives, into some egregious territory and early indications are that Lundin may have done the same with his. Yesterday the former TFA corp member was unceremoniously removed from his position amid rumors of mismanagement of Independent Education Accounts overseen by his department.
IEA’s were created through legislation passed by the general assembly in 2015. Per the TNDOE website,
The program was created by the Individualized Education Act, adopted by the General Assembly in 2015. The first IEAs were awarded in January 2017. The IEA Program gives parents and students access to public education funds to use on certain types of approved educational expenses that best meet their own unique needs.
Unfortunately. the enthusiasm of eligible families did not match the enthusiasm of Tennessee legislators. As of January of this year, out of 40k eligible participants, only 150 students were participating in the IEAs. In a presentation to the State Disability Council, Lundin chalked the low participation numbers up to a lack of information getting out to parents and too many procedural hurdles for parents to leap. Keep in mind, that any time a disruptor says there are too many rules, somebody is about to lose some protections.
Personally, I would argue that low participation numbers were a result of the low monetary figure – families are eligible for up to $6600 – and the requirement that families forfeit their right to services under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act including IEPs and service plans. That’s a big ask. $6600, in reality, doesn’t even begin to cover the cost of providing an education to a special needs student, giving up their federal protections can really leave a family out on a limb.
During his presentation, Lundin frequently referred to himself as a practitioner of “extreme candor”. In his own words, “he wasn’t there to sell anything”, but he was committed to a growth priority. I also tell my kids to beware of the person advertising they are honest. You don’t need people to wear a sandwich board declaring their commitment to honesty, just be honest and I’ll figure the rest out. It’s my experience has always been that when people tell you that they are not here to sell anything, they are getting ready to try and sell you something.
My other question would be, what gets sacrificed in the pursuit of growth? Especially when you are already complaining about a lengthy list of required protocols. Seems like something is about ready to fall by the wayside.
Participation may have been low, and those participating often experienced challenges navigating the system, but for the most part, things ran efficiently for the first 3 years and parents received disbursements in a timely fashion. Initially, the program was overseen by Assistant Commissioner Elizabeth Fiveash, but in the Spring of 2019, Schwinn moved it under the purview of Assistant Commissioner Katie Poulos who she had recently brought in from New Mexico. Neither remains with the DOE, and Poulous has recently filed a lawsuit against the Commissioner and the TNDOE for wrongful termination.
Rebecca Wright, who oversaw the rollout of the voucher program for students with disabilities left in June and has yet to be replaced. Wright’s assistant resigned four months later and wasn’t replaced in 2019, and a third employee left Jan. 3 — all part of a staff exodus at the Department of Education under Schwinn. But there was no need to worry because Lundin and a few others were helping out. Apparently not enough though because in February ChalkbeatTN proclaimed things were falling apart.
No reason was given for yesterday’s termination of Robert Lundin. The news was delivered to staff members first through the rumor mill and then followed up with a terse single sentence in an email outlining pending changes sent later that night – Robert Lundin Assistant Commissioner of School Models and Programs is no longer with the agency. No further explanation was given.
However, the most popular story told with frequency yesterday was one of an administrator of a surrounding county of Nashville discovering that one of the district’s students had an IEA that they were not qualified for. Upon digging into the circumstances they discovered that there were other like incidents across the state. There is no real way short of an audit by the Tennessee State Comptroller to confirm disprove this rumor.
I have to give the rumors some credence though because remember even though Houghtlin was found guilty of bullying DOE employees through an internal HR investigation, she only received a demotion and a 5K demotion. People didn’t understand why Houghlin wasn’t terminated and many wondered what it would take for a friend of Schwinn to get fired. Lundin may have just inadvertently answered that question. But who knows, because answers are scarce.
Since Schwinn’s arrival as head of the TNDOE, the agency has taken a position of regularly ignoring open records requests from the press. They don’t refuse to honor sunshine laws, they just choose to completely ignore any requests for information they don’t feel like sharing. I’m pretty confident that an audit would show that virtually every reporter in Tennessee has at least one unfilled request that is 6 months, or more, overdue. Earlier in the year, ChalkbeatTN hired an attorney to deal with unfilled open records requests, but I haven’t heard an update since.
Reading the rest of the email sent out by DOE leadership seems to lend credence that something major was amiss, as several people are being moved into new oversight roles. Equally of interest, rumors had been swirling that something was taking place in the Department of Extended Learning and Afterschool Programs – a department whose sole purpose is to dole out grant money. Yesterday, Mario Penington, Don Sims, and Artina Fosset all got new assignments, leaving the Extended Learning Department with just one staff member remaining. Hmmm…
Per usual, whenever there is a reorganization within the Department of Education, Eve Carney gets more responsibility. Eventually, the prudent move would be to just take the reins out of Schwinn’s hands and put them in Eve’s. Through all the ongoing Schwinigans, Carney has been a rock and a stabilizing force. Hard to imagine the state the department would be in without her. Hopefully, Schwinn is treating her better than she has treated others.
Maybe she’ll give Carney the same level of treatment as Houghtlin. Even after being disciplined for workplace bullying and screwing up the “child-well being checks” process, there have been no ill effects on the Houghtlin/Schwinn relationship. Observers at the department have reported the two as being as cozy as ever. At this point in her career, Schwinn has certainly come to the realization that a lawsuit ain’t nothing but a g thing. Certainly not something to let get in the way of a friendship. Not when there is disruption to be undertaken and money to be made.
During his presentation to the Disability Council, Lundin repeatedly referred to his personal number as the worst kept secret in Tennessee. I decided to take him up on his commitment to practicing extreme candor and called the number. When he answered, I asked him to help me get my head around what transpired yesterday. He responded, “I am not willing to consider discussing that subject at this time.” So much for extreme candor.
At some point, I’m hoping that a member of the General Assembly picks up the phone and requests a complete audit from the comptroller’s office. There have been enough incidents of questionable practice to warrant a request for an accounting. From what I understand though, Governor Lee has been taking steps to make sure no such thing transpires. This week he’s been calling the General assembly’s most vocal critics to his woodshed for a whipping. And here I thought Republicans were the party of fiscal responsibility.
As much as the Governor tries to tamper criticism, the chorus of discontent continues to grow. This week both Chalkbeat and the Tennessean printed lengthy articles that would qualify as airings of grievances.
Interestingly enough, Chalkbeat’s article praises the commissioner for her work with the state’s local superintendents with no supporting quotes from said superintendents, while The Tennessean quotes several critical superintendents. Among those quoted is Fayette County Schools Director Connie Smith,
“I feel like we were given no guidance and very little help. We had to discover this on our own and start from scratch. … We had already opened schools when we got guidance from the governor on reopening, and we didn’t get much guidance from Commissioner Schwinn. That’s a hard thing to say as someone who used to work for the department.”
Smith is the architect of a storied career as an educator, much of it crafted as a member of the Tennessee Department of Education. If there is a more beloved and respected member of Tennessee’s education community I’d be hard-pressed to name them. The very fact that she is speaking out is every bit as telling as what she is saying.
Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Lee’s spokesperson Gillum Ferguson defends Schwinn’s record with statements that would be laughable if the situation wasn’t so dire,
“Commissioner Schwinn is leading the department through an unprecedented crisis and the most challenging school year in the history of our state,” Ferguson said. “We’re glad that Commissioner Schwinn is in this position at such a challenging moment because she is willing and capable to meet it.
Maybe if somebody were to start whispering the name Governor Black in his ear, Governor Lee might be spurred into action. Perhaps then a little reality would seep in and we’d see some corrections. The first step in solving a problem is recognizing that you have a problem. Governor Lee still needs to take that first step.
That’s it for now. See you again at the end of the week.
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