THE BURDEN OF PROOF

“Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters”
Albert Einstein

 

Two days ago the Tennessean ran an article reporting that MNPS had received a letter from the Commissioner of Education accusing them of fiscal malfeasance regarding their management of federal funds delivered through the CARES Act. In the commissioner’s words,

“I cannot underscore enough the seriousness of the current financial management of federal funds and compliance issues in MNPS,” Schwinn wrote Monday. “It is imperative that these issues be resolved quickly, accurately, and comprehensively, so as to provide students with the resources that they need and to move the district to a space of compliance with federal and state law.”

Yikes, dems are some strong words. Department spokesman Victoria Robinson followed up with strong words of her own,

“The issues addressed in the letter represent systemic financial and programmatic concerns documented by multiple oversight agencies at both state and federal levels over multiple years,

Governor Lee’s spokesman Laine Arnold piled on,

“When student achievement, teacher compensation and all manner of public education issues are blamed on lack of funding, $110 million sitting idly by is not acceptable for Nashville families,”

Apparently, things are a little slow in Memphis because Representative Mark White felt the need to offer his two cents,

“Unless we have accountability from these school districts, we can’t keep throwing money at them if we don’t see improvement,” said Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis,

As the basis for their criticism, several references were made to a recent audit put forth by the comptroller’s office. Per Schwinn,

“Within 45 days, the district must also remedy findings from a recent comptroller’s audit.”

Being the crazy guy that I am, I decided to read the comptroller’s report to get an idea of the severity of the issues. After spending 30 minutes on the state website and being unable to locate the said report, I called the comptroller, where I was promptly informed that the reason I couldn’t locate the report was that the report wasn’t yet available. It wouldn’t be available until…March. In fact, the comptroller’s office was still in the process of constructing the report.

Some of you may be unfamiliar with how the audit process works. Once the subject of the audit is defined, a field team is sent out to investigate. They compile data and notes. These findings are preliminarily shared internally to possibly get more clarity. All involved are allowed to offer a rebuttal to any findings. After the rebuttals are submitted the report is compiled and only then is released with the stamp of approval from the comptroller’s office. It is an arduous and rigorous undertaking.

Per the comptroller, the field investigation into MNPS spending has just recently been concluded. Speculation, that affords a generous amount of grace, is that Schwinn saw some irregularities in the preliminary findings, conducted her own investigations, maybe substantiated those initial suspicions, and then dashed off her letter. How extensive an investigation the DOE could have completed is questionable, as the impression I got from the comptroller’s office was that fieldwork had just been completed in the last few weeks.

I reached out to Victoria Robinson, TDOE spokeswoman, and asked if I could see the report that TDOE generated to support their allegations or at least the notes connected to the investigation. As of now, I’ve yet to hear a response and if history with this administration holds true, I likely won’t see a response until mid-July or August. Regardless of her reply, the facts still hold true, Governor Lee and Penny Schwinn, are attempting to punish MNPS while citing a report that does not exist. And based on their interference may never exist. The whole thing smells like a plot cooked up over Happy Hour at the Capital Grill.

The bigger issue is that it makes others complicit in the Schwinigans. The comptroller’s office prides itself on its non-partisanship – just the facts mam. With Lee and Schwinn, citing a report that is still under construction, that mission in this instance is possibly tainted.

Will the writers find themselves under pressure to craft a report that backs the Governor up in an effort not to embarrass him, or do they try and be kind to MNPS because perhaps they have kids in the system? Either way, the impartiality of the report is tainted. People’s motives will likely come in to question through no fault of their own, but rather due to the selfishness of the two bureaucrats.

That’s a loss for all of us because, in order to have a functioning society, there has to faith in the impartiality of our democratic institutions. The comptroller’s office, like the Supreme Court, is a key component in our democratic structure and as such, should never be carelessly used for political fodder.

If this was the first occurrence of such behavior by Governor Lee and Commissioner Schwinn it would still be disturbing, but defensible. The problem is, it’s not. It is just another instance, in a lengthy list of instances, of deception perpetrated by the bumbling duo.

Think back to August when the two put forth the idea that due to the pandemic, students were facing learning losses of 50% in ELA and 65% in math. When pressed to supply data to back up these suppositions, they just created a cloud of confusion, while failing to produce confirmation. The inability to substantiate their claims is because “learning loss” is a political construct and not a real measurement. Currently, no assessment measures learning loss. We can measure performance levels, and growth, but not “learning loss.” Anything put forth under that banner should be considered pure speculation and subject to personal desires.

Fortunately for the dynamic duo, nobody really delved into their claims. So they were free to continue to spout their falsehoods, and they did at every opportunity. Sure there was some mention that some people “questioned” the numbers, but most media outlets and politicians continued to talk about “learning loss” as if it was carved on tablets from Mount Sinai. Until this week, when Memphis television station WMC5 started digging into Schwinn and Lee’s claims. What they found, is that they didn’t hold water.

Despite new data suggesting COVID-19 learning loss wasn’t as severe as predicted, state leaders continue to use old data, which some have called misleading, to pressure school districts like Shelby County Schools to reopen for in-person classes.

Once again, a political agenda took precedence over accuracy. We now know that Lee along with Schwinn pulled the numbers out of their ass. A crass accusation, but due to the depth of their deception, a necessary one.

As a nation, we’ve just emerged from a deep conversation about the importance of leaders being truthful, and the potential of dire consequences when our elected leaders fail to adhere to that standard. Throughout their tenure, both Lee and Schwinn have continually acted in a manner that pays little heed to accuracy and honesty. Instead of choosing to pick and choose nuggets to use to make their arguments independent of their veracity.

It’s a pattern of evidence that includes an ever-growing list of instances. From the wasting of taxpayer money by inventing a costly excuse to avoid meeting with the US Secretary of Education to offering testimony to the head of the state’s Senate Education Committee, that she hasn’t met with vendors over a pending RFP despite video evidence to the contrary available on the department website, Schwinn and company continue to abuse the trust of Tennessee taxpayers through their machinations of the truth. Schwinn achieves new heights in the use of doublespeak. At one point during her recent special session testimony, education experts pondered whether she was actually using real words describing real circumstances.

Other instances include a willingness to receive a six-figure paycheck as Executive Director from a state-funded charter school for impoverished children in California while collecting a paycheck as a senior state official across the country in Delaware. As well as recently claiming in Senate hearings during a special session of the Tennessee General Assembly that the department will create an ELA screener that adheres to Tennessee state standards and is nationally normed. Something that is impossible to create.

Political insiders on both sides of the aisle have long marveled at Ms. Schwinn’s ability to contradict herself regularly in testimony to the General Assembly. So much so that at a Senate Education Committee meeting last Spring, where the Commissioner was slated to testify, the chair felt compelled to take the virtually unprecedented action of having the rules of perjury read before opening proceedings. You didn’t think that was just a coincidence, did you?

If MNPS is not properly spending or accounting for federal resources, they should be held accountable. But the accusations should be derived from existing transparently created documents that support the allegations. Not some half baked assumptions pulled from a collection of data still being compiled. Documents that in their completed form, should be used in a manner that protects the interests of kids, not in a manner that further the agenda of adults.

The truth matters. Being able to believe the words of our leaders is essential. At some point, the question has to be raised, does the Commissioner model behavior that we want to be emulated by the state’s children? Does the Governor? Not to be an ass, but currently, there is a whole lot of talk about christ around the statehouse, and a decided lack of Christian behavior. Somebody might want to work on that.

The Tennessee Department of Education currently is seeking submissions for a contract to construct a state-wide course on civics, one designed to help develop students into better citizens. It will ultimately be overseen by one person who has engaged in bully tactics – that report does exist – and another who suffers from the inability to separate fact from personal interest. That’s a scary proposition. Maybe I’m a bit of a square, but as a parent, while I aspire to be my children’s’ role model, I also want them to be able to look to the country’s leaders for evidence that doing the right thing matters. That leaders are people of character.

Based on his long history of working with those less fortunate than himself, I was under the impression the Governor felt the same way. I just haven’t seen a lot of evidence to support that assumption as of late.

Education doesn’t begin and end in the classroom. we are all works in progress and we all create the rules that govern our society. In order to create a society that works for all of us, it has to be rooted in truth and honesty. That starts with all of us and it shouldn’t be too much to ask that before we make accusations we make sure they rise to the challenge of meeting the burden of proof.

Conservative writer and Delaware State School board member Andy Smarick sums it up better than I,

When most leaders implicitly trust institutions and then work through them, the decisions of those institutions are generally understood as legitimate. But those institutions become even more trustworthy when their processes and outcomes are scrutinized and deemed to be fair. Said another way, good institutions aren’t merely trustworthy because they are reflexively trusted; they are trustworthy when they behave in ways worthy of trust.

QUICK HITS

Last night the MNPS School Board engaged in some discussion about the reopening of school buildings. It was reiterated that for that to happen, the district’s COVID-19 tracker would have to drop below 7. Today it rests at 7.7.

Even as the conversation around re-opening schools flares up in Nashville, it continues to grow nationwide as well. Lack of in-person learning is a challenge faced by all large urban districts. It’s a discussion that has wreaked havoc in communities and created division among former allies. Per an article in the Intelligencer,

On social media, everyone was an amateur epidemiologist. Commenters tore Fry apart, accusing her of misreading the data, underestimating the unknown menace of the virus. Some of the most vehement attacks came from commenters who identified themselves as teachers. “I couldn’t believe it,” Fry said. “I was arguing with teachers about the importance of education.”

The arguments got mean. The holdouts called reopeners selfish, lazy, and cavalier — willing to sacrifice lives for child care. “I still get called a granny killer,” says Maya Ziobro, a parent who supports reopening. “If we say anything about wanting our kids to return to school, we’re painted as Trumpers.”

“I’ve never been on the other side of the teachers union in my entire life,” Fry said. “I’m afraid of the long-term damage this is going to do between teachers and parents, because people think that their kids are suffering, and it makes it hard to sympathize with the union struggle.”

Much of what is outlined in the article is uncomfortably familiar to what’s happening in Nashville. Hopefully, some cooler heads will soon prevail and kids can safely return to school buildings. But the latter shouldn’t happen till the former is secured. No matter what side of the argument you find yourself on, I urge you to read the whole article. It’s long but well worth it.

Education writer, and professional educator, Peter Greene shares his list of education writers worthy of reading and it’s worth sharing. Yours truly is extremely proud to be included in his roll call.

TC Weber covers Tennessee thoroughly and with sharp wit and pithy quotes. “Nobody reads it. Everybody quotes it.”

Bookmark him and the rest of the list, you’ll be better for it.

Bill Lee may not like to talk to Tennessee reporters, but yesterday he set down with the Washington Examiner where he made the erroneous claim that only 2 districts in Tennessee remained all-virtual. Apparently, he doesn’t read his COVID tracker either. For the record, as of last week, 13 of Tennessee’s districts were still virtual. One in fact remains closed, Kingsport. Below is the list of those remaining remote, with the names of those local representatives who supported a bill forcing schools open in parenthesis.

Alvin C York Institute – state-run school
Bledsoe County
Cheatham (Littleton)
Claiborne
Davidson
Decatur (Haston)
Kingsport  – closed
Montgomery – (Reedy)
Richard City (Warner)
Shelby (White)
Sullivan (plan to return this week)
TN School for Blind – state-run school
TN State Board of Education – state-run schools
Washington (Tim Hicks and Rebecca Alexander)
Oh…and the Department of Education? As I was informed this morning on the phone…they are working remotely as well. When asked by the Examiner about how he was going to bring schools around that weren’t open for in-person instruction, Lee had this to say,

It is Nashville and Memphis. And we’re actually working on that issue right now. We had a special session last week that I called for our legislature to address learning loss and to address accountability, really testing, learning loss, how we’re going to address the challenges to education going forward. And when people were railing at me for opening schools because kids were going to die in the school buildings, and we did it anyway because the science didn’t indicate that, and certainly, it hasn’t happened.

So, we’ve been open in-person for the most part since school opened in August. And we are pushing the large districts to open as well because we think that’s really important. Pressure is a very important component here. That’s the reason I got up and really just called those school districts out publicly because here’s the thing: Parents want their kids to be at school. And the saddest part from my perspective is that Memphis is the biggest school district that we have. It also has the most number of low-income children who get the greatest negative impacts from being out of the classroom. I mean, these are the kids that have the least access to technology. They have the least resources, the family structures, oftentimes — they’re not there to support the needs of them. And so, these are the kids that are sitting at home, and the negative impacts on these children is staggering. Calling that out, publicly talking about why parents want their kids to be in school, has already begun.

Hmmmmm…fortunately Memphis is not rolling over for this egregious attack and have already mounted their counter-attack.

This is a good place to stop for today.

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Categories: Education

2 replies

  1. You can call it Schwinigans, but the truth is the Gubna and the DoE have MNPS over a barrel on funding.
    They can dance and prance and everyone will listen to them.
    No one listens to us, and it does not seem like much is going to change.

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  1. The Burden of Proof – THE TENNESSEE HOLLER

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