MORE CLOUDS ON THE HORIZON

“A leader is best
When people barely know he exists
Of a good leader, who talks little,
When his work is done, his aim fulfilled,
They will say, “We did this ourselves.” 
― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ch

Hope y’all had a great Easter weekend. For us it was much needed opportunity to reconnect with family that we had spent significant time with since the onslaught of the pandemic. Based on my social media feeds, it was spent in a similar fashion for many of you.

The world of education policy continues to be an active one. With questions around testing, learning loss, and dark money continuing to swirl. Let’s dive in.

Currently making its way through the Tennessee General Assembly is a bill flying under the radar that could impact education policy. House Bill 159, known as the Personal Privacy Protection Act would prohibit the release of information for all 501(c) organizations, those holding nonprofit, tax-exempt status under the federal IRS code. The bill is not aimed specifically towards the education world, but it will have an impact. Hiding the money will only make it easier for those in the private sector to dismantle public education.

Over the last several weeks I’ve disclosed the influence of several non-profit education organizations that wield considerable influence over education policy in Tennessee. Groups like SCORE, TNTP, Education Trust, NEIT, and such. By looking at their tax filings, you can see some of where their money comes from, but that data lags behind by two years. HB 159 will only serve to cloud the picture further.

If you log into a database on the website of the Bill and Melinda Gates you can see what they are sending to individual non-profits. Several groups active in Tennessee are beneficiaries of the Gates’s generosity. Among the biggest are KIPP Charter schools that had received over $97 million from these two sources, then Ed Trust at nearly $58 million, TNTP at $54 million, National Association of Charter School Authorizers at $44 million, Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education at nearly $32 million and 50Can, another pro-charter organization, at $29 million.

Those organizations also receive money from Tennessee taxpayers. TNTP was just awarded an 8 million dollar contract to train teachers in foundational literacy skills. An organization formerly employed by SCORE.

According to the Gates database, since 2015, SCORE has received $13,403,565 from the Foundation. A not unsubstantial amount of money. How has SCORE used that money? I don’t know. They don’t disclose their donors, nor do they give any explanation on who they pay money out to.

For example, we know that in 2019 they paid TNTP a little over $666K to identify and share best practices. What does that mean though? We also know that on average they spend around half-million dollars on lobbying expenses. What they are lobbying for behind the scenes is not clear. So we only see a piece of the money trail.

Looking at an individual year, in 2015 SCORE reported $10,854,754 in gifts and grants. That’s the same year they received $8,571,415 from Gates. If you do the math, that’s roughly 80% of SCORE’s reported income for 2015. The same year that the LIFT districts began their experiments with a “high-quality” curriculum. Correlation or causation?

I don’t know, but it does beg the question of where the desire to experiment came from. It’s always baffled me why there was a need to suddenly begin exploring alternative curriculum at that time. If you’ll remember, starting in 2013 we were running around telling anyone who would listen that we were the “fastest improving state in the country.” It seems to me that based on test results, this would indicate a time for replication, not experimentation. But that’s not how SCORE saw it.

How many of you knew that online education magazine Chalkbeat has received over a million dollars from the Gates Foundation? Now I’m not accusing Chalkbeat of anything, nor am I suggesting that a million dollars cover the annual expenses of an organization the size of Chalkbeat, but it is something that should be known by readers. As someone who regularly covers stories, I can tell you that it’s hard to remain unbiased when financial support and personal relationships creep into the equation. It is part of being human.

Chalkbeat doesn’t try to hide its donors, but I do think i’s important that readers realize that certain non-profits support the news magazine. Especially when topics like “learning loss” are covered. In this instance, the term is oft used in a manner that would indicate it as a measured matter, when the reality is, we have no tool in which to measure the hypothetical but profitable proposition.

Agin, casting no stones at Chalkbeat, they provide a valuable service. I’m just putting forth the argument of why transparency is important.

The point is, when it comes to government policy, there needs to be more transparency, not less. According to the Tennessee Lookout, HB 159 passed the Civil Justice Committee last Wednesday on a voice vote and moves on to the Government Operations Committee for consideration. The Senate State and Local Government Committee voted 6-2 Tuesday to send SB1608 to the Calendar Committee to be scheduled for a floor vote.

Williams argues that the legislation is needed to protect the identity of donors so that they don’t end up getting hounded for donations. He sits on the board for Habitat of Humanity so he claims a knowledge of whence he speaks. Yea…not sure if that is worthy of legislative protection.

Sen. Sara Kyle, a Memphis Democrat, sums it up best when she outlines what should be everybody’s concern,

“I also have concerns that this law could be used to further conceal the identity of special interest donors who are paying for partisan campaign activity through political nonprofits, labor organizations or chambers of commerce. Personal privacy is important, but the public wants accurate information about who is spending money to influence our elections, not less.” 

My preferred action would be the opposite of this bill. I would advocate for a summer study that would look closely at who’s funding what. Not in a manner to establish good and bad. But just as a means of gauging and evaluating whose applying influence and where.

In education, we constantly demand accountability from teachers and students. Isn’t it only fair that we demand the same from people who are shaping the policies that affect their ability to meet the accountability bar?

STANDARDIZED TESTING

Over the next several weeks, Nashville’s K -12 students will be participating in their own version of the NFL Scouting combine. Like the combine, which measures potential players in a multitude of manners repeatedly, MNPS will be administrating TCAP, MAP, and IReady testing to students. Might even be a survey or two thrown in for good measure. The question though, is how many students will actually participate.

This is particularly important in regard to TCAP testing. Earlier in the year state legislators passed legislation that would hypothetically hold schools, teachers, and students harmless this year. I say hypothetically because we all know that if you are keeping score, you are also designating winners and losers.

Due to the state’s inability to effectively transition to an online testing platform, all TCAP tests must be administered in person. Interesting side note, the person now overseeing MNPS’s Early Childhood Literacy initiative is the same person who oversaw the state’s inept attempt at transitioning to a digital platform. Remember that accountability thing?

But I digress.

In order to make things interesting, the state has codified a requirement that all districts reach a threshold of 80% participation in order to be truly held harmless. Normally the mandate calls for 90%.

This could prove difficult as 45% of Nashville’s children are still attending class remotely. Since nobody should be more aware of this than the district, surely, with 2 weeks to go until the inception of testing, they have a clear plan for getting remote kids to participate. Unfortunately, this appears to be another case of looking to school principals to save the challenge. As with previous initiatives, they are being left to design testing procedures for their own individual schools.

With the time fast approaching, as a parent of a child attending remotely, I need to know times, places and practices, so that I can make accommodations in my work schedule. I need to know the daily time requirements? What precautions are in place to keep my children safe? What will they be doing when not testing? And much more.

There is a growing movement to opt children out of the test. In theory, it’s one I support. But the reality is that whether my kids take the test or not, will rely on how MNPS presents the case to me. If they get me timely information that addresses my concerns and allows me to make accommodations well in advance, odds are, I’ll grumble and bring them in.

Failure to adequately inform, will have the opposite effect.

To date, I know nothing.

This is just another example, in a long string of instances over the last several decades where public school districts act in a manner that seems to assume families have no choice. Next year’s remote instruction offerings would be another example. In the case of the latter, the district seems to be taking a position that if they open up the doors like they did in 2019, families who left the district schools last year would suddenly return en masse. Not a sure thing by any stretch.

Whether it’s intentional, or not, the message being communicated is that parents have no alternatives and therefore will accept whatever the district offers, and like it. A position that I would argue is a mistake.

Currently, Netflix is offering a documentary called “The Last Blockbuster.” Those of us who came of age in the latter part of the last century likely have fond memories of the video rental giant. They were big and they were ubiquitous. The chain operated under the assumption that the home viewing market would always be static and that movies would never be delivered digitally. Two assumptions that contributed to the company’s extinction.

In essence, the company gave competitors the sword to slay the dragon that they had become. Something that public school districts have also been guilty of doing.

It might not be a bad idea for MNPS leadership to take a little time over the weekend to watch “The Last Blockbuster.” Might be a few lessons to be gleaned.

QUICK HITS

Student loan debt and its negative impact on individuals is in the news again. President Joe Biden has called on Congress to cancel $10,000 in federal debt for each borrower. I would argue that the easy acquisition of college loans has contributed to the high cost of higher education, but my question here would be if he forgives 10K, do I get my 10K back. After all, I initially defaulted, before regrouping and eventually paying the money back. That 10K would definitely come in handy right about now.

Tennessee Democrats continue to eat their own. This morning veteran community organizer Odessa Kelly announced her campaign to compete against incumbent Jim Cooper to represent District 5 in the US House of Representatives. Cooper is a respected Democrat who has successfully navigated the halls of Washington and appeals to moderate Republicans. In a state where Republicans are considered a supermajority, is this the seat to make competitive?

Kelly by all accounts is an incredible candidate. However, my question would be is she taking on the right seat. Being backed by Justice Democrats, a liberal group that helped candidates such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Cori Bush of Missouri upset their respective incumbents in 2020, might not be considered an asset in Tennessee. I’m curious to see how this announcement impacts the redrawing of districts lines later in the year. Either way, her announcement brings joy to many Democrats this morning.

Much like the federal deficit, the job listings at the TNDOE never seem to shrink. Current listings include Assistant Commissioner of District Operations, Assistant Commissioner of Early Learning, Learning Acceleration Coordinator, Finance Data manager, Pre K – 4 Mathematics Coordinator, and a couple new staff attorney positions, to name a few. All told there are 22 positions currently advertised. Maybe one is right for you.

Oddly, COVID numbers for School Districts across the state were not updated until today. Updates normally take place on Tuesdays. Today’s update show an increase in student cases from 325 to 460. Teacher cases have grown from 89 to 115. While some may argue those numbers are insignificant, they are trending in the wrong direction. MNPS’s COVID tracker currently sits at 4.7. For the week of 3/29 to 4/4 there were 63 staff quarantined and 7 positive tests. For students, it was 549 and 56 respectively. Inexplicably the previous weeks reports provided are only up to November 15th.

A new op-ed in the Tennessean does a fantastic job of outlining why Tennessee’s formula for funding schools is inadequate. I urge you to read in and forward it to your state representative.

In case you didn’t know, April is School Library Month.

After 36 years of coaching high school football, 34 in MNPS, Maurice Fitzgerald will be stepping down from the role of head football coach at Hillsboro High School at the end of the 2020-2021 school year. Who better to cover the story than the student-run Hillsboro Globe. Two greats serving to compliment each other.

If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to share is always welcome.

A huge shout out to all of you who’ve lent your financial support. I am eternally grateful for your generosity. It allows me to keep doing what I do and without you, I would have been forced to quit long ago. It is truly appreciated and keeps the bill collectors happy. Now more than ever your continued support is vital.

If you are interested, I’m now sharing posts via email through Substack. This is a new foray for me and an effort to increase coverage. ‘ll be offering free and paid subscriptions. Paid subscriptions will receive additional materials as they become available. We’ll see how it goes.

If you wish to join the rank of donors, you can still head over to Patreon and help a brother out. Or you can hit up my Venmo account which is Thomas-Weber-10. I don’t need much – even $5 would help – but if you think what I do has value, a little help is always greatly appreciated, especially this time of year when my contracted work is a little slow. Not begging, just saying.



Categories: Education

2 replies

  1. Learned of your posts through Diane Ravitch site. Thanks for your work. I have been teaching for 35 years. We need all the support we can get. What we do not need is the current rash of corrupt politicians making money at children’s expense.

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