“A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people. ”
Growing up, I was blessed to have a dear friend who was a scorched earth fighter. What I mean by that is, every time a conflict arose between the two of us, they were going to spare no effort in order to win that fight. So when you entered a fight, you better have your argument together, and it better be strong enough to stand up to a whithering argument, or you were going to take a beating.
Furthermore, if you were fortunate enough to win the argument. you could be sure that the victory would come with consequences. Somewhere, somehow, my friend would extract a hefty price for the victory. You couldn’t always predict what the cost would be, but you could be secure in the expectation that it was coming.
You might have noticed that I cited this friendship as a blessing. Many people wouldn’t find it as such, but I always have. In some ways, it was a perfect pain in the ass. But it was very much a blessing.
First of all, my friend was one of the kindest and most loyal people you’ll ever meet. The kind of person that you could call in the middle of the night and they’d come bail you out of jail without an ounce of recrimination. Their first question after springing you would most certainly be, “You all right?”
Secondly, my friend was one of the smartest people you’d ever meet. Mind sharp as a tack, and willing to share, The number of things I learned from them is immeasurable.
Thirdly, they taught me the value of self-reflection before entering a conflict. Self-evaluation that began with, is this fight worth having? Then moved on to, what is the cost of winning this fight and is that cost worth bearing? You’d be amazed at the number of daily conflicts that fail to meet the threshold of those questions.
I learned that when a conflict couldn’t be justified by those questions, to either let it go or find an alternative means of influencing my friend’s position. in many cases, direct conflict might have been the easy answer, but not the one that offered the best solution.
Lastly, I learned the value of always leaving an opponent a way to exit gracefully. The more successful you were at that, the more likely the cost of the conflict could be mitigated.
Like I said, the friendship was a blessing and the lessons garnered have served me well over the last several decades.
In that light, let me cite Amanda Ripley, a journalist and New York Times bestselling author whose latest book, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped—and How We Get Out came out in April. She formalizes some of the tenets that I am talking about in a recent piece for EducationWeek. She warns us about the growing threat of what she identified as “high conflict”.
This is not a normal conflict; it’s a special category of conflict known as “high conflict.” High conflict happens when conflict escalates to a point where it becomes self-perpetuating and all-consuming. Having studied high-conflict elections, divorces, gangs, and even civil wars, I can say that the behavior is chillingly predictable. People become very certain of their own moral righteousness, and they make a lot of mistakes. In time, everyone ends up worse off to varying degrees, always and especially kids.
I think it’s safe to say, that the events this week that unfolded between Governor Lee and Tennessee’s two largest school districts provide a textbook example of high conflict. A conflict that ain’t going to end well for anyone.
MNPS, and Shelby County schools have both enacted mask mandates requiring that all students, teachers, and visitors, wear masks while in the building or on busses. While the majority of stakeholders view this as a prudent action in the wake of rising infections from the Delta variation of the Coronavirus, there are those that are in opposition. Adding fuel to the ire of those in opposition is the fact that Memphis and Nashville schools were the last two to return to in-person instruction last year. Arguably having the largest negative impact on the students they are charged with educating. They did this in direct conflict with the demands of the Governor and the General Assembly.
Something I doubt few Republican legislators have forgotten. Memphis and Nashville are deep blue oases in a state that is overwhelmingly red. The history of conflict between the urban centers and the rest of the state is long, convoluted, and deep. With even deeper resentments on both sides.
Most recently, the two cities mounted a legal challenge of Governor Lee’s Education Savings Accounts school vouchers program, which is awaiting a final ruling from the Tennessee Supreme Court. A ruling that is likely to favor the plaintiffs and sure to add to the resentment.
When both Nashville and Memphis recently announced that school would begin with a requirement for all students, teachers, to wear masks, Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton responded by calling for a special legislative session aimed at reigning in local authorities ability to issue such public health mandates, including school masking policies. Here’s where things get even more interesting.
The call for the special session was not without risk to Governor Lee, but with an election on the looming horizon, who could he refuse the request signed by every member of the State House?
While the special session was being called primarily as a means to address mask mandates, behind the scenes there was much more going on.
A growing number of Republican legislators are becoming concerned about Bill Lee’s efforts to grow the executive powers, and how he is wielding those powers. I’ve heard reports that one legislator is asking to review all 760 of the no-bid contracts – totaling an estimated $1 billion – entered into by the Tennessee DOE from March 2020 through May 2021. I doubt that ends up being a positive experience.
Any called special session opens doors to a conversation around Lee’s assumed executive powers. A conversation Lee isn’t keen to engage in.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally recognized the risk and was, therefore, voiced opposition to the House’s requested special session. Choosing to reaffirm conservative’s core tenet of local control and reaffirming the state’s school boards’ right to set policy for their individual districts.
The governor’s use of executive power wasn’t the only thing legislators have on their minds.
The recently completed ELA textbook adoption continues to be a thorn in the administration’s side. At a recent meeting of the Tennessee Commission on Education Recovery and Innovation, State Senator Brian Kelsy informed members of the commission that the number one current school-related issue he’s hearing about is around the recently adopted curriculum. Most of that conversation is negative and specifically is directed at Great Mind’s Wit and Wisdom. Seeing as Wit and Wisdom has been promoted and endorsed by Commissioner Schwinn, conversations around curriculum are not desirable to Mr. Lee.
Then there is the subject of the distribution of ESSER money by the TNDOE. Ms. Schwinn has dragged her feet while trying to exert control over how funds are utilized by individual districts. Seeing as the money is essential to LESs, some legislators might want to have deeper talks around that subject. Yep, another conversation the Governor doesn’t want to have.
So here’s the conundrum, all of the House Republicans want a special session. As previously stated, the governor doesn’t want to open that door, but he can’t just ignore the House Republicans with an election year fast approaching.
That’s where we were when on Monday afternoon at three o’clock when Governor Lee announced Executive Order 84, allowing exemptions to any mask mandates enacted by local school districts. Democrat legislators instantly condemned the executive order, pointing out that it works to put kids at risk.
Publically Republicans praised the move as a prudent compromise, but privately many seethed. They’d been very specific in their request to the governor, and he’d unceremoniously dismissed their desires. Not for the first time.
Over in Memphis, Director of Schools Joris Ray wasted little time in telling Mr. Lee what he could do with his executive order. Basically telling him, thanks for the thoughts, but we’ll continue mandating masks. We’ll call if we need any more opinions.
As he’s done all so often since taking the reigns of SCS, sticking a finger in the eye of the Governor. Something that has earned him, and by proxy, the Shelby County School System a special level of ire from Republican lawmakers.
Nashville took a couple hours longer to respond, but when they did, it was in a similar manner. Maybe slightly more diplomatic, but still a clear rejection of the governor’s executive order.
All sense of diplomacy went out the window when Board Chair Christianne Buggs posted the district’s response to the Governor on social media and added the tag line, “Masks will continue to be required in all Metro schools. Your play, Mr. Governor…”. A populist, but perhaps not prudent move.
Whatever the Governor’s play, I’m 99,9% positive that it won’t be one Ms. Buggs likes, and it will likely affect the district’s kids and families a lot more than it does her personally. It’s always nice to play the roulette table with other people’s money.
While the district’s position is inarguably the right decision – I would like to see more conversation around long-term effects to kids’ social development and development of immunities based on prolonged mask usage – more care should have been given in delivering the district’s response,
According to reports from Main Street Nashville, “Sexton spokesperson Doug Kufner says the speaker’s legal team anticipates litigation over the matter. Over the past 24 hours, we have watched as various questions have been raised concerning Executive Order No. 84. We are closely monitoring the situation with our legal team as it appears headed toward potential litigation,” Kufner told Main Street Nashville. “We are hopeful for a speedy judicial outcome in the coming weeks.”
Again, perhaps a legal fight is what Dr. Battle and the MNPS School Board are looking for, but legal fights are expensive and the money comes out of funds that could be dedicated to students.
To be fair, MNPS may win a legal challenge. They may find a court of law agrees with them and executive order No. 84 is indeed an overreach by the Governor. The court then slaps him on the wrist and upholds MNPS’s mask mandate. Do you think Governor Lee just shrugs and says, “ok”?
Anybody who has watched the General Assembly of late can attest that this is a particularly vindictive bunch. They do not play with those they feel have crossed them. I’d be hesitant to say that aloud, but I think they take it as a point of pride.
Griffy ran afoul of party leadership last Spring and Sexton wasted no time in removing him from all committee assignments.
“There are certain expectations that must be met by members of the Tennessee House of Representatives. These include maintaining decorum and professionalism, as well as respect for others, and perhaps most importantly, respect for our longstanding committee process,” Sexton said in a statement. “If any or all of these expectations become an issue, appropriate actions will be taken – including removing a member from his or her committee assignments.”
Yea, if you think any victory is coming sans cost, you can put that out of your head. Something made even more clear by Lt. Governor McNally in his response to MNPS’s statement,
“The Governor and the General Assembly cannot and will not allow lawful orders to be defied,” McNally said in a statement. “If these systems persist in resisting the order, we will have no choice but to exercise other remedial options.”
The once reticent official is now fully engaged.
So what might those other options be? Well, they would start with new voucher legislation and only get worse. Don’t forget that this is a year where district lines get redrawn and former Speaker of the House Beth Harwell is owed a debt of gratitude. For some legislators, the sound of Congresswoman Harwell has a better ring to it than that of Congressman Cooper.
Rumors have abounded for years about the possibility of the state taking over parts of MNPS – rumors I largely dismissed – but of late, the din has gotten louder. At this juncture, as the rhetoric escalates, I don’t think that the noise can be dismissed.
Adding to the dilemma is the likelihood of Governor Lee winning re-election next summer. Though his troubles with his own party shouldn’t be dismissed. Listening to 99.7 this morning, I was a little surprised to listen to the level of criticism directed by the conservative outlet toward Mr. Lee. It was, to say the least, unprecedented in my experience. Clear was, that whatever the intent, the executive order was not having the desired effect on the base.
There are those that would argue, that Lee not winning re-election could be an even worse outcome, as the Democrats don’t have any viable candidates and any Republican who defeats him would more closely resemble the citizens of the overwhelmingly Red state. Some going as far as arguing that the Democrats already have a sympathetic candidate in Lee. An argument not without merit, despite his recently earning the endorsement of former President Trump.
We can expend a ton of ink in exploring all the other possible ramifications if current events are allowed to escalate. The bottom line is that an argument that was supposed to be centered around keeping kids and teachers safe has become about everything but keeping kids and teachers safe. Everybody needs to take a deep breath and step back, though I doubt that will happen.
We also need to realize that once again, we are making the jobs of principals and teachers more difficult. They are the ones left to navigate the field while legislators and district officials wage war from the comfort of their individual offices, far removed from the public. The success of our school’s professional educators hinges on strong relationships with families, pitting schools against parents is not conducive to forming those relationships. As a result, achieving successful student outcomes becomes even more difficult in an extremely difficult time.
It’s time for the conversation to retreat from being centered on scoring points against the opposition and instead put the focus back on where it belongs, improving outcomes for students and ensuring their safety. We need to simultaneously focus on short-term goals while recognizing long-term implications. It’s a challenge that I’m not sure we are ready to face, but that we can not fail at.
Former President John F Kennedy once pointed out, “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger–but recognize the opportunity.” Those words are especially applicable today.
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