AN EXERCISE IN HUBRIS?

“Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.” ― J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

Fall has arrived in Tennessee, just in time to coincide with the end of Fall Break for MNPS students. It was my intention to publish last Friday, but unfortunately, a house full of kids is rarely conducive to meeting deadlines. So here we go, maybe a day or two late, but definitely not a dollar short.

Ten days ago, Bill Lee strode to the podium with Natasha, aka Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, dutifully by his side and announced that with just three months remaining until the start of the next legislative session, he would be conducting an in-depth review of the state BEP funding for schools. Seemingly indicating that change was afoot on an accelerated timeline.

Just to be clear what we are talking about here, ‘The Basic Education Program (BEP) is the funding formula through which state education dollars are generated and distributed to Tennessee schools. The Stae Board of Education annually reviews and approves school system allocations generated through the BEP formula.”

This is a pretty big deal, with far-reaching implications. Per the Tennessean,

In fiscal year 2021-2022, the state is on track to spend $5.6 billion in state dollars on K-12 education — the single largest expense in the state budget. Combined with federal and other funding sources, the state spends $6.9 billion on K-12 education, according to the state budget.

In its current form, the BEP is a complex formula of which few have a firm grasp of its intricacies. A fact the Governor acknowledged in his press conference, “K-12 funding is complicated. It’s bureaucratic. Everyone recognizes that our BEP formula is one that few understand, or many do not understand, and many do not like,”

In order to address this complex and confusing construct, Governor Lee has proposed utilizing 18 sub-committees in order to study one of the most studied subjects in the state.

Think about your last community meeting or staff meeting, if you were lucky enough to get 18 people assembled to address a complex issue, how did it work out for you? That’s probably about where you can set the expectations for this BEP review apparatus.

The Governor has declared a commitment to getting more voices to the table. It’s been my experience that when a government official is calling for more voices to be brought to the table, it usually indicates that they don’t like what the ones already at the table are saying. and they are hoping to find a couple new ones that maybe agree with them.

In this case, the likelihood of that happening is somewhere between nil and none. Even those quieter voices indicate support for the same things as those talking the loudest – increased funding, better teacher pay, and a revamping of the formula so that it more closely represents what’s happening in the classroom.

Hamilton County Schools Interim Superintendent Nakia Towns puts it succinctly when pointing out that without a commitment from the governor and the legislature to put more money into funding education, “this whole conversation is without any real teeth.”

There is no need for further study, but Bill Lee insists on acting in a manner not dissimilar to my children’s behavior. If you don’t like what Mom says, go try to engage Dad. If that doesn’t work, try asking the question with different wording. Likely to work out as well for him as it does for them.

J.C. Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee embraces Lee’s promise of including more voices, but with a caveat,

“If we want different outcomes, we need different voices in the room. I hope there is an honest attempt to let people truly express their opinions, and that the outcome is not already decided,” he said. “This cannot be an exercise in futility. We need to address some giant issues.”

I agree with the latter part of his statement, but with all due respect, it’s not different voices that are needed, but rather knowledgable voices sans an agenda other than serving students, teachers, and families. We are not talking about forming a local PTA here.

The other thing that is equally important, but goes unmentioned, is the need for active listeners. We can have all the voices we want, but if no one is listening and acting on what they are hearing, Bowman’s warning comes to fruition.

So who did the Governor chose to lead the charge to reform, Let’s take a look,

  • Student Engagement Subcommittee
    • chair: Elizabeth Brown, State President of Future Business Leaders of America — Tennessee and a senior at Coffee County High School
  • Students with Disabilities and Gifted Students Subcommittee
    • chair: Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Commissioner Brad Turner
  • English Learner Subcommittee
    • chair: Raul Lopez, executive director of Latinos for Tennessee
  • Economically Disadvantaged and Highly Mobile Students Subcommittee
    • chair: Victor Evans, executive director of TennesseeCAN
  • Parent Choice and Voice Subcommittee
    • chair: Derwin Sisnett, Tennessee Public Charter School Commission board member
  • Teacher Advisory Subcommittee
    • chair: Morgan Rankin, 2021 Teacher of the Year for Johnson City Schools
  • Principal Advisory Subcommittee
    • chair: Farrah Griffith, principal of White County Middle School in Sparta, Tenn.
  • School System Personnel Subcommittee
    • chair: Steve Starnes, director of Greeneville City Schools
  • System Leadership Subcommittee
    • chair: Danny Weeks, director of Dickson County Schools
  • Rural and Small District Subcommittee
    • chair: Janet Ayers, president of The Ayers Foundation
  • Suburban Districts, Municipals, and Fast-Growing Communities Subcommittee
    • chair: Ted Horrell, director of Lakeland School System
  • Urban District Subcommittee
    • chair: Cato Johnson, chief of staff and senior vice president of public policy and regulatory affairs for Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare
  • Higher Education and Post-Secondary Readiness Subcommittee
    • chair: Youlanda Jones, president of Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology (TCAT) Ripley and Covington
  • Post-Secondary Readiness and the Business Community Subcommittee
    • chair: Randy Boyd, president of the University of Tennessee System
  • Chambers of Commerce and Industry Subcommittee
    • chair: Jared Bigham, senior advisor on workforce & rural Initiatives for the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce
  • Education Foundations Subcommittee
    • chair: Dan Challener, president of PEF Chattanooga
  • Regional Collectives and Advocacy Subcommittee
    • co-chairs: Scott Niswonger, chairman, and founder of the Niswonger Foundation and Nancy Dishner, President and CEO, Niswonger Foundation
  • Fiscal Responsibility Subcommittee
    • chair: Justin Owen, president, and CEO of the Beacon Center of Tennessee

Oh looky there, the Beacon Center and TennesseeCAN are both represented. Nothing new about these voices, as both the Governor’s Director of Legislative Director Brett Easley, and TNDOE’s Assistant Commissioner of Policy and Legislative Affairs, Charlie Bufalino are former employees of TennesseeCAN.

Right now you might be thinking, you warned us about the influence of Education Trust, but they ain’t on the list. What’s the deal.

Sometimes you just have to look a little deeper. Here’s our old friend Jared Bingham, while it’s not listed in the committee designations, he is a team member with the Education Trust. Bingham if you’ll remember, made a few bucks with then Jackson-Madison County School System instructional leader Jared Myracle and others peddling Common Core to the masses in the early part of the last decade.

Myracle, author of Common Core for Dummies, is now ironically enough the state’s Senior Director of ELA. Prior to taking the with the state, he also pitched products for Great Minds, both for ELA and Math. Yes…that Great Minds. Wit and Wisdom Great Minds.

We’ll touch on this Common Core theme again in just a minute after we look at a few other members appointed to lead sub-committees..

Scott Niswonger’s company just won a $9 million grant from the Feds to support educational opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). This five-year grant, with the required matching funds, will provide $8.8 million dollars to serve schools in 21 school districts, grades 6-12, in Northeast Tennessee. It was a grant written in close collaboration with SCORE. Niswonger actually serves on the board for SCORE.

Randy Boyd may be president of UT but let’s not forget his latest brush with greatness. Boyd apologized last Tuesday, saying it was a “mistake” to offer to pay for breakfast at a fundraiser for controversial Middle Tennessee Senator Mark Pody which listed Boyd as a host. Pody has been publicly against LGBTQ+ rights and supported an event that claims that widespread election fraud led to the inauguration of President Joe Biden.

Then there is Raul Lopez, seems like his community isn’t particularly excited about his inclusion. A statement from The Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) includes the following, “His public support of enhanced deportation enforcement and disregard of immigrant communities continues to wreak tangible harm in Tennessee, tearing families apart and devastating children. His denial of what we truly need, such as in-state tuition for Tennessee students without immigration status  is unacceptable.” Yeah…he’s a bit problematic.

Lopez also serves on the board of directors for the Beacon Center, an organization already represented on the list of sub-committee heads.

Speaking of over-representation, Education Foundations have their own sub-committee, yet, arguably 7 other sub-committees are led by people that lead education foundations, including Janet Ayers, who also serves on the board of…wait for it…SCORE.

Almost everybody named, regularly advocates with the General Assembly on education policy. So it doesn’t appear as if we are inviting any significantly different voices to the table. But not only are we not inviting new voices to the table, but we are reserving seats for those who have played a significant role in past failed initiatives.

What was Bowman’s warning again?

Back to that Common Core thing. Remember how Governor Lee repeatedly tells you how he’s stomping out Common Core in Tennessee? A look at this list of appointments would seem to counter that argument, as virtually everybody appointed to a sub-committee position has played a significant role in promoting Common Core in Tennessee.

Personally, I don’t overly care about Common Core, but I do care a whole lot about telling the truth and when it comes to Common Core, the Guv seems to be a little…how should we put it…challenged.

It’s always been my belief that if a person will lie about one thing, they’ll likely lie about others. So what other subject is factually challenging for Mr. Lee?

But our concerns shouldn’t just lie with those named. As I often say, what’s not included is as important as what is included. In this case, there’s not a single local elected official, school board member, county commissioner, city council member appointed. Not a single person responsible for setting a school budget or levying local taxes has been assigned a sub-committee. That’s kinda a glaring omission, no?

This would seem to run counter to conservative principles. Over the last several decade’s conservative leaders have decried handing over government duties and responsibilities to the non-elected, providing a shield against accountability. Yet we have a purported conservative governor doing exactly that.

Let’s engage in the hypothetical for a moment. Say that these sub-committees actually produce some meaningful initiatives? Who’s going to pull all these disparate views into one meaningful vision that can be presented to legislators in a way to facilitate a true re-visioning of the BEP?

Who is going to be charged with actually writing the legislation required, or does the governor think he’s going to make the new formula law through the use of emergency executive powers?

You may scoff but look at his history.

At his press conference, it was offered up that the charge of collecting and organizing feedback would fall to the TNDOE. An assertion that is both comical and tragic.

Let’s forget for a moment, that Commissioner Schwinn can’t even keep the department fully staffed and that the current level of institutional knowledge is so depleted that just staying relevant is challenging enough.

Case in point, this year’s educator survey was not released until October long after the results are pertinent. Furthermore, the number of people staffing the accountability department is currently at one. The list goes on.

Even if the state’s DOE was a well-oiled machine, and not mired in continual new employee on-boarding, they are currently tasked with combatting teacher attrition, establishing protocols for addressing learning loss, and dispersing an unprecedented amount of federal dollars to local districts.

Raise your hand if you think they are doing any of the aforementioned well?

As I suspected, not a hand in the house. Yet, to that already hefty list, we are going to add BEP reform?

How’s that going to work? I’d argue, that it’s just another ingredient in the recipe to bring Bowman’s warning to fruition.

So if reasonable people can look at this proposal and see that it is indeed a potential exercise in futility, what’s the main objective here?

At first glance, I would point out, that if I was running for re-election, this list would be a good fundraising source. I’m sure several representatives already donate to Lee and now that they’ve got a bigger seat at the table…just saying what the cynic in me sees.

The other thing that leaps to mind in reviewing this proposed exercise is, what is it that Governor Lee doesn’t want us looking at while drawing our attention towards this shiny object?

Donald Trump was the master of distraction, and as a self-proclaimed disciple of the former President, it’s likely Lee has picked up a few tricks of the trade. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that all of this is nothing but a large-scale distraction, designed to last only as it’s a useful political tool.

With a new math curriculum adoption getting ready to start, re-districting is set to begin in earnest. and millions in federal dollars yet to be distributed to local districts, there are no shortages of areas Lee and Schwinn would like to distract your attention away from., don’t fall for it.

The BEP will eventually be reformed. But hopefully, it will eventually be done in a thoughtful manner with a variety of expert views incorporated, Eventual reform will be conducted by a committee comprised of people who understand the nuts and bolts of making meaningful change and are capable of mitigating change in a manner that takes into account the effects of reform.

It won’t be led by a committee comprised of 18 subcommittees merely listing their wants and clinging to their influence.

As it stands, I am not the only one that recognizes the fallacy of Bill Lee’s ode to hubris. Many state legislators in his own party have told him he needs to wait until 2023 in order to pursue this highly political process.

Who wants to run the risk of pissing off potential voters in the middle of campaign season? It’s a risk/reward computation that just doesn’t work for most, yet the governor refuses to entertain their objections.

Perhaps all of this is just a piece of kabuki theater intended to portray Lee as a bold leader and worthy of higher office. Maybe it’s just another instance of Lee and Schwinn looking to promote style over substance.

Whether you slice it or dice it, there is no way forward that produces any chance of real benefit to the students and families of Tennessee. But at this point in the game, that’s pretty much the expected from Governor Lee and Commissioner Schwinn.

Author A.D. Aliwa once noted, “The human mind has a fantastic ability to trick itself out of its own best interests when pride is involved.”  Governor Lee continues to serve as a monument to that quote, and his latest stab at BEP reform just shines up the veneer. 

PROBLEMS WITH THE NEW MATH

Sonja Thomas of Nashville PROPEL, a parent advocacy group is sounding an alarm and it’s one that should be heeded. Thomas is raising legitimate questions over MNPS’s Rosebank ES exit from the state priority list and whether that exit is worthy of celebration, “I don’t think there’s ever a time we should be celebrating 13% of students in a school reading on grade level or on their way to being proficient,”

Close examination of the school’s results shows that test scores actually declined last year, just not as much as other challenged schools across the state. Once again, reducing education to a numbers game leads to a manipulation of the numbers. That’s not to take away anything from Rosebank’s students or teachers, who continually work to improve, but rather the system and how we arbitrarily praise and punish schools.

I don’t think anyone would argue that Rosebank continues to face the same challenges as they have in the past, challenges they’ve made considerable progress towards mitigating. That should be celebrated.

Unfortunately, now they’ll have to continue to face those challenges without the extra supports afforded schools designated as “priority schools.”. By pulling the supports in the midst of a pandemic, are we not setting the school up for falling short of expectations? Effectively setting up heroes to become villains?

I would argue that once again the hubris of adults, and the need to pad the resumes of administrators, trumps the needs of students and their families. But I’m sure that they’ll address this at Governor Lee’s Roundtable on education funding.

JUST WHAT WE NEEDED, ANOTHER SURVEY

On Friday, the Nashville Public Education Foundation released its latest survey around the public’s views on the city’s education system. It’s not good news, and I would argue that it arrives at a most inopportune time.

Per NPEF’s press release,

Regarding overall satisfaction with schools, 45% of respondents say MNPS has gotten worse over the past 5 years while only 10% say it’s gotten better. This growing pessimism is prevalent throughout NPEF’s citywide survey and reflected in most every issue, including overall school performance, handling of COVID, and serving disadvantaged communities.

While a link to actual survey results is not provided, or I failed to locate it, the press release goes on to list the following,

Other findings in the citywide survey indicate Nashvillians strongly support (69%) mask mandates in schools; support for school choice has stayed flat (61%); job training programs, more tutors/learning opportunities, and updated WIFI and technology are the top three preferred uses of federal COVID Recovery Act funds; and a majority (57%) of Nashvillians wants public schools to teach students how race and class affect society even though they are split on whether or not Critical Race Theory (CRT) is actually currently being taught (36% don’t know).

NPEF delivers these results at a time where state legislators are actively searching for ways to exert greater control over the state’s two largest districts – Memphis and Nashville. I can’t help but think that somewhere the Governor’s two voucher vultures – Blake Harris and Tony Niknejad – are pasting these results into their PowerPoint presentations for legislators. Offering up evidence for the need of state intervention.

Nashville continually engages in fights with the state while supplying the bullets to be fired back at them. There is no doubt that the 45% rate of declining satisfaction with MNPS and the 61% support for school choice will be repeated ad nauseam in the halls of the capitol. Much to the detriment of the city’s school system.

Equally certain is that local efforts to address the shift in satisfaction will focus more on excuses than solutions.

While the findings are important, and I never support sugar-coating the situation, they’ll certainly make life more difficult for public school supporters.

Just another day at the education policy salt mines.

MUSINGS ON EDUCATION

I must admit that I don’t read today’s education writers as deeply as I once did. After 10 years of being involved, it’s gotten like AA meetings – an endless repeating of the same themes, valuable but increasingly familiar.

That’s not to discount anybody – people have likely grown weary of my repetitive tropes – but rather acknowledging the challenge.

Every once in a while though, one of the lions roars, reminding you why they hold the status they are afforded. It’s kinda like the Rolling Stones, while it has been a long time since Exile on Mainstreet, there remain glimpses of genius even on later offerings like Bridges to Babylon.

This week, one of those roars was emitted, and it behooves everyone to pay heed. In a piece for Forbes magazine, Peter Greene writes,

Teaching (and, in fairness, a few other service professions as well) is a ten gallon bucket in which teachers are expected to carry fifteen gallons of stuff, and so they make choices (if they refuse to choose, things just spill anyway). And society is always trying to add more to the bucket. Need a new public health program? Let schools do it. People in this country don’t seem to understand some issue? Pass a law saying schools have to explain it.

He goes on to illustrate how the pandemic has acerbated circumstances,

Teachers, you are now required to be able to run both in-person and on-line classes. Create packets for students who can’t do either. Negotiate mask and/or anti-mask policies with parents and colleagues. Take care of the social and mental strains that students are experiencing. Manage the safety of your classroom even as your district tells you that many pandemic safety measures will not be taken in your district; maintain social distancing with 30 students in your classroom. Also, there are some people outside who would like to yell at you about this week’s major controversy. And here’s a new list of things you aren’t allowed to teach, or are required to teach, maybe.

But never one to draw attention to a problem sans a solution, he brings it all home in the closing,

Now is also the time for district leaders to ask teachers, “What do you need? How can we help?” And then listen to the answer.

Free teachers from non-teaching duties and responsibilities. Be a buffer between teachers and the various stirred up controversies raging these days. Treat them with respect. Treat them like the solution, and not like the problem. Let teachers teach.

It can’t be much clearer. Last week I spent a lot of time talking to local educators, many of whom I hadn’t spoken with in months. Universally they expressed a feeling of being overwhelmed by leadership’s “signature initiatives”. They needed help and all they were getting was more challenges.

At some point, officials have to stop talking out of both sides of their mouths – evoking extensive COVID protocols while conducting business as if the pandemic is non-impactful. We are literally killing teachers and principals, but then again, that’s not the first time I’ve written that.

Maybe you have to write the same thing over and over before people take heed. Whatever the case, make sure you check out Peter Greene and support the Network for Public Education. They both do high-level work.

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. Not begging, just saying.

 

 

 

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Categories: Education

3 replies

  1. So, the committee evaluating the BEP under-funding is 95% private school proponents and public school haters. I am so saddened to read that list. Thanks for publishing those names. I had not realized how hopeless the state-funding fix was.

    Re “Nashville continually engages in fights with the state while supplying the bullets to be fired back at them. ……. Much to the detriment of the city’s school system.”

    Yes exactly. Our Board complains about charter schools skimming off kids, and complains about over-testing. But dare to suggest to our Board in Nashville, that we ourselves dial back on skimming of kids to middle-school magnet schools and you get, “Oh, that’s different of course. Testing kids to determine who can go to a magnet schools is ESSENTIAL” Oh really? Why? Why is that no worse than what charters are doing?

    Our Board’s creation of wait-lists and flight on its own terms makes it impossible to defend against the state’s insertion of new flight paths on the state’s terms (like the most recent Nashville Classical Charter approval at Nashville’s expense)

    Most of my public school parent friends see no way for our Board to take the politically bold, but structurally minor, steps minimally required to exit the death spiral, to dial back on the “Your kid needs to leave now” rhetoric of “choice day” that we are all swamped with on exit from 4th grade….

  2. forming committees is a great way to avoid actually having to make decisions and do work

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