“Go home, take a paper bag, and cut some eye holes out of it. Put it over your head, get undressed, and look at yourself in the mirror. Really evaluate where your strengths and weaknesses are. And be honest.” – Joan, Mad Men
When it comes to education policy – local, state, and federal -the level of the smoke of late has risen to a near-impenetrable level. Without a program to reveal the players, it’s become virtually impossible to discern the good guys from the bad, let alone decide what’s real and what’s merely an illusion. Trust me, about three-quarters of what’s currently transpiring falls into the latter category.
Today’s mission is to try and pull back some curtains, maybe look at a few things from a few different angles, and give a little context that may not be readily available unless you spend a great deal of time immersed in policy issues, something I wouldn’t recommend for anyone as it’s sure to turn you into a cynic and maybe make you go blind..
The biggest smokescreen currently rolling is the BEP review committee recently created by Tenneessee’s version of Boris and Natasha – Governor Lee and Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn.
To recap, Lee and Schwinn have suddenly come to the realization that the formula used to fund schools in the state is inadequate. In response, they’ve combined forces and launched a BEP review committee to study the formula and release recommendations to the General Assembly, in order to reform the current process.
A committee that is made up of a 12-member steering committee and 18 sub-committees. Because nothing screams effectiveness and sincerity like convening a conclave in the weeks prior to the holiday season, with people rushing to wrap up projects in preparation for time better spent with friends and family.
But, it’s not reforming the Governor, and his henchwoman is after here. Over the past few weeks, both in public and private, the two have frequently used the phrase “recreate” when talking about school funding. This would align with their long-held vision of themselves as disruptors who have been charged with breaking the status quo. School funding provides another opportunity to fortify that self-created reputation.
But let’s take a look at exactly what they are disrupting. What many of you may be unaware of is just how small many of Tennessee’s school districts are. Throughout the state, in many communities, the local school district serves as the largest employer in town. Start monkeying with school funding and you run the risk of monkeying with people’s paychecks, and inevitably their lives.
The two conspirators have talked frequently about a formula that is student and not system-centered. On the surface, it’s a fine aspiration. What gets lost in the conversation is that the system, or somebody else, still has to pay for capital, needs, support staff, and a myriad of costs that are not directly linked to the individual student, but still impact the quality of their education.
Many districts already have severe issues when it comes to attracting substitute teachers and bus drivers, will there be a portion of the student allocation that allows that issue to be addressed?
If students take their allocation and attend school elsewhere, will there be enough money left with the remaining students to maintain the school? Or are we [potentially looking at closing many schools? A proposition that MNPS, an early adopter of student-based funding, is already facing/
When it comes to school buildings, will there be enough money in the student’s individual allotments to ensure that current facilities are adequately upgraded, or new buildings can be built as demand rises?
Invariably, somebody is going to have to foot the bill for these and other additional costs associated with educating children. I can’t help but expect that many will fall to the local level to address. Which could potentially result in higher taxes for area residents.
All of this is encompassed in an endeavor not to be taken lightly, but one the Governor seems determined to pursue with a cavalier approach. Failing to provide adequate time to fully vet potential options, is not just problematic, it’s reckless. All of which leads to fortifying the suspected true motivation behind the current review process.
The state has about run out of options when it comes to further delay of the pending start of court proceedings in Nashville and Memphis long-running lawsuit with the state over school funding. If Vegas were laying odds, they would heavily favor the urban districts winning, based on the abundance of evidence showing that the state is failing to meet its obligation when it comes to school funding.
It wouldn’t shock me that if in the coming months, the state asks for a delay in proceeding citing the current dog and pony show as evidence that they are trying to address the failure sans court involvement. Arguing that they just need more time, not more court involvement might be a successful hand to play.
As an added bonus, if any substantial changes are made to the BEP, it potentially creates an argument that the lawsuit is no longer viable and that plaintiffs will have to start from scratch. Wiping out nearly a decade of work.
It all may be that simple, or there may be more to it.
The governor and his cabinet have repeatedly demonstrated throughout their tenure a commitment to ensuring that friends and family get paid. Perhaps all of this is also about creating future revenue streams for associates. It’s always nice to fish in one well-stocked pond, but if you have access to multiple ponds, it is even better.
Schwinn’s former Chief of Staff Rebecca Shah’s new company ILO, despite being embroiled in controversy in Rhode Island over improper procurement procedures, already has a scope of work in hand that basically pays them to craft a PR plan out of the ongoing BEP review process. What they’ll be promoting remains unclear.
Hey, the Commissioner’s husband’s employer benefited from their relationship, why not her Chief of Staff’s company. And in case you thought that Tennessee was some kind of outlier for TNTP, take a gander at what’s happening with Schwinn’s former employer, Delaware. This is excepted from a teacher in Delaware’s email and pulled from a blog by Thomas Ultican,
“Over the past several years, it has seemed like Delaware was going in the right direction after the nightmare of Gov. Jack Markell and the RTTT grant. There was suddenly more of a focus on the whole child, starting in October of 2018 when Gov. John Carney announced that our state would adopt trauma-informed practices. … Teachers were beginning to breathe a sigh of relief that maybe our state would begin to implement more reasonable education practices than the rigid, scripted, market-based programs we have seen. Then all of a sudden this summer, this stuff about HQIM started popping up from DDOE. Schools were written up in The 74. Videos were made with the Knowledge Matters group …. Professional development was announced with TNTP.”
Hmmm… a lot of coincidences there.
As a side note, you gotta admire ILO. Some companies incorporate and it takes them decades to run afoul of regulators. ILO incorporates in March, and by the summer they are already under scrutiny. Makes you wonder what Shah learned here while serving Penny Schwinn.
ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER LISTENING TOUR
I know, Commissioner Schwinn very publicly hit the road this summer, visiting school districts across the state of Tennessee. It was a tour that purportedly went very well. So well that means it’s time to get the band back together and schedule a little holiday tour.
This week kicked off a series of “Town Halls” aimed, hypothetically, at garnering input from Tennesseans about how they think schools should be funded,
“Along with partners and stakeholders across the state, I am thrilled to invite all Tennesseans to join us for these conversations about what a student-based funding strategy could look like in our state,” said Commissioner Penny Schwinn. “Focusing on the needs of our students and how to best set them up for success is our collective goal and we look forward to hearing directly from parents, stakeholders, and members of the public about their thoughts, concerns and hopes for a new public education funding strategy to best support our kids.”
A few caveats to that sharing your opinion thing. If you wanted to speak, you needed to get in your car and drive to the local host location, as there was no opportunity to share opinions for those tuning in remotely.
It’s been well documented how government entities limit citizen participation through location and scheduling. Schedule meetings close to the end of the workday without adequate time for transportation and at a remote location, are useful tools inlimiting participation while appearing transparent.
The same holds true for meetings scheduled during the workday. If you want to get a true picture of how much stakeholder involvement is valued, look no further than the scheduled time and place for insight.
Schwinn’s town halls don’t exactly communicate a desire for broad participation. All but two are scheduled to start at 5:30 pm, a time that often makes it difficult for parents and teachers to attend. The two are at 6 pm, a time only marginally better.
I love that one of the meetings is being held in a building named after the chair of one of the BEP review sub-committees, the Niswonger Performance Arts Center. Nothing communicates who’s voice is valued like holding it an eponymous location.
The first, of eight, town halls was held Wednesday in Sumner County, Hendersonville to be precise. A location that lies about 15 miles north of downtown Nashville. I live on the Southern tip of Davidson County, and for me, it would have been a 40-minute drive without rush hour traffic. And those of us who reside in Davidson County know that traffic can easily double commute time.
Several of MNPS’s school board members reside in the far south and west of Davidson County. Further south is those school board members that reside in and represent Williamson, Rutherford, Wilson, and Maury Counties, among others. These are some of the largest counties in Tennessee. One would think that since they are the people that actually deal with school funding, every effort to remove barriers of attendance should have been made to accommodate local officials, alas that wasn’t the case.
Fortunately several of those officials did make the drive and were in attendance, still, I can’t help but think that the experience would have proven more fruitful by either choosing a more central location or moving the start time back to accommodate work schedules.
Trousdale’s Director Clint Satterfield was one of those who put forth the effort to attend but didn’t make it until the proceedings had wrapped.
In attendance was Nashville’s PROPEL, a Nashville parent advocacy organization that has argued for greater parent involvement and for MNPS to create individual learning plans for all students. Making the trip with them was Nashville School Board member John Little.
Leading up to the townhall, PROPEL executive director Sonya Thomas was effusive in her praise of Commissioner Schwinn, tweeting out the following,
Yes!! I am on your time- line. Thanks @SchwinnTeach I appreciate the partnership. We don’t have to agree on everything but you have kept an open door to @NashvillePropel. Can’t wait to see you tonight. Most of all I can’t wait for the community to have this conversation. https://t.co/mN4yqNxAUF
— Sonya Thomas (@Sonyathemom) October 27, 2021
Apparently, the meeting gave her even more cause for enthusiasm. As she tweeted the following,
The trend tonight @TNedu town hall. What they are doing is not working!!! Parents want to make the decision for their child. Whatever the formula, parents want the investment to be in children. Not a system ‼️@NashvillePropel
— Sonya Thomas (@Sonyathemom) October 27, 2021
That may have been a trend perceived by Thomas, but others in attendance heard things differently. They expressed being pleasantly surprised by the number of speakers who drew attention to the point that the question shouldn’t be about how the pie is divided but rather whether there is enough pie for everybody.
Adding fuel to that fire is an article from today’s Tennessean revealing that Tennessee currently ranks 44th out of 51 states and the District of Columbia. Per the Tennessean.
Tennessee spends nearly $4,000 below the national average of $15,114 per student and spends only 2.56% of its total GDP, compared to 3.37% nationally.
State Representative Scott Cepicky as a leading voice in the State General Assembly on education issues, often states a commitment to making Tennessee number 1 in the country when it comes to education. Well to draw a parallel with college sports, I don’t believe that the University of Alabama got to the top of the college football world by being 44th in spending compared to other major college programs.
Sticking with the sports analogy, lots of college programs preach commitment to winning a national championship, but few are willing to put their money where their mouth is and back up their words with deeds. It’ll be interesting to see who Tennessee chooses to emulate going forward.
I suspect additional meetings will unfold in a similar fashion. I’m also pretty sure that representatives from ILO or some other offshoot of the TNDOE will be there to capture all the images and sound bites that will provide fuel to their desired narrative.
Just don’t let the smoke get in your eyes.
AND NOW A LITTLE PARTY SMOKE
Today legislation is poised to pass during the General Assembly’s Special Session that will make school board races partisan affairs. In response, there have been cries of alarm. MNPS School Board member Gini Pupo-Walker raised her concerns via ChalkbeatTN,
“I think this would just muddy the waters and scare off a lot of people who run for school board because they want to help kids, not because of politics,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, a school board member in Nashville.
“It would also really change the way you run for office. Instead of knocking on doors in neighborhoods and going to spaghetti suppers, you’d have to attend party events and focus on building your campaign war chest,”
Huh? I’ve run for school board, and all of that is already baked into the formula. I don’t see much changing. It’s not like it’s a big secret who’s a Democrat and who’s a Republican. And it’s not like board members don’t govern through the eyes of party affiliation.
On the flip side, there really is no need to demand a declaration of party affiliation. I see no benefit either way. In my opinion, all this move would do is illuminate the dirty little not-so-secret, that school governance is as much about politics as it is about kids.
I can’t help but chuckle over the quote by Dale Lynch who leads an organization supporting school superintendents, “The fewer politics in schools, the better.” For the record, nobody plays politics with education policy like Lynch.
In my eyes, this is all. a bunch of sound and fury signifying nothing. Remember, over the last decade, neither party has had a stellar record when it comes to education policy.
TIME FOR A LITTLE LOCAL SMOKE
Mid-week water cooler talk was dominated by an Axios article raising concerns over a potential push by the Nashville Chamber of Commerce to do away with an elected school board. It’s a story that has repeatedly popped up over the last decade, but never gets any traction, As MNPS school board member Fran Bush tells the Tennessee Star,
“Who says this? Who comes up with this? The reason why the legislators are getting pissed off on the hill is because of the stupid stuff that we are choosing to do down on the local level. For example, when we close our schools for a whole year. We cannot close our schools again during any pandemic. Because it hurt our children,”
A rather blunt assessment, but not wholly untrue.
Instead of wasting valuable time deconstructing why this is a plan unlikely to gain any traction, I’ll turn you over to Cari Wade-Gervin who has done an exemplary job deconstructing the threat. Do yourself a favor, give it a read and then subscribe.
At last week’s school board meeting a majority of time was spent discussing the district’s SEL effort. An area that is becoming very concerning for me, as we are forcing teachers into a role that they are not adequately trained nor resourced for. You never see Doctors say, “hey while I’m treating you for the flu, I’ll also teach you to read.” Why is it okay to do the inverse with teachers?
Apparently, I’m not the only one concerned, Robert Pondiscio has an excellent piece out on the potential pitfalls. In his own words, “SEL risks pushing teaching “toward a field more akin to therapy, social work, or even the clergy, but with insufficient consideration of the potential downsides of doing such sensitive work haphazardly.”
This week saw the release of MNPS’s Blue Ribbon teacher awards. Normally, due to my disdain for education foundations and individual teacher awards, I would refrain from sharing and commenting. But these days, anything that brings a smile to one teacher’s face for one minute is worth celebrating without additional commentary.
So I offer a heartfelt congratulations to each and everyone named, but don’t worry, I’ve got lots to say about foundations in the coming weeks.
I’m going to leave you with a palate cleanser. In this time of discord fueled by unreasonable expectations and demands, it’s easy to forget the inherent joy that many find in teaching. This is one teacher’s story that reminds us of that. May it bring you the smile it evoked in me.
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