“When you’re sure of what you’re looking at, look harder.”
Last night I was laid back in the recliner watching the Braves let Game 5 of the World Series slip away when the phone rang. Picking it up and looking at the screen revealed an incoming call from my pal Slotski.
“What’s up?” I said, answering the phone.
“Just calling to make sure you are all right”, came the response, “Heard you had a visit from the FBI last week and wanted to make sure you weren’t in Gitmo.”
“First of all, I don’t think we even send people to Gitmo anymore, and secondly, it was the state office of Homeland Security and not the FBI.”
Chuckling he responded, “Whatever, why are they messing with you?”
“Apparently somebody has been threatening the Commissioner of Education.”
“And they think it’s you?”
“Not according to the agent. They are just following up and my name came up as someone to talk to.”
Slots was quiet for a minute, “Well I guess you should be glad you didn’t get a muzzle from Amazon in the mail.”
“There is that.”
“You know that Homeland Security is appointed by the Governor and you have been awful critical,” he continued with a playful tone, “Maybe you should be a little nicer.”
“It sure feels like someone was trying to send a message.”
Slotski chuckled again, it was clear that this was amusing him, “Maybe that’s what happened with Joris Ray out in Memphis.”
Puzzled, I responded, “What do you mean?”
“Man, haven’t you been paying attention to Twitter? After two years of not missing an opportunity to stick a finger in the eye of the Governor and the state department of education, suddenly he and Schwinn are like old fishing buddies”, Slotski offered in explanation, “They used to be constantly out of sorts. Hell, he even hired away that woman from Florida who Schwinn brought up to implement the state’s voucher program. I remember at the press conference announcing the hiring, Ray even said, I consider Amity to be a steal.”
“They do seem to have had a thawing in relations.”
Warming to the subject, “Let me tell you how all that would have gone down in my old neighborhood,” Slotski began to explain, “If you had a junior boss making bones about being a team player, and trying to write his own rules, a couple of the senior capos would have gone and visited his block, giving inclinations that they were eyeing taking over the said territory. Then another capo would have come along and offered up some protection if only the junior boss would work with them. Given little choice, the junior boss would likely choose the perceived lesser of two evils. Not saying, just saying.”
“Wouldn’t be surprised if something like that transpired,” I answered non-committedly.
Looking to change the subject, I then asked,”What did you think of last week’s special session?”
“Rubbish,” he answered dismissively, “Most of that stuff is going to end up decided by courts if they even decide to pursue it after the fact.”
“What do you mean?”
“My kid went to school today in a mask, as did all of his classmates. I can’t find a single article written about the legislation that explains when MNPS and SCS will be lifting their bans. And what the state will do if they don’t? The law doesn’t even go into effect until the Governor signs it. By that time that gets here, COVID numbers are likely way down.”
“It’s like the CRT legislation that had everybody up in arms,” he continued, “They made a bunch of noise at the end of the session about passing legislation that would limit the teaching of race and gender in Tennessee. People responded like they were going to start throwing teachers in the gulags right and left. In August Schwinn announces her recommended penalties and then…crickets.”
“You got a point.”
“I mean I don’t even know if the state Attorney General accepted her recommendations. They were pretty ridiculous, but shouldn’t we have heard something? Wouldn’t shock me if this special session stuff turns out to be a similar affair. Or if by the time the Governor signs it, districts announce that upon review the numbers have dropped to a point where mandates can be lifted but masks are still strongly recommended. It’s all political theater.”
“Well, the numbers have dramatically declined,” I replied, “What about making school board races partisan?’
“That’s the biggest canard of them all. What will be disclosed that isn’t already common knowledge? You didn’t know Emily Masters was a Democrat? Or that Mary Pierce was a Republican?” he dismissively retorted, “Remember when we were out knocking on doors and I’d get that question? I’d look over my shoulder, and then, clandestinely disclose that while school board races were non-partisan, you were a strong Democrat or leaned Republican, depending on who the voter was. I’m sure I was the only one doing that.”
That brought forth a laugh from me, “I had no idea that so many school board members were cut from the cloth of purity until I read their comments on the subject. What’d that Chattanooga school board member say – School board members need to have a passion for their community and what’s best for kids, not for politics. Please. you follow that logic through, all those state and national officials are motivated by the love of party over country.”
“Stupid,” he snorts, “My favorite is where Rep Patsy Hazlewood said she is afraid that partisan races will keep qualified candidates from running. Like there isn’t already a dearth of qualified candidates interested in the job. Finding people who want the job is already akin to searching for a Yeti.'”
“Here’s the other thing”, I offered in response, “schools board races are already partisan. Maybe not Democrat versus Republican, but definitely charter vs public, or however you want to label it. Have people not been paying attention for the last 5 years?”
“I remember that insanity in 2016. It was cocoa for cocoa puffs.”
“But what drives me nuts…is the amount of the press this draws, while nary a mention is made about the really important issues. Like for example, districts not getting their designated ESSER funds.”
“Is Schwinn still not getting that money out?”
“From what I repeatedly hear, no,” I reply, “I keep hearing stories of districts getting the run around for their cash. If you use a vendor that the DOE likes, you get your cash, use someone they don’t, and you get the round around. Nobody wants to speak out, because that might slow it up even more, But I hear there are some districts south of Nashville that out of frustration are getting a little more brazen. I’m trying to run down some actualities.”
“Well at least somebody finally reported on your story about faulty testing numbers.”
“Yea, but even that’s a little weird. Because it’s reportedly not supposed to be that big a deal, yet it cost Chief Strategy Officer Mike Hardy his job.”
Puzzled, Slots asked, “What do you mean? He’s still there. Not doing chief work, but drawing chief pay.”
“Technically,” I reply, “But he’s gone this week. I think Monday is his last day. Sent out an email letting people know and claiming pride in the first consecutive years of flawless testing and reporting.”
“Um… don’t flawless mean without flaw?”
Laughing, I replied.”I was under that impression. Perhaps he hasn’t read Marta’s article in Chalkbeat?’ He also goes on to lay claim to improving the work done by those who came before him. Another dubious claim.”
Slotski and I enjoyed a moment of mutual laughter, then he got serious, “While we are talking testing, riddle me this Batman, why are people currently telling me that as a parent I have no say in what my kids are taught, yet come April the very same people will be encouraging me to opt my kids out of state testing?”
I sighed, “I’ve been thinking about that lately, and the truth is, I don’t have a good answer. I mean, I guess you argue that I’m protecting my kid from undue stress by opting them out of testing, but, if the measuring stresses them out, shouldn’t the acquiring?”
“You got me, friend,” came the silent reply. Then Slotski brightened, “We’d be remiss if we ended this call without discussing our pal, Brian Kelsey. The only thing that made me happier than seeing him indicted, was seeing him step down as chair of the Senate Education Committee.”
“Amen brother,” then I let loose with a loud swear, “Dag nabbit!”
“Stros just pushed another run across. Makes it 9-5.”
“Ah…still got two more shots at winning it even if they lose this game,” he said in an effort to appease me, “Getting back to Kelsey, think charges stick?”
“I don’t know, sure is a lot of smoke around him. To quote one of my latest, the real question is, how many cows are we going to have to uncover before we realize we have a cow problem?”
We both let that sit there for a minute. Eventually, Slotski broke the silence, “You know, I watched the MNPS school board meeting last week, and I’ve watched the state’s education committee meetings all spring and summer, I used to think that we didn’t ask the right questions, but I don’t think that way anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think we ask the right questions, but I don’t think we always get the right answers back and the people asking questions don’t know enough to discern between fact and fiction. So the moment of rebuttal is lost, and the answer is assumed to be factual. So we are asking the right questions, we just lack means to ensure that we are getting the right answers.”
“I’ve said that for years. Coupled with how we play semantics with language, and it’s a wonder anyone knows anything. Nobody feels confident enough in the truth to hold anyone else accountable. Well, except the teachers…the one group of people that do know what they are talking about. We are always rushing to hold them accountable.”
“That reminds me. Last thing before I let you go. Everybody knows the transportation issues MNPS and every other district in the state are facing, right?”
“Well things for us have gotten so bad -kids were always late to the first period or on the bus way too late in the evening – that we finally gave up. I drive them to and from school every day. For us, that’s fine, I’m able to do it. But what about the kids whose parents can’t do it. They are stuck riding the bus which means being consistently late to the first period or not getting home well after kids like mine who have alternative transportation. How does this not fall on the equity radar?”
“Hadn’t thought about that. Does seem like yours would have a slight advantage.”
“Here’s another thing to think about, do all those parents who argue that it furthers inequity to choose a charter school forces their kids to ride the bus? Just asking.”
“I would say this is just another example of how our equity conversation conveniently ignores existing inequities that we don’t feel like dealing with.”
“Just food for thought. Let me let you go. Try and stay out of the Governor’s crosshairs and I’ll talk to you soon.”
“Thanks,” I said hanging up the phone.
My attention refocused on the ball game, but in the back of my head, thoughts churned around my just-completed conversation with Slotski. Once again he’d left me with lots to think about.
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