“We would not be where we are today, as a state or nation, without the great work of our charter school leaders” – Tony Nicknejad, Policy advisor to Tennessee Governor Bill Lee


Normally.I start the day’s proceedings with a literary quote from an accomplished author. The reason is twofold, to give you something to think about, and to draw attention to some great writers. Today’s quote is a little bit different.

The quote comes from Tony Nicknejad, Bill Lee’s policy advisor, given from the stage of yesterday’s purported “discussion on public school funding, accountability, and high-quality options for families”. A discussion sponsored by  Better Students Outcomes Now, the Tennessee Charter School Center, and our old Friends SCORE – I guess SCORE had to spend some of that Gates Foundation money.

In case you didn’t know, since June of last year SCORE has received roughly $4 million dollars in grant money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Money that is paid sans any detailed description of its intended purpose, though it’s not hard to guess. I don’t doubt that some of it paid for the morning’s party. But I digress.

While billed as a discussion on public education, the event proved to be anything but – there was little discussion and scant representation of public schools.

The first segment was a parent panel moderated by former Governor Bill Haslam, in which four parents from the state’s urban centers were provided an opportunity to inform the public on why they chose a charter school over a traditional school. Panel members went out of their way to paint traditional schools as under-responsive, unsafe, staffed by the unqualified, and ultimately, unsuccessful.

I felt like I’d gotten into the hot tub time machine and been transported back to 2014 when these events were a regular occurrence.

Little attention was paid to the mountain of data collected over the last 5 years demonstrating that traditional schools often outperform their charter peers. It was clear that the agenda at play here was less concerned with addressing needs for all kids than it was with proliferating an experiment that has only delivered marginal results over the past 5 years.

For every Valor Academy, there is a Gateway University. If charter schools were the answer, then the Tennessee Achievement School District wouldn’t be the colossal failure that it is. But it is, and now more than ever we recognize the challenge of improving student outcomes. Well most of us do anyway.

Immediately following that panel, SCORE’s Executive Director David Mansouri and Nicknejad took the stage to offer their version of a Pinky and the Brain cartoon short.

“What are we going today Tony?”

“Same thing we do every day David, try to take over the school system.”

Neither is qualified to lead any discussion on education policy nor do they have any clue of what actually happens in schools.

Mansouri is a violin p[layer with an MBA from Vanderbilt who leads an organization that acts as a shadow state department of education despite its inability to craft meaningful legislation. SCORE has a better record as a bagman for the Gates Foundation than they do as education policy advisors.

Nicknejad has a law degree from Vanderbilt and previously served as the executive director for the state chapter of the American Federation for Children. An organization created by former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. According to ChalkbeatTN, while serving in that role,

Niknejad lobbied for laws that would usher in vouchers or voucher-like programs and expand and support the state’s charter sector. He also coordinated a political action committee that gave money to candidates in favor of a “school choice” agenda. The group’s website said Niknejad oversaw the support of 29 successful campaigns across three election cycles, during which he worked to unseat five incumbents.

One job that Nicknejad probably doesn’t like talking about these days is his former role as a policy advisor to the recently indicted state senator Brian Kelsey. Ouch! Sucks when your political rabbi gets indicted by the Feds.

The morning’s activities left me with a clear picture of SCORE and Governor Lee’s deep commitment to charter school proliferation. In a normal year that support could be written off as mere politics and rhetoric. In other words, business as usual.

However, in a year where the governor is proposing revolutionary changes to the manner in which schools are funded, that isn’t an indulgence that can be extended. Especially when you consider that the early indications are that he will support a new system that will tilt the playing field toward charter schools and ultimately, voucher legislation.

It’s a policy that is being forced on Tennessee’s citizens, even as the Governor’s minion, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, holds listening sessions that reveal stakeholder desire to increase the size of the pie, not just change how it’s sliced.

Over the last month, Schwinn has been once again traveling the state on the taxpayer dime in search of information that is readily available to anybody who’s been listening for the last 5 years. Much like her much-hyped Summer tour of school districts. Guess we should be glad she didn’t buy a new bus for this one.

At almost every one of the recent town halls, the overwhelming message expressed by those who publically spoke was one of more investment, not changed disbursement.

Tennesseans are almost universally calling for an improvement in the existing model, not for more options. As one speaker noted, “all the Lee administration is interested in is vouchers and charter schools. We don’t want either of those in Giles county. Take those back with you.”

Ditto from Davidson County.

Both Schwinn and Lee have publically argued that school choice, vouchers, and revamping the BEP formula are all separate issues. And I will say, if the whole circus is merely about avoiding the pending lawsuit and paving the way for vouchers, it’s an expensive circus.

The two co-conspirators aren’t just setting up tents and rolling out a few clowns, they are bringing the highwire acts and the elephants as well. Setting up the concession stand to sell popcorn and souvenirs to the locals who they perceive as mere players on their stage.

Of course, nobody is talking about how much all of this is costing. We could ask the TNDOE’s CFO Drew Harpool for a breakdown, but he put his resignation in last week in order to take a job with MTSU. Conveniently his change in employment comes as closer scrutiny is being paid to ESSER money distribution and the state’s upcoming OSEP audit of IDEA spending.

Both pose significant challenges, as every indication is that the TNDOE finance department is as understaffed as the department’s accountability division. That should be troubling, as accountability is currently staffed by one person.

We can talk about, and praise, disruption all day long, but if you can’t build something back to replace what you disrupted, do you really have the right to call yourself a change agent? Asking for a friend.

The whole idea of the state’s CFO splitting town on the eve of the Governor crafting historic legislation changing how schools are financed is a source of bafflement for me. It’s like Titans’ QB Ryan Tannehill deciding he wants to coach quarterbacks at Vanderbilt as his team is poised to make the Super Bowl.

Some seize greatness, some have it thrust on them, and apparently, some flee to Murfreesboro.

But again I digress.

Regular readers and those of you who have spoken with me personally know I’ve grown weary of the charter school argument. It’s a circular debate that never leads to resolution, serving merely to distract from the deeper issues facing schools – crumbling infrastructure, staffing challenges, meaningful measurement of achievement, and the over-influence of education foundations in shaping policy, among others.

I’ve even softened in my opposition to charter schools, willingly acknowledging that some are doing very good work. It would be my preference to leave the charter debate behind and focus on ways to improve all existing schools, drawing solutions from all models. The problem is that people like those hosting yesterday’s “discussion” won’t permit that to happen.

You can’t improve anything if you can’t publicly acknowledge its shortcomings. But you can’t acknowledge any shortcomings of the public education system without those fuckers swarming like fruit flies to an open bottle of cabernet. Sorry for the language, but it’s the only suitable term. Sometimes you have to use coarse terms to describe coarse actions.

The discussions are never held when educators can attend, nor are they about how we can improve, but rather how fast can we bleed people off. So the public school system and its supporters are left to pretend that all is copacetic, while the challenges remain unaddressed. It’s a lose/lose equation for everybody.

To quote former Metro Nashville Public Schools board member Will Pinkston from the Nashville Scene,

“Until the politicians in this state are ready to commit to public education … and set aside these privatization schemes, [they’re] never going to get anything accomplished in terms of education improvement. It’s just not possible.”

It’s a point that was driven home to me yesterday morning.

The beauty of Nicknejad.s previously referenced quote is that he’s not wrong. But not in the way intended.

The state of education in both Tennessee and the country is in a large part due to charter school leaders. Without them, we might be able to leave our blue and brown shirts behind and actually have honest conversations about the needs of our children. We might actually be able to fund an education system that serves ALL kids. Instead of dividing parents and stakeholders, we might be able to unite them.

But that might mean focusing on kids and their needs instead of adults and their needs, both financially and their egos.

It might also mean listening to the people actually doing the work, as opposed to continually trying to drive them out of both the conversation and the profession.


Commissioner Schwinn’s best friend and former Chief of Staff Rebecca Shah’s new company ILO has certainly found a way to put her mentor’s lesson’s into practice. If you’ll remember they’ve only been in existence for 6 months but have already run afoul of Rhode Island’s procurement policies. This week it was revealed just how shady they really are.

According to a detailed and well-researched piece by Providences WPIR,

One of Gov. Dan McKee’s most influential outside advisers wrote the initial blueprint for a controversial $5.2 million state contract that eventually went to his own subordinate’s brand-new consulting firm, a Target 12 investigation has discovered.

I strongly urge you to read the whole piece, as ILO is poised to siphon off some Tennessee dollars.

Speaking of siphoning off dollars..the state’s math curriculum process is in its early stages after being pushed back for two years by the TNDOE. Classroom implementation is now slated to start with the 2023/2024 school year. In the lead-up to the adoption process, the textbook commission, led by Linda Cash, has made it clear that there will not be a rehash of the recently completed, and TNDOE manipulated ELA adoption process.

Loopholes have been deliberately closed, and the intent is that all adoptions come from the state’s approved list. All materials introduced during the two-year run-up prior to the adoption, will not be allowable for adoption. Despite this intent, reports are trickling in that districts are already purchasing Math materials, arguably with the intent to adopt during the adoption period. An action that is not permissible.

MNPS is among those currently buying new materials, spending $3 million with publisher Kendall Hunt(Kendall_Hunt_Publishing_7511863 (Fully Executed)) on materials that are supposedly intended to bridge the two-year gap created by the TNDOE delay.  The district argues that due to the delay, there is a need to purchase additional consumables. A fair argument.

What puzzles me, is why you would not purchase those from the current vendor.

Leaders of Nashville’s school district have been very deliberate in communication that they are not piloting any materials, yet I haven’t received any answer to my question as to whether the new math curriculum is being classified as adoption or supplemental materials. That is an important distinction.

In the latest example of MNPS’s check the box approach to policy,  principals are still getting browbeaten into enrolling more parents in the district’s parent portal. Despite intense efforts that have included using a teacher in-service day as a carrot, parent participation remains low. Really low.

The explanation for this is clear to everybody but leadership. There is scant meaningful information regularly available in the portal. Right around progress report time, there is a flurry of activity, but otherwise, nothing, as the district’s systems don’t talk to each other without adding to teachers’ already crushing workload.

Parents aren’t stupid, they recognize that the district initiative stems more from a desire to say that parents are informed than from a true desire to inform. Put it this way, I didn’t sign up for Amazon Prime because Amazon pestered me with emails, I did it because it was easily accessible, and saw value in it. Currently, neither holds true for the MNPS parent portal.

Student transportation continues to be a glaring problem for MNPS, and districts around the country. It’s a problem that not only places further demands on teachers but negatively impacts kids. Sara Duran, organizing director of Metropolitan Nashville Education Association, the city’s teachers union, tells the Nashville Scene,

Not only is the bus driver shortage requiring more from educators’ time outside of their assigned duties, but it is also affecting the social emotional health of their students,” Duran continues. “Educators are seeing students who come in late or miss entire class periods struggle to catch back up. We firmly believe that the district must significantly increase pay for our bus drivers so we don’t lose any more, and aggressively make financial investments to fill vacancies.”

Just for the record, transportation issues were not on the agenda at yesterday’s SCORE discussion.

I’d like to leave you with another example of MNPS giving its opponents the bullets to shoot at them. For our state Homeland Security friends, that’s a metaphorical statement and not intended as anything but.

In this morning’s Tennessee Lookout, Nashville’s Democratic Legislators are making every effort to ensure that people are aware of the potential negative consequences if Governor Lee’s BEP formula revision is adopted. MNPS leadership should be doing everything they can to support those legislators and others who recognize the potential ramifications of the Governor’s intent. Instead, MNPS Chief of Finance Chris Henson offers up this nugget,

“Matching funding to the needs of the students is something we have been doing at MNPS for several years to create a more equitable public school system here in Nashville,” Henson says in a statement released by the state. “Students in urban areas especially often experience significant challenges outside of school that require additional resources to address if they are going to be successful in learning and in life. Moving towards a student-based budgeting model has the potential to close historic resource gaps that have existed for far too long in public education.”

As effective a chop block as I’ve ever seen delivered. I hope Representative Gloria Johnson and State Senator Jeff Yarboro don’t need knee surgery after that one.

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.

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Categories: Education

3 replies

  1. You write “For every Valor…”, without taking care to note that Valor has located farther away from lower scoring students trapped in multi-generational poverty vs other charter schools. I don’t think that enriching score results by recruiting from Green Hills and from the 1st generation immigrant community is particularly praiseworthy. In fact, it does nothing to help the overall district performance.

    KIPP also is in the business of praising itself. Even after its segregating application paperwork, KIPP has only reached an average ACT of 22, far short of the scores of kids in the Hillsboro High IB program, or ultra-score-pre-admission-segregated Hume Fogg.

    Yet, KIPP crows (link below) as if they are accomplishing something for the kids who attend. And, contrary to the _original_ mission of charters (improving entire districts through competition), there is no mention about how they are helping boost scores in traditional public schools.


    So, yes, misinformation abounds everywhere when it comes to praising charter school performance. But, parents love segregation away from kids with less engaged parents, even if the output scores are quite low. And so, the political pressures remain.

  2. it had been a long time since your last article, i was wondering if TN Homeland Security had taken your computer or something 😀 😀 😀

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