“And so the house came to be haunted by the unspoken phrase: There must be more money! There must be more money! The children could hear it all the time though nobody said it aloud.” — D.H. Lawrence, “The Rocking-Horse Winner.
You know there probably ought to be a law that prevents lawmakers from taking a government job until they’ve been out of office for two years.
Over the last several years we’ve seen legislators in the twilight of their career transition into a consultancy job with the current administration in an effort to keep a 6-figure revenue stream flowing after they leave office. Former Tennessee state reps Bill Dunn and John DeBerry are prime examples that leap to mind, but they certainly ain’t alone in this pursuit.
Usually, these lucrative roles are awarded to representatives who have proven to be loyal soldiers to the administration, which can prove to be a little sticky for those who dared oppose to Governor when warranted. For example, I doubt that Governor Lee would replace Dunn as an advisor to the TNDOE with say, Gloria Johnson, despite her being infinitely more qualified. That’s not the way the game works.
Despite his lack of a proven track record when it comes to education policy, Dunn gets the nod due to this willingness to carry water for the Governor’s signature issues while serving. Nobody worked harder over the last decade to pass voucher legislation than Mr. Dunn, and now he pulls in $98k a year advising a State Commissioner of Education that makes $200k a year. Your tax dollars at work.
Unfortunately for Lee, there was a hiccup on Dunn’s way to the bank. The voucher legislation he carried ran afoul of the state’s constitution and is now tied up in court. A case that many feel will be decided in the plaintiff’s favor.
At the heart of the debate over constitutionality is the ‘home rule”. Basically, you can’t just apply the law to select cities and not the entire state. Voucher legislation passed by the state’s General Assembly back in 2019 is targeted at Memphis and Nashville. Since the Governor’s plan is now on life support, bold action is required.
Senator Mike Bell is a respected legislator who has served Bradley County since 2011. He has announced that he will not be seeking re-election this year, and word on the street is that he’s looking to follow the Dunn/DeBerry model of post-service retirement.
That’s all well and good, but Dunn had a decade’s worth of service as a governor’s lackey to support his transition. Bell has been a little different. He’s not been afraid to oppose a governor when it was appropriate, and over the past few years has been an effective critic of Lee’s Commissioner of Education. Time to mend some fences and grease some wheels. Lee’s got a problem, and Bell might be the solution.
All this brings us to last week’s Senate Education Committee meeting where the only item on the agenda was Bell’s proposed voucher bill. This bill, if passed, would allow for students, starting next year and lasting for three years, whose public school did not offer 180 days of in-person classes, due to COVID restrictions, the opportunity to earn a voucher in order to enroll in a private school. Even if that private school was not exclusively in-person.
The students in question would be eligible for a voucher throughout their academic career even if the home district meets the 180-day criteria in the ensuing years. Can’t wait to see the fiscal note on this one.
There is speculation about who authored this bill, either Governor Lee’s policy director Tony Niknejad or indicted state senator Brian Kelsey – my money’s on Kelsey – but it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t Bell, since he couldn’t answer the most basic of questions about his own bill. Throughout the brief 30 minute hearing, Bell regularly deferred questions to others in the room, be it the DOE, legal, or his neighbor George. Well not the latter, but you get the picture.
It’s the general consensus among stakeholders that the purpose of this bill is to mitigate the “home rule” by making vouchers available to everybody in the state. In my opinion, a shaky argument at best, but seriously undermined by Bell’s performance during Wednesday’s hearing. I almost hope the law passes, and Lee offers it as a defense so I can watch Bell get deposed. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The first question here should be, why is this bill necessary? Currently, there are no options for entire districts to pivot to district-wide remote instruction. Individual schools may apply for a waiver, though according to TNDOE rep Charlie Bufalino, who testified on Wednesday, those are being handled in a very limited manner and are seen as a temporary or short-term means of handling the present challenges.
Bufalino goes on to speculate that the commissioner’s waiver power may not even be available next year. This makes little sense considering that there is no reason to believe that COVID-19 will not remain a threat for the foreseeable future. It is a possibility that Bell’s bill may serve as a supplicant instead of a supplement.
Bufalino did confirm that if this bill passes, next year schools who are granted a waiver – should that possibility remain – could be subject to the voucher eligibility trigger. In effect, schools would be granted permission then receive a whack on the back of the head for engaging in behavior that is permitted. That sounds about right.
It was also voiced that it is the TNDOE interpretation that under this law, in-person classes just had to be offered, participation was not required. Meaning a district could move to remote without penalty as long as there was some kind of in-person offering in place. Minimum attendance for the in-person was not required.
A district could also schedule make-up days in order to meet the required 180 days of in-person instruction. To me, this opens all kinds of fun scenarios.
Hypothetically, a school could offer remote during regular school hours with in-person instruction being offered at midnight and still be in compliance.
I’d love to see a school go virtual for a week and then schedule makeup days on Saturday and Sunday throughout May, with a note pinned to the door directing all feedback to the district’s state representatives.
This bill only applies to schools that go remote due to COVID. As long as the school didn’t say COVID, would they be exempt from the eligibility trigger?
Education Committee Vice-Chair Akbari hit the money shot when she asked Bell if his intent with this legislation was to address the “home rule’ issue in connection with the pending litigation. Bell in response, feigned a lack of forethought in response to her questioning, “I think I understand her question…”
Bell then proceeded to paint a picture where the impact of this bill on the pending litigation had never been really considered. Whether it would be impactful or not was anybody’s guess, and really never contemplated by anybody connected to the bill. Sure… and if you buy that…I got a bridge in Arizona I’d like to talk to you about.
Bell went on to extrapolate, and this is where things really get interesting.
“We’re doing this to make sure that the schools out there, the public school system which is tasked with educating the vast majority of the students in our state, take that job seriously,” Bell said.
“We can look back at what’s happened the last couple years here in the state of Tennessee and we know that there was a couple of districts — there may have been three — that for whatever reason just decided not to fulfill the purpose for which they were created, and that is to educate our children.”
Ouch. First off, what school district in Tennessee is not taking its job to educate students seriously? Does Bell really believe that there are schools in Tennessee where staff and teachers are taking their responsibility lightly, and will only get serious if legislators step in?
Sorry Mike, but that’s pretty fucking ignorant. At a time when educators are breaking their backs to meet the needs of students, for you to insinuate that you are needed as a motivator to get serious is just…stupid.
If you want an example of someone not taking their responsibility seriously, you don’t have to look any further than this very education committee meeting to find one.
Moments before Bell makes his statements, Senator Akabari asks Bufalino if the state’s Achievement School District plans to take more schools this year. Bufalinio assures her that the DOE most certainly does plan to sentence more schools to the ASD and goes on to describe the ASD as the state’s most “rigorous turnaround intervention.” A statement that went unchallenged by legislators.
Bell has the audacity to lecture districts about their sense of purpose and seriousness, while implicitly endorsing a program that has cost Tennessee taxpayers a billion dollars over the last decade- that billions with a B – while leaving schools in worse shape than they were previously. Per Fox 17,
The latest data from the Department of Education shows each of the four schools report less than five percent of students performing at grade level. ASD as a whole reports just 4.5 percent of students performing at grade level.
When the DOE proclaims this program as its “most rigorous turnaround intervention” nobody even bats an eye. Continuing to invest in this disastrous program despite overwhelming evidence that it’s a failure, to me is an egregious offense that robs perpetrators of any claim to moral superiority. End that nonsense, and then maybe you’ll be welcome at the pulpit.
But back to Bell’s words. In his remarks, he made it pretty clear that this bill is directed at three specific districts. Akbari never follows up, but I’m sure that a judge would be interested in hearing who Bell is referencing.
It can’t be Bell’s own schools. Despite several of those schools being currently remote, and maybe having to go remote again, he is confident that they will do whatever is necessary to make sure that they offer 180 days of live instruction. Even if that means going till July 4th.
My question here would be, what have those schools done, to earn his trust, that other schools haven’t? This is ironic because remember Bill Dunn carved his own district, Knoxville, out of the original voucher legislation and now here’s Bell attempting the same.
The more Bell talks, the more the intention of this legislation becomes clear – to target specific districts as opposed to serving all of Tennessee students. Committee members may have no interest in getting deeper into the subject, but a judge most assuredly will be.
It’s clear that Bell has a rubric that allows him to determine which schools take their responsibility seriously and which ones are lounging around the proverbial pool eating bonbons. He goes as far as saying that vouchers would allow for parents to choose schools that have a “track record of providing 180 days of in-person instruction.” Hmmm…are there schools that have a track record of not providing 180 days of instruction?
Legislation should be passed as a means to address a problem. Senator Hensley points out the key issue with Bell’s bill when he asks, how does giving a student a private school voucher for next year address their inability to attend in-person schooling this year?
The answer is that it doesn’t. But it will impact schools’ ability to educate students in the future and it will open rural and suburban schools to the potential of lost revenue due to vouchers. Ironically this will impact their ability to meet their responsibility. For evidence of who will be impacted, all you have to do is look at who applied for waivers this year. Per the Tennessean,
The state has granted more than 110 requests across 34 districts to temporarily switch to virtual learning since Aug. 30, the review of state records available as of Friday shows. Seventy requests have come so far in January. There are about 140 school districts in Tennessee.
Nearly all of those requests come from rural and suburban schools.
This year, Rutherford County demonstrated that suburban districts aren’t immune from the impact of charter schools when the state charter school commission approved a charter school over the schoolboards objections. . Next year, urban and suburban schools could learn that they too can suffer from the threat of vouchers thanks to this proposed legislation.
Ultimately, Bell’s bill passed out of committee by a vote of 6-2. Doesn’t change the fact that it’s a bad bill that serves only one real objective – to fix previous bad legislation in an effort to appease the court.
The good news for Bell is that his predecessors have established that in order to secure post-legislative employment you don’t have to have a record of passing quality legislation, just a willingness to supplicate yourself to the Governor.
Let’s see…Omicron cases are running at a record high. Schools are closing due to COVID and lack of staffing. What would be a prudent activity right now? I now, let’s MAP test because those results are sure to be accurate. MNPS is currently doing MAP testing, but per Tennessee state law, every district in Tennessee is administering the required winter edition of their ELA testing mandate.
Let me make sure I got this right. There is a high premium on in-person classroom time. Students and teachers are having to miss time due to health restrictions. Therefore, we need to sacrifice precious time in order to…test. Tests whose results will be treated as if they were administered under normal conditions. Seems perfectly logical, as long as you are talking out of both sides of your mouth.
State Representative John Ray Clemmons has introduced a new bill requiring schools to return to an 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day across Tennessee. His bill is aimed at ensuring academic success by requiring classroom instruction to begin at 8:30 AM for high schoolers and 8:00 AM for middle schoolers. Despite its noble intentions, the legislation is unlikely to advance far due to two main reasons.
First, it deals with an almost exclusively Nashville issue, and thus fellow legislators are unlikely to attach too much priority to it. Secondly, It is Clemmons who arguably couldn’t pass a bill giving away free cars to Tennesseans, who is pushing the bill. Not to offend, but that is the reality.
I would point out, that between metro councilmember Dave Rosenberg’s recent efforts to draft a council resolution dealing with discipline issues at Bellvue Middle School, and now Clemmons efforts to pass legislation dealing with start times, it would seem that the city’s Democrat leaders have a lack of faith that MNPS issues can be addressed through district superintendent Dr.Battle and her team. That’s worth noting, and perhaps further discussion.
Speaking of MNPS, it’s a school board meeting week. A peek at the agenda indicates a light schedule. Several new board policies are up for approval, including one that will incorporate language around the state’s new 3rd-grade retention legislation. The director’s report will address Core Tenet 3 – Create and support engaging, rigorous, and personalized learning experiences for all students.
Noticeably absent from the agenda is any discussion about COVID plans, staffing, the Meherry contract, later start times for high school, or the director’s evaluation. In other words, business as usual.
It is also worth noting that MNPS currently has a vacancy in the government relations position. Mark North, who formerly held that position, has transitioned to the athletic director, Considering that the state’s legislative session is now open, and there are a number of bills under consideration that could negatively impact MNPS, this is something that should probably be rectified sooner rather than later.
Some names around MNPS school board races are starting to leak out. This weekend Dr. Berthena Nabaa-McKinney announced that she would be joining her competitors from the last district 4 race in competing for the seat currently held by John Little. They are joined by parent advocate Kelli Phillips. Phillips and former MNPS principal Steve Chauncy will compete in the Republican primary, with the other two declared as Democrats.
That’s a wrap.
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