A REAL DAMP SQUIB

I have learned that the ambition of those who follow selfish precepts is no more than a chaotic waste, a finite gain that must be followed by infinite loss. For there is indeed a harmony in the universe, a concordant singing of commonweal. To join that song, one must find inner harmony, must find the notes that ring true. There is one other point to be made about that truth: Evil creatures cannot sing.”
R.A. Salvatore, Sojourn

 

Perusing social media yesterday I came upon the following announcement, “Happening TODAY: Tune in for a joint press conference with @GovBillLee and @SchwinnTeach at 3 p.m. CT. Watch the live stream here:”

My immediate initial thought was, “Well this should prove to be a damp squib.”

(I’m trying to swear less, so I didn’t want to use shit show.)

Unfortunately, after watching the live stream, my initial impression remained my lasting impression.

In essence, Tennessee’s Pinky and the Brain took to the dais to announce that they have a new name for their still unwritten legislation to change the BEP – the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA). It’s always style over substance with these two.

Through a series of technical glitches – it was impossible to hear reporter questions and sound frequently cut out – the two managed to talk for 30 minutes without really saying anything. What some would describe as a typical Lee press conference. Until he provides the details of the proposed changes, it remains impossible to fully vet the plan.  Something he seems loathe to do.

Governor Lee promised that the language in the proposed bill would be available by mid-February or in a few weeks, two very separate timelines, as we are already through the first week of February. He also seems to be unaware of the General Assembly’s desire to hold an abbreviated session to hit the campaign trail. It’s the unstated goal that committee meetings be wrapped up by mid-March, and the session itself, be complete a month later. That leaves precious little time to consider something as complex as a revision to the school funding formula.

Of course, Lee trotted out the familiar meme about the BEP being unchanged for 30 years. Apparently, he is unaware that Governor Bredesen made a substantial overhaul to the system in 2007. Maybe we need to put this in a library book, so the Governor can find it since that seems to be where his focus is fixated. Or maybe he’s just playing dumb.

Lee’s current strategy, as outlined in his State of the State speech earlier in the week, calls for adding  $750 million to the education budget if the new formula is approved. As a placeholder this year, funds are being delivered to CTE($500 million), moving schools out of flood plain($200 million), and SPARC grants($50 million).

If you’ll recall, Bredesen’s proposal would have meant an investment of nearly $500 million in new money for schools.  What passed was a plan to fund roughly half of that in 2007-08 and then to phase in the remaining dollars over time.  Then, the 2008 financial crisis hit, and BEP 2.0 was not fully-funded. What’s the difference between now and then?

It’s worth noting that one of the architects of the Bredesen plan was Jamie Woodson, then a state senator. Woodson, you might recall, was the first executive officer for SCORE. We’ll get to more about her in a minute, but back to yesterday’s press conference.

Lee praised his yet unwritten legislation as being, “…a simpler formula,”  one that, “takes into account things that are unique to Tennessee now that weren’t 30 years ago.” Of course, he offered no insight into what those  “unique” items were. I’m pretty sure that poverty, English learners, and students with learning challenges were all present 30 years ago. That’s why weight for those items already exists in the present student-based funding model.

That’s right…don’t tell the two co-conspirators this…but Tennessee already has a student-based funding formula.  Though Schwinn, to her credit,  seems to be waking up to that fact and attempted to differentiate with the past in her remarks.

She picked up the baton from her boss and proceed to tell the assembled folks, that the current model really funds systems, not students because it prescribes a certain number of conditions based on the number of students receiving additional funds, Kinda true…but also fails to acknowledge that the current model pays a district for the number of students who show up and then gives them additional monies based on the weights in which those schools qualify. Districts then build systems around the funds they are collectively allotted. I don’t imagine any of that is going to change.

But she tries when she offers the following,

“When we talk about a student-based formula, it means that I can look at my child and say these are the dollars attached to that child. Little Johnny might have a specific learning disability. Little Johnny might need these three services. The funds for those services are attached to Johnny, not to the aggregate but to that specific child.”

She goes on to say that the new system will be more transparent for parents, teachers, and districts to understand where and how money is being spent. putting it this way,

“The way that’s laid out, we believe that it will, in fact, assign dollars to every child based on their individual needs,” Lee said. “That will make that a more fair system for the children in the system.”

Listen to Schwinn talk and you get the sense that what she’s talking about is a proposal for every child to receive their very own individual funding plan. A bad idea on so many levels, and once again provides evidence of a commissioner, and by extension, a governor, who pays no attention to conservative principles in crafting policy, despite self-identifying as Republicans.

In creating such a plan, you create the need to hire an outside vendor to manage the new formula. Though I’m sure both Lee and Schwinn know a guy who knows a guy…we are talking about growing bureaucracy, not shrinking it. Not something that is supposed to be considered palpable to Republicans.

When it comes to individual weights, what qualifies and what doesn’t, and how do you measure each of the individual needs of each student?

The Governor and Schwinn both mentioned “characteristics of Dyslexia” as being a proposed weight. So all a student has to do is demonstrate the “characteristics” of dyslexia, and they receive additional funding. Not to pick on my charter school brethren, but what’s to prevent a charter school from getting the majority of their proposed students to claim “characteristics of dyslexia” only to, after school starts, make the claim that they weren’t actually dyslexic and therefore don’t require additional services. As a result, they would receive additional funding san additional costs.

The very fact that the department is already being influenced in their choice of language by advocates gives cause for concern to consider the pandora’s box potentially being unleashed. AS WPLN reports the usage of “characteristics of dyslexia” comes directly from dyslexia advocates, specifically Anna Thorsen,

It’s one of the reasons that some are concerned about how the new formula qualifies students with dyslexia. In the proposed draft, extra dollars would only be assigned to students who are officially diagnosed and receiving accommodations under a Section 504 plan.

But Thorsen says, that process can often be long and complicated. She and other advocates are pushing for the final draft to expand the definition to include students with “characteristics of dyslexia” which are outlined in the Tennessee 2016 “Say Dyslexia” law.

“If we put funding behind a barrier of 504 plans, which requires multiple meetings and evaluations, it’s going to keep kids from getting the services they need to learn to read and write well,” Thorsen says.

In a recent steering committee meeting, education commissioner Penny Schwinn explained that requiring a Section 504 plan is largely for auditing purposes.

“For students who need significantly more services but they’re not quite a student who qualifies for an IEP, this would say there is now a process for that,” Schwinn said. “And there is a way in which the districts would receive funding to provide that service that is legally binding.”

What this does is in essence create a hierarchy with dyslexia near the top, It makes certain disabilities more valuable than others and by extension, certain students worth more than others.

If every student gets an IFP, what’s to stop parents from comparing why their little Johnny is only worth $13920 while the neighbor’s little Mary is worth $16500? As an advocate why would I not argue for there to be a higher value placed on the needs of my student versus those others? And does my child have to get a gifted IEP, or just show “characteristics” of being gifted? Good luck if you are a parent trying to get a gifted IEP in Tennessee.

As I previously mentioned, districts and schools are still going to have to create systems around the number of students they have and their required services. It is not like each student will suddenly get their own teacher or counselor, or even tutor. Staffing decisions will still need to be made on the number of students enrolled in a school system.

Are schools going to start proposing trades, like when NFL teams try to get under the salary cap? I’ll take 3 of your dyslexia students, and 2 EL, along with a rural kid and one autistic for 4 of your gifted, 2 impoverished, and one child with physical disabilities. As distasteful as that sounds, it may become a necessity under the new formula.

You talk about creating winners and losers, the governor and his lackey have gathered all the ingredients to concoct such a stew, even if the recipe ain’t written yet.

Lee repeatedly cites citizen engagement as repeatedly calling for a new formula. In the word of Chuck D, “It’s fake that’s what it be to ‘ya, dig me? Don’t believe the hype.” Public comments are calling for two things, no vouchers and fully funding the existing BEP. Don’t believe me?  Read the comments yourself.

It’s Jackson Browne who best sums up the Governor’s status,

Running on (running on empty)
Running on (running blind)
Running on (running into the sun)
But I’m running behind

Yes, he is…running blind…running behind…and increasingly, running on empty.

A FORMER SENATOR IN HAND

Let’s get back to Jaimie Woodson. As I previously mentioned, Woodson is a former state senator and the first executive director of SCORE. It used to be a common thought that SCORE’s primary reason for existence was to provide a retirement income for the former senator. That’s not a stretch considering that during her tenure she drew a salary of $362K and even after turning her duties over to current CEO David Mansouri, she drew $200k as a consultant to the organization. Must be nice to have friends in high places.

Keep in mind that under her tutelage, SCORE received significant donations from the Gates Foundation, piloted literacy curriculum outside of state law, and oversaw a growth in charter schools. All questionable initiatives in 2022. But not without value to those high-placed friends who once again are trying to enlist her services.

HJR 0 690, sponsored by William Lamberth, calls for the confirmation of Jamie Woodson to the PublicCharter School Commission. HJR 0120, also filed by Lambeth, requests her appointment to the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees. What do the two have in common?

Likely they have a lot in common but included in that list of shared interests would be Hillsdale College, with whom Bill Lee is looking to form a partnership to create a civic program at the University of Tennessee and to bring new schools to the entire state. Per The Tennessean, “Hillsdale President Larry Arnn met with Franklin parents in the fall and alluded to a conversation with Lee about developing 50 new schools in Tennessee in six years, according to a recording published by Hillsdale.

Lee confirmed his aspirations at a press conference on Thursday, saying,

“And Hillsdale, that specific partnership is about engaging Hillsdale and public, classical, secular education. High-quality charter schools are an important part of the equation in our public school system and we welcome charter operators, nonprofit charter operators, from around the country to improve the public school system in our state, and that includes classical education charter schools like Hillsdale,”

I’m pretty sure that local LEA’s won’t be approving all these schools, and so they’ll likely come before the newly created charter commission for approval. To their credit, the charter commission hasn’t proven to be a blind rubber stamp for charter applications, In this light, it might prove beneficial to have a friend of Bill on board to possibly grease some wheels.

The same holds true in the case of the University of Tennessee which is also in line to partner with the TNDOe on a new literacy center.

There ain’t no tool more valuable than a good shepherd, and in the past, Woodson has proven quite capable of providing quality service. You gotta wonder if she’s not applying her skills once again.

DISTRICT LITERACY NOTES

Something to think about with MNPS as we move into the accountability portion of the school calendar. The reaction to Wit and Wisdom as an elementary curriculum. has been mixed at best. Not to dive into that, but rather to call attention to the primary difference between the current curriculum and last year. Previously the emphasis was on skills and standards, Wit and Wisdom might be aligned to standards, but is a knowledge-based program. TNRready, the state’s standardized test, is a standards-based test.

Several literacy experts have raised the concern that what kids are learning in class looks nothing like what they’ll see on the test and that the sudden switch in curriculum, coupled with a year of interrupted schooling has created gaps for kids. Gaps that could potentially negatively impact student performance on TNReady.

Many may dismiss the value of the standardized test, but the results do make great political fodder. And in a year where politicians are paying heightened attention, any perception of not making progress could have serious negative impacts on the district.

Ironically, virtually every literacy expert I talk to offers up that the surest, and most effective, way to address the currently developed gaps in student learning is through guided reading, a key component of Balanced Literacy. Something district officials are no longer permitting teachers to utilize.

It is also likely that the results of TNReady and recently locally adopted reading screeners will tell two different narratives about student performance. This becomes critical as next year state legislation as related to retaining third graders goes into effect.

Hopefully, somebody is paying attention, but since most curriculum choices are made by people far removed from the classroom, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

QUICK HITS

Since MNPS Director of Schools Adrienne Battle assumed the role, I’ve been arguing for the district and the local press to tell her story. It’s an impressive one and, since she started as an elementary school student in MNPS and rose to director, is likely inspiring to current students. For whatever reason, there has been a reluctance to capitalize on her personal narrative. Until today, ironically the same day as the MNPS board was scheduled to conduct her first-ever performance review behind closed doors at the board retreat. (The retreat was canceled due to inclement weather) Whether it’s a case of causation or correlation is open for debate, but it’s still a compelling read, and journalist Brad Schmidt does an admirable job of sharing it.

MNPS is closed today due to icy conditions. It was welcome news but I had to chuckle at one line in the press release.

District offices will be closed for in-person activities but working remotely. Some positions may require staff to work in person, and so employees should be working closely with their supervisors to ensure the needs of the district are being met.

If anecdotal reports are to be believed, there is no shortage of support hub employees already working remotely. Something not exactly sitting well with those who report daily to their assignments in person.

Staying with MNPS, it came to my attention last week that the district now employs an Accelerating Scholars Coordinator. What exactly does that mean? Over the last year, the idea of accelerating student learning has been picking up steam, despite a lack of a clear definition. TNTP and ZEARN have gone as far as producing a study that starts with a basic premise,

With more students returning to in-person instruction, school systems can begin to shift their focus from surviving the crisis to helping students recover. Above all else, that means accelerating students back to grade-level—not by rushing through the curriculum, but by using proven strategies that help students engage with the most critical work of their grade as quickly as possible.

Hmmm…if we had the tools to accelerate learning all along why have we waited until a pandemic to begin implementation? And does this mean kids can get 12 years of instruction in 9 or 10? Or maybe just 3. Color me skeptical. I suspect what this translates to is a lack of remediation and a belief that given classroom time, students will ‘accelerate” back to their expected outcomes. I’m sure they dress things up a bit, after all, there is some federal money in need of claiming.

Speaking of federal funding, Chalkbeat’s Matt Barnum takes an informed look at where the Corona funds might have been spent. In doing so he effectively raises the question of how do we measure the impact of federal funding on student outcomes.

After 50 years of serving Metro Nashville Public Schools, secretary Pat Finney is retiring in June. According to Main Street Nashville, Finny joined MNPS through its Occupational Training program and has remained since. She started at Maplewood before moving to the district’s central office in 1983. She worked in Administrative Services, Curriculum and Instruction, and the pre-K department, where she currently works. Her tenure lasted through nine superintendents, but the most challenging aspect of her job was staying up to date on the rules and regulations of MNPS and the state Department of Education. May she enjoy her retirement,

That’s a wrap.

If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight or 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. This time of year 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.

 



Categories: Education

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