“Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”
P.J. O’Rourke

I spent my formative years in a small rural community in the Pocono’s. For those of you not familiar, the Poconos are located about 60 miles south of New York City and maybe 75 miles north of Philadelphia. As such, they make an attractive option for those who wish to leave the cities and explore a different way of life.

Here’s the catch though, they would arrive in the Pocono’s and immediately begin trying to transform our world to their preferences. They would tell us how to do things, what our opinions on things should be, and let us know all the things that we were doing wrong. They’d never take into account what we thought and why we did the things we did.

In other words, our values and priorities were quickly discarded in an effort to make the newcomer’s world look just like where they’d fled from. It never occurred to them that we, as people who regularly lived and worked in the community had already established our own way of doing things and our own community standards. Few of those who bought homes in our community ever took the time to get to know us, before trying to reform us.

It would have been one thing if these refugees from the city, had bought houses with the intent of permanently relocating, but most were investing in vacation properties, and thus spent very limited time in our towns. It shouldn’t shock you, that there was a great deal of tension between the interlopers and the natives.

I share this because the recent controversy over the book MAUS triggers those memories. National pundits from The New York Times and Mother Jones,  on down to national bloggers like Diane Ravitch and Peter Greene have opined on the school board of McMinn County. A representative body elected by…wait for it…those who live in McMinn County.

Most of the op-ed pieces offered, led with some version of a preamble that stated that they’d read the McMinn County School Board meeting transcripts so you didn’t have to. As if simply taking the time to familiarize yourself with the board and its discussion, and by extension, the community, arguments, were somehow akin to putting your head in a hive of bees.

Most of the pieces written painted the people of McMinn county as narrow-minded hillbillies intent on whitewashing history in an attempt to uphold white supremacy, despite most pundits never having even driven through the community in question. Taking the time to actually familiarize yourself with that community and what their morals and values truly was viewed as unnecessary, because we already knew who they were and clearly they needed our guidance.

Here’s a news flash, the majority of people who live in rural America don’t live there because they are ignorant, or they are trapped, or because they don’t know any better. Most do so because it provides them an opportunity to forge a way of life that is different from that offered in a large urban center, one that is reflective of their personal values. How can you opine about community values when you are not even familiar with them?

Yes racism lives in small communities, but it also thrives in big cities, You also find people of all backgrounds living, thriving, and working side by side in small communities, just like in big cities, You find people that are well-read and those who haven’t touched a book in years, just like in the city.

If someone from McMinn County started writing Op-Eds about the ills of the New York School System, how fast do you think they’d be laughed out of the conversation, and that’s if anybody even chose to read what they had to say. Why would we assume that McMinn County desperately needs our input, when we wouldn’t reciprocate?

Whitney Kimball Coe, director of national programs for the Center for Rural Strategies, lives in Athen’s Tennessee, which is located in McMinn County. She writes,

Do they think we’re not outraged, too, here in East Tennessee? Do they think we can’t speak up and respond for ourselves? Because let me tell you, I lay awake the night before the CNN interview indulging my own outrage and constructing a commentary that would eviscerate all book ban supporters and signal to the rest of the world that I, too, am pissed off. It would feel good to give into the outrage, the indignation, the snark.

But I let the outrage pass over and through me because I live here. We live here. These are our people, our schools, our kids. We spend our days relying on the trust and goodwill of our neighbors to make a life here. Neil Gaiman doesn’t shop at the Food City downtown. Trevor Noah doesn’t volunteer with the local United Way. CNN isn’t interested in solutions journalism and outrage is where relationships go to die.

She makes a solid point, and one should make us all stop and think.

I love how in an age where everyone rages about the threat of “disinformation”, the postulate that McMinn County Schools banned MAUS, goes unchecked and accepted. The book was removed from the curriculum not banned. Can a student still possess a copy of MAUS in the halls of the county schools? Can the local Walmart still sell the book? Can I stand in front of the school, off the property, and hand out copies? Then pray to tell, how is the book “banned’?

In an article in the Los Angelos Times, MAUS author Art Spiegelman expresses objection to the McMinn County School Board’s action but he also offers that,

I never was trying to write ‘Auschwitz for beginners,’” he said. “What I was trying to do really was to learn something myself. … How the heck did I ever get to be born considering both my parents were supposed to be dead before I was conceived?”

That’s an incredibly powerful statement, but one that makes the argument for MAUS to be included in the Social Studies curriculum, and perhaps not a part of the ELA curriculum, where the focus is on the mechanics of literacy, and not the subject matter. We argue that TNReady, a skills-based test, reveals kids’ inability to read, yet we focus instruction on the subject matter – which isn’t reflected on the test – while neglecting the mechanics – which are. All of that is a subject for another post, soon to be coming forth.

The question becomes, are we looking for a national curriculum? Do you want all decisions made on a national level? Do you want to limit local schools’ ability to serve their communities in a way that is reflective of those communities and not Texas, California, or D.C.?

Another irony in the age of anti-disinformation is that people on both sides argue that indoctrination is not taking place in public schools, and to put it bluntly that’s bullshit.

Education writer Robert Pndisco recently put it more succinctly than I ever could, His explanation comes in response to a Tweet by educator Daniel Buck, “I’m coming more and more around to the belief that the “culture war” isn’t “fake” or “unimportant” but rather the space of the most important ideological fights.” Pondisco responds,

Schools are the institutions a society builds to transmit to its children the values, habits, stories, and ideas its people value: in sum, its culture. To think we should not debate about what that consists of is to misunderstand entirely what a school is and what a school does.

Embedded in that discussion, is the question of, who gets to decide who dictates our “values, habits, stories, and ideas”?

In order to do that we need to stop focusing on people and focus on policy and practice.

And in order to truly answer that question, all voices need to be valued, not just the ones we find mirror our own.

Decades ago I attended a spoken word performance by the lead singer of the punk rock band Dead Kennedy’s Jello Biafra. Biafra spent the first 40 minutes stressing the importance of having an open mind, then he spent the remainder of them telling us what conclusion we would come to if we had an open mind. Any other conclusions signified a closed mind.

That didn’t work for me then, and it certainly doesn’t now.


Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn visited the House Committee of Education- Instruction this week. Once again her talents for talking a lot while communicating nothing were on full display. She was only available for 45 minutes, because…she had an appointment with the Governor. Imagine that. Lucky for legislators, she was able to squeeze them in before dashing off to meet the Guv, Though she did promise to come back next week, schedule permitting.

The exercise was billed as an opportunity for committee members to get a better understanding of what legislation reforming the state’s funding plan might look like when it’s finally presented next Thursday, the 24th. Despite their best efforts, I don’t think legislators left the room with any more clarity than when they entered.

Schwinn advertised the forthcoming plan as being student-centered, yet maintains that funding decisions will remain local. I’m not quite sure how both statements can be true,

Under the current system, schools receive funding for teachers based on the number of students and the state’s established ratios. Different wights for students of high needs are factored in as well. However, once the money arrives in the LEAs bank accounts, there is nothing that demands they spend all of that money on teachers or anything else it is allotted for.

What has happened in the past is that the General Assembly votes for a raise for teachers, but then due to the money being inadequate to be truly impactful, or the district having different priorities, the money gets spent elsewhere.

The way Schwinn talks, each student will have what amounts to an individual school funding plan, and somewhere embedded in there will be teacher salaries. That may be fine and good, but as Ms. Schwinn says, the money will still be delivered in a lump sum, and districts will still be allowed to designate where the funds are applied. So how does the new plan guarantee that teacher raises are delivered?

Much of this also hinges on how “teachers” are defined. Are just those who teach in a classroom “teachers”? What about school administrators? The commissioner has already indicated that districts will have the ability to outsource music and art teachers, so will they receive the official “teacher” designation? Based on responses given by Schwinn at her House Committee meeting…who knows.

My favorite question, and one that was adroitly side-stepped by the Commissioner, was voiced by Democrat Rep-Antonio Parkinson, who requested an example of who would be in the lowest funded group, and who in the highest. His query produced a lengthy monologue filled with terms like “base’ and “weight”, but in the end…who knows?

Along with BEP questions, there were some questions by legislators around the state’s tutoring program, and whether efforts were primarily remote or in-person. Ms. Schwinn seemed to indicate that services were primarily being delivered in person for elementary kids. Maybe in some parts of the state that holds true…but not in Nashville. Interestingly the Department produced a handbook to math tutoring that promotes a partnership with a tutoring service and curriculum, Zearn,  that is loud and proud in its commitment to remote services.

Straight from the TNDOE produced mathematics guide,

Zearn is the department’s online mathematics platform and includes progress monitoring, math lessons that are connected to students’ core math learning, and foundational content to support deeper interventions. More information about Tennessee’s tutoring partnership with Zearn can be found here.

In all fairness, later in the guide, they do offer the following under-delivery, “In-person. Can be delivered virtually/socially distanced for high school grades.” But that just begs the question, why are we spending millions to partner with an online specialist if the intent is to deliver in-person tutoring? Again…who knows?

In the end, per usual, Schwinn’s appearance led to more questions than answers. Hopefully, she’ll honor her voiced promise to appear again next week.


There is nothing more depressing than watching an age formerly respected legislator try to eke out a retirement plan in the twilight of their career. Such is the fate of Memphis’s Mark White. The long-term elected official watched his former colleagues DeBerry and Dunn move to paid consultant roles with the Lee administration, and has clearly decided he wants part of that. In hopes of currying some favor with the Governor, he’s now charged with carrying perhaps the most unpopular bill this session.

The bill would allow charter school operators to bypass local school boards and apply directly to the charter commission. If it sounds familiar, it’s because he tried to do this for Lee in 2019. An effort that failed despite, Bill Dunn’s endorsement, “I can’t vote no because that would kill the bill. Sometimes the train has to leave the station.” Yes indeed Bill, sometimes the train has to leave the station, even when it’s a legislator with a long and somewhat distinguished career.

It may be time for the Tennessee School Board Association to get out of the superintendent search business. Every one of their searches over the last few years has been met with dissatisfaction and distrust. The latest instance comes from Knoxville. After promising a national search, the firm delivered three candidates.

One from Georgia who promptly withdrew from consideration. One is rumored to be part of some kind of insider deal that promised the position to him several years ago in exchange for serving as an assistant superintendent. And the last one is Linda Cash, currently the superintendent in Bradly county.

An interesting wrinkle here, Jon Rysewyk is considered a Haslam guy. While Linda Cash serves as head of the state’s textbook adoption committee which has its hand’s full keeping, Commissioner Schwinn, in her lane. It’ll be interesting to see how politics play out here.

Speaking of Superintendents, the MNPS School Board is scheduled to discuss Director Battle’s long-awaited performance review at Tuesday’s board retreat, which was rescheduled from earlier in the month. This will be Battle’s first review since assuming the position, and questions are already arising around the quality of the evaluation.

The board is discussing the evaluation at a retreat instead of at the normally scheduled board meeting later that day. It’s worth noting that regularly scheduled meetings are recorded, while retreats are not. For some reason that doesn’t feel very transparent, now does it?

Condolences to the family and loved ones of legendary MLK wrestling coach Paul Eldon Bass. His impact on the community is unmeasurable. As one Facebook poster expressed,

“I didn’t wrestle a day in my life but it felt to me like you were my coach. You were such an incredibly kind and powerful human being. MLK’s going to miss you more than words can put. Thank you for keeping me and countless others under your wing and being such a wonderful mentor.”
 You’ll be missed, coach.
While administrators continue to argue that teacher attrition looks no different this year than it does in past years, warning signs continue to crop up. The latest is from ChalkbeatTN offers a counter warning.
The news mag reports that the number of teaching candidates produced by prep programs is in serious decline, and won’t be able to meet future needs. Something the state can ill-afford as the profession becomes more and more demanding.
“Teachers are drowning,” said Joey Vaughn, director of schools in Manchester, during testimony last month before state lawmakers about the pandemic’s impact. “We have to be very cognizant not only of our student needs but of the needs of people working with our kids.”
Per ChalkbeatTN, the latest report card on Tennessee’s 43 teacher training programs shows just more than 3,000 would-be educators graduated in the 2019-2020 school year, compared with about 3,700 in 2014-2015.
Assistant Education Commissioner Charlie Bufalino told a House education panel the state has about 2,200 teacher vacancies, although other estimates put the count significantly higher. Tennessee’s largest district reported having 200-plus teaching positions open in Memphis in the fall. And in Nashville, the state’s second-largest district currently has more than 80 full-time teacher vacancies. Officials with the education department told Chalkbeat they can’t provide details until after this week, which is the deadline for districts to submit teacher vacancy information.
Not good news, but hey it’ll all be okay because we’ve got TN ALL Corp on the way.
Here’s my homework assignment for you. Ask your local elected official what the qualifications are to be considered a “Best for All” district by Commissioner Schwinn and the TNDOE. I almost guarantee you that you’ll be met with a blank look and a shrug, I guess all the other districts in Tennessee who didn’t receive the designation should be considered the “Worst for All” district? Or “Best for Some”? Or maybe “Spending local money locally”.
That’s a wrap.

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Categories: Education

2 replies

  1. TC, First I saw this and went “OH NO TC has finally lost it!!

    There were times when I felt the same way working in that very school but then again I felt that way in most all of them.

    And your comments about the outrage over the McMinn School Board decision is perhaps the best thing I think you have written. I often take great offense over the generalizations of the South and my experience in Nashville aside, I sent a paycheck to Kentucky post tornado. I have a real love of that part of the world that even surprises me. And that said, Tennessee and Nashville have been front page of my local paper, which is the NY Times and with that none of it good. Read Margaret Renkl

    The gerrymandering, the varying other weird legislation that Lee is shoving down the throats of people and all of it nonsense. Well other than the 3 year residency requirement to run for office. That is the only thing that is utterly needed everywhere frankly. As I only lasted 3 years in Nashville it shows that is the live free or die or whatever the slogan is… cause I knew I was not going to die there so I left. And when I look back on these last 3 years her in NJ, I cannot imagine being anywhere else and that is through a pandemic! Go figure.

    And with that I am laughing at the endless claims that Nashville is drawing the population of America to its confines. There are two types, the 141 day folks that need to establish residency for tax purposes and have little to no engagement other than their bubble in which they live. And the others are those who dig the morality screed and the red waving flags of the Conservative right. The rest are people who cannot find gigs or just could no longer afford to live/work in their own towns. And yet again another profile of a Tennessee town in the what? NY Times

    Far From the Big City, New Economic Life
    Incomes are low in small-town Tennessee, but so is the cost of living. That attraction could be a key to reviving many rural areas.

    One comment stood out to me: Not everybody will embrace the change the out-of-towners may bring. Local residents “don’t want people to come with the intent to change the community,” Mr. Porter said. The question, perhaps, is whether that is the price of prosperity.

    And the kind of change is twofold that has destroyed Nashville, Costs and then the politics. Now dividing up the city into three (wow that number plays out a lot) means the FEW that do vote will even have LESS of a vote. This coming from a State that has low voter turnout.. so Mae Beaver is in the wings waiting to return!

    I have been very negative when it comes to Tennessee as a State as a whole, only is rivaled by Missouri for weirdness and that says something. The South is a complex pottlicker and there is no “type” proto or stereo to describe it. And with that the same could be said for Conservatives and Liberals and that right now is playing out there in ways that show the further right and the further crazy you go the more acceptance you get. And that is the same for the left, we have dogma and script and when you deviate you are called the same names you are called in Nashville, go figure!

    I am back in schools subbing and it is a heart breaker but largely due to the lack of something called Teachers, and I cannot imagine Nashville Schools that under the best of times what state they are in – denial start there. And that I assume comes from the final knife – Religion. The buckle of the belt is sharp when it strikes that much is certain.

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