All I could think of when I got a look at the place from the outside was what fun it would be to stand out there and watch it burn down.”
Long-time readers are likely familiar with my self-imposed rule of never writing angry. I’d like to think that over the years I’ve been pretty good at adhering to that rule. Truth be told, as time marches on it’s become an easier rule to follow because few things truly piss me off like they did in the beginning.
Admittedly, I have grown jaded, and have come to see education policy for what it is, a field of self-interested charlatans reaping benefits off of the hard work of teachers, principals, and students. Some of you may protest, but for evidence, I need to look no further than Metro Nashville Public Schools Board member Gini Pupo-Walker.
In case you are unfamiliar, Pupo-Walker is closing out a four-year term on the board during which she has also led the Tennessee chapter of Education Trust. ED Trust is an “Education Advocacy” organization founded by former Education Secretary John King and financially backed by the Gates Foundation. Before taking over at ED Trust, Walker was the Senior Director of Education Policy and Programs for Conexión Américas, a local organization focused on serving Nashville’s thriving immigrant community.
Shortly after being elected to the MNPS School Board, Walker and Conexión had a parting of the ways. Publically everybody said the right things, but behind the scenes, the talk was a lot less polite. Ironically, much of the street talk centered around Gates Foundation money and where it was being steered.
One of Walker’s first actions upon taking the reins at Education Trust was creating the Tennessee Equity in Education Alliance. As reported by ChalkbeatTN at the time,
The alliance will take on the work and much of the agenda of the previous Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition, a statewide network of more than 50 civil rights and advocacy groups helmed by Pupo-Walker and convened by Latino advocacy group Conexión Américas, her former employer. The coalition disbanded a year ago when The Education Trust hired Pupo-Walker to open an office in Nashville.
While the current list of members includes Stand For Children, SCORE, the Tennessee Charter Center, Teach for America, the Nashville Chamber of Commerce, Nashville Public Education Foundation, TennesseeCan, and other organizations with a history of steering public money into private pockets, Conexión remains glaringly absent. Which begs the question, do they not believe in equity in education, or is Pupo-Walker they don’t believe in?
Since assuming her role with Education Trust, the question of conflict of interest has been repeatedly raised. In my view, it’s a pretty obvious argument, but on a board that includes a member employed by another education advocacy group named PROPEL, another employed by the district’s Literacy partner the United Way, and a third getting paid through a former district contractor, she’s not exactly an outlier. But in Walker’s case, the conflict is of greater concern as she serves not only as a board member but also as chair of the board’s governance committee.
In this role, Walker has regular access to lawmakers, including the Governor and Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn. As such, how do you discern when Walker is promoting MNPS’s agenda and when it’s the Education Trust’s.
The prevailing narrative has always been that Walker had no stomach for the commissioner, but her distaste has never prevented her from carrying water for Mrs. Schwinn. It’s also worth noting that Schwinn is an alumnus of Teach for America, a charter member of the Tennessee Equity in Education Alliance.
In the past, it could be argued that these concerns were petty in nature. The unveiling of the Governor’s intent to reform the state’s current model of school funding(BEP) and replace it with a new version, Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement(TISA) – I know, it’s about as dumb an acronym as you can come up with – changes all that and elevates the concerns to the critical level.
TISA legislation(014195 014195) is scheduled to begin its legislative journey next week with the House Education Instruction committee. It’s not by chance that the bill is bypassing the House Education Instruction Committee. Chair Mark White continues to work on his Bill Dunn retirement plan, thus ensuring a relatively easy time for the bill.
if the name Dunn doesn’t ring a bell, he’s the former Knoxville Representative that carried past education bills establishing vouchers in Tennessee at the Governors bidding. He was such a good soldier, Lee awarded him with a $90k a year job advising the Commissioner of Education. Sometimes the waterboy makes almost as the quarterback.
You can expect a flurry of amendmendments to be proposed during the bill’s first appearance, This is likely to lead to it being rolled a week or two. No matter how long it gets rolled for, you can expect a vote by both the Senate and the House by mid-April. At most, you are looking at 6 weeks in order to fully vet and anticipate unintended consequences before this becomes law for at least the next decade. That means time is of the essence to bill supporters and opponents alike.
In moving at such a pace, we are ignoring, instead of heeding, the words of state Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis), who sits on the Senate Education Committee, as reported by the Nashville Scene,
“This plan makes an important down payment, but when it comes to public school funding, the details matter. This law could affect an entire generation of students and teachers. With stakes this high, we cannot afford to get this wrong.”
Despite details being scarce and legislators’ reticence, Walker seems to endorse the legislation. So much so that you can’t tune in to a single media source this week without receiving Walker’s pontificate on the bill. She has definitely set herself, and her organization, up as the experts on school funding in Tennessee. She tells WPLN,
Well, so the way that this draft formula — right, this is still a bill — is designed today is that there is a really large chunk of money that will be distributed according to students’ — what we call — “characteristics.” So if a student qualifies, for example, for a free lunch or for SNAP or food benefits, they would get, in this formula, almost double the amount of money that they would be getting under the BEP, the current formula. And so we also see additional money given to students with disabilities on a whole range and from low levels of support, whether maybe it’s a learning disability, all the way up to students that require just one-on-one staff time in particular, have a particular health need. So this bill will actually deliver more money based on students’ traits. The other one that’s important to note here is that there’s a weight, as we call it, for rural students. If you are in a district based on the number of students per square mile, you get additional money. So they’ve really thought about sort of what we know to be national best practices around distributing money based on student need.
Let me clarify a few things here. Under Lee’s plan, the money follows the student only up to the district door, just like the current funding plan. Once the plan hits the district, it’s no longer a funding plan, but transitions to a spending plan based on the student but meeting the needs of the district. Pupo-Walker and Commissioner Schwinn like to paint a picture where a child is handed a wad of cash and they go shopping at some kind of education bazaar. That’s just not how it works.
The current funding plan has weights as well, the only difference is the current weights have a known value. Under Lee’s plan, weights are established under the title learning challenges, with an assigned value of 155% up to 150%. What category each learning challenge falls into will be left to the commissioner of education through the rule-making process. At this point, where each challenge falls and whether or not it’s a substantially high er value, is anyone’s guess. Guess we’ll have to pass it to find out what’s in it.
If you look at the sample provided in the PowerPoint presented by TNDOEt, it appears the majority of students would fall into the first two buckets. In looking at other plans, that’s not as evident, but we’ll focus on the example given for our purposes.
If you consider national statistics that show 1 in 5 students are dyslexic, you would expect to find a bucket with 300 plus students. The number of students in each bucket in the example falls short.
If an LEA has 1986.11 in students, math tells us that approximately 393 of the district’s students should have characteristics of dyslexia. Yet the two largest buckets only show 112 and 203 students respectfully.
Unless of course, this district is under diagnosing or there is a tiered classification when it comes to characteristics of dyslexia. Either scenario would concern me. A concern that Pupo=Walker apparently does not share.
Ironically she cites students receiving free lunch, and SNAP, but no acknowledgment that “duty-free” lunch for teachers won’t be funded under the new formula.
Walker at least partially acknowledges a scarcity of specifics,
Well, so that is, you know, the old statement: the devil is in the details. What we know is that the state released a spreadsheet with what each district in Tennessee would receive. And part of that formula, that we create, so what the state has said and what the state has always done is they fund a certain percentage of public education in the local county, then has to match based on what we call their “local fiscal capacity,” meaning how much revenue they generate based on property taxes. And so a city like Nashville generates a lot more wealth and has a higher fiscal burden to pay than a distressed rural county where there’s very little revenue. So Nashville in particular, may come out not as well as other districts, simply because we have more revenue that we generate that we have to cover in terms of the balance of the formula. There is still a lot to be learned. There’s a lot of undefined sort of characteristics and what these what we call “weights” will look like, how much they will be, how much what we call the “base.” And I’m getting into the details here. Juliana knows we released a whole template yesterday, a report, a tool on this issue, but we don’t know a lot about how the calculations will happen yet. So I know there’s concern in Nashville about how it’s going to play out for us. Every district in Tennessee will be looking closely at what this will look like for them.
I’m glad she is aware, but I think that Mayor Cooper is way past the point of ‘concern’. Per today’s Tennessean,
“While I am appreciative of the state’s increased investment in education across Tennessee, I am dismayed that Nashville’s share of funding will decline under the new formula,” Cooper said. “We are set to receive about $12.6 million in additional state funding, far less than other cities in Tennessee. Our children, teachers, and taxpayers deserve to receive their fair share from the state.”
For the record, roughly $9 million of that $12 million is through direct funding which means it can only be used for CTE, tutoring, and ACT.
Nashville state Senator Jeff Yarboro is equally concerned,
“Nashville will see the downsides earlier than most places, but that really shows the formula doesn’t even do what the Governor says it’ll do. In what universe can a funding formula that theoretically directs resources to low-income students send so little to low-income students in the State’s capital city.”
And let’s not leave out MNPS’s Director of Schools Adrienne Battle who says,
“It appears that the second-largest school district in Tennessee, accounting for more than 8% of public school students, will receive less than 2% of the $750 million investment next year,” Battle said in a statement. “We hope that lawmakers and state officials will understand the disparity in this and find ways to ensure Nashville’s students receive a fairer share of state revenues dedicated towards K-12 education.”
The reality is, every county is facing a looming property tax hike if this bill goes forward. Governor Lee and Commissioner Schwinn like to present the elements of the new formula as being 100% state-funded. But remember, when they set the base funding for students at $6860, at best $4800 of that is being funded by the state, the remaining $2060 comes from local sources. In some cases, depending upon the fiscal capacity – the district’s ability to fund education – the local responsibility could be considerably higher.
Per documentation provided to MNPS by Mrs. Schwinn, the local match required by MNPS in 2023 would be $417,099,729.43, In 2024, the number would rise to $451,920,562.87, a difference of $35 million dollars.
Ironically, in talking with folks who have experience with grants from the Gates Foundation, this is a familiar scenario. Gates is notorious for giving a million-dollar grant and then demanding a match and full control, despite funding 50% or less of the project. Feels like that’s what’s happening here.
It would be my assumption that the folks who elected Gini Pupo-Walker to the school board, the ones that are facing a property tax hike, would expect her to be more closely aligned with her peers, as opposed to worrying about rural weights. But what do I know?
Today, it’s MNPS and Maury County as well. Tomorrow it could be Williamson County. Or Summer County, Or Wayne County. Or it’s Maryville. Eventually, it’s everyone in the state. Even Dickson and County.
That’s not even taking into account the hundreds of thousands of people moving to Tennessee. There is little provision in this formula for addressing their needs or impact. None of this seems to concern Lee, Schwinn, or Pupo-Walker. But it should.
Pupo-Walker is certainly entitled to her views and priorities on education funding. But as an elected official, the desires and concerns of her constituents should supersede her desires. after all, our is a representative form of government. They may only be paying her $300 fucking dollars a month, but she agreed to the salary and its inherent responsibilities. She has already declined to run for re-election, but she needs to go further and resign effective immediately. Her heart is clearly not in alignment with those she represents.
Before we leave the subject of Pupo-Walker and TISA, let’s revisit the legislation again. Built into the bill is a provision that requires professional development coursework for everyone involved in school funding. From legislators to county commissioners, from council members to school board members. All must complete the required coursework and pass an exam. That is going to take a multi-million dollar contract in order to hire someone to administrate and administer that requirement.
Six months ago, Education Trust created classes on school finance and has been delivering them ever since. We have already established Governor Lee’s willingness to reward loyal soldiers. Through the Alliance for Equity in Education Alliance, Pupo-Walker and Ed Trust have already established relationships with many of Commissioner Schwinn’s partners in crime, who would likely provide the basis for the curriculum. I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine the contract for educating Tennesseans on the new funding formula falling into the hands of the Education Trust. But maybe I’m just cynical.
The one thing that you can do here is to call your local councilman and county commissioner, Let them know they better get ready to spend some time in the classroom if this bill passes.
As for the rest of you, if you think that higher taxes and less local control is a recipe for success, by all means, call or email your local state representative and let them know that you want them to vote yes on the TISA legislation.
Meanwhile, I’ll be fighting this thing tooth and nail. Because today, I’m a little pissed off.
There is an old Arab axiom “that if a camel is allowed to get its nose inside of a tent, it will be impossible to prevent the rest of it from entering.” The late Senator Barry Goldwater famously used the phrase voicing his disapproval of the National Defense Education Act in 1958. Goldwater believed it marked the beginning of control of education in this country by the federal authorities.
Fast forward to today, when Billionaire donor Bill Gates started using his money to influence state education reform. The so-called mainstream media has not followed what is going on with the Gates Foundation and their influence on our state education policies or they don’t want to report on it. The camel now owns the tent, or more precisely a few people at the Tennessee State Capitol (600 Charlotte Avenue, Nashville, TN 37243).
CounterSpin’s interview with Wayne Au on Gates’ educational failure put it best: “And we know that all these major reforms—from small schools, to even Common Core, to the teacher- evaluation stuff that Gates has been doing, those three major projects that they funded—they’ve been failing everywhere. And in part, because they’ve been doing this massive, anti-democratic, top-down model of education reform, and they only pretend to talk to the folks down on the ground, and instead really focus on—they believe they know what’s right, and they’re just going to work their power and their money to get that implemented until it doesn’t work.”
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