“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” ― Maya Angelou


I’m just going to go ahead and say it, I’m not a big fan of tinkerers. You know the people that design a plan or policy with the idea that we’ll just tweak it as we go along. A little adjustment here, a little adjustment there, never letting the plan actually fully run, because they are always fixing things they never thought of in the beginning. They are usually people that say  annoying things like, “Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.”

God, I hate that statement.

It is usually a signal that people, out of laziness or an unwillingness to devote the proper amount of time to development, plan to rush a model into production without properly stress testing it. They figure others will find the flaws, and them a simple adjustment here, and a twist there, and it will all be humming away in perfect harmony. That’s seldom how it works.

Every action produces a reaction, and thus another action. What tinkerers fail to realize is that tweak after tweak means placing band-aid after band-aid on top of a problem until you end up with a policy or model that is unrecognizable. What you’ve actually done, in the name of fixing a problem, is create a whole series of additional problems – some of which are greater than the original problem.

We’ve all worked for tinkerers, they’re the ones constantly throwing half-back ideas in the hopper, without listening to those in the trenches, while expecting others to do the heavy lifting in order to achieve some kind of modicum of success. Often times they rely on those folks to cobble together solutions that they can later claim credit for if they work. It makes for a very stressful, and oftentimes toxic, work environment that lends itself to a high turnover rate.

The people that favor this form of leadership are prone to refer to themselves as “change agents, or “disruptors”. Neither is the descriptor I would use, but let’s not go all Will Smith yet.

My preferred modus operendi would be to fully identify a challenge. research the historic strategies – because let’s face it, there are few new problems, and then brainstorm a solution that includes a deep dive into potential unintended consequences. I have a tendency to search out people who feel that my ideas are misguided, and find out why they think that in order to better counter plan.  A healthy debate around potential flaws is not an exercise in negativity, but rather a means to make sure what you are producing isn’t the latest version of “new Coke.”

The reason I bring this up now is that Tennessee’s legislators are currently debating the merits of a brand new funding formula for the state’s public school system. The new plan is heralded by Governor Lee as being simpler, more transparent, and a vast improvement over the existing plan. He’s even tagged it with a sexy new name, Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement(TISA). A marked improvement over the last one which was called the Basic Education Plan or BEP.

The basic premise of TISA is to reduce the majority of existing educational costs into a base number that gets assigned to each of the state’s students, $8460. . In addition based on qualifications, students earn extra money based on unique learning needs, anywhere from 20% of the base up to 150%. Qualifications are stackable, which means that a student who shows traits of dyslexia and is an EL student who lives in poverty, and attends a Title 1 school, could accumulate a worth of roughly $16K. It’s a variation of the old “backpack of cash” plan from the past.

The plan is touted as being “student-focused” and a “funding plan”, unlike our current plan which Governor Lee and his Commissioner of Education Mrs. Schwinn paint as a systems-based spending plan. It’s a disingenuous claim on numerous levels.

Yes, it assigns a dollar figure to children – which evokes its own questions of morality – but once its hits the district door, all those backpacks of cash get dumped into one big bin, and districts design their budgets like they always have. Now there are some tools baked into the proposal that would allow for future interventions by the state into district disbursement of funds, but that also is a subject that merits deeper discussion. A discussion that is not currently taking place.

The Governor and Mrs. Schwinn like to tout the number of meetings held to garner public opinion, and brag on the 18 sub-committees that were at times sparsely attended, as evidence of a plan baked in a Tennessee oven. But how many community meetings has the Commissioner attended since details of the plan were released? How many committee meetings have been held to stress test the effects of the details revealed? That would be a big fat zero.

I know, the Governor’s preferred community partners like Education Trust, SCORE, Tennesseans for Student Success, have all had their webinars. But none of these presented details in a manner where reasonable objections could be raised. Truth is, most of these more closely resembled those timeshare meetings that promise a trip to Florida if you attend, then they did a meaningful dialog between stakeholders intent on producing the best plan for our schools.

The Governor’s proposal fails to recognize that while the primary focus of school should be on students, that shouldn’t be the sole focus. Schools are funded by property taxes, and thus their impact the financial health of a community. School districts are often the largest employer of a county, so a change in funding is impactful on a community’s quality of life. Different communities have different needs, education policy needs to reflect that. How do you do that without a deeper conversation?

It’s a conversation that many legislators don’t seem to approach with a great deal of priority. Not embarrassing the Governor take precedence over getting it right for the folks at home.  They seem to place more importance on their place in history than they do on doing what’s best for the state’s school system.

Senator Mike Bell last week raised the question of how often his fellow legislators had received calls asking that the BEP be kept in place. He voiced bafflement over people who claim they were moving too fast towards passage. Why? He decried.

Well, the reasons are many, but let me give you a few that I haven’t heard discussed, but certainly should be.

In talking to principals over the weekend, it was brought to my attention that due to the impact of COVID on schools, there have been fewer intervention meetings held over the past two years. That trend has reversed over the last several months and has resulted in an increase in the number of students being identified for special services. To the level that there is concern over the ability to recruit enough teachers needed to provide services, not to mention enough funding. I would say those concerns shouldn’t be dismissed.

Furthermore, an increase in students requiring services is going to mean more qualify for the additional money available through the unique learning needs weight built into TISA, should it pass. The TNDOE’s projections are based on last year’s numbers, it is not out of the question that those numbers could reflect just a small portion of what will be required next year. What’s the plan then? I don’t know. maybe we ought to talk about it.

Commissioner Schwinn does not exactly have a stellar record, or even a passable one when it comes to special education funding. Can you say Texas with me? She’s also been dogged by persistent rumors here in Tennessee around both disability vouchers and special education funding. Seems like we might want to check with some other sources before proceeding.

Let’s talk about another potentially unintended consequence,.

Under the new bill, a child does not have to actually be diagnosed with dyslexia – a difficult diagnosis to secure. They merely have to show characteristics of dyslexia. The intentions here are to prevent students from slipping through the cracks and ensure that they get the services needed. Since studies show that 1 in 20 kids are challenged by dyslexia, it’s hard to argue with the strategy. Here’s where it gets a little slippery though.

Several years ago the Tennessee General Assembly created a voucher for students with disabilities. If families were dissatisfied with the services offered by their LEA, they could apply for a voucher that paid roughly 6K and apply it toward a private school. Due to the recognition that 6K was just a drop in the bucket when it comes to education costs, and a provision that recipients waive their future disability rights, the program has languished. I think less than a hundred people have applied.

For the sake of brevity, I’m oversimplifying a bit, but the bottom line is that this is a program largely ignored by most in the state and has failed to be the gateway drug to the privatization of public education that some policymakers envisioned. The new TISA bill aims to rectify that. Included is the following language. Which remains in the amendments passed last week.

SECTION 66. Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 49-10-1405(a)(1), is amended by deleting the language “the per-pupil state and local funds generated and required through the basic education program (BEP) for the LEA in which the student resides and is zoned to attend” and substituting “the total funding allocation that the student generates under the Tennessee investment in student achievement formula (TISA)”.

What this refers to is the establishment of the value of a disability voucher. Go back to our math earlier, and I am sure we can agree that $16K is a lot more attractive than $6k. Let’s go deeper.

Moving through the General Assembly is another bill that would make students with characteristics of dyslexia eligible for a disability voucher. Now combine ease of diagnoses with the increased value of the voucher, and you’ve got a likely increase in participants. I’m sure that some legislators hope that it’s enough of an increase to create a greater demand for a broader voucher program.

ISA would have the added benefit of already establishing a dollar value for each student, plus the promo line of that value following the student. How easy would it be to expand the program?

Tennessee’s Disability Council has already raised concerns over the potential of over-identifying students with disabilities. Jeff Strand, coordinator of government and external affairs for the coalition, wrote in a letter, sent to the Tennessee Department of Education, “This simply replicates the Department’s previous practices and creates incentives for schools to over-identify and ‘over-place’ students with disabilities.”

In fairness, they are concerned about different outcomes, Strand goes on to write, When students receive more services for a greater portion of the day, they spend less time in a general education classroom and less time with their typical peers. This can be harmful to students,” While we may have different concerns, remember, multiple undesirable results can stem from one miscalculation, as is the case here.

When asked about these concerns at a recent Senate hearing Schwinn downplayed them and expressed confidence that nobody would be manipulating data for increased revenue. Let me repeat, COMMISSIONER SCHWINN said, nobody would be manipulating data for personal gain. The irony of the statement, and who was making it, was not lost on me.

This brings us to an essential change that needs to be made to the legislation before passage. Throughout the bill, there are requirements for additional reports and supports to be either procured or produced by the TNDOE. The word “procure” needs to be stricken from the bill.

Anybody with even a passing knowledge of the Commissioners record is surely aware of her propensity to steer contracts towards friends and family. It’s a record that goes back to Texas and takes into account the recent financial windfall for her husband’s current employe. TNTP. Since hiring Paul Schwinn, the once financially strapped company has been awarded three contracts from the state of Tennessee totaling over  $16 million dollars. It must be nice for TNTP to now be able to go directly to the state instead of getting their checks from SCORE, which has funded them a little over $1.2 million a year over the last three years.

Does anybody ever ask what SCORE gets in return for the money they send TNTP? Or where does it come from? If they have, I never heard it and it probably should be asked. Preferably in a Senate hearing. But I digress.

Back to the procuring part, and steering contracts.

Last week, the ILO group sent out a Tweet promoting a panel that they would be hosting at the upcoming ASU/GSV Summit. The Tweet has been since deleted, but let’s talk about it. In case you are unfamiliar, the event is billed as follows,

“Started in 2010 with a collaboration between Arizona State University (ASU) and Global Silicon Valley (GSV), the annual ASU+ GSV Summit connects leading minds focused on transforming society and business around learning and work. Our north star is that ALL people have equal access to the future.”

Sounds very noble. It’s out in sunny San Diego and should be a grand old time for all. Most of you who saw it might have just shrugged and thought, “More self-promotion for the self-promotion queen.” But you’d be remiss if you simply dismissed it.

The sponsor on this panel, ILO, is a company co-founded by Rebecca Shah, the former chief of staff for Mts. Schwinn. The company was born roughly a year ago by Ms. Shah and a couple former heads of Chiefs for Change. If you’ll remember Shah followed Schwinn to Tennessee from Texas but left after a year and a half. put it this way ….”Rebecca Shah, who is returning with her family to Texas after fulfilling a 15-month commitment to serve Commissioner Schwinn and TDOE.”

In its brief existence, ILO has shown a proclivity to the same types of practices as Commissioner Schwinn. I’m guessing the apple does fall far from the tree. Their first big contract was with the state of Rhode Island, and that took about 3.5 seconds to go south. ILO now finds itself under investigation by the Federal government.  Seems that folks object to friends giving political friends contracts. Who knew?

ILO has reportedly been working in Tennessee, purportedly around the Governor’s TISA plan. Though it has been impossible to put my hands on a contract.

Many of you may not be familiar with how “Summits” like the aforementioned work. As it’s been explained to me, a company applies to a convention to present a panel. There may, or may not be, a fee involved. Once the proposal is accepted the sponsoring company secures the speakers and produces the panel. For ILO, luckily Ms. Shah had Mrs. Schwinn’s home phone number and was able to secure her appearance.

You may think that Mrs. Schwinn will be flying out to sunny San Diego in an effort to spread the gospel, promote Tennessee, and help an old friend out. Maybe, but a weekend junket has expenses and no one would expect Mrs. Scwinn to pay those out of her pocket, nor would they assume that her time is not valuable. A check to cover both her expenses and her time is cut. One that I’m sure will be declared on the commissioner’s annual ethics disclosure, As a result, everybody has a great weekend. The Commissioner shares her vast knowledge and improves her tan in one fell swoop.

Now fast forward to the aftermath of TISA being passed, and the TNDOE has a whole new slew of reports and supports that need generating. Unfortunately, as has been well documented, the TNDOE is a little short-handed. The existing staff doesn’t have the capacity to generate the reports and create the support now required by law.

Luckily, California provided an opportunity for Mrs. Schwinn and her old boss to talk about ways they might be able to help each other out. For the good of the students of course.

Now all of this speculation of collusion might just be that, speculation. But the history of both ladies makes that…shall we say…doubtful? It’s not like either one of them hasn’t trafficked in friends and family plans prior to now. You couldn’t fault somebody for leaping to false assumptions.

You know how you ease the doubt? You take away the ability to procure, and force Schwinn and company to produce. The General Assembly has the ability to do that if they so choose.

Before we leave the subject of ILO, let’s bask in the irony of these comments on the unfolding Rhode Island drama from gubernatorial Democratic candidate, Helena Foulkes, “For many Rhode Islanders, this story feels all too familiar — yet another career politician finds himself in the shadow of an FBI investigation. Once again, Dan McKee has shown that he cares more about enriching his well-connected friends than serving the people of our state. How can Rhode Islanders possibly trust him now?”

Yes, how do we? And I’m not referencing McKee.

I also must admit to taking a little pleasure in the picture in my head of Rebecca and her old boss discussing over cocktails how they dealt with their individual inquiries from the FBI.

So back to senator Bells’s quarry, why slow down? That’s an easy answer. We are on the cusp of overhauling a major funding plan with only partial vetting. We haven’t secured the opinion of those we sought out at the beginning of the process and asked if we heard them right the first time and if this plan reflects what they asked for?

Wait to see the impact of the first full year of in-person instruction after a year of remote instruction. just because COVID is diminishing as a threat, doesn’t mean that its impact are diminishing as well.

Thanks to ESSER money, districts aren’t broke. Now more than ever, we can afford to stop. look. and listen. We can get it right on the front end, and then only slightly alter it in the future or we can condemn ourselves to a decade of tinkering. Tinkering will leave us with a system that is barely recognizable 10 years down the road.

We don’t only owe that to the kids, but also to all the communities centered by their local public education systems. In this case, don’t let the right thing fall victim to the quick thing.

That’s it for today. See ya later in the week.

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Categories: Education

1 reply

  1. I love your section on tinkerers. Boy, you hit that one on the head.

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