“So I’ve given it one. I call it scout mindset: the motivation to see things as they are, not as you wish they were. Scout mindset is what allows you to recognize when you are wrong, to seek out your blind spots, to test your assumptions and change course.”
Julia Galef, The Scout Mindset: The Perils of Defensive Thinking and How to Be Right More Often


Baack in my early years of college, I lived with a group of guys. One of them was a devoted fan of professional wrestling, to the extent that he would often passionately argue that the events in the square circle were real and not scripted. A position that earned him a great deal of derision.

Out of respect for his devotion – and because he owned the TV – we would often gather in the communal TV room and watch televised events. At one of these events, the vocal exchange between a combatant and the referee was captured.

“Dammit Ref! I’m mad!” sputtered the wrestler.

It was a comment that brought howls of laughter from us and thus was born a phrase that became a part of the household lexicon for months.

Dishes left in the sink brought forth an exclamation of, “Dammit ref! I’m mad!”

People playing music too loud while others were trying to study earned a cry of, “Dammit ref! I’m mad!”

When nobody agreed to participate in a desired activity the same phrase was brought forth. In fact, anytime anyone failed to act in a preferred manner they were met with a chorus of, “Dammit ref! I’m mad!”

These past few days social media feeds have been jammed up with teachers and education advocates up in arms over the comments made on a hidden camera by Channel 5 News investigative journalist Phil Williams by Hillsdale Schools president Larry Arms.

Now, “Dammit ref! We are mad!” and demanding an apology, when what we should be demanding is a change in leadership, or at the very least, a change in policy.

It’s not that the actions aren’t egregious, they most certainly are, it’s more that we haven’t taken Lee and his lackeys at face value for years now. Content to hear what we want, instead of what’s actually been said. Allowing the Governor to pass more laws that limit teachers, while passing off crumbs as a meaningful investment in teacher salaries. In other words, as Andy Spears at the Tennessee Education Report says so well, who Lee has revealed himself to be, is who he has always been.

What we are doing now is akin to waiting until March to approach the school bully, who’s been taking our lunch money all year, and demanding an apology because we heard them call us weak pushovers. We are not concerned about the missing lunch money, just show us some damn respect.

Nobody is more complicit in this kind of behavior than the state teacher education programs. Back in 2019, when the Literacy Bill was proposed it came with wide-reaching demands for change from those programs.

Behind the scenes, the Deans of those colleges groused about the audacity of the TNDOE and the state legislature. Publically they rolled over and showed their belly, publically espousing support for the proposed legislation that quite clearly said, “Tennessee teachers don’t know how to teach reading.”

Listen to the words of Tennessee Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton in the wake of the passage,

This is a momentous day for Tennessee, for our students, and for our parents because our General Assembly has drawn a line in the sand, and we have said we can no longer accept that only one third of our students are proficient in reading and in math,” said Tennessee House Speaker Sexton (R-Crossville). “We want to be number one in education; I appreciate Gov. Lee for his vision, as well as Lt. Gov McNally, and the House and Senate for their partnership as we all have worked together this week to transform educational outcomes for Tennessee students.”

Does that sound like a ringing endorsement, or even an acknowledgment, of teachers’ work? Where was the outrage then?

Over the last year, the TNDOE has talked endlessly in a manner that equates teachers and tutors? What do you think is the primary purpose of Schwinn’s “Best For All” plot?

It doesn’t take much to discern that it’s all about growing the tutoring corp in Tennessee. When the federal money tries up and it’s impossible to discern where student results have come from, who do you think is going to get credit? And if there is not sufficient, who gets blamed?

In touting the plan, it doesn’t didn’t feel like teachers were getting much respect from Chief Academic Officer Lisa Coons,

“Best for All Central provides resources that allow a district to move seamlessly in and out of face-to-face learning and distance learning. Moreover, the resources allow districts to serve students who may be safer at home, and students who can attend lessons in their traditional school environment. Over time, the tool will provide innovative solutions for connecting resources to assessment data, customizing instruction for a variety of situations, and family well-being tools,”

Noticing a pattern here?

So what’s more insulting, disrespectful talk, or potentially taking money out of teachers’ pockets? Arm’s words are the words of a blow-hard and nobody but those in his silo are actually listening. Lee’s policies, on the other hand, got some teeth.

Arm’s comments, and the Governor’s failure to refute them require a degree of accountability. Simply saying that Arm wasn’t talking about Tennessee teachers, and therefore no need for the Governor to offer a defense is simple cattle skat. And should be treated as such.

Lisa Coons tweeting out some loose accolades fails to make the grade as well. (I’d share those comments with you, but she’s still got me blocked on social media.)

Still focusing simply on the insults is like criticizing an apple that has clearly been produced by an unhealthy tree. Thanks to Lee, Schwinn, and the rest of their co-conspirators, the education tree in Tennessee is most assuredly a sick one and is in desperate need of some nurturing.

An article this weekend in the Daily Memphian by Ian Round gives us a glimpse of just how sick that tree is.

Round’s article unfortunately is behind a pay wall, but if there ever was a story worth paying for, this would meet the criteria.

What Round shares are business practices that not only harms students, but strikes at the heart of Democracy,

Secrecy surrounding a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that is explaining and promoting the governor’s massive overhaul of school funding in the state is causing some concern among certain lawmakers.

Chiefs for Change was founded in 2010 by Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and 2016 Republican presidential primary candidate. Many of its members are power players in the school choice and charter school movements.

The arrangement between the Tennessee Department of Education and the group is unclear as the organization and the state have provided few details.

“If there’s a corporation or billionaire with very specific policy aims underwriting the government, we have a right to know who that is,” said state Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) in an interview.

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn is one of two members of the group in Tennessee out of 50 across the country; Tennessee’s other member is the former superintendent of Hamilton County Schools and no longer works in education (he did not respond to a request for comment).

Many of you may not be familiar with the role played by Chiefs For Change and other non-profits in passing the TISA plan for school funding. Round illuminates those efforts.

The Tennessee Department of Education enlisted the help of the group to assist with Gov. Bill Lee’s and Schwinn’s school funding overhaul, which Lee signed into law in early May.

The state government is not paying Chiefs for Change, and they have not signed a contract.

No one will say exactly what Chiefs for Change is doing, who decides what work they do, whether that work is satisfactory, or how much it’s worth. Without a formal contract, it’s unclear what the terms are.

Even more disturbing…TDOE believes Chiefs for Change is not subject to procurement laws, but not everyone agrees. Without a contract or much of a paper trail, nonprofit avoid oversight by lawmakers and the public.

Round writes,

The Daily Memphian requested copies of the work performed by Chiefs for Change, and asked spokespeople for TDOE and the nonprofit to describe the work. Neither spokesperson provided details and TDOE has not fulfilled those records requests.

“This is just a different kind of dark money,” said Will Pinkston, a Nashville-based public education advocate who worked for former Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat.

Pinkston said this type of arrangement is not unprecedented; the Bredesen administration also accepted noncontractual, in-kind services from nonprofits.

“In retrospect, that was not a good idea,” Pinkston said. “We let the nose in under the tent, and it was a mistake in retrospect.”

Tell me this doesn’t all sound sketchy,

The Daily Memphian has been able to confirm two things the organization has provided to the state.

In one of those cases, it took a powerful lawmaker, Lundberg, to get information that is usually readily accessible.

Chiefs for Change built the website promoting the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement Act (TISA), FundingForStudentSuccess.org, through a vendor. Lundberg said he dispatched a staffer to get the vendor’s name: Woodberry Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based public relations company, of which many officials are political operatives.

I found out about Chiefs for Change when you called. Your questions on this are raising my antenna — I’d like to have more information about it.

State Sen. Jon Lundberg

Otherwise, no information about the website is publicly available.

The website includes videos and other resources on TISA. You can sign up to receive email updates; in doing so you would be providing personal data to a company hiding its identity.

“Chiefs for Change contracted with a PR company to develop the FundingforStudentSuccess.org website and associated resources, which was service provided in-kind to the agency,” TDOE spokesman Brian Blackley stated in an email, but he didn’t name Woodberry Associates.

Searching multiple databases, The Daily Memphian could find no public information about the copyright holder listed on the site, how it’s funded, and whether or how much TDOE is paying. The Daily Memphian checked two websites that offer information on who owns the URLs; each said that information is private.

There’s no contact info on the site, either. The privacy policy states:

“If you have questions concerning this Privacy Policy and/or the Website, please contact:
Funding for Student Success
1234 Main St, City, State

Leila Walsh, Chiefs for Change’s chief external affairs officer, declined to say whom it paid to design the website, nor how much that work was worth.

The Daily Memphian tried to get more information about the activities and alignment of the Chief’s and the TNDOE. Their efforts were met with extreme resistance. It’s worth reading the article just to see the lengths these two organizations will go to keep the prying eyes of the public out of their business. Per Round,

This kind of opacity is not a coincidence, according to Roy Hadley, an Atlanta-based cybersecurity attorney at Adams and Reese, LLP.

Hadley said this allows companies to obscure the sources of funding and, therefore, the interests of the funders. Most websites, including the TISA website, have privacy policies that allow the site to collect a wide range of personal data.

Then they use the data to target ads and influence search results, and the top results often reflect positively on whatever the subject is — whether it’s a school funding proposal or a fashion retailer.

Round goes on to offer more from Hadley,

“That’s by design, that’s not by happenstance,” Hadley said in an interview.

State Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver (R-Lancaster) said she had heard of Chiefs for Change, but “had no idea” it was doing work for TDOE, let alone work related to TISA. Weaver is the vice-chair of the House Education Instruction Committee; she was one of five House Republicans to vote against TISA, saying it would require local governments to raise taxes.

“This would seem, at least on the surface, a conflict of interest for Commissioner Schwinn, as she is a member of Chiefs for Change,” Weaver wrote in an email. “Yes, there should be a contract with any organization that does business with the state of Tennessee, especially if they receive payment. This would include any dues or fees associated with the cost of the Commissioner or any staff members who are state employees belonging to the organization.”

This is just a different kind of dark money.

Will Pinkston
public education advocate

Rep. Mark White (R-Memphis), who chairs the House Education Administration Committee, was one of many who did not respond to requests for comment. Others included the Tennessee Education Association, the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, the lieutenant governor and state House speaker, and several current and former TDOE and Chiefs for Change officials.

None of this happens in a vacuum. As the Daily Memphian explains,

Lee, Schwinn and other TISA supporters are part of the school choice movement, believing students in poor areas whose zoned schools are underperforming should have more options.

They call TISA a “student-centered” formula through which dollars follow students, as opposed to the current formula which they argue is confusing and clumsily funds districts at the expense of students.

TISA is just one part of that pro-charter and pro-school choice agenda.

Lee and the General Assembly boosted education funding by $1 billion as they passed TISA, but public education advocates fear TISA is structured in a way that will allow charters to siphon much of that money away from traditional public schools.Funding for charter facilities is growing fast. The fiscal year 2023 budget includes a big increase to the Charter School Facilities Fund from the fiscal 2022 budget, from $24 million to $32 million. This fund started at $6 million when former Gov. Bill Haslam established it in 2017.And earlier this year, Lee announced a partnership through which conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan will establish dozens of charter schools in Tennessee.TISA includes a base amount of funding for each student. Leaders have said it is $6,860, but that number is not in the statute. Then there are equity-minded “weights,” which allocate money to economically disadvantaged students, students in small or sparse districts and students with unique learning needs.

Finally, there are “direct allocations.” Charter students qualify for these, as do English learners and students in career and technical education programs. The amount they get is not set; TDOE will go through a rulemaking process and propose an amount to the State Board of Education, which will then issue a recommendation to lawmakers.

Almost all of Tennessee’s charters are within Memphis-Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools. According to the Sycamore Institute, roughly 17% of non-private school students attend charters in those districts.

Charter advocates say it’s hard for them to fund facilities and operating costs at the same time. According to TDOE, charter schools often use more of their revenue to cover facilities costs than traditional public schools.

“Charter schools do not have access to the same facility funds as traditional public schools,” SCORE, the pro-TISA advocacy group funded in part by Gates, wrote in a post thanking Lee for increasing facilities funding. “Without this support, they must redirect per-pupil funds toward facility needs. Facility funding for public charter schools strengthens the learning experience for students.”

“The list of groups and organizations that supported TISA reads like a Who’s Who of the charter movement,” said Pinkston, the public education advocate. “They love TISA because they know it treats them more favorably than traditional schools.”

Lobbying is the act of attempting to influence lawmakers to adopt a favored policy. Tennessee has laws around lobbying. But not everybody adheres to those policies. Back to the Daily Memphian for clarity,

It’s not inherently problematic for a consultant to provide free work, even without a contract, according to Deborah Fisher, of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, which advocates for transparency and stronger public records and open meetings laws.

“The reason they’re doing it for free is this is the issue that they advocate for,” she said. “The public does deserve to know what the nonprofit is doing for the Department of Education, and whether it’s an informal relationship or a formal relationship.”

Any records received by the government in relation to work performed by Chiefs for Change for the state would be public records, Fisher said. On top of that, nonprofits are required to file a public Form 990 every year to the IRS, offering the public a look into their finances.

It would be a problem, Fisher said, if the state continues to withhold the records it has received from the organization; it is withholding them, as it has not fulfilled records requests.

Fisher said it would also be a problem if the consultant crossed the line between professional services and lobbying without disclosing that advocacy.

According to Tennessee state law, “‘Lobby’ means to communicate, directly or indirectly, with any official in the legislative branch or executive branch for the purpose of influencing any legislative action or administrative action.”

Fisher said the TISA website is an example of lobbying, since its main purpose appeared to be the promotion of a bill being considered by lawmakers.

Tax returns show Chiefs for Change spent $30,000 a year on lobbying in 2019 and 2020. Penn Hill Group is listed as a lobbyist in both tax documents, but that group is not listed in Tennessee’s lobbyist registry

“To me, the website is sophisticated grassroots lobbying for this particular piece of legislation,” Fisher wrote in a follow-up email. “(Since) Chiefs for Change paid for it, it would need to count that as lobbying in its filings with the IRS.”

Walsh, the spokesperson for Chiefs for Change, said the organization doesn’t do more lobbying than the maximum.

“We provide opportunities for members to learn from one another. In addition, we deliver technical assistance, work to advance best practices, and offer a leadership development program,” Walsh said. “Any work we do that could be considered lobbying falls within the federal requirements for 501(c)(3) organizations.”

After leaving the governor’s office, Pinkston worked briefly for SCORE and later did consulting work for the Gates Foundation. He said he was “routinely” told to avoid any appearance that he was lobbying, but it’s not always clear what counts as charitable services and what counts as lobbying.

“It’s a very fine line,” he said, “and they’re very nervous about it.”

Two legislators are actively trying to protect the interests of Tennesseans. As Rep Weaver tells the paper,

“We need an informed and engaged citizenry to combat corruption and increase transparency,” Weaver said. “Of course, organizations reflect the goals and objectives of their funders. In this case, it is mostly out-of-state money being used to silence the voice of Tennesseans.”

For her efforts, she has earned the wrath of Lee, who is actively working against her and representative Scott Cepicky, also a vocal critic during the TISA adoption process, in their respective reelection bids. Something that should offend every Tennessean.

On the other side of the aisle, State Senator Jeff Yarborro is asking his own questions,

Yarbro, an attorney, said that even though there’s no signed piece of paper or exchange of money, there’s still a contract. A renter emailing their landlord asking to extend a lease, along with an affirmative response from the landlord, makes a contract, he said.

“Being paid in public policy as opposed to dollars doesn’t make it less of a contract,” he continued. “Citizens also have a right to know who’s paying for their government besides them. Tennesseans pay taxes and assume, rightfully, that the government should be working in their interest. So when an outside group takes on a function of the government without disclosing it, we have to wonder why.”

The point of all of this is that while I’m glad everyone is finally waking up to the true thoughts, and intentions, of Governor Lee and his henchman, Penny Schwinn. Much more than an apology is called for here. Will Tennesseans step up and demand it, or is this just another example of the culture of outrage that we’ve all become so accustomed to of late?

Outrage unaccompanied by action, is no better the acquiesce. “Dammit Ref! I’m mad!” needs to become “Dammit Ref! I’m determined!” Determined to thwart those who would support policies detrimental to Tennessee’s students.

Enjoy your Fourth and let’s figure out how to bring forth some change.

One final plug to support local journalism. None of us like paywalls, but they are necessary if we are going to have journalists both capable, and willing, to pierce the veil of secrecy erected by others. Please consider supporting those journalists by subscribing to local news outlets.

If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it 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. Now more than ever your continued support is vital.

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If you wish to join the rank of donors but are not interested in Substack, 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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