“Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.”
Karl Popper


Over the holiday weekend, Tennessee’s Gover Lee found himself unexpectedly embroiled in controversy. No, not whether or not he could unload his London Adele tickets, that was Commissioner Schwinn’s cross to bear. But instead, were the words spoken by Hilldale’s Larry Arms on stage at a private gathering, while he sat silently by, an accurate reflection of his own opinions of Tennessee teachers.

It’s a controversy that has me in a bit of a state of disbelief because regardless of what was said by a private school snake oil salesman, Lee’s education policies over the last 4 years tell you everything you need to know about how he feels about public school teachers. Marginal raises sold as monumental increases, loss of control masquerading as beneficial guidance, and a funding plan that benefits private entities over kids. Like Lee told WTRN’s Mike Murphy, “Nobody speaks for the Governor, but the Governor.” And he’s been speaking a lot, the question is are we listening?

Ladies and gentlemen, attention please
Come in close so everyone can see
I got a tale to tell
A listen don’t cost a dime
And if you believe that we’re gonna get along just fine

I listen to WTRN on a regular basis, Lee taking to their airwaves isn’t exactly encroaching on unfriendly territory. Murphy, for his part, tosses out the softballs, allowing the Governor to make the case that this whole controversy was all drummed up by Left-Wing agitators – funny how it’s always Left-Wing agitators, except when it’s Right-Wing agitators. Both parties are continuously willing to blame political operatives, to cover up their own self-interest and lack of judgment.

Before you leap to the defense of Democrats, go ask a representative why the Tennessee Achievement School District wasn’t shut down this year. The votes were there, the dismantling has already begun, but the stomach for extinction wasn’t present. Let’s face it, the ASD is a useful tool to ply against political opponents, get rid of it and you have to find a new ax to grind. But back to our beloved Governor.

Just because you are in Tennessee talking about teachers doesn’t mean that you are talking about Tennessee teachers. I often travel to West Virginia to talk about Michigan teachers seems to be the primary defense offered by Lee.

In his interview with Murphy, Lee also raises the specter of left-wing agitators and the pressing need to pass laws to protect the state’s school children, citing the growth of “Critical Race Theory” and the state’s reaction as an example.

Two problems here – well I should say two glaring problems, to be sure there are others  – the legislation passed never mentions “Critical Race Theory” and after a year of being on the books, not a single charge has been brought forth.

Legislators went out of their way not to say CRT. Despite a threat so imminent and looming, they wrote a law that supposedly addresses the issue without ever mentioning it. It’s like passing a law about leprechauns that only mention wee folks and those of Celtic origin.

Furthermore, how does this law express trust and admiration for teachers? What the Governor is basically saying is, “I don’t believe that teachers can keep their political ideology out of the classroom, so I have to threaten to prosecute any teacher who does.” You can parse it any way you like, but passing a law controlling how social issues get discussed in the classroom isn’t a ringing endorsement of teacher judgment.

If you suffer under that delusion, I’ve got an exercise for you. Next time you and the wife are heading out to a dinner party, on the drive there, outline how you would like her to address sensitive subjects throughout the evening.  Lay out some strict guidelines on the opinions you’d like her to share and the ones you think are best kept to herself. Call me and let me know how that works out for you, but don’t expect me to be waiting with baited great, because I already know that outcome.

The threat from Left-Wing agitators is so imminent that Governor Lee was compelled to pass a law protecting classrooms but after a year his Commissioner of Education has yet to bring a single charge. In fact, when requested by Mom’s For Liberty to pursue charges, she couldn’t sprint away from them fast enough and they were quickly dismissed.

Agree or disagree with their effectiveness, people are demanding tightened gun laws because there is a real and tangible threat. Should legislation get passed, I’m pretty sure a year won’t go by without any charges being brought, yet here we are with the Governor touting a law passed but not enforced.

Now I’ve been travelin’ all around
I heard trouble’s come to your town
Well I’ve got a little somethin’
Guaranteed to ease your mind
It’s call Snake Oil y’all
It’s been around for a long, long time

It’d be comical if it was so depressing how quick we leap to offer cover for the Governor. A Nashville Scene article puts forth the argument that “Lee is so clearly being conned by Arnn that it’s embarrassing to watch. You don’t need trained teachers to teach? Any old asshole can do it? Teachers are from the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges? Teachers in this state? Who went to college in this state? Lee’s just drinking it all in like he’s in on the ground floor of a revolution and not the mark in this con. It’s embarrassing.”

They are right in that it is embarrassing, but nobody is conning Lee. He’s exactly who he’s always been. An opportunist in search of personal gain. If anybody is doing the conning, it’s Lee.

Lucky for the Governor, he’s got a shiny object waiting to be unveiled in order to distract – district results from this year’s TCAP tests. Gather around as he celebrates a return, to near pre-pandemic results. Let’s forget for a moment that those results were considered signifiers of a need to pass legislation addressing a growing crisis and that many of us predicted this bounce back all along.

Weren’t the scores from 2021 universally recognized as unreliable, to the point where legislation was passed to have them not count against students and teachers? Yet here we are holding them up as some kind of benchmark for the state’s level of student achievement.

That they are being used in such a manner that ignores how Casey Haugner Wrenn, TN Assistant Commissioner of Education, sold them last Spring, ““I think it’s incredibly important that we recognize and respect the amount of work that our school districts have gone through this past year,” she said. “We also have to recognize that the pandemic affected our communities very differently across the state. We have some schools that have been open from day one with the majority of their students without masks on. We have other schools, where the majority of students have been virtual the whole year. We’ve had drastically different instructional calendars. You can’t treat everyone the same in that situation”

Rahm Emmanuel once said don’t let a crisis go by without taking advantage of it. In order to squeeze out the most from an already critical event, it was important to paint a devastating picture, in order to make the white knights appear even more noble.

In this case, the heightened crisis was cited as a cause to invest millions of dollars in order to mitigate. An investment that got us back to the same ELA numbers we were at in 2017, 2018, and, 2019. Millions of dollars in order to get the same results, Results that the state’s teachers were perfectly capable of producing, but were never given the opportunity.

But, had we relied on teachers, Commissioner Schwinn’s husband’s employer wouldn’t have received $16 million in state contracts in order to teach Tennessee teachers how to teach reading and implement the math curriculum that they’d been utilizing for years.

Say, your crops’ll burn if it don’t rain soon
Ain’t seen a drop since the tenth of June
Well I can open up the sky
People never fear
If you ain’t impressed yet, just tell me what you wanna hear

Locally, MNPS is taking the opportunity to jump on the bandwagon. A  personal letter from Dr. Battle touts that, “In terms of year-over-year achievement improvement, we exceeded statewide levels of percentage point improvement in seven categories compared to the results from the 2020-21 school year, and we are exceeding pre-pandemic levels of on-track or mastered (now called Meeting and Exceeding Expectations) in four categories. Overall, we improved in 13 out of 14 categories of state assessments.”

Taking away nothing from the hard work of teachers and students, I need to point out that about 85% of the district’s students took TCAP last year, much lower than in the previous or the current year. Furthermore, a considerable number received instruction remotely while dealing with the effects of a worldwide pandemic. I would think that the expectation would be that scores would bounce back after a year of stability. Bragging about growth at this juncture is like me bragging about how much faster I ran a race the year after I ran it with a broken leg.

Here’s the deeper issue though. If we want to continue this exceptional growth, it only stands to reason that we continue the strategies employed this year – a new curriculum, tutoring, and summer camps. Unfortunately, those were paid for with $40 million of federal dollars. Dollars that will disappear after next year. So who picks up the check then?

Some very difficult decisions will need to be made at that time. Do we fund tutors or teachers? How do we tell who made a greater impact?

What about summer school? How do measure its success?

Where does the money for competitive wages for building administrators come from? These strategies will require funding at the same time MNPS is wrestling with a new funding formula that translates to even less financial support from the state.

Well you lost your farm so you moved to town
You get a job, they shut the factory down
Now you sit around all day long feelin’ sad and blue
You need Snake Oil y’all, tell you what I’m gonna do

Lee will try to sell you on his “historic” investment in education, but the fact is, much of that investment still needs to be codified. He’ll tell you about his wife and sister being teachers, but remember this is the same man who talks about his gay sister while passing discriminatory laws against homosexuals. I’d argue he shows the same level of respect for both.

Many are clamoring for Lee to apologize, something that’s just not going to happen. There is no benefit for Lee in doing so. The sad reality is, that Lee is going to be Governor for 4 more years. He’ll likely win by a margin of 20 points. He’ll use this win to fuel his national ambitions. Arms and others have touted Lee as presidential timber, a laughable proposition. There is a perverse part of me that hopes he tries because the outcome should be fun to watch. The man comes with more baggage than a Samsonite commercial.

I actually pray he doesn’t apologize. What I’d like to see is for teachers to use the current positions of the governor to target about 10 races for the General Assembly across the state. Races that are close enough where opponents of the governor can secure election, be they R’s or D’s. Ten seats may not make a huge difference, but it would send a message that you can’t disrespect teachers and not expect to pay a cost.

Meanwhile, thank you teachers for doing what I knew you’d do all along, helping students recover from an unprecedented school year. Others may ask you to share the stage with programs and materials, but the reality is, that none of those function without you. props to you, and keep up the good work, we owe you a debt of gratitude.

Special thanks to Steve Earle for the words sprinkled throughout this piece. Snake Oil is just one entry in a Hall of Fame arsenal.

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.

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Categories: Education

1 reply

  1. Careful on your typo, the Nobel prize is a noble attainment 🙂

    The Governors actions, and inactions are ignoble.

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