“In my opinion,” said the Superintendent slowly, “an arm-chair review of a case is often far more profitable than any number of enquiries and cross-examinations. You get a better perspective. More wood. Fewer trees.”
John Bude, The Cornish Coast Murder


It wasn’t my intention to write today, but the noise around education policy continues to grow, and so I felt compelled to add my voice to the chorus.

Hopefully somebody, at some institute of higher learning, is taking copious notes as they relate to Governor Lee’s actions in regard to the ever-growing controversy involving Hillsdale College. Someday in the future, those notes will become valuable to include in a leadership course, as an example of how not to handle a crisis.

Defusing this one should have been easy. Pick up the phone and call Larry Arnn and say, “Hey Larry, I’m going to have to take some public shots at you. It’s not that I disagree with you, it’s just that I got to slow this train down. Don’t think any of what I say is how I really feel, and you’ll still get your checks in the Fall.”

Then, publically apologize, while announcing that your Commissioner of Education will be hitting the road to visit individual school districts, personally thanking teachers for all their hard work as evidenced by recent test scores. Not like she doesn’t already have a bus, a driver, and a planned route.

But instead, Governor Lee has stood fast to his position and is trying to white-knuckle his way through this. Thus, here we are with a whole lot of noise, coupled with even more public posturing as legislators from his own party say the things he won’t. Lt. Gov. Randy McNally certainly isn’t mincing words,

“The president of Hillsdale has no role in shaping education policy in Tennessee, nor should he. Arnn’s comments were ill-conceived, unfortunate and untrue. His organization is eligible to apply to operate charter schools in Tennessee, just like any other operator. When and if they apply, they will be subject to the same process as anyone else and these comments will feature prominently in the vetting process,”

Before we get too far into this, let’s be clear though, if any of this had a chance of causing real damage at the polls, there wouldn’t be a single Republican legislator speaking out critically of the Governor. If this ever does grow to a true level of concern, watch how fast the wagons get circled. That’s sort of the litmus test for serious all of this should be taken.

Presently, it’s an opportunity for conservative legislators to take a shot at a governor they’ve never really liked, or even respected, let alone considered a true conservative. In some cases speaking out publically to defend teachers may prove beneficial for their own re-election races. Support of teachers is generally a bipartisan issue.

The irony is not lost on me that one defense offered by Governor Lee is that Arnn was pushing back against left-wing agitators that infiltrated Tennessee’s schools. An infiltration that has arguably been facilitated through a curriculum promoted by Lee’s own commissioner of education. So he’d have supporters believe that he’s fighting a war, his own administration has created. That takes either a high degree of chutzpa or ignorance, I’m not sure which.

Currently, one of the loudest voices in the room is House Education Committee Chair Mark White out of Memphis. While his words of condemnation for Hillsdale are certainly welcome, the reality is that he does so so knowing that he will have little opportunity to back them up. It’s doubtful that any opportunities for Hillsdale to grow its presence in Tennessee will come through the General Assembly. Unless someone was to propose freezing the $6 million earmarked in the Governor’s budget for a partnership between Hillsdale and the University of Tennesse to create an Institute for American Civics.

If White was serious about his threats to leave Hillsdale College out of the equation in Tennessee, he could ask for a deeper explanation from Governor Lee on remarks like these,

“Two years ago I traveled to Hillsdale College where I participated in a President’s Day celebration and spent time with, what I believe, are champions of American exceptionalism,” the governor said. “For decades, Hillsdale College has been a standard-bearer in quality curriculum and in their responsibility of preserving American liberty.”

As far as anybody knows, that $6 million are still being spent and plans for the institute are proceeding uninterrupted. Administrators, at UT, including Chancellor Randy Boyd are being awfully quiet.

When looking to White as a potential champion, keep in mind that when given an opportunity to oppose Governor Lee during the last legislative session, he punted while others did more than just talk.

The other House Education Chairman Scott Cepicky brought forth a bill that would limit the power of the Governor by dividing up appointments to the state board of education between the House, Senate, and Governor. At the time, the power rested solely with the executive branch. When asked in February by the Times Free Press after the bill came through a House Education subcommittee — despite opposition from Lee administration officials who testified against it — if there was a precipitating event prompting him to bring the bill, Cepicky said a “little bit” had to do with the textbook waiver granting process that lawmakers stripped from Schwinn last year.

Needless to say, the Governor was in staunch opposition to this bill. When it came up for a vote in the White led K-12 committee, it passed despite a “Nay” vote from the chairman. The bill went on to become law.

As Governor Lee himself has repeatedly stated, any establishment of Hillsdale Charter Schools will have to come through a separate approval process. Candidates must first apply to the local district in which they intend to operate. If the LEA denies the request, then there is an opportunity to appeal to Tennessee’s newly established Public Charter School Commission. While many see the creation of the commission as a means to bypass local authorizers, it still is a requirement that potential charters apply locally first. White was a co-sponsor of the legislation that created and empowered the commission.

Last week two amended applications for Montgomery County were reviewed, These would be the first two charter schools to serve the district. The first, Oxton Academy Charter High School, was recommended for approval. The second, American Classical Academy Montgomery, which is affiliated with Hillsdale, did not secure a recommendation for approval. School Board members will vote on the recommendations at their next meeting, July 19, at 6 p.m.

In failing to recommend American Classical, the board offered several reasons for the rejection, including concerns about the scheduling and how the school would build intervention time for students.

If not approved, the school will likely appeal to the state commission, which could overrule the local board’s decision. Whether or not, Arnn’s commits contributed, is open to debate. But it’s pretty clear that the path forward for Hillsdale-affiliated charter schools won’t be fast-tracked to approval through local channels. Arnn’s comments will certainly make the approval more difficult at the state level by bringing increased scrutiny.

Many critics have focused on Arnn’s insinuation that teaching is something anyone could do. In light of these comments, people have been looking for Tennessee’s Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn to defend the state’s educators. Schwinn, who has been out of state on a trip with her daughters, has been slow to make public statements, possibly because she’s also been busy defending tutors.

A recent article in THE74 outlines the challenges districts are facing when it comes to scaling up tutoring efforts for the coming school year. Tennessee, and its education commissioner, are highlighted.

While Schwinn is quick to credit tutors and their contribution to increased test scores this past Spring, she does raise concerns about scaling up programs quickly.

“There is a general misunderstanding that you can just find a body, put them in a classroom and anybody can tutor,” Schwinn said. That’s one reason why she said it’s not “super realistic” to have a “meaningful” national program in place for fall.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating, if PET, TEA, and MNEA don’t start applying closer scrutiny to tutoring initiatives, it’s going to bite teachers in the ass over the next couple of years. Nobody is going to invest in recruiting, training, and retention to the level that Schwinn is touting just to serve as a supplement. Over the next two years, ESSER money is going to disappear and the funding pie is going to shrink again. Out of who’s piece will tutoring take a chunk?

One potential outcome of Larry Arnn’s comments is that they likely have served to put the brakes on efforts in Tennessee to mimic recently passed laws around teacher qualifications in Arizona, where a college degree is no longer required to teach.

While teacher vacancies are a growing issue, lowering the bar to entry should not be considered a viable solution. Arizona’s actions, which are being considered in other states, don’t lower the bar, they remove it completely.

To quote professional educator and writer Peter Greene,

I have a food shortage at my house, so I’m just going to declare that cardboard and my dog’s kibble are food, and voila! Food shortage over. And that’s how states are “solving” their teacher “shortage.”

As always, Greene sums it up succinctly. Teaching shortages are going to come to the forefront as the start of school approaches. Unfortunately just how severe an issue remains clouded because it is nearly impossible to get accurate data from district leaders. Like test scores, enrollment, and discipline incidents, the numbers are easily and frequently manipulated in order to support a desired narrative.

What’s indisputable is that recruiting teachers gets harder every year. The position and the included responsibilities become increasingly untenable as we heap more and more responsibilities on the shoulders of teachers. Enrollment in teacher education programs continues to decline. At some point, something has to give.

Hillsdale’s Larry Arnn has raised Tennesseans’ concern over teachers, but not in a manner he intended. Any lawmaker who brings forth plans to lower the requirements to teach in Tennessee is likely to be met with a resistant audience.

I’m sure this dust-up is far from over. Rule number one for crisis management is, when digging a hole, stop digging. In the case of Bill Lee, someone take away the damn shovel.

The question remains just who that will be.

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Categories: Education

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