“Access to useful information also was determined by literacy and the availability of reading material. It is now widely agreed at least for Britain that increases in literacy were relatively modest during the Industrial Revolution. Yet literacy is not particularly useful unless people actually read, and for the purposes of technological change it also matters how much and what people read.”
Joel Mokyr, The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy


If you are always at war, everybody looks like a combatant. That’s the thought that continually runs through my head as of late. It is easily applicable to the current politics of the country, but it also is an apt descriptor of American education policy where charter schools and other efforts to privatize American education have been accused of waging a war bent on destroying public education.

This week brought a convergence of articles that inspired a little deeper thought about “school choice”, vouchers, charter schools, and the rest. I certainly believe that are private entities that have discovered there is a lot of money to be made siphoning off taxpayer dollars. But is greed the motivating factor, or are they determined to destroy public education?

Two or three years ago, I predicted that the pandemic would alter the current model of how children were educated. Homeschooling, charters, vouchers, and private schools were already on the rise, and COVID just juiced the process by making parents focus deeper on their children’s schooling. In some ways, I think what’s happening is good, change is inevitable and once in motion, an object stays in motion.

Unfortunately, there is always a downside to change, as people struggle to hold on to their comfort zones. Too often we fall into the trap of thinking there is only one way to do something, but if we define core tenets and commit to honoring those principles, there is no reason that the delivery model can’t change. Whether we like it or not, change is afoot and the choice movement is only going to grow.

Lifetime educator Peter Greene produced a piece that traces the history of choice and where we are today. It’s, per usual, an excellent read, but a couple points ring hollow.

Greene’s piece concludes with the following,

Like many other movements, the school choice movement has room for both true believers and grifters, but in both cases, the school choice debates are marked by a refusal to talk about what we’re really talking about–changing education from a universally provided public good into a privately owned and operated commodity delivered however and to whomever the market deems worthy.
The irony of the newest talking point (Public schools can’t be trusted and we must burn the system down and replace it with vouchers for parents) is that it’s the closest we’ve come to having that honest conversation. Granted, it’s dishonest in its indictment of public ed, and it’s dishonest in that it fails to admit that we’re talking about stripping all guarantees and protections for parents and students and the nation that depends on an educated public, but hey–at least we’re finally openly discussing the destruction of public education as we know it. Stick around to see what comes next.
It’s that last paragraph, that kicks the brain juices into overflow.
First of all, there needs to be a bit of indictment of public education. Any conversation that assumes that public education as it exists today is adequately serving all kids is bit disingenuous. It’s just not true, hence the demand for alternative models. Let’s not pretend that greed not disimilar to that evidenced by those invested in privatizing the system doesn’t exist in the public sphere.  Plenty of administrators are invested in preserving public education as a means of preserving a 6-figure salary.
Second of all, this quote gives me pause, “
it’s dishonest in that it fails to admit that we’re talking about stripping all guarantees and protections for parents and students and the nation that depends on an educated public, but hey–at least we’re finally openly discussing the destruction of public education as we know it.”
Because it’s not what most of the public, particularly parents are talking about. Maybe publically, but certainly not around the proverbial dinner table.
The vast majority of parents spend little time engaged in internal discourse over whether they are “destroying” or “preserving” public education. For them, it’s simply about whether or not they are providing little Johnny, and Susie, with the best opportunity for future success. Each brings their own criteria in forming that opinion. The majority ofparents are satisfied with their local schools, but that conversation is evolving as more factors come into play.
Educator and pundit Robert Pondiscio addresses some of those changes in his latest. He raises the question of the role of the state vs parents in who is more qualified to raise children,
The notion that the state must not interfere with parents and their right to direct their children’s upbringing and education has cast a long shadow over U.S. education. But now, nearly a century after Pierce, the state seems increasingly inclined to relitigate the matter—if not in court, then in practice and policy in America’s public schools. There is a rising and unmistakable tendency on the part of teachers and school districts to assume that government is better positioned than a child’s parents to judge what’s best for children and to act on that assumption, often aggressively, making critical decisions about children’s upbringing and well-being without their parents’ consent or even their knowledge.
It is a legitimate conversation that is repeatedly being discussed by parents. Sure conversations about CRT, transgender issues, and what is appropriate reading material have been ginned up by those looking to score political points, but at the root is legitimate concerns harbored by parents around what their children are learning and how it fits into their own views. Many don’t understand it, and since being a parent means living in constant fear, they react in a manner that acerbates disagreements.
No parent is out looking to complicate their life, most would prefer to default to a public system. But they also want to be sure that they are doing right by their child and providing them the best opportunities. No parents will leave their children in a situation where they don’t feel their child is being best served, or their input is not welcome. Nor should they be expected to. Children only get one shot at their schooling years, there needs to be a deep commitment to getting that right. For every child, not just the ones that chose our preferred delivery model.
I remember the day my daughter was born. Her delivery was fraught with complications and took nearly 14 hours. I’ve never been so scared in my life. That was until they placed this tiny bundle in my arms and it dawned on me that I was responsible for bringing this child to maturation and instilling the traits, and skills,  that I believed would allow her to be a vibrant member of society. As I gazed at her, I silently promised to always keep her safe and never fail her.
That may seem like an impossible vow, but I made it that day and I am as committed to it today as I was when I made it. My vow wasn’t to ensure that she become a prop for ideology. My vow wasn’t to make ensure that she was a means to preserve a system that was already evolving, one that wasn’t in the room making the same vow to my newborn child. last I checked neither the governor nor the public school system, was present making a similar vow.
That is not to disparage any of the work done by the talented teachers that have graced her life, but you have to recognize, for me it’s personal.
Too many parents are too busy fighting to put food on the table or keeping a roof over their heads. Sadly, too many are in a real war for survival. Life is already a fight and they are looking to shed battles, not increase the skirmishes. That can’t go unrecognized.
I’d also proffer this warning, in any war, there is collateral damage. It may be unintended, or even unpredicted, but neither makes it less devastating. In arguing for our beliefs it’s imperative that we don’t do irreparable harm to our institutions. In my lifetime I’ve seen trust in the police and the Supreme Court plummet, to our detriment. The same holds true for governing bodies. Though America has always had a thread of government distrust running through her DNA, it’s only grown in recent years.
Much is made of the Right’s don’t trust the government’s stance but the Left’s message is equally dangerous, “Don’t trust government unless it’s run by our people, and then trust them implicitly.” Neither makes for a healthy society.
For evidence of wence I speak, I turn to a piece posted yesterday morning by Salon Magazine. It offers a quality analysis of the ongoing Hillsdale Charter School controversy. Throughout the piece, Tennessee’s recently created charter school commission is cast in the light of being nothing but a tool for the governor’s whims.
Preparations have been made to make this a slam dunk,” said Republican state Rep. Bob Ramsey, in a podcast interview last week with the progressive outlet Tennessee Holler. “Preparations have been made legislatively that there’s really going to be no options but to approve it.”
That’s a dangerous narrative to establish. At the end of the day, the charter school commission is a public authority created by representatives elected to office by the state’s citizens. In order for society to function, there has to trust that these institutions will function in a manner that benefits all. Otherwise, we remain perpetually divided.
To leap to the conclusion that a body is not authentic because it was created by a different party, establishes a dangerous precedent. Eventually, more evidence may come to light that proves that the charter commission is as described by Ramsey, a means to reward favored applicants.
It is the added responsibility of the current board members to conduct themselves in a manner that doesn’t fortify that view, serving to undercut public trust. But the current rhetoric is making that an impossibility
As the chorus grows louder, the board’s decision is increasingly at risk of being viewed as giving in to the loudest voices, or being in lockstep with the governor. Neither is a desired perception. But we get so concerned with winning the “war” that we never consider the cost. Remember, not everyone is a combatant.
I continue to struggle with the “destroying public education” trope. In my view, it’s a bit hyperbolic. Nobody is threatening to rescind the legislation that requires mandatory schooling for all kids. Nobody is suggesting that kids be denied a proper education. What is under threat is the school system as it exists under its current construction. That’s disconcerting, but arguably, already a foregone conclusion.
The genie is not going back into the bottle. There is not going to be some great reckoning in the near future, ala HBO’s The Leftovers, where we go to bed on Sunday night and wake up on Monday morning to a world where all charter schools have disappeared and been replaced by neighborhood schools that are equally resourced and kids hang out after school with Ritchie and the Fonz. Not happening.
By now it’s generally acknowledged that the beloved neighborhood schools of the past failed some kids, it shouldn’t be a stretch to understand that its current incarnation suffers from similar flaws. In some cases it’s the same groups of students, in others, it is a brand-new demographic. Conversations around public education should be centered on how we make it more inclusionary, not how we erect more barriers.
In other words, how do public schools stay in the conversation?  Remember the old adage, you don’t elevate yourself by downgrading others.
Public education only works if it serves the majority of the public. Otherwise, it just becomes a taxpayer-subsidized private school. That means whether you fall on the Left or the Right, your kid is going to have to hear some things that make you, and potentially them, uncomfortable. That’s how democracy works.
Instead of trying to decimate our perceived enemies, we should be focused on identifying the essential elements that must be preserved and incorporated. For me, it’s local control, empowerment of professional educators to provide quality instruction, exposure to children from all walks of life, a breadth of opportunities that recognizes that all students come with diverse interests, needs, and aptitudes, and recognition of the role of family, and provides a safe mentally, socially, and physically for children – a place where they can safely learn from failures. Yours may be a little different, but let’s be open to discussion that may lead to modification.
To paraphrase one of my heroes, You may say I’m a dreamer, but pretty sure I’m not the only one.
The Daily Memphian ran an article over the weekend by Ian Round that outlines some of the work being done in Tennessee by ILO – a company founded by Commissioner Schwinn’s former Chief of Staff Rebecca Shah and several former CEOs from Chief’s for Change. That organization was founded by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush in order to influence education policy on both the state and national levels. The last three Tennessee education commissioners have been pulled from their ranks, including the office’s current occupant, Penny Schwinn.
ILO was founded in the early Spring of last year and quickly found itself involved in a federal investigation involving the steering of public contracts to private friends. The case is still in the investigative process, but I would think any work they are doing in Tennessee would be viewed with a jaundiced eye, especially in light of today’s indictment of former state representative Glenn Casada and his chief of staff on bribery and kickback charges.
When asked about their work in Tennessee, ILO,  employing the use of manipulative language, released the following statement concerning their work in Tennessee.
“ILO Group does not and has not ever had a contract with the TNDOE or any state agency or office in TN,” an email attributed to the company stated. “If you have further questions, please direct those to the TNDOE.”
Ah, but Round reveals, and here’s the rub, they are working in Tennessee for TNDOE but Tennessee taxpayers aren’t paying for their work. That responsibility falls to Chiefs for Change. Now, who granted Chiefs the authority to fund work on behalf of the citizens of Tennessee is anyone’s guess because they don’t have a contract or scope of work either. Though they do have one with the Gates Foundation and …starting to see a pattern yet?
At Schwinn’s request, Chiefs took it upon themselves to provide a review of Tennessee’s education material adoption process and advise her on how to improve the process. They also played an integral role in getting the Governor’s TISA plan passed, going as far as hiring an outside PR firm to create a website that appeared to be officially sanctioned by the TNDOE. Quick side note, if you received a communication from Hillsdale and you are not sure how they got your information, did you enter your information on that TISA website in order to receive school funding updates? Asking for a friend.
Chiefs also did some much-needed PR for Commissioner Schwinn by getting one of their members, trucking company executive Bryan Johnson, to write a glowing review of the state’s educational progress – progress funded under the table by Chiefs For Change.
The progress is also a testament to the leadership of Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn and her team at the Department of Education. The department has taken a number of important steps that I believe contributed to the recent progress.
Luckily for you, if you’d like to replicate that success in your state, Chiefs has some readily available resources,
One such resource is a tutoring guidebook, modeled after Tennessee’s approach, designed to help systems launch successful tutoring programs in collaboration with community partners. The guide includes a capacity calculator to assist systems in determining how many tutors are needed, sample criteria for identifying potential tutors, and sample tutoring schedules. There is also information about logistics, funding considerations, curricula selection, and how to track and determine whether a program is effective.
How fortunate. They’ve also made available a guide for those of you who would like to replicate Tennessee’s first-of-its-kind teacher-apprentice program(Growing-Solutions_How-Tennessees-First-of-its-Kind-Teacher-Apprenticeship-Program-is-Addressing-The-Educator-Shortage)
Now Round reveals that on the Chief’s dime,

TDOE worked with the Center for Assessment to revise and review the testing system for students, which is directly tied to accountability for teachers and the evaluation of schools.

Two documents dated Dec. 9, 2021, state they were “submitted to ILO Group” by the Center for Assessment.

“With the support of the ILO Group,” one of them states, “the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) is working to improve the state’s assessment system and associated supports to districts and schools so that the system is coordinated, coherent, continuous, efficient and useful — all of which are features of a balanced assessment system.”

“The reproducible and transferrable process that results from the assessment system redesign meetings with the TDOE will be curated into a document that can be shared by the ILO Group, consistent with the Center’s Creative Commons license, with other states interested in following a similar process,” one of the documents states.

Hmmm…you know what this all translates to don’t you?

Chiefs for Change, and by de facto its primary funder the Gates Foundation, have built themselves what is essentially a test kitchen using Tennessee students as test subjects. The result can then be boxed up and marketed across the country. That’s quite a service, wonder who’s actually benefiting from access to the Tennessee test kitchen?

Word is that Round has more coming, so you may want to go ahead and subscribe to The Daily Memphian. I did.


Am I the only one picking up on the irony that Tennessee spends millions on teaching kids to read only to turn around and spend an equal amount on limiting what they can read? Asking for a friend.

Over at News 5, investigative reporter Phil Williams has another groundbreaking story. According to a SCORE poll taken back in the Spring, produced some predictable results,

  • Public charter schools are viewed positively by Tennesseans.
  • By nearly two-to-one, voters believe charter schools help improve public education rather than harm public education.
  • Still, there continues to be some confusion and misperceptions about public charter schools and how they operate.

Not surprising, as it’s always been the system that receives the most criticism while individual schools are viewed favorably. That still leaves 32% that are not satisfied, should they be denied options? When presented with results that show 51% are pessimistic about public schools, In typical fashion Representative, John Ray Clemmons dismisses dissenters by offering that, “It’s easy for people not to have confidence in their public school system because they watch the state legislature and their governor underfund it year after year,”

Hmmm…so first of all he suggests that parents are paying more attention to the actions of he and his colleagues and less to their own experiences, and secondly, surely he can offer a definition of fully funded, because, after a decade of doing this, I don’t know that answer. In fact,

Programming note. It may seem that of late I’ve been especially critical of national education writer Peter Greene, but don’t read too much into it. In my opinion, the man is simply the best and you can’t go wrong in reading any of his pieces. Since his retirement as an active classroom teacher, there’s been a little more partisan politics in his writing, but it never diminishes the value. Like most good classroom teachers, he understands that you don’t have to deliver it all instantly, some times the best lessons are the ones that are planted, and then allowed to ripen and bear fruit at a later date.

Much like I enjoyed the development of Billy Joe of Green Day as an aging punk rocker, I look forward to seeing how Greene’s young kids’ progression through formal schooling will color his writings. Do yourself a favor and read everything he writes, and remember you only get better by challenging the best, and nobody improves in an echo chamber.

If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it to Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to share is always welcome.

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Categories: Education

2 replies

  1. Always a lot to unpack.

    1) I am 100% for choice, but not without counting the cost. I have said (80% joking) repeatedly that if we require private schools to accept all students, increase the voucher to $35,000, and index it to twice the rate of inflation, then I am on board with vouchers. But, we cannot remotely afford that… Wise people change their minds. Show me the right voucher program and I will definitely leave the “ideology” you claim me to be a prisoner of.

    2) As we think about what we can afford, we ought to ask what the _goal_ for public education is. From Brown v. Board and Charlotte Mecklenburg we know that the #1 goal of public education has been racial integration (and not insanely thinking that all students can score above average). Public education is the only institution in America I can think of that pays lipservice to this goal. When surveyed widely in the 1980s, 90% of African American families detested cross-town busing. 95% of whites. That 95% was echoed a decade ago in the Memphis suburbs, which thanks to our legislature, was allowed to go to the polls and out out of the united Memphis/Shelby district formed after financial collapse of the inner city.

    So, it absolutely goes without saying that bowing to “choice” without the context of cost, and the goal of integration, would result in an extraordinarily different school system than we have to do. If integration is no longer the goal of public education, then we should simply give West Nashville parents “the choice” Memphis got – let Lawson/Hillwood/Hillsboro/Overton parents all say “goodbye” and form a separate district like they have in every hamlet around Northern cities. This is the model charter schools are bringing us piece by piece. To wit: The LGBTQ affirming charter school in Birmingham AL, the German Immersion Charter in Minneapolis, the African American Studies Charter in St. Louis, Great Hearts in Arizona and Texas, and soon Hillsdale across TN. If _that_ is the right model, then OK – we can return to 1969. But, in that return, there is no reason to hire private religious zealot operators to give us our beloved segregation in abandoned strip malls. Let me be clear: the Memphis suburbs that left the urban challenges behind at the ballot box… did not then turn around and hire privatizers to run their liberated schools.

    3) Don’t write just that it is generally now believed neighborhood schools failed some students. Fill that in. Reallly? When? Which students? What was the sequence?

    4) I applaud you for point out the score hypocrisy of our administrations. I cringe with you when our district chest-pounds over the TVAAS 5s. These “5s” _must_ be a failure in the horrible proprietary computer algorithm to deal with the massive score drop bounce-back after the pandemic, just as the 1s were as equally meaningless of years past. When we Democrats point to the scores and say “look how well we’re doing”, it undermines our ability to defend our energies when they plummet again (which they surely must, given the primitive state of the ancient proprietary software). Shame on us!

    Summary (sorry for long post): Keep it coming. All good. I am super-proud for having lost a School Board race focused laser-clear on a clear pro-teacher, pro-integrated schools, anti-privatization, anti-state-madness message. Remarkably, I lost the Nashville D8 Dem primary by only 89 votes – only 1%-ish.. in the most affluent district of Nashville. I’m of course thrilled that we Democrats, the party of “We all do better when we all do better” blew away all 4 seats in the August final. And I look forward to reminding our Board that that means we must stay focused on all our kids, to the best of our ability, to the best of our limited budget.

    • I didn’t know there was a lack of clarity when it came to kids being failed by the public education system. Do you labor under the illusion that all have been well served? It’s like saying charters have been bad for everyone.

      I would argue strongly that using schools as a means for social change is not the best use of them. Teaching more kids to read and arming them with the tools to change society as adults, which included trusting them to do so, is a better strategy.

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