Why are people so fucked up?” I asked
“Maybe you do need college, Poiter,” Everett said. “You want to know why people are so fucked up? Son, that’s about the only question I can answer with even a small measure of authority. It’s because they’re people. People, my friend, are worse than anybody.”
Percival Everett, I Am Not Sidney Poitier

In the aftermath of COVID, we seem to have become a nation of perpetually outraged. Every day, another perceived slight must be met with a full throttle reaction. COVID appears to have robbed us of the ability to shrug, say, “meh”, and move on. Given a choice between outrage and thoughtfulness, the former enjoys a decided advantage.

Just this morning, in the drop-off area near the school, two of us were attempting to navigate the limited space and ended up coming closer to each other’s cars than comfortable. It wasn’t a near collision, just a minor, momentarily, inconvenience. Instead of waves, and understanding, it evoked raised hands and crosswords. To what end?

I’m sure most of you can cite similar instances from your own lives that have occurred with increased frequency. It’s like the Prozac nation forgot to refill its collective prescriptions, and the country as a whole is off its meds.

As much as all of this is an inconvenience, it’s worth noting that an angry public is also a distracted public. Vision clouded by anger evoked by the salacious often fails to focus on the truly important. Nowhere is this more evident than in Tennessee’s education policy conversations.

While our focus intently remains on creating a narrative around the nefarious villains who foist their malicious visions on the poor children of Tennessee, the stench of incompetence continues to waft through the TNDOE, rising to an unprecedented level.

Over the past several months, public ire has been directed at Hillsdale College and its founder Larry Arn. By now we are all familiar with the unholy alliance the school has entered with Governor Lee and the disparaging comments made by Arn towards the teachers of Tennessee.

We know 3 Hillsdale affiliated schools have applied to serve kids in three semi-rural counties. All three applications have been rejected and all three have appealed, as is their right under existing law, to the state’s charter commission. That ruling is expected early next week, and commission chairman Tess Stoval has quite the challenge to produce a recommendation that is fair without serving to undermine the commission itself. Good luck with that.

Some legislators are already voicing concerns about the commission’s ability to circumvent local LEASs. One wrong step and she could be looking for a new gig. As Rep. Kent Calfee, a Kingston Republican who is stepping down from the Legislature this fall, told the Tennessee Lookout,

They make decisions, they’re elected by the people, and I trust ’em. I don’t always agree with them, but I trust ’em,” Calfee said after the Tuesday meeting. “And I don’t like when an appointed committee can override our elected officials because, as Republicans, we’re supposed to favor the local people, and that’s just not doing that.”

It’s all fun and games when you’re playing with MNPS and SCS, but bring it to anyone else’s backyard, and the narrative changes.

Myself, I can’t wait to be done with this Hillsdale drama. While I am not a fan of Arn and his brand education product, I also don’t consider him, and his schools, as any kind of legitimate threat outside of their ability to distract us from what’s truly critical. People have been saying dumb stuff for years, and they’ll be saying it long after Arn and I are food for the worms.

Hillsdale is not the sole religious-based school operating in Tennessee, nor will it be the last. Charter schools are going to continue to proliferate, producing both desirable and undesirable outcomes. We are at least two generations into charter school attendance, with kids who attended charter schools now having children of their own and enrolling them in charter schools. Scare tactics ain’t going to chase them away. For better or worse, charter schools are now firmly entrenched as part of the status quo.

But what have we missed over the last three months while we have been consumed with every nuance of the Hillsdale controversy?

We’ve missed the actions of a Superintendent who has proven to be incompetent at running her own department while willing to legislate from her office. The amount of attrition at the TNDOE can not be understated, nor can it be continually ignored. As it stands, two of the department’s major divisions accountability and special education – have been gutted and are devoid of both leadership and institutional knowledge.

Look, people on both sides of the aisle can argue about the proper size and role of government, but we should align in our desire to see it run effectively. Creating a virtual revolving door at a government agency does not signal a prudent use of taxpayer money. Why this is not more of an issue in a campaign year, is beyond me.

In the last month, accountability chief Rachael Maves departed to become Chief of Operations for an education non-profit the BARR Center. Maves was a California native who moved to Tennessee with her family, including her young kids, just last year. In this light, it’s hard to make a case that she viewed her position in the TNDOE as a stepping stone to a leadership role with a non-profit.

Her exit was immediately followed, and when I say immediate, I mean in a matter of weeks, by her replacement, Eric Shay Olmstead, to join what she refers to as a “stellar team of mission-driven professionals who work every day to support student success across the state by insisting on high expectations, empowering educators, and fostering a culture of innovation”.

That should be a description of a job with her current employer, TNDOE, but it’s not. She is decribing the team that she is joining is with the state education non-profit SCORE.

To make things even more troubling is the news that long-time TNDOE associate Casey Wrenn is also departing.. Wrenn has been with the department for over a decade and currently serves as an assistant commissioner,

Throughout her tenure, she has built strong working relationships with the state’s superintendents and is viewed by them in a very favorable light. This one is extremely troubling, not that the other 200 departures weren’t, it’s just that those who know Wrenn have asserted that it would take something bordering on an act of God to get her to leave. Her commitment ran that deep.

The ranks keep getting thinner and thinner, and the talent pool becomes more depleted, with each departure. As a result, the state’s district’s become more and more underserved.

This is not unlike Shawn Josephs’s time with MNPS as superintendent. His lack of leadership led to the departure of so many qualified people that it subsequently became nearly impossible to replace the departed with equally talented individuals. To this day, MNPS is feeling that effect and the state will find itself in a similar predicament going forward.

These positions are highly specialized and the number of applicants thus is severely limited, few are willing to put hard-won professional reputations in jeopardy by jumping into a still-burning dumpster fire. They prefer to take a wait-and-see approach, and only seek employment once stabilization has been achieved. The stabilization seems to get further and further in the future as every day passes.

It creates a bit of a catch-22, you need the talent to stabilize but you can’t attract high-level until you stabilize. Not a good place to live.

Adding insult to injury is the announcement that TNDOE has reportedly received a letter from the USDOE that they were out of compliance with their ESSA plan. At least that is what Commissioner Schwinn is telling folks, as near as I can tell, to date nobody has seen said letter and it was supposedly issued weeks ago. Multiple open record requests submitted by multiple parties on both the state and federal levels have, to date, been unfilled. It’s like one big snipe hunt.

Raise your hand if you knew that next week the state’s charter commission is meeting to consider Hillsdale Schools-affiliated charter applications.

Ok, go ahead and put them down.

Now raise your hand if you knew that TNDOE was holding Webinars this week to address areas out of compliance and possible alterations to the state’s accountability formula. Yep…not as many. Well, they are.

Superintendents and district leaders were invited this week to two webinars outlining where we were in compliance and to outline a schedule of potential changes. A glance at the listed out-of-compliance issues shows that all violations are minor infractions and easily correctable. That’s not the approach being taken.

Despite an official position that there are no planned changes beyond the corrective actions, many believe that Mrs. Schwinn is using these non-compliance issues to give cover for making larger changes. It’s been her desire since arriving in Tennessee that we change the state’s accountability formula to a model that gives more weight to achievement, whereas the present model favors growth.

We’ll talk about this more in the future, but suffice it to say, in my opinion, what kids need to learn is subjective. The fact that they are learning should be the primary point.  Mrs. Schwinn takes a different view.

While her initial attempts may have proven futile, there is little evidence to support a change of heart in the commissioner’s position. I can’t imagine her not taking advantage of a situation, whether it comes unintentionally or self-created, to push her agenda.

If you’ll remember, Mrs. Schwin in the past has utilized outside audits and supports funded by the education non-profit Chief for Change in order to bring about desired policy changes. Both TISA and the textbook adoption process were heavily influenced by these outside efforts. What’s to say this isn’t another return to the playbook?

The words “non-compliance” often indicate that a body’s at risk of losing funding or at risk for other punitive action, and while to some extent that’s true in this case, the threat is not immediate.. USDOE does not consider itself primarily a regulatory body and provides every opportunity for state legislators to serve as such, stepping in only in extreme cases. What is likely more alarming to Mrs. Schwinn is the appearance of incompetency on a federal level.

The prevailing thought is that Mrs. Schwinn is looking for employment with the USDOE, and it’s hard to secure a position when you can’t keep your own small fiefdom in compliance. I suspect this plays a role in the accelerated schedule rolled out at this week’s webinars, a schedule that seems to be out of compliance with state law in regard to changing ESSER plans.

If this looks familiar to you, you are not alone. It bares a striking familiarity with the timeline utilized last year to make changes to the state’s school funding formula. Fool me one time, shame on you, Fool me twice, shame on me.

Any changes to the state’s accountability formula should be undertaken with a great deal of care and stakeholder input. Ultimately, changes can affect the perception of schools, and thus serve to deprive challenged schools of needed funding and adequate autonomy to adequately serve their populations. That includes kids with disabilities, English-language learners, and those who come from impoverished homes. There is no room for personal agendas and political gamesmanship here.

Once again, like with school funding, the state’s accountability formula is a complex issue that is understood by few. In my opinion, the commissioner is banking on that, and changes will be done quickly before anybody has a clear picture, much like the campaign for TISA. That is not in the best interest of any of us.

Hopefully, at some point, legislators step in and once again apply the breaks. In the past, it was Sen. Dolores Gresham and Rep. Mark White, both Republicans who chair the legislature’s education committees who slowed things down. Gresham has since retired, and White’s current position is unknown. Hopefully, that is resolved soon.


Commissioner Schwinn has a habit of taking a law passed by legislators and interpreting it in a manner that doesn’t always appear congruent with legislators’ vision. We’ve seen this with the 3rd-grade retention policy and textbook adoption, among others. Now she’s doing it with a law passed this past session requiring schools to catalog and publicize a list of all available library and classroom materials.

The new law was initially touted as a requirement for libraries to catalog a public list of materials available to students, which would allow parents and guardians to monitor what their children had access to. But the Commissioner and Governor Lee through a wrench into things by sending out a message saying the law also applied to classroom libraries. Where grounds for that view came from is anyone’s guess, but it required teachers to assume additional responsibilities in order to be compliant.

As a result the head of the text commission, Linda Cash, is now warning that the textbook commission is understaffed and will likely need to hire its own attorney in order to deal with the requirements of this new law.

Once again, the hypothetically conservative governor Bill Lee is flying in the face of established conservative principles – creating legislation that results in the growth of government, instead of reducing it. To what end?

As a parent of a 12 and 13-year-old, I’ve had to have uncomfortable conversations with my children over topics I never envisioned. But if you think that those conversations are rooted in exposure to books like The Hate You Give, you ain’t really paying attention.

Our children live in the same world we do, a world where information on everything is available through the touch of a keystroke. Trying to prevent kids from being exposed is like trying to keep cats in a bag, ain’t gonna happen and you’re just going to get clawed up if you try.

By trying to “protect” your child from perceived undesirable influences, all you’re going to do is ultimately do is take yourself out of the conversation. A conversation I intend to be an active participant in for many years.

Conservatives often bemoan the establishment of the “nanny state”, but how else do you classify using taxpayer money in order to monitor and control what students read?

Again, how is this not a bigger issue in an election year?


Last week I touched briefly on this whole TN ALL Core tutoring scam run by Commissioner Schwinn, but I’m in such awe of it that I need to explore it further today. Here’s a breakdown of how it works.

First, you pass a law that promises to retain all students who fall short of meeting expectations on the state’s annual TCAP exam, even though caught up in this net are kids who are missing that level by nere points. This is called establishing the customer base and ensuring success.

As part of the law, you include a provision that students can avoid retention by enrolling in year-ling tutoring sessions. The law doesn’t go into effect until 2 years in the future so most districts ignore it.

Meanwhile, you find a private entity that can assist with the creation of a tutoring force and serve as a recipient of tax dollars. There are lots of them out here, so chose one that will treat you nicely, and may be able to give your husband a job.

You then capitalize on the pandemic by touting the sexy-sounding “high-dosage tutoring” as a primary means of combating the effects of schools being closed. You create a specialty designation, Best For All, to describe schools that participate in your program,

To qualify for the Best for All recognition program, a district must have planned to spend an amount equal to or more than 50% of its ESSER 3.0 award amount on strategies to raise student academic achievement, as well as opted to participate in the state’s high-dosage, low-ratio tutoring program, TN ALL Corps.

You know that securing in-person tutoring resources at the required levels is going to prove difficult, so you develop. with your partner,  a plan to supply tutoring sessions remotely. I know, you called remote instruction inadequate in the past, but this is different…it is tutoring.

Initially, only 87 out of the nearly 150 districts buy into your scheme. But that is all right, you know the rest will come running shortly. Circumstances, not success rates, will demand it.

Now you wait a bit. It becomes time for the retention law to go into effect and suddenly everybody realizes the drastic implications of the law. Everybody starts scrambling for tutoring services, but that’s a difficult task because now tutors are in even higher demand.

Luckily, you have a supply, and if a district has already forked over its cash, you’ll hook them up for free. What a great deal, as long as they forget that you are using their own money in order to supply them with free tutors.

And who’s monitoring implementation, attendance,  and success of the tutoring services to ensure that programs are being run with fidelity? Why it’s you of course.

That is TN ALL CORE, the state’s tutoring program, in a nutshell. You got to love it when a plan comes together.

When Tennessee voters go to the polls in November they will have several opportunities to amend the state constitution. The November ballot is slated to have four amendments to the Tennessee Constitution, and Amendment 3 aims to replace language that has existed in the Tennessee Constitution for more than 150 years pertaining to slavery. Though the Constitution was amended in 1865 to prohibit nearly all forms of slavery, a single line lingered to allow slavery and involuntary servitude for people convicted of crimes. Hopefully, this amendment passes by a large margin.

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.

If you are interested, I’m sharing posts via email through Substack. This has proven to be an effective way to increase coverage. Readers have the option of either free or paid subscriptions. Paid subscriptions will potentially receive additional materials as they become available. Your support would be greatly appreciated.

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

3 replies

  1. We close schools all the time, and I disagree with you in that I am sure that there will be an end date for every charter school.

    Charter Schools are a distraction from the mission of public education. They were introduced as an experiment. The experiment has been conducted and it has shown that privatization, at best, does nothing to improve outcomes for students.

    Public opinion is clearly ad rationally drifting towards disfavor with the experiment, and , in time, we are right to look forward to a day when they are all gone, and have been replaced by renewed energy to educate all children.

    • Hmmm….that why enrollment keeps growing? And generations keep graduating? Do you really think Valor will be home before Maplewood ? I too dream of a day with 2 cars in the garage and a chicken in every pot.

      • Regarding Valor… If racial and socio-economic segregation is the right way to organize a school system, that will play out in other non-privatized ways at scale (perhaps more test-segregated schools). I don’t think that it is the right way, even as we get the next round of it with the rubber-stamped Hillsdale schools around the corner.

        All charter schools answer the question “What do we do about kids who are in poverty, who lack involved parents?” by simply leaving them behind, a variation on the pre-1969 zoning lines. Nothing is more ludicrous than the notion that charter schools improve district-wide outcomes by offering a palette of options to our poorest families, who will pour over detailed score data, and select a “best” option for their kids. Our poorest parents rarely even attend school events as it is. What charter school is assigned its students like our zoned schools? The legislature claimed charter schools would open to serve kids with discipline challenges, others focused on disabilities. Where are those charter schools? And the district improvements promised by “competition” have not arrived either, predictably.

        As our society is ripped apart by wealth gaps, ideological divides, and the rest, I think we should cling to the dream, not as much of cars and chickens, but of a society where every family can have confidence that their child will be maximally educated at a nearby public school, and encounter kids from other walks of life in a way that the adult experience in America seldom affords.

        I believe that if we can get to that point, your chickens and electric cars will follow!

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