When you’re happy you enjoy the music. When you’re sad, you understand the lyrics.”
George Jones

Over the past several years we’ve repeatedly heard Tennessee’s Governor Bill Lee voice how impressed he is with his Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn.

We’ve heard national and local non-profits like Chiefs for Change and SCORE tell us how impressive she is.

State Superintendents like Russell Dyer, Dr. Liz Norton, and Dr. Justin Robertson. have all added their voices to the chorus of accolades.

By many accounts, including her own, the work Mrs. Schwinn has been doing in Tennessee has been impressive, as has she by extension.

But you know who is apparently not very impressed?

That would be the United States Department of Education, as evidenced by a monitoring report they released last November(TDOE 1) that is just now being made available to the public.

This is very interesting considering that last year Tennessee was engaged in a discussion about changing the way the state funds schools and this report speaks in-depth about those same sub-groups and how they are funded in Tennessee. I would think that information would be pertinent to that discussion. Though I can see how Mrs. Schwinn wouldn’t want to be distracted in her efforts to change state law by ensuring her department was complying with federal law.

In talking to stakeholders across the state, few were aware of this report, yet alone had seen it. Superintendents first became aware of compliance issues, when they were informed at a recent state conference, by the newly named head of accountability David Laird, that due to federal compliance issues they would have to change the way graduation rates were calculated…this year. Information that was delivered with little explanation. Apparently, Laird had forgotten his “why?”.

As reported this has caused considerable strife and confusion among district leaders, despite it being spelled out pretty clearly in the report,

Tennessee law establishes specific requirements that students must meet to earn the State’s standard diploma, which Tennessee calls a “traditional” high school diploma. In particular, students must earn a minimum of 22 credits, which must include certain specific courses. For certain students with disabilities, however, Tennessee provides exceptions that permit such students to earn the State’s “traditional” high school diploma based on different, less rigorous course requirements than what is required for other students, as shown in the table below. The Department notes that the “Rules of the State Board of Education” (page 14) that TDOE provided on November 16, 2021, as supplemental documentation indicates that, for certain students with disabilities, TDOE provides exceptions that permit such students to earn the State’s “traditional” high school diploma based on different, less rigorous course requirements than what is required for other students.

Despite the less rigorous coursework requirements permitted for some students with disabilities, TDOE includes those students as having received a regular high school diploma for purposes of calculating its ACGR. This is inconsistent with the State’s definition of a regular high school diploma awarded to the preponderance of students in the State.

Yea, you can’t do that, and when presented with the argument, most district leaders would agree that the practice needs to change, but not without a phase-in period. I can only assume that the Commissioner’s slow response to this has resulted in the pickle state superintendents are currently navigating.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s backtrack a minute. A little general information on the report before we dive in.

These reports occur with some regularity, though it’s unclear, after talking with experts, with what frequency. While the USDOE has little actual power, they do strive to ensure that states are following the law and using their federal monies as intended. In the case of Tennessee, that translates to just south of half a billion dollars. Not exactly chump change.

While the USDOE has an extremely light record when it comes to imposing financial penalties on states, let’s forget that they have done so in the past when it comes to Commissioner Schwinn. After evaluating her department in Texas, they ordered the state to return $2.5 million of their federal funding. Could that happen here as well?

One term that is prominently in play throughout the report is its reference to the requirement that federal money supplement, not supplant, state money. In other words, just because the state receives half a billion dollars from the feds, doesn’t mean it can cut its state investment. The state must still meet its obligation and only use the federal dollars to supplement.

This is an area where the USDOE raises questions about TNDOE practices. So much so that they issued a required action,

Within 60 business days of receipt of this report, TDOE must submit to the Department evidence that it has updated its implementation of ESEA Title I supplement not supplant requirements so that it reflects only the requirements in the current reauthorization of the ESEA, including updated Supplemental Consolidated Funding Application (CFA) Checklists and updated TDOE Title I supplement not supplant guidance. TDOE also must submit evidence to demonstrate that the updated Title I SNS guidance has been provided to LEAs. TDOE may wish to refer to ED’s Title I Supplement, not Supplant Non- Regulatory Informational Document (June 19, 2019) as a resource.

No word on whether the TNDOE has followed up on that or not.

In reading through this report, it’s important to keep in mind that not all the issues originated under the Schwinn regime. The aforementioned graduation issue would be an example of a practice that was in place before she arrived. Considering the specialized language around education policy and practices, along with a lack of institutional knowledge. assigning responsibility is a difficult proposition, not to mention the challenge of determining the depth of malpractice in play.

That said, my father once told me that if my report card is covered in red, it’s pretty safe to bet that I’m not performing at a high level. A glance at the report card portion of this USDOE monitoring report shows a whole lot of red.

Purple indicates high-quality implementation and compliance recognition. Blue means no compliance issues. Orange reflects satisfactory compliance with recommendations. Red is significant non-compliance and quality concerns.

Tennessee scored zero purples, 14 blues – 5 of which came under the subtitle of homeless children programs, 4 oranges, and 15 reds. If your child brought home a report card with zero As, 14 Bs, 4 Cs, and 15 Fs, would you be pleased?

In reviewing the comments on each of the failing areas, a common thread runs through them – a lack of institutional control and questions about where the money is being spent. Unfortunately, many of these areas involve some of the most challenged sub-groups our public schools serve.

For example, when it comes to EL students, there are questions about outreach to parents, proper utilization of federal dollars designated for student services, and a clear process for students to exit EL status. Again, a required action is issued,

1. Submit evidence that it has updated its guidance, training, and monitoring documents and tools,

as appropriate, to ensure that the State is monitoring LEAs for compliance with ESEA section 3115(c)(3) regarding parent, family, and community engagement activities that supplement LIEPs for English learners.

2. Provide updated sub-recipient monitoring tools to demonstrate that it monitors LEAs for compliance with TDOE’s standardized statewide exit procedures.

I would say, that’s a concerning recommendation, as all of that should arguably already be established.

Throughout the report, the USDOE raises questions about how the TNDOE is allocating its federal dollars. While they stop short of accusing the state of mismanaging its funds, they do raise the question of how much control and guidance the state is exercising.

In one instance, the USDOE references 8 TNDOE grant programs associated with section 1003 funds,

  1. District Priority School Improvement Grant (DPSIG)
  2. Turnaround Action Grant (TAG)
  3. Adaptive Learning Technology Grant (ALT)
  4. Additional Targeted Support and Improvement Grant (ATSI)
  5. School-Level Improvement Grant (SLIG)
  6. Success Rate Grant
  7. Priority School Exit Grant
  8. Priority Principal Leadership Incentive (no separate materials were provided for this program;

    however, information was included in the Division of School Improvement Standard Operating Procedures document on page 17).

And observe the following,

 However, during the review and in the subsequent documentation, the Department was unable to verify that TDOE was meeting the requirements of ESEA section 1003 for each of the grant programs listed above. In addition to the items described below, TDOE did not provide any evidence or documentation for the following grant programs:
  1. Priority Exit Grant
  2. Success Rate Grant
  3. Priority Principal Leadership Incentive (which was described on page 17 of the Division of

    School Improvement Standard Operating Procedures document).

That’s a little troubling. Again this information would have been extremely useful during conversations around TISA and its implementation, as it would have allowed us the opportunity to insure that state and federal practices are aligned.

Currently, Commissioner Schwinn and select district leaders are celebrating the results of recently released state standardized testing. I and others have urged caution in viewing this data. Now the feds add their voice to their chorus and demand that Tennessee clean up its procedures in order to ensure data quality. A whole section of the report is dedicated to just that.

Without going too deep into the weeds, it’s pretty safe to say there is a lot to be concerned about in this report. It’s understandable that Mrs. Schwinn wouldn’t want its content to be widely known to the public, but there is a lot of work being required by the TNDOE in relation to this monitoring report, and I would think getting all hands on deck as quickly as possible would take precedent over saving face.

In reading between the lines, this report raises the question of whether there is adequate staffing at the TNDOE to do the required work. That’s a serious question considering the revolving door that has in play at the TNDOE.

It’s not a stretch to reach the conclusion that several department heads were aware of the report, and it played a role in their decision to seek employment elsewhere. You’ll recall that assistant superintendent of accountability Rachael Maves, who relocated her family from the West Coast, abruptly left after a year on the job. Watercooler talk has it that she saw the approaching bus and decided to get out before getting pushed under it.

True or not, it is a salient point that had she remained, she would have assumed responsibility for the content of the federal probe, despite having limited input, seeing as she was serving as the current head of the accountability department. Nobody needs that kind of baggage.

Interestingly enough, most of what’s included in this report falls squarely on the plate of long-time TNDOE assistant superintendent Eve Carney.  Carney oversaw many of the areas referenced. Quite frankly, the report brings into question her qualifications to continuously assume new roles for the department as previous leaders depart. A strategy that has been consistent throughout Schwinn’s tenure.

At the very least, Commissioner Schwinn should evaluate whether or not she has given too much responsibility to Mrs. Carney, and whether or not the state would be better served reassigning some of those initiatives to other individuals.

Everything these days is viewed through a political lens, and thus there may be some inclination to apply that filter here and assume that this report is a by-product of a Democrat-led division trying to embarrass a Republican-led state. That makes for good red meat but is not really applicable.

The folks who compile these kinds of reports have been entrenched at their government agency for decades, and thus, since they hope to remain entrenched, refrain from playing political games.

Where this plays into politics is that once again it illustrates the shortcomings of a state government department led by a Bill Lee appointee. This is not an outlier. Remember recent news that nearly three months into the school year, state officials are finally starting to distribute funds from a federal food program meant to feed families during the summer? Or how about the backlog of rape kits at the state level?

Yea, it is a pattern and one that as the November election for Governor looms should be a regular discussion on the campaign trail. Unfortunately, it is not.

I urge you to read the whole report. decide for yourself how serious it is. There are two more connected reports that I’ll look at in the coming weeks. While they are not quite as damning, and deal more with rural and migratory students, they ain’t flattering either.

We all need to decide, is this how we want our education policy developed and delivered?


ChalkbeatTN has a post outlining the differences between Tennessee’s two gubernatorial candidates and their approach to public education. While my neighbor’s cat has a better grasp of education policy than Bill Lee, his challenger’s lack of depth on the issues is disappointing. Once again championing “fully funding public education” without a definition of what that actually entails. Commissioner Schwinn would argue that she has been a champion of “fully funding” public education, and she wouldn’t be wrong. Unfortunately, most of that money has ended up in the wrong hands.

Proponents of “fully funding” schools need to do a better job of defining what that looks like in real-world terms.

Lee touts that “early in my administration, we pushed for an outside-the-box approach to fund student mental health resources, which resulted in the creation of Tennessee’s Mental Health Trust Fund. We invested $250 million into that fund to expand students’ access to clinical services, suicide prevention, violence prevention, and other supports.” Has anybody seen that money yet?

When asked where they send their children, Lee admits that he’s used a mix of private, public, and home school. Martin’s answer is a little more opaque,

So that our daughters didn’t have to change schools frequently, we chose an independent school that provided them with stability in their education, regardless of zoning or ZIP code, and that met their individual needs. It is a school that values economic, racial, and religious diversity and that reflects the values in our home.

Do I really need to translate that?

Of course, both candidates claim to value teachers and are actually talking to them for supposed guidance. That’s all fine and good, but remember teachers are not a homogenous entity, and if you agree with everything you hear from a teacher…you are not talking to enough teachers. A bigger question, would be, are the candidates listening, and can they draw a direct line to a policy they’ve implemented, or support, based on teacher input?

Martin is certainly the more likable of the two, and I’m not going to lie, I’d prefer him over Lee. But neither is the education stakeholders’ dream, but one definitely holds more promise than the other.


The Tennessean reports this morning that yesterday Nashville Mayor Cooper met with NOAH activists and agreed to meet all their demands in 4 primary areas – affordable housing, racial equity in schools, criminal justice and economic equity. When it comes to education, NOAH is asking the mayor to address discipline disparities and equity in advanced academics in Metro Schools. Again, on reducing”suspensions” as opposed to instances. This comes at a time with increased parental concerns over student safety based on multiple instances of guns found in schools this first quarter of the school year.

While I am not a huge proponent of NOAH, and question where their expertise is derived from, I did find this passage from the Tennessean article interesting,

Robert Taylor of the education task force said MNPS diversity, equity and inclusion officer Ashford Hughes was supposed to attend the event and answer a question, but later canceled his appearance. Representatives for Hughes did not respond immediately for a request for comment.

Representatives?!? The inclusion officer has “representatives”? That’s a little…

Educator and author, Peter Greene, has a piece out about North Carolina’s drive to change the structure of the state’s teacher compensation plan. It’s a plan led in part by the Southern Region Education Board. Tennesse is a member of the board and is represented on it by the following individuals,

Bill Lee, Governor of Tennessee, Nashville, ex officio (2023)
Randy Dowell, Executive Director, KIPP Nashville (2024)
Eddie Smith, former State Representative, Knoxville (2022)
Mark White, State Representative, Memphis (2021) Executive Committee member, Treasurer of the SREB Board
L. Anthony Wise, President, Pellissippi State College, Knoxville (2023)

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also supplies much of the funding. I suggest y’all pay attention. \

Tennessee’s shadow Department of Education, Chiefs for Change, has announced four new board members,

  • Mohammed Choudhury, State Superintendent of Schools, Maryland
  • Chad Gestson, Superintendent, Phoenix Union High School District, Arizona
  • LaTonya Goffney, Superintendent, Aldine Independent School District, Texas
  • Christina Grant, State Superintendent, District of Columbia

They will join Chair Pedro Martinez, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, as well as District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson in their service on the board. Why is this important to Tennesseans?

The last three state superintendents have been members of the organization, and Chiefs for Change has been the invisible hand behind recent policy issues, including but not limited to, the state’s textbook review process and how the state funds public schools. Despite leaving education to pursue a career in trucking, former Hamilton County Chief of Schools Bryan Johnson still plays a prominent role in the organization.

Read Todd Snider’s rumination in the wake  Loretta Lynn’s recent passing and then ask yourself…who’s going to fill their shows?

Later, Loretta Lynn invited Todd Snider to her house to write another song. For this session, the pair went to Lynn’s writing cabin. “We were playing guitars and talking about what we could sing about,” Snider recalled. Then, Lynn told him to go check the refrigerator. He opened it and what he found floored him. “When I opened it a bunch of yellow legal pads with her words written all over them fell onto the floor. The refrigerator was stuffed completely full of bits of lyrics by Loretta Lynn that went back to the ‘60s.”

While he stared at the goldmine he’d stumbled upon, Loretta Lynn told him “Smoke one of your doobies and go through those. See if anything jumps out at you.” Before long, something grabbed him. He found a lyric that read, “I love you more than she ever will, but the only way she can get a man is steal. I don’t know if I should tell you this or not, but she’s got everything it takes to take everything you’ve got.”

Todd Snider recalled being stricken by the lines. “Loretta, my God, what is this,” he asked her. “Oh yeah,” Loretta Lynn replied, “I remember that little b*tch.”

Loretta asked Todd to sing the lyrics he’d just read. He had to make the melody up on the spot but didn’t hesitate. From there, he said, Lynn took over the writing session. “Then she made up the rest, as if ‘we’ were doing it. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, but not ‘cause I was talking,” Snider recalled.

hat song became “Everything It Takes” from Loretta Lynn’s 2016 album Full Circle. On the album, Lynn shares vocal duties with Elvis Costello. Check it out below.

Godspeed Loretta, so long, and thanks for the fish.

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

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