MORE FUEL TO THE FIRE

“there was no honor among thieves. Boys in the game only respected you in direct proportion to how much they needed you divided by how much they feared you.”
S.A. Cosby, Blacktop Wasteland

 

Earlier in the week, we discussed a report monitoring Tennessee’s adherence to federal law as it relates to Title 1. part A funding. It was issued last November by the USDOE. To consider it unflattering would be an understatement.

If you compare it to a report card, like the one that TNDOE is supposed to issue annually to Tennessee’s schools, it translates to zero As 14 Bs, 4 Cs, and 15 Fs. Not good. But what’s it all really mean? How serious is all of this?

In talking to district and state leaders a cloudy picture emerges. Some would argue that the report was very serious, while others would maintain that states are often out of compliance with the Feds. Some would argue that there was little the USDOE could force states to become compliant, while others warned that federal money could be at risk. Like most issues involving education policy, it is embedded with specialized language indecipherable to most, and few who do fully, grasp the full context and possess the ability to adequately translate.

While there is a great deal of disagreement about the contents of the report, there is little disagreement when it came to Commissioner Schwinn’s reaction to the reports. Failure to reveal the contents of the report during discussions around changing of the state’s school funding formula, and failure to inform the state’s superintendents of the contents of the report in a timely manner are seen by most as a dereliction of duty. One that puts individual LEAs, and by extension students, at risk.

Failure to come clean about the contents of the reports has led to a great deal of ambiguity. Superintendents, and by extension educators, have been forced to decipher the situation without clear guidance from the very people that are charged with providing it – the Tennessee Department of Education. I suppose this is another instance of supplanting as opposed to supplementing.

In talking with legislators and advocates, there seems to be a lack of awareness of how federal funding works. The assumption is that the USDOE pays the state a lump sum and states pass that money on to districts to use at their discretion. The reality is that states must contribute an equal amount to LEAs, and that money must be utilized to meet requirements before federal money can be used. That’s the supplement, not supplant caveat that goes into federal funding.

There are instances where LEAs move local funding and try to use federal money in order to meet obligations and desires. AT times districts are just trying to do the best for students while meeting regulations imposed on them.

An example would be an instance where a district has local funds designated to interpreters, they’d like to expand their tutoring options, so they try and move money budgeted for the former and use federal money for the latter. That’s a no-no, as the federal money can only be used for interpreters until after state money has met the obligation.

That’s an oversimplification but illustrates a benign instance. Unfortunately, not all instances are benign. That’s when the Feds step in.

The USDOE’s record when it comes to denying federal funding or requiring states to reimburse money is, as I reported, light, but it’s not without precedent. We’ve already discussed Texas being forced to repay $2.5 million due to failings under Mrs. Schwinn’s leadership, but money has been previously held right here in Tennessee.

Back in the early 2000s one of the state’s major urban districts was out of compliance with the USDOE over the way participation rates were calculated. The USDOE demanded change, and TNDOE conveyed the message. the district said, no. The feds said then we’ll just hold onto this money for a couple weeks. Eventually, the state convinced the district to change its position, and the spigot was opened back up.

So we are currently not without risk of losing much-needed funding. No matter how slim that risk may be.

So how much danger are we in of history repeating itself? A recent communication by the USDOE to the Honorable Penny Schwinn seems to raise the possibility,

The assessment and accountability compliance issues are significant because they not only impact the State’s ability to provide clear and transparent information to the public about school performance, but also result in the State using information that is not comparable across schools in TDOE’s statewide accountability system. As a result, I am placing a condition on TDOE’s Title I, Part A grant award until such time as these issues are fully resolved. In order to remove this condition, TDOE must address the items as described below. If TDOE fails to meet these requirements, the Department may take additional enforcement action.

Since I wasn’t 100% clear on what a “condition” meant, I emailed the USDOE to ask. They were surprisingly prompt in their response.

Unfortunately, the response not only supplied a deeper understanding of what a “condition” meant, but it also revealed that the divide between the USDOE and the TNDOE was a whole lot deeper than is generally known,

Condition 1-  academic assessments
“Condition Governing Title I, Part A Grants to Local Educational Agencies

The U.S. Department of Education (Department) placed a condition on the Tennessee Department of Education’s (TDOE’s) 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021 Title I, Part A grant awards because the State had not yet provided all information needed for review and approval of its standards and assessment system through the Department’s assessment peer review process, as originally detailed in a letter dated October 10, 2018.

Subsequently, the Department sent TDOE a letter on June 23, 2020 (https://oese.ed.gov/files/2020/07/Tennessee-4.pdf), that specified additional information needed for review and approval of the State’s academic standards and assessment system under section 1111(b)(1) and (3) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), as amended by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, and as continued under section 1111(b)(1) and (2) of the ESEA, as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The condition previously applied to the State’s awards for FYs 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021 also applies to the State’s receipt of funds under this award for FY 2022 until all remaining information needed for review and approval of the State’s academic standards and assessment system under the authorities listed above has been provided. If this condition is not resolved, the Department may request additional information, revise this condition to require further action, or provide notice of its intent to take further administrative action.”

Condition 2-ELP assessments
“Condition Governing Title I, Part A Grants to Local Educational Agencies

A condition was placed on the Tennessee Department of Education’s 2019, 2020 and 2021 Title I, Part A grant awards as a result of a letter (https://oese.ed.gov/files/2020/04/Teneessee-3.pdf) from the U.S. Department of Education, dated December 20, 2019, that specified additional information needed for review and approval of the State’s English language proficiency (ELP) standards and assessments under section 1111(b)(1) and (2) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). The condition previously applied to the State’s award for FYs 2019, 2020 and 2021 will also apply to the State’s receipt of funds under this award for FY 2022 until all remaining information needed for review and approval of the State’s ELP standards and assessment system under the authorities listed above has been provided. If this condition is not resolved, the Department may request additional information, revise this condition to require further action, or provide notice of its intent to take further administrative action.”

Raise your hand if you knew that the state was this far out of compliance with the Federal Government?

Getting in compliance is going to alter some funding. Funding that may come from local coffers.

How much was the need to become compliant considered when crafting the state’s new funding formula, TISA? It’s not out of the realm of possibility to consider that there might be additional costs to local municipalities due to required corrective action. No matter how small the risk, shouldn’t state officials felt compelled to communicate the possibility to local LEAs? Why was this never discussed in any of the listening sessions sponsored by the TNDOE?

The letter makes clear that the TNDOE attempted to rectify some of the USDOE’s complaints, but that begs the question of, why were efforts put forth without ample contributions from school superintendents?

Those superintendents have an organization that is intended to represent them, TOSS. Was TOSS made aware of the circumstances, and if so, why did they not make district leaders aware?

As it stands now, districts are scrambling mid-year to make changes that will ultimately impact students. This scrambling comes on top of their already substantial workload. Certainly not the desired circumstance.

The TNDOE’s actions are not dissimilar from a student rushing to make up late homework and missed tests at the end of a grading period after their parents discovered they were in danger of failing. Never a great look.

Ironically, the new chief of accountability, David Laird, has been instructing educators enrolled in Peabody College on leadership qualities for the last several years. I would argue that what is happening right now serves as a case study of what bad leadership looks like, and demonstrates the importance of employing true transparency and timelines when leading.

Reports are that Commissioner Schwinn has requested a meeting for Monday with the chairs of the state’s General Assembly Education and Finance Committees. I’m sure this will be a topic of conversation and that legislators will have plenty of questions.

The issue isn’t with their questions, but rather their ability to decipher between what is bovine scat and a legitimate answer. This is a complex issue, and I’m pretty confident that the commissioner will be working hard to fertilize the fields. It’s imperative that the chairs ask pointed questions and demand supporting evidence of the commissioner’s answers.

This is a story whose ending is yet to be determined.

BOOK BANNING?

Book banning in Tennessee continues to be a hotbed issue. This to me is ironic, considering that in this day and age it is virtually impossible to ban anything. Even the ability to restrict is questionable.

Banning books has turned into a highly successful marketing tool, with bookstores creating displays featuring the books that ultimately lead to more sales. Every time a school board attempts to restrict access to a book, all it ultimately succeeds in doing is drawing more attention to that book, and thus more readers.

That’s not to downplay the consideration of what is taught in schools and what is made available to students. For the record, I’d hand virtually any book, to any student. The same holds for music, and I would offer my son’s playlist as evidence. An argument could be made that it is inappropriate for me, let alone a twelve-year-old boy. It is an argument I recognize but don’t adhere to.

The issue really comes down to communicating with kids in relation to their choice of books, films, and music. That’s the difficult proposition. Something not everybody is willing to do.

I find it fascinating that people will argue that exposing a child to tales about homosexuality won’t turn them gay, but handing them a book glorifying Nazis will cause them to embrace those beliefs. I would argue that in neither case is that a correct assumption. I would argue that by reading and discussing with an adult potentially leads to greater understanding, for everyone.

Please don’t make the leap here that I’m somehow equating homosexuality and Nazism. Nothing could be further from the truth. The former is a normal and acceptable aspect of humanity, while the latter is an abomination. It’s recognizably an imperfect example but one that hopefully will make readers think about what we try to restrict students from viewing.

This week Sam Stockard over at the Tennessee Lookout writes about a current case in Summer County. Normally. I’m a fan of Stockard’s writing but this one comes with a condescending tone and pardon the pun, a whitewashing of the issue.

A parent complained about the book, which is in the library at Jack Anderson Elementary School in Hendersonville. The story, written for ages 4-8, has an urban setting and details the death of a young girl and subsequent protests and quelling of angst by faceless police officers. Ultimately, it helps children find a way to heal themselves.

Unfortunately for the book, it has a couple of references to Black Lives Matter, one on the bottom of a boy’s skateboard, and it shows police with batons holding back a riotous crowd. Maybe the artist should have drawn smiling police officers to allay any fears that they were mean, vicious or even without emotion.

Jack Anderson Elementary School turned down the parent’s request to remove the book from school. Not that Hendersonville has many race riots, but they do happen in America, especially when police officers kill innocent Black people.

Interesting that Stockard admits that race riots aren’t something that Hendersonville regularly experiences while arguing in other parts of America they do. I thought that it is essential that locals influence what schools teach.

Stockard regularly writes about the state’s charter school commission overriding local opinion when it comes to granting commissions to charter schools. So when is local control essential, and when is it amendable?

Furthermore, he blurs the lines between Black Lives Matter the sentiment, and Black Lives Matter the organization.  It is possible to support the former while taking issue with the latter. I certainly believe in the sentiment, but take issue with the organization. My exceptions are unrelated to race.

They are a political organization that does not pay fidelity to the nuclear family, I firmly believe in the importance of the nuclear family, and the need to strengthen it. Why would I not raise questions about the access granted to a political organization that espouses views diametrically opposed to what I believe in?

Would Stockard, or others who share his views, take exception if the NRA changed their name to “Responsible Gun Owners”, and changed their by-laws to embrace some of what he believes while, and their name was on the skateboard?

Again, I don’t support removing the book, but I certainly believe that its contents warrant discussion. At a time when we all talk so much, it feels ironic to argue for greater discussion, but that’s what I feel.

I’d be interested to see what Stockard and others view as an acceptable conversation around books and other art forms.

What I can tell you is that I will never support dialog that dismisses people’s feelings and opinions. I will always try to divorce those opinions from my perception of their character. The ability to hear people, and consider their arguments, even while objecting to them is essential to maintaining a civil society.

This is one of the reason’s I renewed efforts to explore musing from all different sources. Somehow we’ve got to break out of the echo chamber.

QUICK HITS

Often overlooked at MNPS is the number of English learner students the district is charged with serving.

According to Metro Nashville Public Schools’ open data portal, of Nashville’s roughly 82,600 students, 22,069 — about 27 percent — are active English learners or have transitioned out of the district’s English Learners program within the past four years. These students bring 129 languages to the district and represent 145 countries. The top five most-spoken non-English languages are Spanish, Arabic, Kurdish, Somali and Burmese. 

Nashville Scene writer Kelsey Beyeler offers a terrific overview of what that entails. I strongly encourage you to read it.

Today is officially the last day of Fall Break for MNPS students. Monday marks the beginning of the second quarter. Here’s hoping it was a good one for all.

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

2 replies

  1. You know those big bad state takeovers Kevin Huffman & Chris Barbic liked to threaten districts with? I’ve been thinking that this state’s education department is in desperate need of a federal takeover to save us from the mess those 2 clowns created because that snowball of a mess has turned into a giant avalanche of privatizers with all sorts of agendas to push on TN’s kids.

  2. P. Schwinn is quite literally out of league managerial, and her staff all know it. She has been willing to play the political game for a decade or so and will find a soft landing somewhere in a think tank when she flames out. She’s not out of her league there at all. It’s going more or less the way she wants. The governor will likely never have to answer for the ness he’s created even within the next four years. Nothing remotely new! This is how 99% of governors and commissioners play the game, here and elsewhere. Yes, we are in a looks-bad moment. Don’t fret I am quite sure the aforementioned parties will weasel through it. Not much more ink needs to be spilled here. No matter how hard you try they will still get their way. The institutions that could serve as checks, including USDOE, are too weak to make a difference.

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