Here We Go Again

“She stared at the television. “Why is it that after all the bullets have bounced off Superman’s chest, he then ducks when the villain throws the empty gun at him?”
Percival Everett, I Am Not Sidney Poitier

 

The holiday season is about all over but the crying. This week saw kids across the state heading back to the classroom, ready to start the second half of the school year. In Nashville, teachers spent the week engaged in professional development in anticipation of Monday’s arrival of students.

Students aren’t the only ones looking to return, Tennessee’s state legislators are back at it next week as well. So far it appears that neither Governor Lee nor the Tennessee Department of Education will be pushing any major initiatives in education policy this year. Legislators, for their part, seem focused on amending existing laws, as opposed to creating new ones. Look for amendments on 3rd-grade retention, ESAs, and TISA to all be put forth.

Interesting rumblings I heard this morning in regard to TISA, apparently, some charter school operators have been putting some pen to paper and reached a conclusion that the new funding formula is going to hurt them. The base rate they receive per student under the Governor’s TISA plan is considerably lower than their previous per-pupil funding. Now some students will qualify for some additional weights, but considering that charters traditionally serve fewer English Learners or students with disabilities, will it be enough? From what I’m told the answer is, no.

It’d be ironic if an unintended consequence of the Governor’s signature legislation is financial insolvency for some of the state’s charter school operators. As attractive as that idea may be, we mustn’t lose sight that charter school insolvency affects real people who can ill afford a further disruption in their lives. These are people that have done nothing wrong other than pursue better educational outcomes for their children. It’ll be interesting to see if children are put at the forefront of this sure-to-be-coming conversation.

Third-grade retention seems to be the topic of du jour. I guess it is better late than never.

As much as I tried to draw attention two years ago to the provision retaining 3rd-graders who are not on track per TCAP while legislation was being proposed, it seems like people are just now waking up to the fact it’s real, and it’ll be happening. If you look at last year’s TCAP results, roughly 63% of all 3rd graders will have to either sign up for a tutoring program, go to summer school, or face retention. That’s going to take a whole lot more forethought and planning than what’s been applied of late.

One popular thought making the rounds is that schools should use the literacy benchmarks that are mandated 3 times a year and incorporate them into the retention formula. This is a great idea, as long as you forget that benchmarks are not designed to be high-stakes tests. They are designed to identify deficiencies and guide instruction. So if you want to use a wrench for a problem that requires a screwdriver, by all means, proceed.

Yes, a one-time-only assessment is not the proper way to test whether or not a child needs remediation is not the proper strategy. But substituting another improper tool does not improve the process. The decision needs to reside in the hands of locals and be an ongoing discussion involving both the student and their families. Unfortunately, this is not a belief shared by House Education Chair Representative Mark White (R-Memphis).

White recently told The Tennessee Lookout, “I don’t think the answer is leaving it totally to the locals, and it’s not entirely with what the state wants to do,” White said. “We might need to find some type of compromise.” He’s expressed fear that if left to their own devices, the locals will promote too many kids.

“If we leave it all to localities, no one is going to be held back,” he said. “But more importantly, the pressure that we’re putting, hopefully, on these schools and teachers to improve first through third grade shouldn’t be replaced.”

I always find the arrogance in such a statement disturbing. White and other legislators seem to believe that without their input, it’d be Bon Bon’s and spa days for everybody. That educators in Cannon or Rutherford counties only consider fully educating the county’s children at the impetus of state lawmakers. Ironically these are conservative lawmakers who physically balk at the mere suggestion that the state, or national government, is better at something as minuscule as say…changing a tire.

Early indications on 3rd-grade retention are that the House may consider changing the law, whereas the Senate is not so inclined. Time will tell if that holds true.

When it comes to education, Republicans seem just as willing as Democrats to bring the heavy hand of the state down on the locals. Neither seems to believe the locals are up to the task without them.

It never ceases to amaze me how much we talk out of one side of our mouth about “supporting teachers”, but out of the other, we advocate for soft-on-discipline approaches to behavior modification. Behavior that is increasingly making a teacher’s job more difficult. Behavior that also impacts the ability of other students in the classroom to learn.

Legislators have been open to making changes, but it remains to be seen to what extent.

“I think we have passed some good legislation in the past couple of years in regard to classroom discipline, but we are always listening to the feedback we are getting from our teachers as these laws are being practically applied in our LEAs,” House Education Committee member Representative Kirk Haston tell us via email, “I think the existing discipline laws on the books are a good foundation on which to continue to build a better discipline structure for our teachers to work within.”

Despite Nashville and Memphis announcing their intent to appeal a recent decision by the courts dismissing filed ESA complaints, expansion is definitely on the table for this year’s legislative session. In a classic case of he-was-against-it-before-he was-for-it, State Senator Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) has put forth legislation that would lower the threshold for ESA eligibility by including students in districts with at least five of the state’s lowest-performing schools, as identified in the last three “priority school” cycles since 2015. Currently, to be eligible, a district must have 10 of the state’s lowest-performing schools.

If the proposed amendment is successful. Chattanooga and Knoxville may become eligible for participation in the state’s ESA program. Both would have been included initially if Gardenhire hadn’t traded his vote for the provision that both districts were removed from the legislation. In other words, in this session, the Senator is trying to undo his actions from a previous session.

Another area that warrants revisiting is the law that made the State Textbook Commission responsible for crafting an appeal process for parents whose complaints about objectionable materials in school libraries are denied. It seems that when this bill was passed nobody realized that the Commission lacked the resources, including legal counsel, required to meet the challenge of what was being asked.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the December deadline came and went without a policy in place. Technically, the commission is now not in compliance with the law. How to get them in compliance is a task for this year’s Tennessee General Assembly. Representative John Reagan (R-Oak Ridge) tells us in an email, “There are currently efforts under study to add staff and resource availability to the Textbook Commission.  The primary impediment to such an effort is a source of funding for such.  When that problem is solved, there will likely be additional resources for the Textbook Commission.”

One promising bill that has already been filed by Representative Scott Cepicky (R-Culleoka) is one that increases, from $200 to $500, the amount each LEA and public charter school is required to pay each teacher in kindergarten through grade 12 for the purchase of instructional supplies for the 2023-2024 school year. Let’s hope this one passes unencumbered.

While there may not be any grand initiatives, I will say, there appears plenty of opportunity for fireworks to ignite.

MNPS BLUES

Everybody who plans to attend MNPS’s first board meeting of the year probably ought to consider packing a lunch. A glance at the agenda leads me to believe it’ll be a talkfest.

First up, is public participation. Then you got a new policy around new Charter School applications that must be approved. There is a memorandum in regard to the 3rd-grade retention law that requires passage. Despite it being non-binding, and nobody is likely to read the whole thing, everybody will want to take the opportunity to publicly rend their garments. Then there is an item that caught my eye.

Dr. Battle is asking the board to certify charges against a tenured Art Teacher that warrant dismissal. Admittedly, I know little about the case other than what’s included in the agenda packet, but at face value, it feels curious.

Per the letter provide by Battle to the teacher, this seems to be the crux of the case.

Last November, said teacher came to school and requested a meeting with her principal. During that meeting, he noticed unusual hand tremors, a “wide-eyed” appearance, and slow speech. Out of concern for her health – I know, bear with me – he asked the AP to meet with the teacher, which led to Employee Relations being contacted.

A drug test was administered and the teacher was placed on administrative leave while everyone waited for the results. On November 10, 2022, the results came back positive for marijuana.  Now here we are, moving for dismissal less than two months after the infraction. If only the district could move as rapidly in other areas… but I digress.

I’m not trying to downplay the seriousness of the charges, but if MNPS plans to start dismissing every teacher who tests positive for marijuana, this teacher shortage is about to get real. we live in a time where vape pens, edibles, and other forms of marijuana are readily available and in some states legal.

I’ve made no secret about my past dalliances with illegal substances, but I don’t ever recall shaky hands being associated with marijuana usage. My question would be, what other substances, legal and illegal, showed up in the drug test? I’d also question the level of THC found in her bloodstream. Marijuana is one of those substances that linger in the body for a while. Maybe this is a case of weekend usage, and something else was at the root of her shaky hands at outward appearance.

The reality is that teaching has become an increasingly strenuous and anxiety-creating occupation. I’m not sure in the current age that a zero-tolerance policy serves us well. Nor do I feel that the safety factor is a compelling argument. In all my years around substance abuse, I’ve often feared for my safety around those using alcohol or stimulants, never around pot-heads. Perhaps, helping this woman get the help she needs, would set a better precedent than drumming her out of the profession.

This is a funny argument coming from me because nobody aggravates me like a stoner. Furthermore, as a recovering addict, Recognizes marijuana as a gateway drug. That said, not everyone is as intolerant as I am and perhaps our policies should be more representative of the times we live in. We preach compassion regularly, yet seldom do we actually practice it.

Again, I don’t know many details, but on the surface, this appears to be…interesting. Hopefully, this will garner as much conversation as the new charter school application policy.

QUICK HITS

The Tennessee Department of Education released a new RFP this week. This one is looking for help in addressing chronically absent students. Per the RFP, “The State is seeking one contractor to provide an optional service for LEAs and public charter schools to use as they seek to engage and reengage with students who are truant, are at risk of becoming truant, or are otherwise struggling to attend school.” The maximum liability on this one is set at $3 million. So let me get this right, the state is now willing to pay a vendor for what teachers have been expected to do for the last two years as part of their required responsibilities? That sounds about right.

Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn may be absent from the public stage these days, but fear not, her minions are still trying to drum up new career opportunities for her. This week, it’s Sumner County’s Scott Langford beating the drum in a new piece for Curriculum Matters. in his piece he touts the Tennessee Foundational Skills Curriculum Supplement. Calling them free, excellent materials developed by the state. Lankford forgets, they had a little help.

In case you are unfamiliar, the Libens were architects of Common Core. Governor Lee has openly bragged about eradicating Tennessee from the scourge of Common Core. Let me summarize, Langford believes that Tennessee should be considered a leader in literacy because they implemented materials outlawed by their governor. Makes sense to me.

Quietly, Governor Lee has made three appointments to the State’sCharter School Commission. You know, the one that has the power to overturn local districts’ decisions on charter school expansion. Lee has reappointed Alan Levine to the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission. Along with Levine, Michael Carter of Davidson County and Chris Tutor of Shelby County have been submitted for approval as members.

For those keeping scores at home – pun intended – Levine is a health policy expert who sits on the governing board for SCORE. Carter is the managing partner for Pinnacle Builders. While Carter is the former Chair of the Shelby County GOP. Perfect choices, right?

A new year doesn’t equate to greater financial stability. Putting this blog together requires a great deal of time and resources, If you think it’s valuable, your support would be appreciated.

A huge shout-out to all of you who’ve already 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, Christmas is right around the corner.

 



Categories: Education

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