AN UNPARALLELED TENURE
“The world has always belonged to the stronger and will belong to them for many years to come. Men only respect those who make themselves respected. Whoever becomes a lamb will find a wolf to eat him.”
― Vilfredo Pareto
I reflected this morning as I sat down at the keyboard. Stretching, and cracking my knuckles in preparation for the unleashing of today's missives. (Ok, I didn't actually crack my knuckles, just like the image.)
While Penny Schwinn has been nothing but a trainwreck as Tennessee's Commissioner of Education, we are going to miss her when she is gone. She may not have many meaningful accomplishments on her resume, but that's never stopped her from bringing an unparalleled level of panache to the job. As long as Penny's around, there is always a new story to tell.
Whether it's handing out contracts to friends or benefitting from contracts written behind the scenes, she's approached the job like it was her own personal playroom. it doesn't matter that under her watch trust in the TNDOE, and by extension trust in Governor Lee, has been severely damaged, to the extent that the department now finds itself woefully understaffed. She never lets the needs of the state supersede her own.
In the midst of a complete overhaul of the state's school funding formula, she still finds time to fly off to Southern California in order to talk about her favorite subject, herself. Hell, she even gets the General assembly to move up TISA hearings a day in order to not interfere with her travel plans, that takes some stones. Try that Candice McQueen.
On a side note, it appears that people are not quite grasping the importance of the ILO/Rebecca Shah/Schwinn connection. They think that just because ILO is being investigated for actions in Rhode Island, there aren't any implications for Tennessee. What they might not realize is that ILO has been actively involved in the TISA legislation since its inception. Who do you think is making all those neat videos and writing those scintillating weekly updates?
Unfortunately, they seem to be doing all of this work without a contract. While I can lay my hands on a scope of work, the contract itself seems ever elusive. I would think that a company currently under investigation by the Feds working without a readily available contract on arguably the biggest education legislation in a decade, might cause some concern. Add in the fact that the Feds are already in Tennessee investigating past policy practices, and you have a recipe for a catastrophic trainwreck.
But Commissioner Schwinn doesn't even blink an eye, just keeps moving forward as if everything is perfectly normal and that she's knocking them dead, not unlike Principal Ava on the brand new TV show Abbott Elementary.
Ask anyone involved with education policy in Tennessee, and they'll tell you, "They ain't never seen anything like Mrs. Schwinn." She's somehow managed to make former director Kevin Huffman's tenure look like the salad days. Now that takes work.
In the words of former MNPS school board member Amy Frogge after witnessing her testimony to legislators over the past couple of months,
She always hopes to sound cheerfully ahead of the game: “Won't this allow tigers to run free in classrooms?" "Thank you for that question. YES! And that's what we hope happens in real-time so that children can hone their survival skills & get PE credit at the same time. In real-time!”
That quote may evoke a chuckle, but all good humor contains elements of truth.
Never one to rest on her laurels, this week, Mrs. Schwinn made some great additions to her ever-growing resume of nonsense. There were so many statements made that bear further scrutiny, but in the interests of brevity, let me pull out a couple. But please, don't for a moment think that what I'm sharing is any more than a sampling of her questionable assertions. To fully delve into the fallacies sprouted would take a whole week, and then some.
Throughout the campaign surrounding the Governor's efforts to revamp school funding - TISA - the Commissioner has repeatedly put forth the postulate that you can directly tie student funding to student outcomes. Pardon my French, but that's bullshit. There is no study in existence that provides data to support that argument.
We know that things like having a clean school, good teachers, adequate resources, and safe buildings, all contribute to student success, but are they causation?
On Tuesday, in the Senate's Finance Bo Watson asked about a quote from Eric Hanushek in relation to states' going to the TISA model of funding. Hanushek's quote expressed his opinion that states adopted the TISA model because they didn't trust locals to make the proper funding decisions. Remember one of my main criticisms of TISA is that it takes power out of the hands of locals. To her credit, Schwinn acknowledged knowing Hanushek, as she should due to the ongoing lawsuit over BEP funding levels and his role in it as a star witness for the state, but some things she forgot to mention.
Those not familiar with Mr. Hanushek might be interested to learn that he's long argued that there is no correlation between investment and achievement. Which is the argument that the state has been making for over 5 years in defense of the lawsuit brought forth by Nashville and Memphis. A lawsuit that argues that the state has been failing to meet its financial obligations and as a result is underfunding schools.
It is worth noting that when Ohio made a similar switch to school funding last year, Hanushek testified in opposition(Hanushek). It's pretty interesting, to say the least, to hear Commissioner Schwinn argue the opposite position of a respected researcher like Hanushek. One who in testifying before a Commonwealth Court judge in Harrisburg, said,
That’s in part because the relationship between school spending and student achievement is “currently unknown,” Hanushek said. “We have no empirical basis that allows us to take a given goal for achievement and translate that into some required dollar amount.”
Testimony that seems to fly in the face of what Schwinn is trying to sell to Tennessee state legislators. For her part, she is so confident that the new formula will produce greater student outcomes that she was willing to promise 4 to 5% growth in literacy scores over the next two years. She went on to promise that if they invite her back in several years, shudder the thought, they'll be very excited about what she has to report.
Where this will get really interesting is when the Tennessee Small schools lawsuit is rejoined and a judge is forced to compare Schwinn's statements with those of a star witness for the state. Now I'm not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, but I can't see how conflicting testimony is ever beneficial to one's case. But it looks like that's a bet, Tennessee lawmakers are willing to make. The only problem is that they are not just wagering house money.
Hop in the hot tub time machine with me and we'll fast forward to 2028. All the rebates offered by Governor Lee in regard to the TISA bill have expired. Districts are dealing with the full cost of school funding. The judge, in looking at the conflicting testimony by Lee and Schwinn, rules that the state has been underfunding schools and offers a ruling that requires the state to add $3 billion to the formula - that's the universally recognized amount the state is underfunding the BEP.
We know, per Schwinn's testimony that putting #100 million in requires an investment of $217 million. $154 million is required of the state and the remaining $63 becomes the obligation of the locals. So 3 billion dollars becomes $6.5 billion. And the locals are now responsible for, $1.89 billion. Yea, wonder where that is going to come from.
The one sure bet in this scenario is that Governor lee and his partner in crime Mrs. Schwinn will be long gone. Now in their vision of the future, he's Donald Trump's vice-president and she's leading the USDOE. However, it's just as likely, probably more so, that while the two will have federal housing, it won't in D.C.
Maybe you are comfortable with that bet. Me? Not so much.
Before we move on, let me point out again, that any money being put into the TISA at this juncture is likely to be the last significant investment for a long time due to the impact of the weights. And while some lawmakers still entertain thoughts of going back and restructuring the weights, Schwinn herself gave warning on those thoughts. Per her testimony, states that have gone to a weighted formula usually don't revisit them until at minimum five or 6 years after passage.
In the House of Representative education committee meeting, both Representative Cepicky and Clemmons both walked the committee and the Commissioner through the challenges of TISA. Cepicky chose to highlight how TISA locks districts into increased funding, even when not necessary, through the weights by focusing on the unique learner category. Schwinn responded by implying the need is always there and offering that, "the performance of our students with disabilities in our state is quite low."
An interesting assessment, seeing as she's been head of state education for nearly four years. Her statement doesn't seem to indicate a high rate of return for Tennessee's investment. I would put forth that her statement is grounds for legislators to conduct the same level of review on her performance, as that required of local educators.
Throughout Schwinn's testimony to the General Assembly, there runs a thread of "say it fast, say it with confidence" and nobody we'll question. Though some lawmakers are starting to see through the fog and bring questions forth that strike to the heart of things, with more joining the chorus the more she talks.
There is a scene in Abbott Elementary where principal Ava describes her Tik Tok skills,
This Is My Art. I Write, I Edit, I Direct, I Do The Music, I Lip-Sync. Because Of Me, When People Say That Their Favorite Director Is That Ava Lady, Somebody Else Gotta Be Like, 'Which One?'”
Words that I can envision coming from Penny Schwinn when asked to describe her in response to questioning from the General Assembly.
Yes, we are going to miss her and I suspect that as time goes on we'll hear even more anecdotes about her behavior. People she's berated and late-night escapades will no longer be tales told in a hush with fear of recrimination, but rather with laughter and relief. Who knows, the TNDOE might actually become a coveted place to work, one where talent flourishes, instead of a place to merely spend time until you can escape and create your own private company and collect public dollars.
I for one am ready to get to the missing part of the program, and indications are that the General Assembly is beginning to reach the same conclusions.
A GATE RUNS THROUGH IT
In order to ease the concerns of legislators around the financial impact of TISA, the Sycamore Institute was invited to Senate Finance to discuss a recent paper that they had produced on the financial impact of TISA on local districts. It's quite fortuitous that the group has produced this paper in such a timely fashion. Except that it's no coincidence.
The Sycamore Institute received a $100K grant from the Gates Foundation back in August of 202. That may not sound like much, but according to the Institute's financial records, they have an annual budget of $600k. The grant comes with the following descriptor,
To support the adoption of an equitable funding formula to improve educational opportunities for all K-12 students in Tennessee
Pretty self-explanatory, no? Hard to collect your $100K if you produce a paper that shows increased costs to local taxpayers.
No mention was ever made of this connection to Gates prior to testimony on Tuesday to the Senate finance committee. In fact, representatives of the Sycamore Institute presented themselves as being a neutral entity that takes no position on TISA. Hmmm...how exactly does that work? You get paid $100k to support while remaining neutral. Color me skeptical.
At the very least, there should have been a disclaimer that the organization had been paid to create such reports by Gates. The one common denominator that is shared by all supporters of TISA, is that they are recipients of funding from the Gates Foundation. I challenge you to name one entity that has voiced for the TISA bill that has not received a financial benefit in some manner from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Hopefully, in the near future, lawmakers will conduct a summer study on the influence of education non-profits on education policy. Unless Bill Gates has quietly moved to Dickson, when Governor Lee tells you that Tennessee's education policy is crafted by Tennesseans, he's lying.
We need a whole lot more transparency
While I don't enjoy Twitter as much as I once did, at times it provides moments of wonder. Seems like recently the Tennessean shorted their education reporter on her paycheck. By all accounts, it was a clerical error but not surprisingly, given pay rates for reporters these days, caused the aggrieved party some needless financial hardship. Why the paper couldn't have recognized the error and immediately corrected it, is beyond me.
In response to the paper's stupidity, the reporter said, hold my beer and aired their grievances via the social media platform. No need to guess how that played out. This whole incident is such a bad look for everyone. hard to imagine Molly Ivens complaining about her pay on Twitter, but for god sake, Tennessean, pay your people. Especially if you are going to continue to allow David Plaza to lecture us about civility.
There is currently a bill under consideration that would limit TNReady administration to the last 30 days of the school year. It was poised to sail through to passage until certain representatives began being critical of TISA. Now it may not pass as TNDOE leaders are expressing opposition. Score one point for petty politics.
We continually talk about poverty as if those who receive direct services are the only kids affected by poverty. The TISA bill makes the assertion that those that fall on one side of the measuring stick cost more to educate while those on the other side don't. It's a ludicrous proposition. Why not do away with the additional weight for poverty and just add 25% to the base for all students? That would be a recognition of the challenge that poverty causes for all children.
Much has been made of the challenges facing MNPS when it comes to staffing teachers, Well, let's not leave principals out of the equation. By my unofficial count, there will be a need for nearly a dozen new principals next year. And it's only April. My over/under for May is 20. That shouldn't be acceptable. Among those who are leaving, or have left, are principals that have been highly touted by MNPS. Gotta do better guys.
While I'm not usually one to sing the praises of CM Dave Rosenberg, he does deserve credit for leading Nashville's Metro Council in a firm rebuke of the chamber of commerce for pushing. legislation that would potentially replace elected school board members with one appointed by the mayor. Per The Tennessean,
The resolution asks the chamber to seek "immediate withdrawal of this legislation and acknowledge that this legislation contradicts the principles of democracy, local control, and the intentional separation of the Metropolitan Public Schools system from direct control by the general Metropolitan government."
The council resolution also forced Mayor Cooper to make a stronger statement on his position on the proposed legislation. In a previous email, he had stated that he "didn't see the need for the legislation", which is in stark contrast to his current position. According to spokesperson Mike Jameson,
"The mayor is a strong supporter of (Metro Nashville Public Schools Director Adrienne Battle), a strong supporter of an elected school board and did not request this legislation,"
Kudos to Rosenberg.
And that's a wrap.
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