BOLD LEADERSHIP, BIG BETS
“People see what they want to see and what people want to see never has anything to do with the truth.”
― Roberto Bolaño, 2666
Happy April fools Day!
I had a whole post planned out in honor of April fools Day. Been contemplating it all month. It was going to be a satiric take featuring Tennessee's Reading Raccoon, Riley, being indicted by the feds. In my head was a fantastic tale of how all the recent subpoenas were all about Riley and not, as many suspect, Governor Lee. Little did I know, that we'd still be mired knee-deep in events that pale in comparison to any April Fools joke I could cook up.
When it comes to creating fiction and misdirection, the skills of Governor Lee and his Commissioner of Education remain unparalleled. And they were on full display this past week.
On Wednesday, Governor Lee's proposed reformation of student funding, Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement(TISA), was up for discussion in the State House Education-Administration sub-committee. Bringing the bill here, instead of the Education K-12 sub-committee was intentional, and an attempt to ensure passage, aided by the always amicable chairman Mark White. Unfortunately for the administration, Representative Scott Cerpicky sits on that committee.
Cerpicky is a former ballplayer who was elected to the House in 2018, after long being involved in Muarry County politics. Cepicky may be new to the House, but he's been quick to make his mark. While his ascension has not been without missteps, he's proven to be a straight shooter and a hard worker. The problem for Governor Lee and Mrs. Schwinn is that he's an actual Republican, not just someone who plays one on TV.
Much has been made of the Governor and his Commissioner's Republican affiliations, but both wear that coat very loosely. Schwinn started her career clerking for California Senator Diane Feinstein and was mentored in politics by Sacramento's former Democratic Mayor Kevin Johnson. Both Johnson and Democrats for Education Reform were key elements in her successful campaign for School Board.
For his part, Governor Lee was fairly apolitical in the past, but dabbled in Williamson County's politics through a Democrats lens, donating small amounts to left-leaning groups. He didn't show up in Republican circles until shortly prior to running for office.
What this means, is that where Schwinn and Lee pay little fidelity to core conservative values - lower taxes, smaller government, local control - for Cepicky they are more than just campaign slogans. Right, wrong, or indifferent, he's a Republican to the core. In that light, it shouldn't be surprising that he's got major questions around the TISA bill, as it passes more cost on to locals while robbing them of control and will provide an accelerant for growing the TNDOE. The legislation comes with a grab bag of new required reports and supports.
The script called for TISA to easily pass out of committee on Wednesday thus freeing up Commissioner Schwinn's schedule and allowing her to fly to sunny Southern California to appear on a panel at the ASU*GSV Summit. The Commissioner is slated to appear on April 6th at 11AM, 1pm CST as part of a panel discussion titled, BOLD LEADERSHIP, BIG BETS. HOW THREE WOMEN STATE CHIEFS ARE LEADING OUR K-12 EDUCATION RECOVERY. No, though it should be, that's not an April Fool's Joke. People are paying to attend this.
Now, unfortunately, White's inability to call the question on Wednesday due to Cepicky, and to a lesser extent John Ray Clemmons, has led to a scheduling conflict for the Commissioner. White's failure to move the TISA bill out of committee this past week means that once again the committee will take up discussion on the bill when they meet at 3:30 on Wednesday, June 6th. Hmmm...sunny California talking about her favorite subject - herself - or stuck in a House hearing talking about a plot that has more holes than a plot cooked up by Pinky and the Brain. That's a tough decision. What's a girl to do?
Adding fuel to the fire, the scheduling conflict means that she may end up missing a chance to hook up with her long-time friend and former Chief of Staff Rebecca Shah who is the moderator for Wednesday's panel. Shah if you'll remember left Tennessee to head back home to Texas after serving 15 months in Schwinn's cabinet. She wasn't long for Texas as she headed north to join up with some Chiefs for Change alumni to form an educational consultancy group ILO. Yes, the same ILO that within the first year of its incorporation, finds itself at the center of a federal investigation. That's some bold leadership.
One of the things the two could talk about, besides their shared experiences of working with Governors piquing the interest of federal investigators, is the work done in Tennessee by ILO. A review of the scope of work created by the TNDOE back in the Fall shows that they were integral to the early efforts of securing community support for TISA. Based on the attached scope, I'd say that the work they've done to date has been successful, and maybe worthy of even more investment. Lord knows that TISA provides ample opportunity.
Though I would offer here, that based on both Shah and Scwinn's track record, any ongoing contract between the two entities should be closely vetted, and any attempt to have outside entities contract ILO, thus bypassing state oversight, should be viewed with caution. It's not like we haven't been down this road before.
In 2015, while Tennessee was bragging about being the fastest rising state in the county, the Gate's Foundation was beginning the second phase of their Common Core initiative which involved creating a demand for so-called HQ instructional materials. As part of that initiative, they awarded SCORE $6.2 million to establish and fund the LIFT districts, which would be used to pilot Gates preferred literacy materials. SCORE turned around and passed on $1 annually to engage TNTP in facilitating training on the materials. All sans oversight from the General Assembly, and used to influence the literacy curriculum adoption process in 2019. Yep, there is a recipe for this cake,
If for some reason Schwinn decides to cancel her trip out west and shows up for further questioning from House committee members, besides the ongoing role of ILO, there are a few points from last week worth revisiting.
As aforementioned, Clemmons did a solid job of questioning Schwinn about the student outcome rewards attached to the new funding formula. Unfortunately, as he's prone to do, he didn't shut up when needed and ran off the rails into some charter school diatribe that provided the Commissioner with an umbrella to dive under and avoid answering his questions on attaching student achievement to investments. For the record, to the best of my knowledge, there is no meaningful research that provides a clear linkage between student achievement and investment.
In listening to the commissioner talk about student investment, her examples are, as the kids say, cringy. She's fond of telling a story about watching her daughter play soccer and instead of enjoying the children's athletic feats and joy of play, she found herself pondering how much each child was worth in education investment. She does so in a manner that evokes a vision of kids running with digital numbers floating in the air above their heads depicting dollar figures. Like something out of Bladerunner.
I got to ask, who the hell thinks like that? Who sees a field full of children and instead of witnessing the joys of childhood, they see a potential pile of money. As a parent of two middle school children, I have no interest in knowing exactly what my children generate in educational funding. None. Zip. Nada.
Do you know what I do care about? That they attend a school that is welcoming, safe and has adequate supplies to facilitate their learning. I care that their teachers are adequately compensated. I care that there is enough support staff available. I care that they enjoy being there and that they are intellectually challenged. That their needs are being adequately met. Not how much is being spent.
The Commissioner frequently mentions that the base amount dedicated to each student will be the third-highest in the south. What does that mean to me? If I don't feel that my children's education is being adequately funded, am I suddenly going to shrug and accept the figure because it's the third-highest in the south? Not likely.
So let's stop the false equivocation and start talking about what really matters to parents.
Does the new formula adequately address teacher attrition?
Does the bill ensure that my kids can attend a school in a safe environment?
Will the money required to fund this formula be available without placing increased hardship on me as a homeowner?
Is the Department of Education doing things with me, or to me?
The more questions Cepicky, Clemmons, and others ask, the more clear those answers become. And they are not the preferred answer of Schwinn or Lee.
Allow me to call attention to another Schwinigan. The Commissioner likes to play coy with legislators when questioned about the amount of power being vested in the TNDOE through the proposed TISA legislation. She deflects inquisition by pointing out that it's legislators that are involved in the rule-making process, and all the DOE does is implement their decisions. What she hopes you won't notice is the amount of influence she wields over the decisions made by legislators when it comes to rulemaking.
To get a better picture, all we need to do is watch any committee meeting chaired by Mark White. To fully illuminate the picture, I got a game for you.
Get yourself a bottle of whiskey, I suggest a handle in this case, because you are going to need it. Every time that White takes the committee out of session to garner the opinion of the TNDOE, take a swig, Go ahead, I dare you, just make sure you don't intend to do any driving in the near future.
Legislators deal with a plethora of issues and they will readily admit that they are not experts on education. Out of such recognition, they often defer to the TNDOE. Unfortunately often to their detriment. Keep that in mind when you consider the future impacts of the TISA bill.
I really would have preferred to write a light-hearted piece on Riley the Reading Raccoon, but unfortunately, these aren't light-hearted times when it comes to public education in Tennessee. What happens over the next ten months is going to have a profound impact on Tennessee's students and families over the next decade.
There seems to be a growing narrative that legislators can pass a bill despite its faults and come fix it in the future, It's a call taken up by the Tennessean this week.
TISA will not be perfect, and it may require tweaks in the years to come.
However, it offers a new path with the potential to change students’ lives for the better. Missing the opportunity to do something significant this year would be a shame.
Lawmakers should ask hard questions and seek equity for all school districts across Tennessee. This landmark legislation is a good step in that direction.
That's bullshit, as evidenced by the answer provided by Commissioner Schwinn when she was questioned about changing the formula in the event a catastrophic miscalculation was discovered. In response to Cepicky, she initially provided her normal word salad, but then finally admitted, that other than superficial changes, no, the formula could not be significantly changed once passed by legislators.
You see the TNDOE projections are based on numbers from the past year and any change after August would substantially alter those numbers. In an effort to reassure the House members, she told Cepicky that she couldn't think of any potential catastrophe that he should be concerned with.
I've got one.
What if the projected number of students requiring special services is way low due to the decreased number of interventions conducted last year because of conditions created by the pandemic? What if we are about to see an explosion in the number of students that qualify for unique learning conditions? What then?
I would say that would fall into the category of "potential catastrophe". But what do I know, nobody's flying me out to Cali to talk about my bold leadership, right?
In my humble opinion, this is way too important a decision to make as legislators rush out the door to meet their new constituents, and try and garner their support. The fact that districts are currently flush with federal dollars, gives us that rare cushion to proceed with prudence.
One point Clemmons did make, was to point out that he refuses to accept that the BEP or TISA are the only two options available. We owe it to stakeholders to explore those other options.
It's worth noting that Clemmons is the walking embodiment of a Democratic politician, while Cepicky serves as the same for a Republican. The two seldom agree on anything. Yet both have strong reservations about the Governor's proposed reformation plan. That alone should provide cause for pause.
I'll leave you with this observation of a veteran political observer, "The only people pushing for and supporting this legislation are the Governor's office, those wanting to suck up to the Governor, the Department of Education, the Gates Foundation, and people who profit from all of those groups.."
Not exactly my definition of great company.
THE LAST SCHOOL BOARD ELECTION
The possibility of this summer's Nashville School Board race being the last school board race still looms. Despite bill sponsor Mark White promising to take the bill that would require a county mayor to begin appointing school board members if a district had 10 more schools in priority status off notice, he has yet to do so, The bill is still alive, as are rumors that if the bill is taken off notice, lawmakers will attempt to sneak it into reconciliation should the TISA bill pass.
Despite his tepid opposition to this bill, Republican lawmakers largely view it as "Cooper's bill". Yes, that Cooper - Nashville's mayor Cooper.
Little has been done to urge White to move on taking the bill off notice, and in fact, when the bill was scheduled to be heard last week neither MNPS's Chief of Staff Hank Clay nor Communications Director Hank Clay were in attendance. The two have been reportedly serving as MNPS's advocators while the district looks to fill its recently vacated government relations position so their absence serves to communicate a lack of opposition.
The Government Relations position was formerly held by Mark North, who was moved to the position of director of athletics prior to the start of this year's session. A move that makes perfect sense at a time when so much legislation is pending that could negatively impact MNPS.
To be fair, North was largely ineffective so removing him isn't the issue. It's the lack of urgency in securing his replacement that raises eyebrows. And maybe it's by design.
It's not hard to envision Dr. Battle preferring an appointed board over an elected board. This would tie her directly to the Mayor's office and allow her to completely bypass parent and teacher input. She already has limited communication and consultation with the current elected board, so it wouldn't be that big a leap.
Normally a staunch defender of an elected board, as of late, this board has me questioning that stance. Be it Pupo-Walker's dropping the F-bomb on the board floor, Chairman Buggs threatening to sick boyfriends and husbands on critics, or Gentry publically entertaining setting a sitting congresswoman on fire, they can't seem to get out of their own way. This comes at a most inopportune time, as the district is directly under fire from the state.
There seems to be a noticeable unwillingness to challenge Dr. Battle and exert their due diligence in managing her performance. The recently completed Director's evaluation was not only late in being delivered but was also woefully inadequate(Director’s Summative Evaluation Results)
The evaluation focused solely on the areas chosen by the director and failed to include any meaningful metrics. Why would we include a review of "Crushing it with Khan" as part of a director's review? Absent was any mention of strategies around student discipline or teacher retention. Two primary concerns for parents, but seemingly not for. Battle, her staff, or the current school board.
For many, it was more an evaluation of the director's cabinet than it was of her. This does nobody any favors.
I guess if the elected school board is going to be content in the role of district cheerleader, maybe it's time for a change. Maybe an appointed board, would actually stay out of the dumb shit and hold people accountable for things that matter to stakeholders.
Maybe instead of spending time constructing policy to limit public participation, an appointed board would actually dive into discipline numbers.
Maybe more time would be spent diving into why families are leaving the district, and less time would be spent on implementing cosmetic plans that due little but cause disruption.
Though I suspect under an appointed board, even more time would be spent on debating the merits of charter schools.
Despite my willingness to entertain the concept, the process still matters. An elected school board is a tenet of Nashville's charter as voted on by Nashville citizens. The choice to go to an appointed board should be theirs to make as well. The fact that Nashville's Chamber of Commerce, John Cooper, and state legislators are trying to subvert the expressed will of the people shouldn't be accepted. And is deplorable.
If you want to make a change, put it in front of the people. Don't do it in a downtown backroom or on a golf course in Belle Meade.
That's it for today. See ya later in the week.
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