Penny’s Problems

An earlier story indicated some staffers in the Tennessee Department of Education are worried the current climate there means the state won’t be ready for this year’s round of TNReady. Now, a new report in Chalkbeat suggests a department in turmoil, with high turnover and chaos in the ranks. Here’s more:

Tennessee’s education department has experienced an exodus under Commissioner Penny Schwinn, with almost a fifth of its employees leaving in the nine months since she took over.

The exits include people with decades of institutional knowledge, leaving many local school leaders wondering whom to call about everything from testing to information technology to early intervention programs for students with learning disabilities. Also gone are dozens of mid- and lower-level employees responsible for executing essential department responsibilities, including the state’s testing program.

American cent

For his part, Governor Bill Lee stands by the disruption led by Schwinn at the DOE:

“The Department of Education has a clear directive to challenge the status quo by developing solutions that best advocate for students and teachers,” Arnold said. “We are confident that changes in structure reflect a desire to build the most effective team that will deliver on this mission.”

While Lee seems ready to “disrupt” both the DOE and public schools, it’s clear that he’s not on board with efforts to disrupt poverty.

An alternative explanation? Bill Lee is not exactly sure how to run state government, so he’s just keeping his head in the sand.

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The Plaid Privatizer

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has a new superhero, none other than Tennessee Governor Bill Lee. Some are calling him “The Plaid Privatizer” for his tendency to buy new plaid shirts, find a nearby farm, and spout off talking points in videos he posts to Twitter. Chalkbeat has the story of how a governor in office for less than a year is already being dubbed a “Champion for Charters” by this national group:

Gov. Bill Lee has been in office for less than six months, but he’s already been named a champion of the charter school movement by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Lee — who pushed through new funding and legislation for the state’s growing charter sector — was the only Tennessean and sole governor among 17 local, state, and federal officials named Tuesday to the organization’s 2019 class of “Champions for Charters.”

Lee pushed through legislation doubling the amount of money available for charter school capital projects. That slush fund began doling out cash recently, and plans to spend more soon. He also created a school privatization commission that will soon effectively strip local school boards of their authority to decide on charter schools.

In addition to his aggressive advancement of the charter agenda, Lee spared no ethical expense in order to push through a school voucher scheme. The House vote on that legislation now faces and FBI investigation while the Senate sponsor of the bill is under a separate FBI investigation.

While Lee advances a charter and voucher agenda, Tennessee’s education funding for public schools has earned an ‘F’ in a national analysis.

Because Bill Lee pushes his privatization agenda in plaid no matter the cost (of the shirts or to his integrity), he shall now be nationally known as “The Plaid Privatizer.”

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So Much for Local Control

For the second time in recent weeks, the Tennessee State Board of Education has overturned a local school board’s decision regarding a charter school. Chalkbeat has the story of the State Board reversing a decision by Shelby County Schools to deny a charter for Beacon College Prep:

State officials are recommending that one Memphis charter school applicant be allowed to open its proposed school, a ruling that would overturn the local school board’s September vote against the school and challenge part of the board’s new charter policy.

It’s not yet clear whether Shelby County will now grant the charter, but if they don’t, the State Board would be in charge of the school. Soon, the state’s authorizing function will shift to Governor Bill Lee’s school privatization commission.

Lee has long expressed distrust of local school boards, joining Jeremy Durham (the only legislator ever expelled from the Tennessee House of Representatives) in pushing to silence the advocacy power of local boards of education:

The proposal to silence local school boards because they oppose school vouchers is not a new one. In fact, legislation to that effect was previously proposed by Lee’s Williamson County neighbor, Jeremy Durham.

Lee indicated his support for the measure in 2017 while running for Governor.

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Governor Bill Lee’s Administration is privatizing his school privatization scheme by hiring a private company to administer funds from the so-called Education Savings Accounts. Chalkbeat has more on the millions being paid to a Florida company to manage money in Tennessee’s voucher plan:

Tennessee has hired a Florida company to oversee online payment and application systems for its new education voucher program for some families in Memphis and Nashville.

ClassWallet started work on Nov. 4 after signing a two-year contract worth $2.53 million with the Department of Education, according to documents obtained by Chalkbeat.

The company becomes the major vendor managing Tennessee’s education savings account program, scheduled to launch for up to 5,000 students next school year under a new state law.

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School Board Asked to Help in Wage Theft Case

The Nashville Scene has a story on Armanda Arzate and his pursuit of unpaid wages for work his company performed at Nashville’s McMurray Middle School:

On Tuesday night, a cement worker and several advocates asked the Metro Board of Public Education to help secure unpaid wages for work he and his crew did on a Nashville school. Armando Arzate of RSA Concrete said he and his cousin are owed $43,000 for their work on McMurray Middle School.

Arzate is being assisted in his case by local worker advocacy group Workers’ Dignity. Here’s more on the issue from a press release from the organization:

Between August 2018 and May 2019, Armando Arzate and fellow workers at RSA Concrete put long hours of skilled labor into McMurray Middle School’s renovation, pouring concrete for new sidewalks, ramps, and other projects. Metro Nashville Public Schools contracted with Orion Building Corporation, their frequent construction partner, to oversee the project. Orion then subcontracted with Joe Haas Construction Company for cement work, and Joe Haas Construction hired Armando and his team at RSA Concrete. Despite having finished the job in May of 2019, Armando and his team are still seeking $43,000 they say they are owed for their work. Armando and the other workers, with the support of community members, MNPS parents, and Vanderbilt Divinity School students, have repeatedly requested that Joe Haas Construction and Orion Building Corporation do the morally right thing. 

It is not yet clear whether MNPS will intervene on behalf of the workers owed money.

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Teachers Organize for Pay Boost in Hamilton County

Teachers in Hamilton County are seeing a strong outpouring of community support ahead of a planned town hall meeting do discuss teacher compensation, according to a story in the Chattanooga Times-Free Press:

Hundreds of teachers and supporters of public education are continuing to organize ahead of a Sunday town hall aimed at discussing teacher compensation and how to fund public education in Hamilton County.

Since a group of Hamilton County Schools teachers, now called Hamilton County United, released an open letter on Oct. 20 calling out five county commissioners for voting against increased funding for public education, hundreds more have signed on.

The move comes as teachers in Hamilton are highlighting both low pay and a significant amount of uncompensated time and out-of-pocket expenses:

“If those averages apply to the entire county, we’ve got about $2.5 million in uncompensated time and expenses that we’ve given,” said Brock.

The teacher pay crisis in Hamilton County comes as districts across Tennessee struggle to attract and retain teachers. Shelby County has explored a significant pay raise and Nashville’s school board recently heard a proposal about boosting pay.

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The Price of Your Greed

So far, 134 schools in Tennessee have at least one water source with unacceptably high levels of lead, according to a story in Chalkbeat:

So far, more than 100 schools in 31 districts across Tennessee found at least one water source above 20 parts per billion.

The latest results from Shelby County brought the total to 134:

The third and last batch of water sample tests brings the total number of Memphis schools affected to 39, representing about 2% of water sources in the district’s 165 school buildings and facilities. Charter schools and state-run schools in Memphis will test their water separately, Shelby County Schools officials said.

As Chalkbeat notes, the testing came about due to a new state law:

The tests were the first under a new Tennessee law requiring school districts to test water sources such as water fountains and sinks for lead at least every two years.

The alarming statewide results indicate a need for serious investment in capital improvements at school facilities across the state.

While there is a clear statewide need for school infrastructure funding, Gov. Bill Lee’s charter school slush fund began doling out millions of dollars this week and plans to award millions more in competitive grants to charter schools in districts across the state. Meanwhile, a new report indicates Tennessee remains at the bottom in nation in both funding of schools and funding effort (use of available resources to support investment in schools).

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Slush Fund

Governor Bill Lee’s charter school slush fund is in full force, with millions in grant dollars heading out the door to charter schools and millions more slated to be awarded by a competitive grant process. Chattanooga’s NewsChannel9 has the story:

Tennessee education officials are distributing almost $5.9 million in grants to aid 117 charter schools in the state.

The Department of Education announced Monday that the grants account for about half of the $12 million allocated to the department’s Charter Schools Facilities fund in Gov. Bill Lee’s budget.

The money can be spent on property purchases to relocate or establish schools; general improvements to facilities, purchasing or leasing underused or vacant property; or existing capital outlay projects.

Lee has committed himself to a school privatization agenda that includes a school voucher scheme, this slush fund, and a state commission designed to fast-track charter schools by usurping the authority of local school boards.

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The Playbook

Dr. Bill Smith of Johnson City clearly and succinctly describes the playbook for school privatizers in recent piece in the Johnson City Press:

A popular refrain of conservative politicians has been the assertion that America has tried everything possible to improve its schools. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our leaders certainly have not done everything possible to help the schools facing the greatest challenges. Instead, they have repeatedly applied one ill-conceived policy prescription: testing children and shaming and punishing educators when the results aren’t deemed acceptable.

For almost two decades we have clung to this approach as if it is a matter of faith. As economic and racial inequalities in academic performance have persisted, our leaders have doubled down with increased determination. To them there is never any consideration of the possibility that so-called accountability measures might not be the solution to all educational concerns. If schools don’t succeed, it’s their fault. They are failures.

By purposefully characterizing schools in poor urban and rural areas as “failing schools,” elected officials have promoted the view that these schools are beyond redemption. Not surprisingly, these leaders now feel empowered to suggest that the only way forward is give up on struggling schools and enact voucher and charter programs.

That’s it. That’s the game. That’s the playbook used by Governor Bill Lee and those like him who wish to advance a school privatization agenda. Former Governor Haslam played this game, too.

Test. Punish. Underfund. Repeat. Until the results are so abundantly clear that the “only hope” is privatization.

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Disrupt Poverty

This Facebook post from Ellen Zinkiewicz is an effective open letter to Bill Lee on what needs to be done for our schools (and students):

Dear Gov. Lee, all week we’ve been having a conversation (albeit one sided) about how to disrupt the education system to help improve achievement scores.

I’ve had suggestions from around the State on ways to use our existing and unspent Federal TANF and child care reimbursement money and fairly straightforward legislation to impact Tennessee’s education test scores by focusing on poverty reduction strategies. I keep mentioning poverty. And keep mentioning poverty; and keep mentioning poverty, because poor kids, hungry kids, transient kids, and homeless kids don’t do well on standardized tests. And Tennessee has a lot of these kids.

More than 1 in 4 Tennessee kids lives in poverty, and a bunch more who aren’t technically “poor” are still economically struggling. You have high schools asking their PTOs for washing machines because so many of their kids are homeless and don’t come to school with clean clothes. You have schools sending kids home with food on Fridays so they will have something to eat over the weekends. You have schools with mobility rates of over 100% meaning families can’t afford housing so they bounce around from place to stay to place to stay and that takes them from school zone to school zone.

Gov. Lee, until we help working families find some economic stability, nothing we do to the education system will transform test-readiness.

Poverty is the enemy here, Sir. And I hope you can lead our State in focusing on the disruptive effort of eliminating it, if for no other reason than to see test scores go up.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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