Lundin Falling

Nashville education blogger TC Weber has the story of Robert Lundin, who recently was relieved of his duties as Assistant Commissioner of Education. Here’s more:

Last summer Commissioner Schwinn created two cabinet-level positions for former Texas residents Lundin and Katie Houghtlin –  positions that paid in excess of $125k. Houghtlin led her department, which oversaw the department’s “Whole Child” initiatives, into some egregious territory and early indications are that Lundin may have done the same with his. Yesterday the former TFA corp member was unceremoniously removed from his position amid rumors of mismanagement of Independent Education Accounts overseen by his department.

Unfortunately. the enthusiasm of eligible families did not match the enthusiasm of Tennessee legislators. As of January of this year, out of 40k eligible participants, only 150 students were participating in the IEAs. In a presentation to the State Disability Council, Lundin chalked the low participation numbers up to a lack of information getting out to parents and too many procedural hurdles for parents to leap. Keep in mind, that any time a disruptor says there are too many rules, somebody is about to lose some protections.

Participation may have been low, and those participating often experienced challenges navigating the system, but for the most part, things ran efficiently for the first 3 years and parents received disbursements in a timely fashion. Initially, the program was overseen by Assistant Commissioner Elizabeth Fiveash, but in the Spring of 2019, Schwinn moved it under the purview of Assistant Commissioner Katie Poulos who she had recently brought in from New Mexico. Neither remains with the DOE, and Poulous has recently filed a lawsuit against the Commissioner and the TNDOE for wrongful termination.

Rebecca Wright, who oversaw the rollout of the voucher program for students with disabilities left in June and has yet to be replaced. Wright’s assistant resigned four months later and wasn’t replaced in 2019, and a third employee left Jan. 3 — all part of a staff exodus at the Department of Education under Schwinn. But there was no need to worry because Lundin and a few others were helping out. Apparently not enough though because in February ChalkbeatTN proclaimed things were falling apart.

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Very Strange and Stressful

That’s how the President of the Metro Nashville Education Association describes the environment students will face with in-person learning in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s here statement as reported by NewsChannel5:

“We know that online learning is far from ideal, especially for students with the most severe and profound disabilities and early elementary, and so it makes sense to begin in-person classes with these groups. We are concerned, however, that parents may believe their child will be returning to a ‘normal’ classroom, when in fact there will be little that is normal. Students will not be able to move about freely. They may be confined to their classrooms, or even an area of their classrooms. They will not be able to speak, work, or play with their classmates. They will be wearing masks all day except to eat, and their teachers will be wearing masks, face shields, gloves, and other protective equipment. There will be no reassuring hugs, and smiles will be impossible to see. For very young children, this may be a very strange and stressful situation. It is important that parents truly consider what an in-person classroom will look like in the midst of a deadly pandemic before they make the decision of whether to return in person or remain online.”

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Nail in the Coffin

Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher scheme is not only constitutionally suspect, but also the likely cause of Rep. Matthew Hill’s ouster from the legislature. WJHL has more on how Hill’s turn against public education led to his defeat in the August Republican primary.

A controversial 2002 income tax vote helped usher in the Matthew Hill era in Northeast Tennessee politics. Another controversial vote — this one over school vouchers — likely contributed to that era’s end.

“Year after year he voted ‘no’ on voucher legislation,” area public school teacher Jenee Peters said. “He voted ‘no’ every year up until he didn’t.”

“I would like to think the local area teachers were the final nail in his coffin, but there were clearly other issues that brought about the demise of his campaign,” Peters said.

Peters communicated often with Hill and said he gave teachers “a few good years” starting in 2014 after an early adversarial relationship with them. But a seeming focus on political power within the Capitol became pretty clear to people, culminating for the education community in Hill’s abandonment of his anti-voucher position.

“He wasn’t grounded in his community,” Peters said. “He was more interested in playing politics in Nashville and currying favor with the governor and making a bid for the speakership.”

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Voucher Decline

A professor at Teachers College at Columbia University says interest in vouchers may be waning in part due to poor academic performance. This comes as Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher scheme was delayed by court action.

Here’s more:

The demand by parents for education vouchers and Education Saving Accounts (ESA’s) – which allow them to use government funds to pay for private school tuition — is showing signs of flagging, possibly because private schools are not subject to public regulation and thus not required to meet government standards on measures that range from testing performance to teacher accreditation to instruction for special education students.

Yet the latest studies show that academic performance among voucher and ESA students is trending lower, according to Luis Huerta, Associate Professor of Education and Public Policy. Huerta and Kevin Welner, Professor of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education and co-founding Director of the National Education Policy Center, spoke in a recent webinar about the evolution of conventional school vouchers into vouchers funded by private, tax-free donations and, most recently, into Education Savings Accounts (ESA’s).

Of course, the poor performance and waning demand haven’t stopped Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander from pushing forward legislation to siphon COVID-19 relief funds to private schools.

Huerta also said that proposals by Republican Senators Tim Scott of South Carolina and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee would siphon CARES COVID relief aid to fund private school scholarships. “But again, it’s too soon to know whether this will give private schools the advantage to open more readily compared to publics, especially since the money linked to these proposals is only in the form of portable scholarships and not infrastructure dollars.”

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A COVID-19 Delay

The Tennessee Education Association is calling for a statewide delay in reopening schools because of the current levels of COVID-19 infection rates.

Here’s more from a press release:

Recent COVID-19 data does not support reopening school buildings and the resumption of in-person instruction in any part of the state. No system should make the decision to reopen school buildings, and where in-person instruction has begun, it should be suspended by the local district.  

The resumption of in-person instruction is a local decision, as it should be. However, directors and school boards who do not have local health departments with expertise in virus transmission rely on the state, and the state has refused to set thresholds when school buildings must remain closed due to new virus infections

TEA references a Harvard School of Public Health research-based guidelines on school building reopening and the resumption of in-person instruction. Any new case rate over 25 indicates no in-person instruction should resume.

Today 55 of 95 Tennessee counties have more than 25 new cases daily over the past 14 daysAnother 17 counties are ­­above 20 cases with increasing rates in new infections that indicate they will be above 25 if current trends continue.

Yesterday, Dr. Deborah Birx, chief national advisor on the pandemic, said if there are high caseload and active community spread, federal officials are asking people to distance learn at this moment to get the epidemic under control. Birx also said in Nashville last week that rural infection rates are likely far higher that what is reported. 

“Every school system should delay reopening of school buildings and begin the school year via distance learning, and if school buildings have reopened they should be closed. Unlike other states, the governor and commissioner cannot mandate school openings nor penalize districts for delay. This is a local decision and we are putting out virus data to show there is no sound decision on resuming in-person instruction in Tennessee,” said TEA President Beth Brown. “Educators want to get back to in-person instruction. However, it is prudent and not contrary to Tennessee law to delay reopening school buildings for the next several weeks, when hopefully the data shows new infections have slowed. Parents and educators should demand this delay and hopefully can use the framework we rely on to inform their local school officials.”

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Turner’s Heroes

State House candidate James Turner has disavowed support from dark money school privatization group Tennesseans for Student Success. But, that hasn’t stopped the group from viciously attacking incumbent State Rep. Mike Stewart in the District 52 Democratic Primary.

Here’s a recent mailer from TSS against Stewart:

Since Turner says he doesn’t want the “help” he’s getting from TSS, one can assume this means he opposes tactics like these and will be calling them out.

Oh, and Turner might want to correct the record while he’s at it. Stewart has consistently supported improving the state’s funding formula for schools (the BEP), has supported teacher pay raises (which Gov. Bill Lee slashed in this year’s COVID-19 emergency budget), and has opposed Lee’s school voucher scheme.

Tennesseans for Student Success is also spending heavily in districts around the state in an attempt to defeat Republicans who oppose school vouchers. This is, of course, in service to the Lee-DeVos school privatization agenda.

It also appears the group is spending heavily (estimates of $30,000-$40,000) in at least one Nashville School Board race.

Meanwhile, the TSS Twitter feed chugs along with innocuous posts like this:

That seems like a great way to build a following while hiding your true mission.

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Voucher Quest

Nashville education blogger TC Weber talks about Gov. Bill Lee’s quest to voucherize Tennessee public schools and includes details on the Governor’s involvement in some key legislative races.

Here’s more:

One only has to take a look at the campaign trail for a clue to see how serious Lee is about vouchers.

Up in the far Northwest corner of the state is Obion County, the seat of Senate District 24. For nearly a decade, District 24 has been represented by Senator John Stevens. It’s a small rural district with a fraction of the economic base of the larger Tennessee districts. So the virus is taking a toll fiscally as well as physically. This year Stevens is being challenged by fellow Republican Casey Hood for the seat.

Hood is a plumber by trade and political newcomer, who is a staunch conservative, but also a staunch supporter of public education – an area that Stevens is weak in. Initially, the Stevens camp gave little credence to the Hood challenge, but recent polls show Hood as either even or slightly ahead, and suddenly things have gotten serious.

Stevens, you see has been an excellent waterboy for the governor, willing to tout any initiative put forth, including vouchers. Hood, not so much. He has yet to hear the argument that demonstrates vouchers as being beneficial for rural districts and therefore has publically stated he would never support voucher legislation. The governor can ill afford to lose this seat, especially in light of rumors that Districts 25 and 26 might also fall to candidates that don’t support voucher legislation.

That probably explains why come Monday the Governor will get in his car and drive to a county that he’s never set foot in to try and arouse support for a loyal soldier. It’s why he’ll be holding a “private rally” at Obion County Central High School in Troy, Tennessee while the Obion County commission meets to try and find additional funding to increase compensation for teachers. Obion County and Hood value the district’s teachers, with Governor Lee the jury is still out.

Over the last several week’s voters have been hit with over 14 pieces of campaign literature from the incumbent. Tennesseans for Student Success alone have spent between $30K and $40K to turn back the Hood threat. Somebody really doesn’t want to lose the seat and is doing whatever they can to hold it.

Teachers at the high school will be holding an in-service day on Monday, meaning the governor will have a captive audience. I wonder if he’ll tell those teachers how safe they are while COVID numbers explode for the county. I wonder if Lee will tell them how much he cares while meeting them for the first time ever. You have to wonder why a seat in a small district that he lost during his gubernatorial campaign has suddenly taken on such importance. I’m also curious how much of Monday’s trip’s cost is being picked up by Tennessee taxpayers.

This is not the only race that Lee is injecting himself into. He’s flooding the market with fliers in the Byrd campaign, as well as targeting Representative Mark Cochrane. I think it’s pretty clear that Lee has a plan on his mind and it ain’t about reopening schools. It’s about further disrupting public education. Much has been made of the negative impact of Lee’s education policies on urban districts, well they ain’t good for rural districts either.

More on Byrd:

More on Tennesseans for Student Success:

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The Payday Predator’s Pal

A dark money school privatization group also shares something in common with Tennessee’s payday lending political interests. Tennessee First, a political action committee (PAC) is funded largely by contributions from the payday and title loan industry.

Just before the 2020 legislative session, a political action committee (PAC) called Tennessee First doled out some $38,000 in cash to various Tennessee lawmakers. Where does Tennessee First get money? $20,000 came from Advance Financial. Another $7500 came from Community Choice Financial. To top it off, the Tennessee Title Pledge PAC emptied its coffers – $5661.60 – to Tennessee First. So, $33,161.60 of the $38,750 distributed came directly from payday and title lenders.

So, it’s pretty clear Tennessee First is the vehicle of choice used by payday predators to distribute campaign cash. Who else funds the debt trap lending PAC? Well, $5000 came from a group called Tennesseans for Student Success. That’s the same group involved in at least one Nashville School Board race as well as a primary challenge to incumbent House member and public school advocate Mike Stewart.

You may recall Tennesseans for Student Success for their online attacks against Republicans who opposed Gov. Bill Lee’s school privatization agenda.

An attack ad by Tennesseans for Student Success targeting a Republican who opposed school privatization

It really should come as no surprise that TSS chose to use a pro-payday lending PAC as its vehicle for distributing campaign cash. It’s a group that’s no stranger to shady tactics. It’s worth noting, though, that on June 29th of this year, a group called TEAM KID PAC filed papers with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance. Who funds TEAM KID PAC? The initial $10,000+ contribution came from Tennesseans for Student Success. So, now when you see candidates boasting of support from TEAM KID, you’ll know that really means the same dark money group that likes to associate with legalized loan sharks.

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Interview an Innovator

Delight Ejiaka, a student at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, tells the story of an interesting internship made possible through her school and the Global Innovators Academy.

1) How did you discover Global Innovators Academy?
I was looking for an internship that would allow me to build my communications skills and expand my network, so I decided to utilize my professional social media accounts. Kevin Anselmo connected on social media, exchanged emails and had a couple of conversations. He explained to me the Interview an Innovator course concept: students doing an interview with a professional and writing an article based on that discussion which would then be published online. I was excited to come aboard with the program. 

2) What made you interested in this project?I am currently an international student studying Digital Media and Creative Writing. I plan to use my degree to work in marketing communications and write for film and TV. Because of my status as a newbie in the US (I am from Nigeria), I didn’t know a lot of people in any of the fields I wanted to go into. I wanted to reach out to people in related fields, but I had never done this in a deliberate and strategic way. As part of the Interview an Innovator course experience, I connected to Casey Adams, the Communications Director of the American Heart Association in Philadelphia. I connected to her and published a great article about her journey. In the process of learning important communications skills and connecting with Casey, I also was introduced to some people in her network as well. 

3) How did the work with Global Innovators compare to your other college work?In the classroom, a lot of the work I did was preparing for theoretical events. You learn how to write proposals and a host of other things. This experience actually just helped me apply my learning to achieve my goal of building an organic connection with professionals in my prospective career path. For example: the program provides video lectures that guide students through the experience. It doesn’t just stop there, it provides the opportunity to put the writing and communication skills students  gather from the videos into immediate practice. This is something that traditional schools sometimes forget. Learning must be put to practical use to have an impact.

4) Describe your project, the outcome, and what you learned?I reached out to a lot of communication and marketing professionals via email and LinkedIn. Some of them did not reply the first time. I decided to be persistent and try again. I reached out to Casey Adams, a couple times before she could get back to me because of her busy schedule. We set up a time and had a great conversation that absolutely challenged me and gave me material for my article. I have learned a great deal about persistence through this program. It is terrific that I have an article that is published online and that is featured on my LinkedIn profile. I think this makes me appear more marketable, as opposed to the LinkedIn profiles many students have that don’t really show any type of substantive work. 

5) Would you recommend Global Innovators to your fellow students at Lee and elsewhere? Absolutely. Every college student is currently thinking about how to grow their network so that they can secure opportunities that will drive their future. This program exposes you to a variety of people who could potentially become pilots in your career journey which makes it very applicable for all students.

6) Do you see applications for this type of learning in a k-12 environment. Building a mutually beneficial and strong network of supportive individuals that inform and direct your career journey takes time and it’s important to start as soon as possible. Studies have shown that students who have a strong network – social capital – are predisposed to higher chances of career success and fulfillment. On the other hand, most schools are currently moving to virtual instruction and this can be a great opportunity to provide students with practical real life experiences.

Read the article Delight wrote here>

Delight

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Mystery Solved

Amy Frogge solved the mystery:

Here’s the story:

A few days ago, I shared a Tennessee Education Report piece about mailers sent out in the District 3 school board race on behalf of candidate Brian Hubert. It garnered a really interesting response. 

The mailers came from a group called the “Nashville Parents Committee,” and the address listed on the mailers was the same as that of the Tennessee Charter School Center. After TN Ed Report put out its blog post suggesting that the TN Charter Center was responsible for the mailers (a logical assumption), both Brian Hubert and his wife responded that they were unaware of these mailers and did not coordinate with the “Nashville Parents Committee.” Then, a couple of days later, the Tennessee Charter School Center issued a response disavowing the mailers. 

As it turns out, the registered agent for the “Nashville Parents Committee” is Todd Ervin, a tax attorney at the well-heeled Bass, Berry & Sims law firm. (I’m going to hazard a guess here that Mr. Ervin has not formed this committee to advocate for his children’s local public schools.) Mr. Ervin also just happens to be the registered agent for Tennesseans for Student Success.

Tennesseans for Student Success is a pro-school privatization organization that was set up to support Governor Haslam’s education agenda. This group shares the same agenda as the Tennessee Charter School Center and has recently inserted itself into Representative Mike Stewart’s Democratic primary by supporting his opponent James Turner (see comments). Although it appears that Haslam is no longer involved with Tennesseans for Student Success, it is still very active. It promotes charter schools, excessive standardized testing, and teacher “accountability” (our deeply flawed teacher evaluation model that evaluates 70% of TN teachers on classes they’ve never taught). These are all tentacles of the “school choice” movement. Unreliable standardized test scores are used to prove that TN schools are “failing” and thus to market new and “innovative” solutions, such as vouchers, more charter schools, and more tests and test prep to “assess” how our students and teachers are performing. The common theme here is profit for private interests. 

Over and over again, we find ourselves fighting the same battles in different guises against various forms of corruption. It becomes exhausting. During my 8 years on the board, we first had to fight against charter school proliferation (which drains money from public schools and directs it to private interests) and absurd amounts of standardized tests for our children. Then came vouchers (for the moment, defeated!). Now the battle has morphed once again. Former Nashville superintendent Shawn Joseph and current TN Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn, both affiliated with the Eli Broad network, are part of the latest scam to direct public funds to private interests and education vendors in the form of no-bid contracts. (Broad also pushes charter schools.) Millions and millions of dollars are at stake in these efforts. But make no mistake, all of this is ultimately about personal greed at the expense of children.

On a related note, I mentioned in my original post that District 9 candidate Russelle Bradbury is a former Teach for America teacher who has made pro-charter school statements. This matters because TFA and charter schools have a symbiotic relationship, and TFA candidates, like former school board member and TFA executive Elissa Kim, typically view charter schools and standardized testing as the only “solutions” to public school challenges. (I know there are good TFA teachers in our school system, some of whom have even taught my own children, but all of this is beside the point.) Ms. Bradbury denied that she was ever a TFA teacher, to which I responded that she has said (both verbally and in writing) that her “Mom likes to tell people, ‘Russelle did Teach for America, on her own!'” I’ve invited her to respond, but have not heard back. 

Keep your eye on these dark money groups that don’t serve the best interests of Nashville’s students. Even when candidates don’t coordinate with groups like Tennesseans for Student Success, organizations like these typically fight against the candidate whom they view as the most effective advocate for true public education. And, as always, just follow the money!