TEA on State of the State

Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown offered these remarks in response to Governor Bill Lee’s State of the State:

“The Tennessee Education Association is pleased to hear Gov. Bill Lee intends to build on the substantial investments made in recent years to increase state funding of our great public schools. TEA supports his commitment to increasing career technical education programs, STEM initiatives and teacher salaries.

The teacher salary funding is substantial at $71 million, making it approximately a 2.5 percent increase. The key will be to ensure that money actually ends up in teacher paychecks. Additionally, if the $25 million going to vouchers and the $12 million earmarked for privately owned charter buildings were redirected to teacher salaries, the state could keep up with the cost of inflation and reimburse teachers for the hundreds of dollars they spend on classroom supplies.  

We have concerns about Lee’s proposal to increase funding for charter schools and pave the way for rapid charter school expansion. Charter schools are proven to destabilize public school budgets and damage existing classrooms where there is rapid expansion. Charter schools need to be a local decision, because local taxpayers bear a majority of the costs. The Tennessee Constitution clearly states that we have a responsibility to provide a quality public education for every student in Tennessee. Improving public schools requires more money, not less, to provide a well-rounded education for students.   

TEA also has deep concerns about massive funding for Education Savings Accounts, which are vouchers with less accountability that are more susceptible to fraud and abuse. In a time when teachers across the state have to dig deep into their pockets for needed classroom supplies, it is discouraging to see funding going to something proven to harm students in other states. Let’s support Tennessee students and teachers by directing taxpayer dollars to our public school classrooms, not vouchers that harm student achievement.     

There are many proven ways to improve public schools, such as reducing class sizes so educators can spend more one-on-one time helping students. We should invest in what we know works, including recruiting and retaining qualified and committed educators, creating inviting classrooms, supplying students with modern textbooks, and providing the other resources that can set all students off toward a great future. That’s how taxpayer funds should be spent.  

I believe we have common ground with the governor around the state TNReady assessment. While we welcome his commitment to ensuring students and educators do not experience the system failures of years past, it is important to recognize that even in a year where there are no issues administering the test, standardized test scores of a test like TNReady are not valid measures of student achievement, teacher effectiveness or school performance.

Students and teachers benefit most when tests are used as diagnostic tools to identify where students may be struggling and need extra instruction. The high-stakes TNReady system we have in place does not equip educators to diagnose and teach. TEA wants to see educators involved in the design and implementation of accountability alternatives, including a proper pre-test/post-test system, creative use of benchmark testing, and other accurate gauges to ensure student progress. TEA members statewide are committed to working with Gov. Lee’s administration and the General Assembly to advocate for legislation that is in the best interest of all Tennessee children.”

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PET on State of the State

JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, offered these comments in response to Governor Bill Lee’s State of the State:

Governor Bill Lee gave his first state of the state speech on Monday, March 4, 2019, from our state Capitol in Nashville, Tennessee. A highly anticipated address, it focused heavily on education issues including career and technical education initiatives, increased funding for school safety programs, and expansion of various school choice initiatives.

Since the beginning of his campaign, one of Governor Lee’s biggest priorities has been workforce development through expanding and strengthening career and technical education programs. As expected, he spoke more in-depth about his proposed Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education Initiative (GIVE) and how it fits into his administration’s proposed budget. Governor Lee sees this as an opportunity to help students develop the practical skills that help them perform in project-based environments, learn to work with others, and grow the discipline needed for success in a competitive workplace. It facilitates new partnerships between industry and our schools, and a more concrete connection between labor and education, which is a direction that the federal government has taken the past few years. The state will also expand and improve offerings in STEM, and CTE is a major priority. We applaud those investments in education.

TEACHER COMPENSATION
We are pleased that Governor Lee is fully funding the Basic Education Program and recommending $71 million for a well-deserved 2.5% pay raise for teachers. Compensation is the key to recruitment and retention of our educators. Our teacher compensation model needs to be competitive nationally. There is currently pending legislation from the administration that would require school districts to report to the department of education and the BEP review committee how they have implemented increased funding from the state for instructional wages and salaries, intended by legislators for teacher raises. This is a positive development. Governor Lee is sending a message to educators that he recognizes and appreciates their efforts and will work to see they are fairly compensated for their efforts.

TESTING
Policymakers and stakeholders have been waiting on a message from the governor about how he plans to improve our assessment system, to ensure that our metrics are empowering and informing, not inhibiting quality instruction, while providing accurate feedback for educators, parents, and students. The Governor talked about the frustration around the administration of the state test, and he has charged the Commissioner with the procurement process. Going forward, he stated that his focus will be on executing a testing regimen that is trustworthy, helpful, and on time. However, he did not address other adjustments to testing, like a pilot project that allowed some districts to use the ACT, ACT Aspire, or SAT Suites as a means of assessment or flexibility in high performing districts to use alternative evaluations.

SCHOOL SAFETY
School safety is also a high priority for the Governor. The proposed School Safety Grant program includes $40 million aimed at addressing the need for an SRO in every school. This includes an increase in current recurring expenditures and a one-time infusion of an additional $20 million. The program will prioritize the approximately 500 schools that do not currently have an SRO. While there is a local match requirement, schools may include the costs of current safety measures in that calculation. For schools who already have SROs, there will be an application process for them to request grant funds for other safety-related initiatives as outlined in the proposed legislation.

“School safety has been a high priority for Professional Educators of Tennessee,” according to the executive director of the organization JC Bowman. The organization conducted a statewide assessment on safety in 2018. Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond and Bowman also conducted a well-publicized School Safety Town Hall in Hamilton County in 2018.

“One of the highest priorities we can have in American society is the safety and protection of children – and the men and women who teach them,” according to Bowman. He added, “we think this is a very positive step in keeping our schools safe and reducing school violence.”

Helping students with mental health issues is another important component of school safety – especially children who have experienced physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect. Professional Educators of Tennessee has advocated for an increase in school counselors, whose work with students in this area of concern is of equal concern as their work helping student prepare to be college and career ready. The TN Department of Education launched a Trauma-Informed Schools initiative last fall to designate schools that have undergone training on how to create a school environment that both helps students and empowers teachers in their daily interactions with students. The program trains adults in the school to recognize and respond to those who have been affected by traumatic stress and includes training on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). We must make every school a safer place for all of our children.

CHARTER SCHOOLS
If a charter school is effective, then facility dollars may be a good investment. However, if a charter school fails to deliver on its promise of a quality education then the investment is a waste. Public schools are likely to also want to secure facility funding. We look forward to this debate and likely discussion. The state will eventually need to address facility growth in rapidly growing communities.

ED SAVINGS ACCOUNTS
For the most part, school choice is already available to upper-class families through residential mobility. However, low-income and middle-income parents/guardians have been subjected to limited choices for their children. This proposal by the Governor on Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) will allow parents in the most under-performing school districts to use a portion of state education money in a way that fits with what they believe that their children need. ESAs will most certainly be the most problematic piece for the Governor to pass and enact. The Tennessee Education Savings Account will provide approximately $7,300 to eligible, participating students. Eligibility is limited to low-income students in districts with three or more schools ranked in the bottom 10% of schools. This currently includes Metro-Nashville Public Schools, Hamilton County, Knox County, Jackson-Madison County, Shelby County, and the Achievement School District.

“They will likely pose capacity limitations for low socio-economic parents,” noted Executive Director JC Bowman. “By targeting districts that are lower performing, Governor Lee may be able to pass it through the Tennessee General Assembly. Nevertheless, ESAs do not guarantee improved school effectiveness or outcomes, better parental involvement, and certainly no increased systemic investments in public education. A positive to Lee’s ESA plan is that it will invest at least $25 million new dollars in public schools in the first year to fill the gap when a student transfers to another school. However, we have concerns regarding the implementation of the plan as presented, as well as future expansion.”

CONCLUSION
There was much to like in Governor Lee’s State of the State. The debate over ESAs will likely be the most contentious and draw the most debate. A fully funded Basic Education Program (BEP), recommending $71 million and a 2.5% pay raise for teachers is much needed. We had hoped he would address other issues like school finance and discuss the possibilities of a school funding formula to reflect changing 21st century needs. However, in general, we think most Tennesseans will react positively to the speech by Governor Lee. Those on the right will certainly love the attention to civics and character formation, as well as on curriculum in which he pledged to “root out” the influence of Common Core in our state. Those on the left will like increased funding for school safety programs going to SROs. He laid out a fairly ambitious agenda; it is now the Tennessee General Assembly’s turn to vote their opinion.

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

100% for Charters, 2.5% for Teachers

Tonight, Governor Bill Lee outlined his proposed budget for 2019-2020. Lee’s budget doubles the fund for charter school facilities to $12 million. This amounts to a benefit of $342 per student (there are roughly 35,000 Tennessee students in charter schools).

Meanwhile, he announced a meager improvement to teacher salaries of around 2% – $71 million. This amounts to $71 per student.

So, charter schools — which serve only 3.5% of the state’s students — will see a 100% increase in available facility funding from the state while teachers will see only a 2% increase in pay.

If the two investments were equal and funded at the rate granted to charter schools, there would be a $342 million investment in teacher salaries. That’s roughly a 10% raise. A raise that’s desperately needed as Tennessee leads the nation in percentage of teachers with little to no classroom experience. We also have one of the largest teacher wage gaps in the Southeast.

As one Nashville teacher pointed out, Nashville – and the entire state — have a failed business plan:


I’m starting a business and looking for workers. The work is intense, so the workers should be highly skilled. Experience preferred. Starting salary is 40k with the opportunity to get all the way to 65k after 25 years of staying in the same position. See how dumb that sounds?

Now, those are numbers for Nashville. Some teachers around the state have to teach for 10 years before they even hit $40,000. Still, the point is clear: The value proposition for teachers in our state is not very good. Unfortunately, Governor Lee’s first budget is not doing much to change that. It’s the status quo. A nominal increase that will likely not entirely make it into teacher paychecks.

Tennessee’s numbers when it comes to both investment in schools and educational attainment are disappointing. Continuing along the same path means we’ll keep getting the same results.

The bottom line: Money matters.

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Not Listening

Tennessee’s new Commissioner of Education, Penny Schwinn, has been visiting schools around the state, but apparently, she’s NOT listening.

Here’s more from a visit she made to an elementary school in Bristol:


During a visit Thursday to Anderson Elementary School in Bristol, Tennessee, Schwinn emphasized a number of priorities. 
She said it’s essential the next vendor puts more safeguards in place to ensure testing goes smoothly.
“Certainly we’re going to hold the new vendor accountable,” said Schwinn. 

Additionally, Schwinn commented on the timeline for hiring a new testing vendor:


Schwinn said the bidding process for a new vendor will begin in a few weeks but they don’t plan to execute a new contract until September 2019. 

That’s right. There won’t even be a new testing vendor for the next iteration of TNReady until September of 2019. Students will start taking tests (at least EOC) by December. The September hiring also gives the new vendor just 8 months to prepare for the heavy testing month of April 2020.

Here’s the deal: No one trusts TNReady. Teachers tell us they don’t believe it accurately measures student performance. After a year of supposed hackers and imaginary dump trucks, students don’t take it seriously.

Schwinn is repeating lines used by former Commissioner Candice McQueen. She’s talking about safeguards and teacher resources when there are testing problems. Those of us who have actually been in Tennessee the past five years know what that means: Nothing will change.

How long will we tolerate a failed testing regime that provides little usable data and results in policy that’s bad for kids?

Good news, Tennesseans — the new Governor Bill is as tone deaf as the previous Governor Bill. Maybe he should stop sending out weekend reports from the farm and start actually talking to (and listening) to teachers and parents in our schools. Meanwhile, his handpicked Education Commissioner is demonstrating that while she might appear to be doing the right things (visiting schools, listening) she has a serious comprehension problem.

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Mike Pence and Bill Lee

Governor Bill Lee is big on pushing a vocational/technical education agenda. In fact, it was his first public policy proposal.

Back in 2015, Mike Pence was the Governor of Indiana. He proposed an expansive program to enhance vocational/technical education. Here’s more on how that’s worked out from an economist at Ball State University in Indiana:

Back in 2015, I welcomed Gov. Pence’s call for more vocational education in schools. But, what was designed as a wise policy to prepare more students for a productive life at work ended up causing the state’s school board to weaken curriculum requirements. This has left us with a workforce less prepared to withstand automation-related job disruption.

Let me say it plainly. Our educational policy shifts were not merely unwise but wholly uninformed. By focusing on the needs of just a few vocal businesses at the expense of students, we have significantly weakened the state’s economy.

By softening the educational requirements in high schools, and by promoting jobs of today rather than careers for the future, we may well have squandered the opportunity for rapid growth during the longest recovery in U.S. history. It is time for the General Assembly to undertake a thoughtful and informed review of our human capital policies. It is also time for employers and households to make it clear to elected officials that the long-term interests of Indiana lie in a well-educated and well-trained workforce.

Stay tuned to see if Lee follows the Pence script by expanding vocational education and then expanding vouchers, potentially doubly weakening Tennessee schools.

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

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First

Governor Bill Lee’s first legislative initiative focuses on education, specifically, vocational education.

Here’s the press release announcing the GIVE Act:

Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced his first legislative initiative, the Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education (GIVE) to expand access to vocational and technical training for Tennessee students.

“I believe that expanding our vocational and technical offerings will be transformational for Tennesseans and the future of our state,” said Lee. “We have the opportunity to help students discover quality career paths and gain skills that are needed right now in the workforce by emphasizing career and technical education.”

The GIVE initiative is a two-pronged approach that utilizes regional partnerships to develop work-based learning and apprenticeship opportunities. Communities will now have the funding and flexibility to build programs that best reflect local needs and work directly with private industry to structure programming.

GIVE also provides funding for high school juniors and seniors to utilize four, fully-funded dual enrollment credits for trade and technical programs. Previously, high school students only had access to two fully-funded dual enrollment credits. With access to four credits, students will now be better prepared for entry into the workforce within two years of graduation.

“With GIVE, there is now a framework in place to partner with the private sector in addressing gaps in our workforce,” said Lee. “This initiative also puts students in charge of their future by preparing them for a good job right out of high school.”

Two grant programs will fund the initiative: GIVE Community Grants and GIVE Student Grants. Using the framework of the state’s Labor Education Alignment Program (LEAP), the governor will recommend new funding in support of work-based learning through GIVE Community Grants. These competitive grants will go to regional partnerships between TCATs, industry, and K-12 to build new programs in work-based learning and apprenticeships, market-driven dual-credit opportunities, and the expansion of industry-informed CTE offerings at local high schools.

GIVE Student Grants will be funded via the Tennessee Lottery and support expanded access to dual enrollment.

“It is time to make sure education in Tennessee embraces multiple pathways to success,” said Lee. “We believe GIVE is a key step for the future of our kids and ensuring we can fill the jobs of tomorrow.”

 

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


 

Will Bill Lee Get Serious About Teacher Pay?

New Tennessee Governor Bill Lee is expected to layout his first spending proposal for the state in late February, with a State of the State Address planned for early March. First, he’s holding hearings to learn from state departments about current expenditures and needs/desires going forward.

Yesterday, he heard from the Department of Education and indicated that improving teacher pay would be among his priorities, though he didn’t offer any specifics.

First, let’s be clear: Our state has the money available to make a significant investment in teacher pay.

TEA identifies more than $800 million in revenue from budget cycles dating back to 2015 that could be invested in schools. Additionally, there’s an estimated surplus of $200 million and new internet sales tax revenue of $200 million.

Next, let’s admit we have a crisis on our hands. Tennessee teachers are paid bargain basement prices and the situation is getting dire:

Tennessee has consistently under-funded schools while foregoing revenue and offering huge local and state tax incentives to Amazon.

In fact, while telling teachers significant raises were “unaffordable” last year, Metro Nashville somehow found millions to lure an Amazon hub to the city. This despite a long-building crisis in teacher pay in the city. Combine a city with low pay for teachers with a state government reluctant to invest in salaries, and you have a pretty low value proposition for teachers in our state.

Now, let’s talk about why this problem persists. It’s because our school funding formula, the BEP, is broken:

The state funds 70% of the BEP instructional component. That means the state sends districts $28,333.90 per BEP-generated teacher. But districts pay an average of $50,355 per teacher they employ. That’s a $22,000 disparity. In other words, instead of paying 70% of a district’s basic instructional costs, the state is paying 56%.

To be clear, those are 2014 numbers. So, let’s update a little. Now, the state pays 70% of $44,430.12, or roughly $31,000 per teacher generated by the BEP formula. But, the actual average cost of a teacher is $53,000. So, districts come up $22,000 short in their quest to stretch state dollars to meet salary needs. Of course, districts are also responsible for 100% of the cost of any teachers hired beyond the BEP generated number. Every single district in the state hires MORE teachers than the BEP generates. Here’s more on that:

First, nearly every district in the state hires more teachers than the BEP formula generates. This is because students don’t arrive in neatly packaged groups of 20 or 25, and because districts choose to enhance their curriculum with AP courses, foreign language, physical education, and other programs. This add-ons are not fully contemplated by the BEP.

Chalkbeat notes another challenge of getting money into teacher paychecks:

Under Haslam, the state increased allocations for teacher pay the last three years, but the money hasn’t always reached their paychecks. That’s because districts have discretion on how to invest state funding for instructional needs if they already pay their teachers the state’s average weighted annual salary of $45,038.

There are, of course, some clear solutions to these challenges. These solutions have yet to be tried. Mainly because they cost money and our political leaders have so far lacked the will to prioritize a meaningful investment in our teaching force. Here’s an outline of how those solutions might work:

There’s an easy fix to this and it has been contemplated by at least one large school system in the state. That fix? Moving the BEP instructional component to the state average. Doing so would cost just over $500 million. So, it’s actually NOT that easy. Another goal of those seeking greater equity is moving the BEP instructional match from 70% to 75%, essentially fulfilling the promise of BEP 2.0. Doing so would cost at least $150 million.

My guess? Bill Lee won’t propose either of these solutions. That doesn’t mean a legislator can’t or won’t — though it hasn’t happened so far.

Stay tuned for late February, when we’ll see what Bill Lee means when he says he’s committed to improving teacher pay.

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When are Teacher Strikes Coming to Tennessee?

Teachers working for substandard wages. Students attending school in trailers because of overcrowding. A lack of school counselors, nurses, and support staff. A funding shortfall of around $1 billion.

Yes, these conditions all describe Tennessee. But the story reporting on them is about schools in our neighboring state of Virginia.

Here’s more of what’s happening next door:

Just a few miles away from the moldy trailers of McLean high school is the proposed site of on Amazon’s new headquarters in Crystal City, Virginia, right across the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial. The influx of new residents to northern Virginia attracted by Amazon is only likely to expand the trailer parks sitting outside of many northern Virginia schools.

While Virginia’s Democratic governor Ralph Northam is proposing to increase education funding by $269m, he has proposed to spend nearly three times as much, $750m, to lure Amazon to northern Virginia. The offer was made to secure Amazon’s “HQ2” – the tech company’s second headquarters which it split between Virginia and a second – equally controversial – site in Long Island City, New York.

Teachers are pushing back and now are going out in the first statewide teachers’ strikes in Virginia’s history.

Sound familiar?

It should.

Tennessee has consistently under-funded schools while foregoing revenue and offering huge local and state tax incentives to Amazon.

In fact, while telling teachers significant raises were “unaffordable” last year, Metro Nashville somehow found millions to lure an Amazon hub to the city. This despite a long-building crisis in teacher pay in the city. Combine a city with low pay for teachers with a state government reluctant to invest in salaries, and you have a pretty low value proposition for teachers in our state.

In fact, some teachers are openly expressing concern and highlighting our state’s failed business plan:

I’m starting a business and looking for workers. The work is intense, so the workers should be highly skilled. Experience preferred. Starting salary is 40k with the opportunity to get all the way to 65k after 25 years of staying in the same position. See how dumb that sounds?

Teachers in West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Los Angeles have experienced some level of success in recent strikes. Teachers in Virginia were on strike today. These strikes have earned the support of parents and community members and have yielded tangible results both in terms of new investments in schools and increased political power for teachers.

Here in Tennessee, however, teachers have yet to strike. In fact, it’s difficult to find serious discussion of a strike. Sure, our investment in schools is less now than when Bill Haslam took over ($67 less per student in inflation-adjusted dollars). And yes, our teachers earn among the lowest salaries in the region with no significant improvement in recent years. Oh, and our own Comptroller says we’re at least $500 million short of what we need to adequately fund schools. A closer look at what the state’s BEP Committee leaves out reveals that number is very likely $1 billion.

So, when will Tennessee teachers strike?

Or, are the conditions that are unacceptable in so many places across the country just fine for our schools here in Tennessee?

If you’re a teacher and you have thoughts on striking, I’d love to hear from you: andy@tnedreport.com

 

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Wilson County School Board Opposes Vouchers

The Wilson County School Board unanimously passed a resolution opposing the creation of a voucher program in the state ahead of this year’s legislative session. Wilson County joins Knox County in speaking out about the dangers of a voucher scheme.

The move comes as Bill Lee is on the verge of taking over as Governor. Lee is strong proponent of using public money to fund unaccountable private schools.

Here’s more from the Lebanon Democrat:

The Constitution of the state of Tennessee requires that the Tennessee General Assembly “provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools,” and the state has established nationally recognized standards and measures for accountability in public education, according to the resolution

“Vouchers eliminate accountability, by channeling taxes to private schools without the same academic or testing requirements, public budgets or reports on student achievement, open meetings and records law adherence, public accountability requirements in major federal laws, including special education laws,” Wright said. “Vouchers have not been proven effective at improving student achievement or closing the achievement gap, and vouchers leave students behind, including those with the greatest needs, because vouchers channel tax dollars into private schools that are not required to accept all students, nor offer the special services they may need.”

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


 

Commissioner Schwinn

Tennessee has a new Commissioner of Education.

Chalkbeat has the story of Penny Schwinn:

Penny Schwinn was tapped Thursday by governor-elect Bill Lee to join his administration in one of his most important and closely watched cabinet picks.

She will leave her job as chief deputy commissioner of academics for the Texas Education Agency, where she has been responsible since 2016 for school programs, standards, special education, and research and analysis, among other things.

In a statement, Lee praised Schwinn’s experience as both a teacher and administrator. An accompanying news release touted her reform work for leading to “the transformation of a failing state assessment program” and expansion of career readiness programs for students in Texas.

Here’s a word from the President of the Tennessee Education Association, Beth Brown:

As the president of the largest professional association for Tennessee educators, I look forward to working with Commissioner Penny Schwinn in the best interest of Tennessee students, educators and our great public schools. As a newcomer to our state, I hope she will take time to see firsthand the meaningful work happening in classrooms all across Tennessee, and also gain an understanding of the support and resources needed to ensure student success.

Based on our first conversation, I am confident we have common ground on the importance of test transparency, including educators’ voices in policy decisions and working to ensure all students have access to a quality public education.

Schwinn will take over a Department of Education reeling from repeated failures of the state’s standardized test, TNReady, and the subsequent lies to cover up the state’s culpability in those failures.

Additionally, the state’s turnaround district — the Achievement School District (ASD) is simply not getting results.

Schwinn’s tenure in Texas was not without controversy, as noted by the Texas Tribune:

In an audit released Wednesday morning, the State Auditor’s Office reviewed the education agency’s work and found it failed to follow all the required steps before offering a no-bid $4.4 million contract to SPEDx, which was hired to analyze how schools serve students with disabilities and help create a long-term special education plan for the state.

State auditors also said the TEA failed to “identify and address a preexisting professional relationship” between a SPEDx subcontractor and the agency’s “primary decision maker” for the contract. Penny Schwinn — that decision maker and the agency’s deputy commissioner of academics — did not disclose that she had received professional development training from the person who ultimately became a subcontractor on the project.

Schwinn will likely be tasked with taking action on both testing and the ASD as immediate action items. Additionally, it is expected that the Lee Administration will soon pursue an education agenda that includes using taxpayer dollars to fund private schools by way some form of voucher scheme.

 

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