TEA Calls for Statewide School Closure, Canceling TNReady

Even as Gov. Bill Lee has called on schools across Tennessee to close as soon as possible to mitigate the spread of Coronavirus, Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn in her most recent guidance suggested that TNReady testing would continue. Now, the Tennessee Education Association (TEA) is calling on the state to release a plan to both cancel TNReady and protect educators and staff who may be impacted by the closure.

Here’s the TEA press release:

“As concerns about the spread of COVID-19 rapidly increases statewide, we are relieved to see Gov. Bill Lee take decisive action to protect students, educators and families. The Tennessee Education Association supports the call for an immediate closure of our public schools statewide.

The Center for Disease Control and other federal agencies have issued guidance that gatherings of more than 50 people must be avoided to slow the spread of this dangerous virus. With that direction, it is irresponsible to keep our public schools open. If it is no longer safe for the General Assembly to conduct business with the public present, it is no longer safe for our schools to remain open.

It is critical that the state implement a plan to ensure students’ needs are met and educators are not harmed during a statewide closure. Many Tennessee students face food insecurity at home and rely on their school for a hot meal each day. Many students are also without computer or internet access at home, and thus unable to participate in distance learning. The Tennessee Department of Education must act quickly to address these concerns and work to identify a solution to protect our students.

The state’s plan must also include protections for educators during a statewide closure. No educator should be forced to use sick time or go unpaid while the state copes with a global pandemic, this especially includes education support professionals. Local school districts are the largest employer in many communities. A disruption in pay for educators would significantly increase the financial impact of the pandemic in Tennessee.

TEA is also concerned about the upcoming TNReady testing window. The Tennessee Department of Education’s recent letter to directors of schools indicated TNReady testing will continue as planned. Tennessee students and educators are dealing with increased stress and uncertainty following the devastating storms in Middle Tennessee and now a global health crisis. It is inappropriate to move forward with TNReady testing this year.

The Tennessee Education Association is calling on the Lee administration and the Tennessee General Assembly to cancel all TNReady testing and the portfolio evaluation system for this school year. There will be a significant loss of classroom time for students, and the continuity of instruction critical to building knowledge will be disrupted. Continuing with state high-stakes testing, or the time-consuming portfolio system used in Kindergarten and related arts, will only be setting our students and teachers up to fail.

The U.S. Department of Education has already released guidance stating it will consider waiving requirements for state-wide tests.

The Tennessee Department of Education and our state legislature must prioritize the health and well-being of students, educators and families. With that priority in mind the decision is simple to close all public schools, and cancel TNReady testing and the portfolio evaluation system. It would provide needed relief in this health crisis.”

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Coronavirus Extends Spring Breaks

As more information about Coronavirus (COVID-19) becomes available, school districts around the state are extending their Spring Breaks or otherwise canceling school functions and events. Here’s an example from Sumner County:

Sumner County Schools will extend spring break an additional week, March 23-27. We are taking this proactive step to help keep our school community healthy and safe. We will continue to monitor this rapidly changing situation closely based on information provided by the National Institute of Health, the Center for Disease Control, and the Tennessee Department of Health. We encourage you to visit our website or Facebook page for the most current information.

Meanwhile, the Department of Education has new information/guidance available here.

Starting March 16th, the Department of Education COVID-19 hotline is available for district leaders 629-888-5898 or toll free 833-947-2115. The hotline is available Monday-Friday 6:30 am – 4:30pm CT
Tennessee Department of Health has launched a Tennessee Coronavirus Public Information Line in partnership with the Tennessee Poison Center. The hotline number is 877-857-2945 and will be available from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. CT daily.

COVID-19 coronavirus is a respiratory illness caused by a novel (new) virus. Stopping transmission (spread) of the virus through everyday practices is the best way to keep people healthy. 
State health officials are currently taking steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Tennessee. Schools can play a key role in this effort. Through collaboration and coordination with local health departments, schools can take steps to disseminate information about the disease and its potential transmission within their school community.  

However, the Department and Commissioner Schwinn are still insisting the state proceed with the annual TNReady testing.

What is your district doing regarding Coronavirus? Let us know!!

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Penny on TNReady and COVID-19

Here’s a letter Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn sent to Directors of Schools regarding Coronavirus, testing, and school attendance/school closures. In short, she’s not going to make any decisions or take any leadership role.

Schwinn does not seem ready to ask the legislature to waive the tests or to recommend closing schools or to advocate for any emergency measures. This insistence on continuing to test comes despite federal guidance suggesting that states could very well receive waivers from testing mandates:

Guidance released by the U.S. Department of Education says it will consider waiving requirements for state-wide tests, currently mandated in grades 3-8 and once in high school. State testing occurs throughout the spring, and some school closures were already running into planned testing windows.  

So, we could have a Commissioner asking for a waiver. And, we could be taking steps to close schools or waive the 180 day attendance requirement. We’re just … not.

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The Tennessee Department of Education is in disarray, and the disruption is impacting students and their families, according to a recent story in Chalkbeat.

… the disbursements she receives to pay for curriculum and tutoring started showing up late, said Moore, who lives in Bartlett, northeast of Memphis. She had to borrow money in December to cover the costs. The state office she had known as responsive and helpful suddenly took weeks to return calls.

“Everything fell apart,” said Moore, who has limited income and receives disability payments.

Tennessee’s Republican-backed Individualized Education Account program, or IEA, is under increased scrutiny. Democrats and other voucher opponents are seizing on problems in the program — including parents being cited for disallowed purchases — to bolster their case that Tennessee can’t be trusted to launch a second, larger school voucher program this summer on Republican Gov. Bill Lee‘s accelerated timeline.

But Moore’s experience, and that of other parents like her, spotlights another aspect of the existing voucher program that has received little public attention: upheaval and uncertainty in the state Department of Education office charged with overseeing the relatively small initiative.

The resignations of the IEA director and her two staff members, a lag in replacing them, a failure by the state to answer pleas for more resources, and the challenges of overseeing a complicated program have all contributed to delayed disbursements and a frustrating information void in recent months, according to parents and current and former education department employees.

The challenges with the IEA voucher program and staff are just one example. Some in the Department of Education suggest the state will have difficulty administering the TNReady test this year:

An employee still with the department sums up her concerns by saying, “There is a complete lack of urgency or understanding regarding the human resource needs to launch an effective assessment in support of the districts, schools, teachers, students and parents of Tennessee.”

And then, there are reports of late night rants via email. Multiple sources confirm these reports.

All of this is occurring while the Department of Education also engages in questionable no-bid contracts such as the one awarded to ClassWallet to oversee the larger voucher program set to start in Memphis and Nashville this year.

Supposedly, all of this “upheaval” will be good for kids in the long-term. I suspect many school leaders, parents, and even legislators are becoming quite skeptical.

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Johnson on the Reality of the Education Budget

In this video, State Rep. Gloria Johnson presses Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn on the reality of the education budget.


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Rural Charters Coming Soon?

On Feb. 5, Gov. Bill Lee’s education chief presented the department’s “Best for All” plan to layout the administration’s goals for future of education in Tennessee.

During the 27-slide presentation, commissioner Penny Schwinn briefly described a new initiative to increase the number of charter schools operating in rural school districts. 

Schwinn told the audience of mostly legislators and staff that a $24 million line item for “Charter Schools Facilities Funding” in the governor’s budget included a $10 million, one-time grant for high school charter facilities called “Innovative High School Models.”

Schwinn said:

“…and Innovative High School Models. The thing that I want to touch on there is the governor proposed $12 million recurring, $12 million one time for charter school facilities funds. 

One of the things that we’re proposing with the one-time funds is $10 million that would go to help build public charter schools with districts — in partnership with districts — to create more opportunities for students in rural communities.

One would suspect that rural districts would be very interested to know the Commissioner’s plans for expanding charter schools into their territory. Perhaps the new school privatization commission will be the vehicle to make this happen?

Slide Showing Funds for Rural Charters

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More on the ClassWallet Controversy

I reported previously on the controversy surrounding ClassWallet and their contract to manage the voucher program in Tennessee. This week, members of a key legislative committee questioned Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn about the issue. Here’s more:


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Unilaterally Altered

Textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) is alleging that the Tennessee Department of Education “unilaterally altered” the textbook adoption process in a way that disadvantaged HMH and possibly benefitted other, preferred vendors.

The complaint, filed in Davidson County Chancery Court, makes the following claims:

However, the Department unilaterally altered the adoption process 
when it had already begun and significant steps already had been completed.

The original schedule was suspended when Dr. Lisa Coons became the 
Department’s new Assistant Commissioner for Standards and Materials

The Department then proposed various changes to the adoption process, 
and the Commission agreed to make certain changes to the re-review process in response thereto.

HMH notes that after the new process was in place, HMH’s Into Reading Tennessee, Grade 3 was failed. While HMH’s materials were failed, HMH suggests competing programs that were failed by the re-reviewers were ultimately awarded passing grades by the Tennessee Department of Education.

The net result: Because HMH’s 3rd grade materials were failed, school districts will be discouraged from adopting the HMH materials as a whole, as the materials build on each other through grade level series.

Here’s the real question: Why was the process changed mid-stream? What was behind Coons’ revamping of the process? Why were some materials that previously failed to meet standards ultimately adopted? Was there a preferred vendor (as was the case in the recent awarding of a contract to ClassWallet)?

So far, the tenure of Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn has been marked by lots of questions and very few answers.

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No Bid? No Surprise!

At a legislative committee meeting Monday, it was revealed that the contract that outsourced administration of the Education Savings Account (ESA) voucher scheme was awarded without competitive bidding. Chalkbeat has more:

A legislative review of new voucher rules gave Mitchell and other Democrats an opportunity to grill state education officials for almost two hours on Monday about details for the program’s start.

Among the revelations: The department did not go through a competitive bidding process or the legislature’s fiscal review committee to secure its contract with ClassWallet.

The lack of adherence to bidding procedures should come as no surprise as Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn faced similar challenges when she held a senior level position in the Texas Education Agency:

On November 21, 2017, then-Texas special education director, Laurie Kash, blew the whistle on the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) entering into a $4.4M no-bid contract with a special education data collecting company, SPEDx; she filed a report with the US Department of Education (USDOE) Office of Inspector General (OIG).

Kash’s supervisor? Penny Schwinn.

In short, Schwinn is doing what she’s always done: Bending the rules to serve her needs.

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Vouchers and Taxes

The Associated Press is reporting that after much debate, Tennessee’s school voucher plan (education savings accounts) will be counted as taxable income for some families.

Tennessee’s top education officials say a small number of parents who participate in the state’s latest school voucher imitative might be taxed for participating in the program.

The development on Monday comes after months of debate between policy officials, education advocates and lawmakers over whether the new school vouchers for private education will be considered federally taxable income for parents.

The announcement on taxes comes following a November statement by Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn that vouchers would be subject to taxes:

… Penny Schwinn dropped a bombshell yesterday when she told a legislative committee that the value of a voucher under the state’s new education savings account program would be considered taxable income for the purpose of federal taxes.

Following that announcement, Gov. Bill Lee said he didn’t believe the vouchers would be taxed. Now, it appears that at least for some recipients, accepting an education savings account will also mean accepting an increased tax burden.

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