The Not So Super Hero

What if there was a political action committee with a relentless focus on what is good for kids? What if that PAC helped advance the education debate by focusing on the most pressing needs in our public schools? That sounds great, right? Well, instead, Tennessee is home to Team Kid PAC – a project of Tennesseans for Student Success. Sure, their Twitter avi is a super hero in a cape. But, their goals and objectives are anything but super. Instead of pushing for improved school funding or focusing on holding Gov. Lee accountable as he revamps the BEP, Team Kid PAC is all aboard the privatization express.

Here’s a seemingly innocuous tweet:

Sure, Chalkbeat is great and the TN Education Research Alliance is fine, but they’re clearly pushing out support for privatization groups.

And yeah, their Twitter account only has ten followers right now. But, the larger point is 2022 is an election year. It is very likely Team Kid PAC will be sending out mailers and making donations to candidates who support privatizing our public schools. So, it is important to understand their ultimate goal – school privatization.

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.

Team Kid PAC – pro-privatization and tied to the payday loan industry. Not exactly super.

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The Teacher Shortage Crisis is Here

For years, policy advocates and those paying attention have suggested a teacher shortage crisis was imminent. Instead of implementing strategies to attract teachers and keep them in the field, state policymakers have instead foisted more responsibility on already overwhelmed educators. Of course, these new responsibilities didn’t come with significant pay increases. In fact, teachers in Tennessee experience a significant pay gap compared to similarly educated peers in other professions.

Now, the crisis that was warned about has arrived. The COVID-19 pandemic likely exacerbated the challenge, to be sure. But, the reality is this is a situation that was entirely foreseeable. Rather than solve the problem, though, policymakers have waited until there are actual impacts to students.

Few are suggesting one key solution: Raise teacher pay substantially. Yes, adjusting responsibilities and providing a more welcoming work environment are also important. But, it is long past time to pay teachers significantly more. Tennessee has a $2 billion surplus from the recently-concluded fiscal year. We could fully close the teacher wage gap (a raise of about 20% for most teachers) and still have plenty of cash left over without raising taxes one dime.

But, no one who could make this happen is seriously suggesting that.

Instead, we see stories like this one:

Maury County school leaders are trying to find solutions to ongoing staff shortages.

The district has roughly 100 openings right now, along with a need for new substitute teachers and support staff.

Most districts in the state are struggling to find and retain teachers and staff.

Neighboring Williamson County Schools has about 80 teacher openings listed online, along with a hundred support staff positions.

Metro Nashville Public Schools has about 200 openings.

“It’s every district, every state, it’s something that’s been a hot topic for 5 years at least,” Sparks-Newland said.

Yes, this has been a hot topic for 5 years at least. And yet, no solution is on the horizon. Instead, Gov. Lee is suggesting finding a different way to slice the BEP pie. To be clear, this is a school funding formula that is $1.7 billion short of where it should be.

There are ways to improve the teaching profession and make it more attractive that don’t involve pay raises. Those should be addressed and implemented. But, any solution that does not also involve a substantial pay increase will miss the mark and serve to kick the can down the road. The ultimate victims in this delay tactic will be students. When Lee and others tell you they want to put students first, ask them why they aren’t pushing to raise the salaries of the people who teach those students.

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Nashville Voters Say Schools are Underfunded, Teachers Underpaid

Amid a global pandemic that is seeing an already troubling teacher shortage exacerbated, voters in Nashville are expressing concern that schools are underfunded and teachers are underpaid. These findings come as the result of a poll of registered voters conducted on behalf of the Nashville Public Education Foundation.

The poll found that voters (72%) believe teachers are underpaid – this in spite of a recent pay plan raising pay in Nashville some $7000 or more for most teachers. The pollster noted that previous results showed 80% of voters thought teachers were underpaid.

The findings on funding are not surprising in a state that had a $2 billion surplus in the past fiscal year and is underfunding schools by at least $1.7 billion.

According to the poll, 66% of Nashville voters feel public schools in the city are underfunded.

Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Lee is attempting to divert attention from his party’s dismal track record on school funding by pushing a statewide “review” of the school funding formula, known as the BEP.

What Lee and legislative leaders are not (yet) talking about is a dramatic increase in state funding for schools. Of course, there’s a February court date that may result in the Tennessee Supreme Court ordering policymakers to properly invest in schools.

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Moms for McCarthyism Coming to Sumner County

The Tennessee affiliate of a national dark money group focused on rooting out supposed indoctrination and banning seahorse porn is on the move. Moms for Liberty, currently quite active in Williamson County, is organizing now in Sumner County.

Here’s a meeting notice from them:

Note that the primary goal of the meeting is “taking back our schools.” It’s not clear exactly how far back the group wants to go. It was not too long ago (2012) that Sumner County Schools didn’t even open due to a County Commission that refused to fund the school system. Yes, that’s right. Sumner County Schools was closed for two weeks in 2012 due to a budget impasse between the School Board and County Commission. Maybe these “moms” want to go back to those days?

Probably, though, attendees at the meeting on October 24th will hear a lot about Critical Race Theory and about a curriculum known as “Wit and Wisdom.”

Here’s more on those topics:

Reuters reports that the fight in Williamson County is part of a broader, national movement:

The clash in Franklin, a Nashville suburb of 83,000 people, is part of a larger culture war over race and education that’s roiling other U.S. communities, and which has gained traction as a political force nationwide.

It has split parents and spooked some educators. Tennessee is pursuing plans to strip teaching licenses from instructors and cut state funding to schools that persistently teach taboo material.

CNN reports on the hunt for curriculum deemed objectionable by activists in the McCarthy Mom group based on their Williamson County antics:

The chapter has grabbed headlines for belligerent protests at school board meetings. They have attacked a high school LGBTQ pride float — one tweet wondered if students passing out pride literature were doing “recruitment.” And another meeting featured a tirade by a Moms For Liberty member against a children’s book about the lives of seahorses, which she said was too sexual.

So, the kind of school board meetings that grab national attention and become the subject of late night comedy TV could be coming soon to Sumner County. Plus, teachers could be brought up on charges and books and other materials could be banned.

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New State Commission Pushes Charters on Nashville

Gov. Bill Lee won approval of a “super charter commission” back in 2019. Now, that commission is imposing an unwanted charter school on Nashville.

The Commission voted today to overturn the decision by the MNPS School Board to reject the charter application from Nashville Classical, which already operates an elementary and middle school in East Nashville. The new school is proposed for West Nashville.

Nate Rau has a great explainer on the fight over Nashville Classical in the Tennessee Lookout.

Nashville Classical, which has already been rejected once by the school board with a 7-1 vote, submitted its appeal last week.

But, the starting point for the local debate over Nashville Classical’s application is a new state law that says the Nashville school board’s decision is functionally irrelevant. If the appeal is rejected, as expected, the school can simply appeal to the new Republican-backed state charter school commission, which would likely grant its approval. Unless a political meteor strikes and creates some unforeseen circumstance, Nashville Classical will be open to enrolling kindergarten beginning next year.

This was written back in June. Now, here we are in mid-October, and Nashville Classical has gained the predicted approval from the Charter Commission.

This should come as no surprise given Gov. Lee’s strong penchant for privatization.

School Board member Abigail Tylor is speaking out on the decision, but the reality is this type of top-down privatization is exactly what Bill Lee wants and exactly why the super charter commission was started.

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TEA Talks BEP Reform

Last week, Gov. Bill Lee made a so-called “major” announcement about plans to reform the state’s school funding formula – the BEP. I’ll have more on this development later.

For now, though, here’s the statement from Tennessee Education Association (TEA) President Beth Brown:

“The Tennessee Education Association supports Gov. Lee’s intent to engage educators, parents and community members in a critical evaluation of the state’s education funding formula. However, the central problem with education funding is not the BEP, but the inadequate level of state funding.

Tennessee ranks 46th in the nation for what we invest per student. It is irresponsible and harmful to Tennessee children to continue the pattern of insufficient state investment in our schools, especially at a time when Tennessee has the largest revenue surpluses in state history. We can and must do better for our students.     

Any review of the BEP funding formula must include more than recommendations on how to change the formula. Until the state makes a significant increase in public education funding to address many challenges plaguing our schools, updating a formula will not get us where we need to be to provide the high-quality public education Tennessee children deserve.”

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Unfazed

Gov. Bill Lee responded to three losses in court last week by doubling down on the executive order that landed him in court and allows parents to opt-out of local school district mask mandates.

Of course, as a result of the court orders, the opt-out is essentially meaningless in the districts where the suits originated. Still, Lee is persisting in renewing an executive order he has previously admitted his administration has no intention of enforcing.

Chalkbeat has more on the renewal:

Gov. Bill Lee said Thursday he’ll extend his executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of following local school mask mandates that protect them against the coronavirus.

The 30-day extension will come despite rulings by three federal judges blocking his Aug. 16 executive order, which is due to expire on Oct. 5.

The judges in Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville sided with some parents who said the governor’s order violates federal law by creating unsafe learning environments for students with disabilities who are more at risk of severe illness from COVID.

The move by Lee comes even as a new CDC report indicates that Tennessee has lost the most school days of any state due to closures related to COVID-19.

The Tennessean has more:

Unsurprising to many students and parents, Tennessee has seen the most COVID-related school closures so far this school year according to a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study published. 

From Aug. 2 to Sept. 17, Tennessee saw more than 400 schools close for at least one day, according to the study released last week.

The New York Times reports that Lee’s continued non-response to COVID-19 is the result of a desire to avoid a challenge from the extreme right of his party, citing GOP state Senator and Dr. Richard Briggs from Knoxville:

“The governor [Bill Lee] understands completely the seriousness of the problem, and I think that hard decisions are being tempered by political realities, which is that he has an election next year,” and “Dr. Briggs described the surge of cases in Tennessee as a “completely self-inflicted crisis.”

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Moms for McCarthyism Push Cancel Culture Agenda

Fearing unchecked liberal indoctrination and raging seahorse hormones, the Williamson County chapter of a national dark money group calling itself “Moms for Liberty” is aggressively pushing a cancel culture agenda worthy of Joe McCarthy.

A sampling of news about the group’s recent antics explains.

CNN reports on the hunt for curriculum deemed objectionable by activists in the McCarthy Mom group:

“The school bus goes right in front of my house and my kid is dying to ride it,” she told CNN. “But not until I have deemed that the curriculum is safe and will do no harm.” Steenman is counting on a new Tennessee law to force schools to end that curriculum — and ban at least one book in the elementary school library written from the perspective of Mexican Americans.

The group’s antics have created chaos at school board meetings and attacked student groups . . . and even seahorses:

The chapter has grabbed headlines for belligerent protests at school board meetings. They have attacked a high school LGBTQ pride float — one tweet wondered if students passing out pride literature were doing “recruitment.” And another meeting featured a tirade by a Moms For Liberty member against a children’s book about the lives of seahorses, which she said was too sexual.

If Teachers Make Kids Uncomfortable, They Get Cancelled

What these moms on a mission are really after is their own special cancel culture, where teachers tread lightly so as not to upset the wealthy and white:

In May, Gov. Bill Lee signed HB 580, a law aimed at banning so-called critical race theory from schools. Educators argue that critical race theory is not taught or included in the K-12 curriculum and is usually an elective class in college or law school.Section 51, part 6 of the Tennessee law makes lesson plans illegal if students “feel discomfort, guilt, or anguish.”

A spokesperson for the school board in Williamson County told CNN school leaders in the county have launched a “Reconsideration Committee” to review the books Moms For Liberty has complained about. One board member familiar with the process said new Tennessee law is hard to interpret, but this board member said they expect the state will ban at least one of the books Moms For Liberty cited.

Reuters reports that the fight in Williamson County is part of a broader, national movement:

The clash in Franklin, a Nashville suburb of 83,000 people, is part of a larger culture war over race and education that’s roiling other U.S. communities, and which has gained traction as a political force nationwide.

It has split parents and spooked some educators. Tennessee is pursuing plans to strip teaching licenses from instructors and cut state funding to schools that persistently teach taboo material.

Education Week reports on the potential chilling effect these McCarthy Moms could have:

Tennessee aims to levy fines starting at $1 million and rising to $5 million on school districts each time one of their teachers is found to have “knowingly violated” state restrictions on classroom discussions about systemic racism, white privilege, and sexism, according to guidance proposed by the state’s department of education late last week.

Teachers could also be disciplined or lose their licenses for teaching that the United States is inherently racist or sexist or making a student feel “guilt or anguish” because of past actions committed by their race or sex.

Joe McCarthy would certainly be proud.

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Mask Madness in Knox County

After a federal judge on Friday ruled that Knox County Schools must make masks mandatory, a group of parents began organizing a protest – suggesting they would send their kids to school without masks and then refuse to pick them up. Then, the planned protests escalated to using cars to block entrances to schools. Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs tweeted in favor of resisting the judge’s order. Now, though, the school system has closed for tomorrow as the district prepares to both enforce the judge’s ruling and deal with the protesting parents. The Knox County School Board had previously refused to issue the type of mandatory mask order that is in effect in a number of school districts across the state.

Here’s more on the story in a series of tweets from various players:

https://twitter.com/KnoxvilleHoller/status/1441864236335091716?s=20

Looks like someone missed the Intro. to U.S. Constitution class:

Rep. Gloria Johnson reports on the protest escalating:

The end result: Schools are closed in Knox County tomorrow. Ostensibly, they will reopen Tuesday. However, it is not yet clear how the schools will go about enforcing the mandate and keeping kids safe in light of the escalating rhetoric around protesting the mandate.

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Lee Strikes Out

Governor Bill Lee has lost in all three federal district courts in Tennessee in his attempt to prevent universal masking mandates in public schools. Yesterday (9/24), Lee lost in the East and Middle districts of Tennessee and he had already lost in the West district.

Meghan Mangrum and Mariah Timms have more in the Tennessean on the court ruling in Middle Tennessee:

Williamson County and Franklin Special schools will be able to enforce mask mandates under a ruling Friday from a federal judge in Nashville. 

U.S. District Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw, Jr. issued the order in the afternoon, blocking Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of the district’s mask mandates. 

The judge’s decision is temporary, lasting until 11:59 p.m. on Oct 5, the same time as Lee’s order is set to expire. On Friday, the governor told reporters he hasn’t yet decided on whether to renew the executive order. 

In spite of the setbacks in court designed to maximize student safety by mitigating COVID spread, Lee has indicated he may renew his order. Of course, that would be a moot point in at least Shelby and Knox County’s, as the rulings there overrule the opt-out approach Lee is promoting.

Nashville state Senator Jeff Yarbro pointed out Lee’s losing streak in a tweet:

It’s unclear why Lee would persist with a model he suggests he has no plans to enforce and which judges have ruled essentially unenforceable.

and now the governor says he isn’t planning to take action against districts that don’t comply with his order on mask opt-outs.

Something about you can’t please all the people all the time comes to mind.

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