Students Set to Return to School as COVID Cases Spike

The head of the Knox County Education Association (KCEA) is calling on that district to begin school this semester in a hybrid or virtual model as COVID-19 cases spike in Knox County and across the state.

WBIR has more:

The Knox County Education Association called for the county’s schools to start the semester in the “red zone” with no in-person learning, or with an alternating hybrid schedule where students alternate in-person days, the group’s president said Monday. 

“We can’t sacrifice lives over politics and we need to do what’s right and what’s best for everyone,” Tanya Coats told 10News. “Educating kids is a priority for us, but we just need to do it remotely from home.” 

The push in Knox County to move to remote learning comes at time when new cases of COVID-19 in Tennessee and in Knox County are increasing.

As WBIR notes, since December 11th:

. . . the county’s health department has reported in excess of 10 thousand more positive tests and more than 100 new deaths tied to the virus. The number of active cases has increased by 62 percent. 

In fact, Tennessee achieved “best in the world” status for COVID transmission rate (the highest rate) in December and the entire state is currently identified as a COVID-19 “hot spot” according to Tennessean reporter Bret Kelman:

Some districts have already announced they will open virtually this semester for at least a few days up to a few weeks. With numbers surging and a post-Holiday spike expected, it’s not clear when conditions will be safe for in-person learning.

Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Lee has called a “not so special” session of the legislature to address the issue. That meeting will begin on January 19th.

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

Your support$5 or more – makes publishing education news possible.

Bill Lee’s Not So Special Session

So, Gov. Bill Lee has decided to call a special session of the Tennessee General Assembly to address education issues he’s largely ignored during his time as governor. While Lee has eagerly pursued a privatization agenda, he’s left teachers and public schools behind. Now, he wants to make it seem like he’s doing something. This is, after all, the same Governor who led Tennessee to the “best in the world” status in transmission rate of COVID-19.

Chalkbeat reports on the topics to be discussed during the session:

He’ll ask the legislature to address state testing challenges next spring during the pandemic, as well as funding for teacher pay and schools for the following academic year. Also on the agenda will be initiatives to address learning loss and a comprehensive literacy package to improve students’ reading proficiency.

Reading this is actually pretty amusing, considering the very problems or challenges Lee is seeking to address were created by a man named Bill Lee who happens to be the Governor. Maybe “Special Session Bill Lee” should go have a talk with “Regular Session Bill Lee” and see what they can work out?

Anyway, let’s look at those issues.

Testing

Bill Lee has consistently pushed the state’s failed testing agenda that means more profits for testing companies and less learning for kids:

Funding and Teacher Pay

This is hilarious. Gov. Bill Lee, who cut a planned teacher pay raise just a few short months ago, now says we need funding for . . . teacher pay? Are you even kidding? Do you think teachers don’t have memories?

Oh, and remember his first proposed budget? The one that made it clear his priorities were with a privatization agenda and NOT with investing in teachers?

Then, there’s the overall issue of school funding. An independent review found that the state’s school funding formula needs at least $1.7 billion to adequately fund schools. Has Lee made any effort to meet this need? NO!

Learning Loss and Literacy

You want to address learning loss and literacy? Fund our schools, pay our teachers, and invest in kids. Lee’s done none of those things and there’s exactly zero indication that he has a plan to change that.

Echo Chamber

Predictably, Lee’s allies chimed in right away applauding his poor excuse for effort as something other than sound and fury signifying nothing.

These two stooges eagerly support Lee and went along with his plans to cut investment in schools in June of this year. Now, they’re acting like Lee is some kind of hero for realizing there’s a crisis — a crisis of his own creation. It’s like a firefighter complimenting an arsonist for at least calling the fire department AFTER the house was almost absorbed in flames.

Forward

If we want to move our state forward in terms of public education, we will do the following:

  1. Cancel TNReady now and forever
  2. Invest in teacher pay – starting with at least a 25% raise to make up for years of inadequacy
  3. Add the $1.7 billion TACIR says our state needs to properly fund schools and distribute it according to a new BEP formula that builds on BEP 2.0.

I’m going to go ahead and predict that Bill Lee and his cronies will do none of those things. Oh, and to no one’s surprise, Lee’s dark money pals over at Tennesseans for Student Success are already out with a statement congratulating Lee for his efforts.

This is kind of like a cow congratulating a chicken for realizing it was a bad idea to go to KFC.

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

Your support$5 or more – makes publishing education news possible.

Trump’s Voucher Emergency

Unable to convince federal lawmakers to pass a voucher scheme despite the persuasive talents of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, President Trump today issued an Executive Order calling on the Department of Health and Human Services to create a school voucher program from CARES Act funds.

Peter Greene writes about this and provides the reassuring analysis that President-elect Biden can simply reverse this Executive Order on January 20th when he becomes President Biden (yes, despite Gov. Bill Lee’s reticence to acknowledge it, Joe Biden will be the President on January 20th).

Here’s some of what Greene has to say:

Today the White House (if Donald Trump wrote this thing, then I’m the Queen of Rumania) issued an executive order “expanding educational opportunity school choice” to create “Emergency Learning Scholarships for Students.”

The argument in favor of this is that January 20th is coming and the administration wants their damn vouchers now, dammit. Okay, not really. The argument for this is

1) We totally identified effective measures for resuming face-to-face and we gave you $13 billion whole dollars to do it (never mind the part where we tried to divert a bunch of that to private schools)

2) Continued distance learning is bad. Here are a few statistics we found. 

3) Building closures are extra hard on students with special needs, because they cut off not only education but support services. They’re not wrong on this one. Of course, another solution would be to give public schools the resources they need to fix this. In fact, that would be the solution that would make sense, since the public system already knows who and where the students are and what they need. Bringing in another batch of service providers means that they should be done with needs assessments right around June.

READ MORE from Greene on the “Voucher Emergency”

I’m eagerly awaiting the press release from Gov. Lee’s office enthusiastically supporting this ridiculous effort. Next, Tennesseans for Student Success will chime in to support the Gov.

pexels-photo-987585.jpeg
Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

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

Your support$5 or more – makes publishing education news possible.

Just Kidding

Apparently, Gov. Bill Lee doesn’t really believe the COVID-19 pandemic is all that serious. Despite a prime time address Sunday in which he “strongly urged” and made some suggestions, there’s been very little real action. What action there has been reflects a Governor who is not actually all that concerned about the safety and well-being of those in schools.

WPLN’s Alexis Marshall has more:

But a state education department spokesperson tells WPLN News that the newest executive order doesn’t apply to schools.

The governor says that if people must work in-person, they should mask up. “We want you to work safely, and that’s what we’ve been doing with teachers throughout this pandemic,” he said.

However, the state has not required teachers to wear masks. That decision is left up to individual school districts, some of which have declined to require face coverings for students and staff.

So, despite what Lee describes as a crisis in our state, schools will be open for in-person learning and there will be no mask mandate issued by the Governor for schools.

Lee’s failure to lead is evident in our status as among the worst places in the world for the spread of COVID, and now he’s making a series of suggestions but also not applying any new policy to schools.

Bill Lee claims to be taking the virus seriously. His actions suggest he’s just kidding.

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

Your support$5 or more – makes publishing education news possible.

Turkey Farmer

Nashville education blogger TC Weber offers some insightful commentary on Gov. Bill Lee’s speech on the state’s ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

Here are some highlights:

What you missed remains unclear because the Governor managed to address a crisis without offering any clear direction. There were a lot of suggestions, and a few warnings, but no mandates. In essence, a request was entered, that if Tennesseans planned on any social gathering, perhaps they’d be kind enough to limit them to 10 people unless they were funerals, weddings, church services, or … not social events.

Nearly a third of Executive Order 70 is devoted to sporting events, with nary a mention about schools, bars, restaurants, or constructions sites – all of whom would welcome, and arguably require clearer guidance. Mind you, I’m not favoring one set of mandates over another, but if you are going to promise something of substance, offer something of substance. Hell, he quoted Churchill, that alone raises the bar. Per usual with Lee and his team, we are left to debate the quality of action as opposed to the actual policy. Something that has come to define the Lee administration.

The thing that I’m more fascinated with is, what happens behind the scenes. I’m assuming that there were several meetings held prior, to devise the strategy and wording of Lee’s speech. Wasn’t anybody struck by the inadequacies of this response? Or did everybody sign-on?

Did Blake Harris his Chief of Staff, read the speech and say, “Perfect. Way to thread the needle on Government and free will. People will love this.”

Did his Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn take a look at it and say, “Nicely done. Don’t offer any guidance on schools, nobody’s interested in that. We already put those rumors about closing schools to bed. This here speech is a shining example of leadership.”

It has long been my belief that the quality of leadership is revealed by the people a leader surrounds themselves with. Between several high profile resignations and current moves by Governor Lee, I don’t think anybody can put forth the argument that he’s surrounding himself with a high-quality team focused on the citizens of Tennessee. My father used to have a plaque on the wall that read, “You can’t fly with the  eagles if you surround yourself with turkeys.” Governor Lee seems to fancy himself as some kind of turkey farmer.

READ MORE from TC>

flight bird animal farm
Photo by Mohan Nannapaneni on Pexels.com
Image of a Potential Cabinet Member in the Lee Administration

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

Your support$5 or more – makes publishing education news possible.

Lack of Action

Tonight, Gov. Bill Lee addressed the State of Tennessee in response to a growing crisis as Tennessee is a national and world leader in COVID cases per capita and in the rate of spread of the disease.

Lee insisted that masks work and then refused to issue a mask mandate. He did issue an Executive Order that says very little. It limits indoor social gatherings to 10 or less people but allows high school sports, says nothing about whether schools should or will be open for in-person learning, and does not change current protocol regarding bars and restaurants.

Here’s more on that order:

Lee took no responsibility for his failure to take action up to this point – a failure that has made our state one of the most dangerous places to be in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic. As Tennessee hospitals are strained and residents are sick and dying (10,000 new cases a day, as Lee mentioned), Lee did not acknowledge that his policy ineptitude had anything to do with the current crisis – a crisis not faced at this time at this level anywhere else in the country.

State Representative Gloria Johnson of Knoxville offered this succinct response to Lee’s address:

“More than 6,000 Tennesseans are dead and many of these were preventable deaths. His own administration told us that hospitals are on the brink of collapse. At this point it is impossible to separate COVID-19 suffering and death from Gov. Bill Lee’s refusal to fight this virus.

I have already heard from constituents with hospitalized family members and from doctors who had hopes the governor would listen to their pleas, they were devastated by the lack of action.”

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

Your support$5 or more – makes publishing education news possible.

Kelsey Sends Grinchy Voucher Christmas Card

Tennessee’s “Mr. Voucher” State Senator Brian Kelsey sent Christmas greeting cards with a grinchy message about his non-stop work to privatize Tennessee’s public schools. Apparently, even the “Season of Giving” is one where Kelsey spends his time thinking about how to send taxpayer money to public school privatizers.

Here’s that fun card:

Of course, public school advocates are fighting back, asking the Supreme Court not to hear Kelsey’s appeal. It seems Kelsey’s just mad because after doing all that work to help Gov. Bill Lee pass a voucher scheme, the Tennessee courts have repeatedly held the law to be unconstitutional.

Parents Fight Back

Here’s a press release from the group Public Funds for Public Schools:

Parents of students in the Nashville and Memphis public schools, who are plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging a state law imposing a private school voucher program on their counties, have told the Tennessee Supreme Court there is no basis to review lower court rulings striking down the voucher program as unconstitutional.

In 2019, the Tennessee legislature passed, by a one vote margin, a law to divert funding from the already under-resourced public schools in Shelby (Memphis) and Davidson (Nashville) Counties to private schools through an “education savings account” (ESA) voucher program. ESA vouchers are used to pay private school tuition and other private education expenses.

Two lawsuits were promptly filed to challenge the voucher program, one by Shelby and Davidson Counties and the second by public school parents and community members in those counties.

The plaintiffs in the second lawsuit, McEwen v. Lee, are represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Education Law Center, partners in the national Public Funds Public Schools campaign, as well as by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and pro bono by the law firm Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP.

In May 2020, Chancellor Anne Martin of the Davidson County Chancery Court found that the voucher law violated the home rule provision of the Tennessee Constitution, which prohibits the general assembly from passing laws applicable only to specific counties without local approval. In September, the Tennessee Court of Appeals upheld Chancellor Martin’s ruling, concluding that the trial court had applied well-established precedent in determining the voucher law violated the constitution’s home rule protections.

The defendants in the litigation, led by Governor Bill Lee and joined by pro-voucher groups, have now asked the Tennessee Supreme Court to take up the case. The McEwen plaintiffs have moved to file an amici curiae brief urging the court to reject the appeal.

The brief argues against Supreme Court review of the voucher law for three reasons:

  • The public interest would not be served because private school vouchers have racist origins; voucher programs increase racial segregation; research evidence demonstrates vouchers harm the education outcomes of students who use them; and vouchers drain money from underfunded public schools serving the vast majority of students.
  • There is no constitutional duty to fund vouchers. Establishing and funding a private school voucher program is not within the state’s power and duty under the Tennessee Constitution’s education clause and, therefore, does not implicate a state function at all.
  • The voucher law is not a “pilot program” and has no impact on the state’s ability to improve education through innovative or pilot programs, as long as they comply with all provisions of the constitution.

“If the voucher law had not been struck down, tens of millions of dollars would have been diverted from the budgets of the Memphis and Nashville public schools in the current year alone,” said Jessica Levin, ELC Senior Attorney and Director of the PFPS campaign. “Because the program would automatically increase in size each year for five years, it’s crucial that the lower courts’ rulings invalidating the law are not reversed.”

In this extremely challenging time there is a critical need to increase funding and resources to public schools to address the impacts of COVID-19 on students and families. In addition to the Tennessee litigation, PFPS’s work over the past year has prevented hundreds of millions of public education dollars from being diverted to private schools.

Read more about PFPS litigation here and access additional information about McEwen v. Lee here.

Three Sizes Too Small?

In a year that has seen a devastating pandemic and a Governor who has done nothing to lead, Kelsey simply won’t stop fighting to take from our public schools and their students. We’ve seen cuts to a planned teacher raise and a stubborn insistence on state testing. Now, Brian Kelsey wants you to think about vouchers as the Holidays approach.

Brian Kelsey Gets Ready for the Holidays

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

Your support$5 or more – makes publishing education news possible.

The Best in the World

Well, Gov. Bill Lee has finally done it. Tennessee is the best. Not just the best in the South. Not just the best in the United States. Tennessee is the best in the whole WORLD!

Yes, you read that right. A guy who previously ran a mildly successful HVAC company has now led his state to become the BEST in the whole world at something.

What is it, you might be asking. I mean, this is an education blog, so maybe it has to do with schools.

It does, sort of .

Tennessee is number one in the world in the number of new COVID cases per population.

Here’s a tweet (and maps/graph to follow):

Here’s the thing: Gov. Lee refuses to lead on this issue. He won’t talk mask mandate. He won’t close schools to in-person instruction statewide. Hell, he won’t even properly deploy CARES Act funding.

Teachers across the state are dying of COVID and Lee’s best idea is to make sure kids take EOC tests.

Oh, and this is interesting — Lee’s lack of leadership means we also lead in another category – 9 of the top 20 cities where COVID is spreading the fastest are in Tennessee.

Oh, and if you’re a parent wondering what to do about childcare in case your kid’s school is closed into 2021? Yeah, Bill Lee doesn’t give a damn about that, either:

I keep trying to think of an example of a Governor in our country who has failed more spectacularly than Bill Lee. But, he’s basically cornered the market on governmental ineptitude.

planet earth
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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

Your support$5 or more – makes publishing education news possible.

#CancelBillLee

Center Square reports on how Gov. Bill Lee’s Administration continues to fail our public schools. This time, the news is about how Lee’s team has failed to expend millions of dollars in CARES Act funding at a time when Tennessee teachers are literally dying from COVID.

Here’s more:

More than six months after receiving more than $596 million in federal COVID-19 relief for education, entities in Tennessee have spent just over 43% of the funds, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) and Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE).

Under federal law, states must spend education-related COVID-19 relief within one year of the grant date by the U.S. Department of Education, or funds must be returned to the federal government. Tennessee funds were awarded by the USDOE in late May, so agencies have less than six months to spend the remaining 62 percent of funds before they are returned.

This is also noteworthy:

The federal database does not report how much of the $64 million in Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) funds awarded to the Tennessee Department of Education the state has spent, but state documents provided to The Center Square reveal the state’s plan for use of those funds, including $30 million earmarked for implementation of a literacy coaching program and literacy training for K-3 teachers statewide.

Let’s just be clear: Gov. Bill Lee cancelled a planned teacher pay increase this year fearing COVID-related economic concerns. Then, received millions in CARES money (Tennessee’s share for education was around $600 million). Lee did not offer teachers a bonus for teaching in a pandemic. He didn’t direct money to schools. His team is just sitting on the cash. Then, they put additional money toward a suspect literacy program.

Let me say this again: Tennessee teachers are dying because of failed leadership at the state level. District leaders look to Bill Lee who says it’s totally fine to operate without a mask mandate and that schools should be open — schools, by the way, are open, even if the buildings are closed. Lee is sitting by while teachers die and sitting on money that could help schools and kids.

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

Your support$5 or more – makes publishing education news possible.

General Assembly Preview

Nashville education blogger TC Weber offers some insight into what the General Assembly may be considering around education policy in 2021.

Here’s some of what he has to say:

First up is addressing BEP funding for schools. State funding is typically contingent on attendance numbers. Due to the pandemic, school districts across the state are losing students. According to Chalkbeat, the statewide decline in student enrollment this fall would normally decrease the allocation by at least $320 million.

Recognizing, that if those lost students come back next year when the Coronavirus is more manageable, districts will be under economic hardship, Representative Cerpicky has introduced a school stabilization bill that would in essence freeze funding at current levels, providing relief to districts.

To his credit, Cerpicky understands that this is just a beginning and he would like the General Assembly to conduct a review of the current BEP formula. Most stakeholders recognize the shortcomings of the current model, which was adopted in 1992, and its failure to adjust for inflation, government mandates, a growing charter school sector, and expenses driven by changes in technology. There seems to be a growing willingness to redress it.

Cerpicky’s thinking is that if a bill keeping districts financially solvent for another year can be passed, it would create a window of opportunity to address the BEP. Legislators would have 14 to 15 months in which to address the BEP formula in Education Committee meetings. I can’t disagree with that thinking.

Legislators for the most part appear to understand the importance of freezing district funding and appear amendable to keeping funding frozen. Well, all except Chairman Sexton who thinks that only schools who have open school buildings deserve protection. Apparently, he is unaware of the level of work teachers are doing remotely to keep students engaged. Somebody needs to hand him a clue. Instead of criticizing Memphis for taking their savings and giving teachers a 1% raise, he should be praising them for recognizing the level of sacrifice being made by teachers and principals.

The funding picture needs to be clarified as soon as possible so that superintendents can begin accurately creating their budgets for the next school year.

Equally important is a decision on whether TNReady will be administered, or not, and if administered, what impact scores will have on schools, teachers, and students. Most recognize that the administration of testing at this juncture is an exercise in futility. But there is a contingency who believes that the tests should be administered though results should not be used for accountability. My argument is that if I hold a scrimmage game and I keep score, despite calling it practice, everybody knows who the winners and losers are.

Not testing this year will not permanently damage kids, in fact, it would provide opportunities for additional instructional time. It’s been floated out there that this year’s tests should be canceled and money instead is allocated to summer school. I don’t know if that’s feasible or not, but it makes a lot more sense.

Here are some notes on the historically underfunded BEP:

Note here that TACIR – a state organization that analyzes state and local government – says the BEP is underfunded by $1.7 billion. Even with the COVID “savings,” it seems our schools need a drastic increase in investment.

Will the General Assembly get serious about actually coughing up that kind of cash? I seriously doubt it.

They should.

But, Gov. Lee has shown his true colors — he’s pushed a privatization agenda and he cancelled a planned teacher pay raise this past year. It’s not clear lawmakers have the courage or fortitude to challenge Lee when it comes to funding. Nor is it clear they will do what it takes to pump $1.7 billion into our schools.

We’re now on our second consecutive governor named Bill. Mr. Haslam revised the BEP in a way that virtually ensured we’d end up where we are now — with an inadequate funding mechanism for our state’s schools. Gov. Lee lacks the imagination to dream big for schools, instead preferring to pursue a privatization agenda that makes his friend Betsy DeVos proud.

The General Assembly “might” do something on school funding. Freezing the normal allocation to prevent significant funding loss as a result of COVID is a good start. But, there’s much more to be done. Lawmakers shouldn’t use the COVID situation as a scapegoat to allow them to get out of the much more challenging work of creating a long-term, sustainable BEP solution.

pexels-photo-164527.jpeg
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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

Your support$5 or more – makes publishing education news possible.