Commentary

Stockard on the Stump: Textbook commission sends ‘hands off’ message to Schwinn

Plus: Governor takes heat for maskless, foot-washing photo op and Chattanooga special election approaches

September 10, 2021 5:00 am
Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, pictured at right with Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey, defends herself against questions about possible "Schwinnanigans."(Photo: John Partipilo)

Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, pictured at right with Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey, defends herself against questions about possible “Schwinnanigans.”(Photo: John Partipilo)

Tennessee Textbook Commission Chairman Linda Cash sent a message to the state Department of Education Thursday, declaring the group’s independence and letting officials know that no vendors should get an advantage in the coming math book selection process.

Under state law, “there are no pilots of anything to be pushed out during the 18 months of the adoption cycle,” Cash said during a meeting of the Textbook and Instructional Materials Quality Commission.

Cash, director of Bradley County Schools, made it clear the textbook commission is in charge of selecting books and materials and said she would consult with the commission’s attorney or the state Attorney General’s Office in case a district or vendor is found to be violating that law. 

The commission wants to avoid a replay of the recent English Language Arts book and materials adoption when the Department of Education got a little too close to the bidding process.

In fact, Cash wanted to discuss a request for proposals by the Department of Education to hire a vendor who would be responsible for helping school districts prepare for the coming math book and materials adoption. Cash said she wanted “clarification” on the RFP’s purpose.

The State Textbook Commission put Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn on notice that she can’t get involved in choosing books and materials, in accordance with a state law passed in 2020 to keep her on the sidelines.

Commissioner member Laurie Cardoza-Moore agreed, saying she wanted to know more about the request for proposals, in part to find out how the state approved a reading curriculum called Wit & Wisdom, which has flummoxed some Williamson County Schools parents.

An attorney for the Department of Education told the commission Thursday that under state law, members can’t talk about an open RFP, and she questioned what would be discussed anyway.

Nevertheless, those who know about this process say such a vendor isn’t necessary and takes choice away from local districts, possibly by pressuring school district officials to choose certain materials. 

Ultimately, the textbook commission couldn’t muster enough votes to add discussion of the RFP to its agenda. 

Still, Cash and commission member Jeff Combs both said on the record that vendors and school districts need to stay out of the way during the 18-month selection process and avoid any pilot programs for books and materials.

Combs noted that during the English Language Arts adoption, materials were piloted in several districts and added that he wanted to ensure the commission adheres to the law.

Those types of statements put Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn on notice that she can’t get involved in choosing books and materials, in accordance with a state law passed in 2020 to keep her on the sidelines. Asked about this previously, Schwinn said she doesn’t get involved once an RFP is released.

Yet the law stems from complaints by an international textbook publisher and Tennessee school district directors in 2019 that Schwinn and the department interfered in book selection by playing favorites. In response, the Legislature passed a bill removing the commissioner as a voting member of the Textbook and Instructional Materials Quality Commission and taking away the commissioner’s ability to grant waivers for school districts seeking to use unapproved books and materials.

The commissioner remains on the text commission in an ex-officio role, but the department is to provide only administrative help, not play a role in decisions. The Education Department’s jobs were spelled out clearly in Thursday’s meeting.

Washing kids’ feet

Responding to questions Thursday about a photo of him sitting unmasked with Perry County elementary-age children who are also maskless, Gov. Bill Lee said in a Thursday press conference, “I’m vaccinated and I’m going to act like that. If you’re asking whether I was concerned about those kids, we actually went to a rural distressed county. I washed the feet of elementary-age children, removed their old socks and their old shoes, put new socks on ’em and new shoes and did that for, I believe, 700 children we served that day. I’m vaccinated and felt perfectly safe to do that. I care deeply for those kids and that’s why we did that.” 

Gov. Bill Lee and his wife, Maria, to his right, wash the feet of children in Perry County. (Official photo from Gov. Bill Lee's Facebook page)
Gov. Bill Lee and his wife, Maria, to his right, wash the feet of children in Perry County. (Official photo from Gov. Bill Lee’s Facebook page)

He made the statement just before Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said vaccinated people can spread the disease, especially within the first two days of catching the virus. 

The vaccine is not fool-proof, but health officials say it is better than going without one.

On a serious note, Tennessee Lookout reported Thursday that at least eight public school employees have died since the school year started after contracting COVID-19. The number is now at 10, according to Senior Reporter Anita Wadhwani.

Asked for his response to school deaths and school system closings caused by the pandemic, Lee said, “Our hearts go out to anybody. It’s tragic when we lose anybody for any reason in this state. There’ve been thousands of people in Tennessee and hundreds across the nation that have died as a result of COVID-19. That’s the reason we’re doing the work we’re doing.”

Lee isn’t planning to change any strategy, though, such as forcing people to wear masks or to get vaccines. He believes people should come to those decisions on their own and that minors should do what their parents tell them. Parents, however, could be a big part of the problem.

Making it official

Memphis City Councilman JB Smiley launched his Democratic gubernatorial bid with a video this week, saying he plans to enter the race after hearing months of concern about “failed policies and inaction” from Gov. Bill Lee.

“I decided to run for governor because right now – we have too many gun shots fired, not enough COVID shots given and too few shots for our young people to reach their potential,” he said in his video.

Smiley hit on several items, though, that are similar to Lee’s platform, including community policing and crime prevention programs, rural broadband and vocational and technical education.

The biggest difference, of course, is that Smiley is an African-American man from Memphis, and Lee is a white man from Williamson County with a much different view of life.

As such, Smiley says he believes in “equitable access to healthcare – whether you live in an urban community or a rural part of our state.”

That sounds like an endorsement of Medicaid expansion to some 300,000-plus uninsured and underinsured Tennesseans, a position that puts him in direct conflict with Lee, who has stood firmly against anything connected with Obamacare and President Biden’s proposal to expand Medicaid, even with the promise of more than $1 billion annually to pay for the program.

Around the world

Dr. Jason Martin, the competition for Smiley in the 2022 Democratic primary, announced this week he’s making a tour of the state’s 95 counties.

Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean did the same thing in 2018 when he ran for governor, but he didn’t broadcast it widely enough, drawing complaints from some that he was staying in Nashville too much.

Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Lee, a political outsider at the time (if you don’t believe me, just look at the writing on his bus), hit every county in the state, maybe twice. People loved it, even if he was there for only 30 minutes. (In Watertown, they furiously cut the grass at the city park during the 30 minutes before Lee arrived.)

Dr. Jason Martin (Photo: Martin for Governor)
Dr. Jason Martin (Photo: Martin for Governor)

This brought comments from some political commentators that Lee looked like Tennessee, as they predicted his victory. In other words, he could be just as comfortable in a suit and tie as he could be in jeans and cowboy boots.

Whether Martin will be wearing boots is unclear. I don’t know if – as a physician – he owns a pair of boots or prefers more comfortable shoes. But if he’s going to make a dent in this political race, he’ll have to learn to play to Joe Sixpack as well as to his medical colleagues.

Building resources

State Rep. London Lamar, typically not one to raise boatloads of campaign dollars, is holding a Nashville fundraiser Sept. 23 with a minimum of $500 for supporters and $1,600 for hosts. Some could get in for $150 and young professionals for $75.

Former New York State Assembly member Michael Blake, vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, will be the key speaker at a private residence.

Lamar, a Memphis Democrat, says she’s not putting on the event because she’s concerned about losing her House seat as a Republican-controlled committee redraws district lines.

Rather, she says she’s simply trying to build resources and do more as she gains experience in the Legislature.

In just her second term, Lamar garnered a position on the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee and Criminal Justice Committee. No doubt, she is moving up just a few years after calling Tennessee a “racist state.”

Catfish be careful

Republican Congressman Mark Green is holding his third annual Fish Fry at Willis Johnson’s barn on Oct. 16 to salute veterans.

Green once raised the idea that vaccines cause autism and has been fighting a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, including a requirement for active-duty troops to be vaccinated. Of course, that was before the FDA gave full approval to the vaccines.  

As late as Sept. 2, Green passed an amendment prohibiting anything but honorable discharge of service members who refuse to take the COVID-19 vaccine.

In Tennessee, meanwhile, 95% of COVID-19 patients taking up intensive care units are unvaccinated, and almost all of those on ventilators declined to get the shots, according to Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey. 

As late as Sept. 2, GOP Congressman Mark Green passed an amendment stipulating military service members who refuse a COVID-19 vaccine must receive an honorable discharge.

A lot of people have used the excuse they don’t know what is in the vaccine. Of course, those eating catfish with Green in October probably don’t know what those fish have been feasting on either. Probably dog food.

Chattanooga battle

A special election for House District 29 in Hamilton County is set for Sept. 14 pitting Democrat DeAngelo Jelks against Republican Greg Vital.

The winner will replace Joan Carter, who is holding the seat for her late husband, Rep. Mike Carter. He died this year after a six-month battle with pancreatic cancer, which was diagnosed when he suffered from COVID-19.

Carter played a role in the downfall of former House Speaker Glen Casada, when he raised questions about an ethics report that was to be put together by Casada’s handpicked Ethics Committee chairman.

Jelks, an Army veteran and executive director of Never Leave a Fallen Comrade, collected 136 votes in the Democratic primary, while Vital, co-founder of Morning Pointe Senior Living, won the GOP primary with 1,065 votes. 

Vital, who made a failed bid for the Hamilton County District 10 Senate seat in 2012, tweeted this week he would continue Carter’s “legacy of defending the unborn, protecting the #2A and keep CRT out of our schools.” Carter did not participate in the latter part of this year’s legislative session when the General Assembly banned the teaching of critical race theory, something no school system does or at least claims to teach.

Vital also tweeted this week about hearing from Sen. Bill Hagerty on his efforts in Washington to stop Democrats’ “socialist agenda” and how we can continue to build a strong economy in Tennessee.

In contrast, Jelks’ tweets concentrate on the dangers of COVID-19. One tweet shows former President Donald Trump being booed in Alabama for telling the crowd to get a COVID vaccine, as he did. Jelks tweeted, “#Trump has a great point! Now let’s all come together and do what’s right.”

He also retweeted a post by the Tennessee Democratic Party that pointed out all of the state’s Republican congressional members voted against the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

Playing hooky

It has come to my attention that some kids are using COVID-19 and the Delta variant as an excuse not to go to school. They know the symptoms and they feign sickness so they can stay out of class.

Dee Snider and Twisted Sister, L - R Mark Mendoza, Eddie Ojeda, Dee Snider, AJ Pero and JJ French.  (Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images)
They’re not going to take it: Dee Snider and Twisted Sister, L – R Mark Mendoza, Eddie Ojeda, Dee Snider, AJ Pero and JJ French. (Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images)

This is shocking. I thought every student in the state woke up at 6 a.m., went over their homework and reported to school 30 minutes early with an apple in hand for their favorite teacher. 

Who would think they’d use a worldwide pandemic to skip school? Especially since they’ve gotten weeks out of class for the last year and a half.

Darn these kids, do they not realize the consequences of being brain-dead by age 18? As the hard nosed dad said in that Twisted Sister music video years ago, “What are you gonna do with your life?” In Dee Snider’s voice, the kid responds, “I wanna rock!” and blasts his father out the window. 

Well, you might want to rock right now, but if this pandemic keeps spiraling out of control, you better learn to “roll with the changes.”

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.

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