When I was a teenager I was given some advice that has proven valuable over the years. If you want to know someones true nature, don’t base it on how they treat you. Base it on how they treat the waitstaff at a restaurant. This advice has proven invaluable over the years in assessing the people I want to associate with. You can be pretty sure that if someone’s rude and inconsiderate to a waiter, that’ll eventually they’ll get to you. If someone is dishonest with a bartender well that’ll carry over eventually. You don’t always have to go out to eat to apply this test either. Sometimes you can just sit back and watch how they treat others to get an assessment. Over the last couple of years I’ve applied this test to charter operators and found them incredibly lacking.
They are all feel good with supporters but watch how they treat anyone who even remotely challenges them. Just ask New York Mayor Di Blasso. He suggested Success Academy start paying some rent. He got a 2000 person march on the Capitol (http://www.capitalnewyork.com/article/city-hall/2014/02/8540831/charters-start-albany-push-capitol-rally). Give off even a whiff of criticism of charter operators and I can guarantee you a parade of people bused in, chanting and hinting of racism. Now they will never come out and call you racist but they will certainly leave the dots clear as day for connecting. We often talk of code words in race conversations and rightfully so. However, words and phrases like “affluent” “their children” “well intention” are code words in their own right. I’ve often said the brilliance in the reform movement is their ability to shape language.
Race is such a difficult subject that has been manipulated in so many ways by so many people that having an honest conversation becomes nearly impossible. As someone writes about education practices I often need to include race in my musings. Truth is it scares me to death and I often avoid it. I am scared to write something that isn’t perceived as sensitive enough. To write something that will label me as a racist. So I end up shying away from the conversation. I move to a different subject and skirt away from the elephant in the room. I’m not proud of this because I truly believe that in order for us to affect true changing of perception and opinion we need to get to a place where we can voice any opinion and have it discussed. Ignorance never thrives in sunshine.
Recently here in Nashville we have an ongoing discussion about the direction our schools will take in the future. The superintendent of schools Dr Register announced an outline of a plan to deal with the districts priority schools. (http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/education/2014/09/09/jesse-register-calls-swift-shake-struggling-schools/15370817/0) The outline included turning over several schools to charter operators and working with the Achievement School District on others. This plan did not sit well with many parents on the Eastside. The formed a group to fight this plan called East Nashville United. Right from the beginning ENU made a concentrated effort to include all parents. They went door to door to recruit. They arranged transportation and babysitting so all parents could make the meetings. The created an open Facebook page that welcomed all views. I honestly don’t know what more they could have done to be inclusive. Apparently though it wasn’t enough.
At that this past weeks school board meeting they got an education on what happens when you challenge the charter community. (http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/education/2014/10/14/east-nashville-groups-flood-metro-schools-board-meeting/17285975/) Apparently a new group called East Nashville Believes showed up in light blue T-shirts at 2:45 for a 5pm meeting, effectively filling the meeting room to capacity. The ENU folks were not admitted due to lack of room. ENB leaders led their group in chants of “choice is power”. They were here despite the fact that nothing in the plan challenged their schools. ENU was also not proposing that any child who wanted to go to a charter be denied that chance. You see the East Nashville Charters are not filled to capacity. In fact most to the charters in Nashville are not filled to capacity and are still actively recruiting. So what was the impetus to get out and fill the room and deny entry to parents who’s children’s education options were actually subject to change?
Let’s take a look at the the cast for East Nashville Believes. The leader leading the chants is a long time political operator who has had a great deal of success running campaign’s for charter sympathetic candidates. So much so that he recently won an award from a local paper as best lobbyist. He is also the director of Community Engagement for the Tennessee Charter Association. The head of the ASD’s wife was in attendance. She by coincidence is the Head of Democrats for Education Reform, a supposed Democratic organization that attacks unions.. Several local founders of charter schools were also there wearing the light blue. Buses brought several children and parents directly from school to the meeting. Box lunches were provided for supporters. When questioned about the funding for T-shirts and box lunches, the answer was vague at best and an outright refusal to deny that funding came from charter foundations. Another coincidence was that just the week before Nashville Stand for Children was out in the neighborhood telling parents about services available to them and I’m sure using those code words. I don’t want to call it astroturf but…yea, I want to call it astro turf.
The show of force seems to have knocked ENU for a little bit of a loop. Questions of whether they are being truly inclusive have led to internal soul searching and repurposing of communication. Thats the power of words, it can often stop us and make us question our actions and motivations. Sometimes warranted and sometimes not. It can also lead to unproductive dialog. Reformists love talking. While your talking they are still implementing and you’re not opposing. By the time you realize that the conversation is futile, 12 more charters have opened and the whole conversation has changed. Collaboration is a word that charter schools like to throw out but have you ever heard them touting something they’ve taken from a traditional school? In reform talk, collaboration means you let us do what we want and just agree.
East Nashville has a large population of people of color. I get that this population has been historically let down by our traditional system. The power though doesn’t lie in destroying that system and replacing it with one that educates some children very well but leaves a majority without opportunity. The true power lies in coming together as a community and forcing our schools to be properly funded. To force our schools to create productive citizens that are more then just good test takers. To make sure our schools remain a pillar of our democratic society. To address the needs of ALL our children. To do that we have to be able to talk about race in an honest manner without the constant fear of offending.
We also have to recognize that we have to very different views. Charter supporters like to say, “We all want the same thing. A quality education for the kids. We just differ how to get there.” Like the only difference is trying to take the highway or a back road. Thats a fallacy at the root of the whole conversation, because the definition of quality education is not the same. A quality education for some entails performance on testable measures, elevated discipline and a focus on the measurable. A quality education for others entails a more rounded approach that doesn’t put as heavy stock in the testable, that encourages the challenging of accepted ideas, and doesn’t require longer hours and elevated discipline. One looks to produce a more employable citizen. The other a better citizen. Two very different ideals and not at all in agreement. So no we don’t all want the same thing and we need to be honest and admit that..
I don’t know where East Nashville Unites goes from here. Having been kicked in the head by the reform movement several times myself, I know how overwelming it can be. You question everything you believe. Including your motives and things you know to be true. The beautiful thing is the more you stay in the fight. The more you research. The more you talk to experienced advocates. The more hollow the alternative becomes. Its nice to be involved in a conversation where you don’t need to convince people, you just need to lay out the information. We know what works and doesn’t work in education. We know whats scalable and whats not. We just have to have the backbone to stand up to private interest and keep our public institutions public and meet the needs of ALL children.