The Charter Conversation takes a page out of Edward Lear

Be wiseIt’s been a couple weeks since I’ve written anything. There has been plenty on my mind, but I’ve got a full time job and parenting is a full time job and my wife would like a little attention as well, so it’s been hard to carve out some time. I need one of those lobbyist jobs or a gig like Andy Smarick over at Bellwether Education Partners has. One where I can read about education, write papers, and pontificate on Twitter all day. Alas, I am stuck in the world I live in, which can sometimes be a little bizarre. This week is a prime example.

Tuesday night was the monthly meeting of the Metro Nashville Public School Board. I had some prepared remarks that I was going to deliver to urge passage of a new communications bill. When I arrived, the room was already full. A brief glance showed it to be a packed room of charter school supporters. A little puzzled, I sat down and looked at the agenda and saw nothing to warrant this level of interest. I shrugged and thought, well, public interest is always good. What a naïve old man I am.

It seems there were plans afoot for this meeting. School Board Chair Sharon Gentry wasn’t in attendance, but she had some prepared remarks that she wished to share with the public and asked fellow member Jo Ann Brannon to read them. Apparently, Gentry’s had enough of the arguing over charter schools and such and deemed it time to put these differences aside and adopt positions agreeable with her. (Well she didn’t say that exactly, but that was the point.) At the conclusion of the speech, the room full of charter folks leapt to their feet in applause. Elissa Kim, who as vice chair was chairing the meeting, did nothing to quell the outburst.

It should be noted that Ms. Kim is the Executive Vice President, Recruitment and Admissions for Teach for America Greater Nashville. I know, you’re probably thinking, isn’t that a conflict of interest? Apparently not because she also works closely with MNPS Human Capital on the recruitment of teachers for the district, and nobody thinks that’s an issue either. Yeah, it all gets a little goofy, but that’s the world I live in.

Sitting at that meeting, it suddenly dawned on me that I was in the middle of yet another charter school publicity stunt. I’ve written previously about what happens when charters get angry and I guess they were angry again because they had astro-turfed yet another meeting. The thing that really opened my eyes with  this incident though, was the number of leadership people present. The folks present were equivalent to the top leadership at MNPS. I can only imagine what would happen if I called up Jay Steele, chief academic officer for MNPS, and asked him to get his office to show up and leap to applaud a letter that I’d written to disavow charter schools. He’d stop taking my calls. Not neccesarily out of disagreement or agreement, but because he’s kinda busy educating kids.

That line, between educating and marketing, doesn’t seem to exist with charter operators. It all begins and ends in the marketing department. How is what they are doing perceived and if there is the slightest provocation, then they pull out the full public relations machine to attack. Things getting a little heated right before testing time? Time for a brand new shiny brochure. When a legislative session opens on the Hill, its time to get some kids up there. You’ve been to Public School Day rally’s with kids on the hill right? Didn’t think so, because they don’t exist. You see a group ushering kids through the capital building hallways during session and, dollars to donuts, its a charter school.  If people are still questioning the purpose of charters schools, then it’s time for a straw man building op-ed. This is a very organized movement that does not allow dissent. It’s also a zero sum game.

I’ve heard more than one charter operator argue that they are just part of the solution and that nobody plans on privatizing the whole district. Yet, they continue to grow at an alarming rate. Metro has 19 applications pending this year. Ever ask a charter operator when enough is enough? You’ll never get an answer because the true end game is to eradicate public education like it’s been done in New Orleans and being proposed in Atlanta and York. But they can’t really tell you that, can they? They’ll tell you its all about demand.

In fact, this week I actually heard the argument put forth that just because all existing charters aren’t full, it doesn’t mean there is a lack of demand. If you had charters in every neighborhood, the demand would go up. Of course they won’t mention that if there was a charter in every neighborhood, since Public Schools don’t have the private monetary support that charters enjoy, it would starve the local public school. This demand argument probably has something to do with that goofy disruption theory that’s been circulating and I’ve been trying to make heads or tail of over the last 6 months.

In the reform world, New Orleans has been nothing short of a booming success. Unfortunately, a closer look at the numbers tells a different story. Mercedes Schneider points to ACT scores to show the disconnect between the myth and the reality. A charter supporter might ask, but what about that 2013 CREDO study  on charter schools? Well, let’s look at one of the reform movements champs Neerav Kingsland’s very own words to see how that was pulled off – by closing schools. The CREDO study shows massive improvement over the last couple of years by charter schools. But, the way this was accomplished was by constantly closing low performing schools and further destabilizing schools in the neighborhoods were children are starved for stability.

Its like this, if I have a little baseball team and we have to play everybody on our team, common sense tells me we’ll be more competitive if I continue to get rid of and replace the less proficient players on the team. But, will this lack of stability really lead to more victories? Don’t teams that have the opportunity to mesh and balance each other’s strengths and weaknesses tend to be more competitive? In playing little league baseball do the victories only come from outscoring the other team or are there other goals? Those are questions we need to ask ourselves as it relates to charters and their constant churn – is this really what’s best for kids? Kingsland feels it’s a viable strategy. I disagree.

The thing that most baffles me about this conversation is the complete and utter lack of evidence-based dialog that takes place. There are countless, and I could literally sit here and write a whole blog of hyper-links, that show that charters don’t educate the same students as public schools, that charters perform no better than public schools, that charters rob a district of precious resources, and that charters have a higher attrition rate. Yet, when confronted with the evidence, the conversation becomes about whether or not we believe all children can learn. A fact that I don’t think anybody has ever disputed, yet somehow has gotten twisted into a t-shirt slogan that plays on past prejudice.

These past prejudices give fuel to the desire to stifle dissent by labeling the choice movement as the civil rights issue of our generation. News flash, civil rights are the civil rights issue of our generation. We still have a long march ahead of us before we achieve actual civil rights for all. Claiming otherwise is just a distraction that deflects and prevents the evidence from being considered. Any evidence based argument is written off as biased or anecdotal. You know, like the story about how Johnny’s mother was a drug addicts and his father used to beat him. Public schools were failing him and his 8 brothers and sisters that he had to tend to, but he thrived once he got into KIPP. Yea, that’s not anecdotal. Just more rules that apply to thee but not for me.

It’s intriguing to me as well, that the very people who are championing civil rights are demanding that a child surrender their civil rights to attend a school that they are entitled to because of civil rights. The study linked is pretty damning in its evidence of charter school’s discipline policies not aligning with federal and state laws. But then, some kids need that right? In my eyes, it’s like asking someone to walk into a flaming building to keep from being burned. How do you even counter that argument?

It takes me back to childhood and there would always be that one kid who would create a game that only he knew the rules to and if you started to win the game he’d change the rules. Object to the rule changes and you were considered a bad playmate and he’d take his game and go home. This discussion on charter schools and education policy is the most bizarre conversation that I’ve ever been involved in. There seem to be no tenets or touchstones and it seems to be a small minority that constantly drives the conversation. In Metro Nashville we expect kids in charter schools to make up only 10% of student body in 2016-2017 yet charter schools are discussed at virtually every school board meeting. They are a constant looming specter over the system preventing focus on real issues.

The charter conversation is also the most serious conversation I’ve ever been involved in, because, not only will increased growth financially hurt the overall system, but because, despite the fact that charter supporters refuse to acknowledge that the delivery system matters, what our schools look like is what our society will look like. Create a stratified school system and you create a stratified society.

Peter Greene’s piece on what every child should know got me thinking. Our public school system is design to give the opportunity for society to make a collective decision about what every child should know. We elect a school board made up of fellow community members to oversee that process. It’s democracy at its purest and gives all a voice.

Creating a privatized system that removes that decision from the community and places it in the hands of an individually-appointed board of directors is about as un-democratic an action as I can imagine. Under the current system, you may not think that reading Shakespeare is important, but if the collective voice of your community thinks it is, then your child is reading Shakespeare. That’s important because as an adult, there will be laws and regulations that you disagree with, but as a member of the community, you will abide by anyway. We don’t get to go off individually and create our own governments, so why should we get to do it with our school system?

Nashville is at a tipping point right now. We’ve begun a search for a new Director of Schools with a school board made up of very different philosophies. The charter folks are going to go to any length necessary to convince people that their vision is the only one that matters and that the rest of us are just trying to maintain a system that serves the needs of adults over children. Though a look at the salaries of  Charter Operator CEO’s would counter that argument. None are doing volunteer work.

I urge everyone to temper this hyperbole and make it an evidence-based search. Trust, me that’s not a conversation charter operators want to have.  We need to resist their demands that we ignore outside markets and we can’t buy into the myth that Nashville outcomes will somehow be different then national outcomes. What happens in NOLA will happen in Nashville. What happens in Ohio will happen in Nashville. The evidence is out there, we know the proper course to chart. We know what practices are scalable. We know what practices benefit ALL children. That’s the point of having a research based discussion.

It’s imperative that we demand a system that will educate ALL children. We have to demand a system that doesn’t attempt to determine winners and losers. A system that supports ALL children’s needs so that they can truly learn at their full capacity, because its not enough to just say, “all children can learn.” True civil rights can only exist when all children are given an equitable opportunity to shape their future.  We need to confront the opposition with the truth about their proposed system and the impact it will have on children and their communities.

Charter schools have grown exponentially out of the fears that have been instilled in parents and fanned by the reform movement. This leads me to think about some advice my father once gave me. His words were to, “Always make sure you are running towards something and not away from something.” That idiom has served me well over life and is applicable here. Charter operators want you to flee the current system. I choose to run towards a stronger more responsive public system that reflects our democratic ideals. I urge you to join me and make this a evidence-based story and not an added chapter to Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense.


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4 replies

  1. The more I read about the actual agenda of the opaque, lying, for profit corporate education reform people, the more I think the only way to stop this carnage in its tacks is send in the same Navy SEALS that got Ben Laden using the same tactics and methods.

    The trouble here is that the oligarchs funding the reform movement probably own the SEALS too or controls who controls them.

  2. It’s predatory capitalism with our children as the prey taken from the textbook titled Disaster Capitalism written by Milton Freidman and distributed by crony capitalists named neoliberals!

  3. Whenever you add profit to the education equation, you open the doors to a flaming barn- problem is the metaphorical cows here are children. If you look at the Race to the Top funds, Federal funding is dependent on the breaking of at least 2 existing unions- For you Right to Work states this would simply mean you have to privatize at least 2 services. My blue collar background just can’t get over that there aren’t more Mad Dads & Moms & Teachers & Students & Community Leaders & …. WE ARE ALLOWING Companies to PROFIT FROM PUBLIC EDUCATION! And people wonder why there is a problem.


  1. Nashville Dad: Opposing the Charters’ Political Agenda | Diane Ravitch's blog

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