That was the question that was posed to me on Twitter recently by someone who had just read my latest missive on how dysfunctional the Metro Nashville Public School Board has become. It’s a fair question and one that I frequently ask myself. Since 1983, when “A Nation At Risk” was first published, private interests, under the banner of “reform,” have been trying to transform our public school system from one that serves all students to one that divides and sends one group of children down one track and others down another. Using tools like increased reliance on standardized testing, charter schools, decreased funding, and emphasis on alternative teacher licensing, these “reformers” have worked hard to show us that our schools are in a crisis and that only a switch to private management can save them.
Unfortunately, by co-opting language and making the argument dependent on only that which can be measured, the privatization forces have been very successful. For example, here in Nashville, we’ve all seen the headlines for LEAD Academies and how the whole senior class graduated and is now heading to college. These accolades are accepted at face value. The founder of LEAD Public Schools, Jeremy Kane, who is also currently running for mayor of Nashville, is lauded for his education acumen, but nobody mentions that the size of the LEAD’s graduating class is tiny compared to the numbers that graduate from our traditional schools. Nobody mentions either that the graduating class was three times as large in 10th grade, but what happened to those other kids when it was graduation time? We also never question whether they are simply churning out children who will excel at passing tests or whether they are producing good stewards who will have the ability to solve the variety of challenges the next generation will face.
The truth is public schools are just as much about society as they are about the individual child. We used to know that. Brown v. Board of Education reiterated it. Our schools were created to serve all children and provide equal opportunities for learning to each child. That ruling recognized that our children were the future of our society, and just like barriers were coming down in society, schools were the vehicle to make sure they stayed down. Some people didn’t accept that and have been developing new ways to keep us separate since then. To me that is unacceptable.
New Orleans was really the genesis of the latest thrust of privatization. Hurricane Katrina provided the perfect excuse to make sweeping changes to the school system at an accelerated pace. Teachers were fired and replaced with young Teach for America corps members. Schools were converted wholesale to charter schools, each with an independent school board. Lost was the voice of the citizen at the local level. Despite what reformers in New Orleans try to tell you, the sweeping changes did not bring improvement; in fact, they brought quite the opposite. But to the reformer, the tragedy of Katrina did prove a way to get the public out of public education.
Tennessee and Michigan followed close on the heels of Louisiana, both creating Achievement School Districts designed to appear as a means to improve low performing schools. But in reality, they are means to further separate the public from public education. Again, neither of these entities have proven to be successful at anything other than growing the number of charter schools and spending taxpayer money. Who are you going to complain to, though, as neither answers to a publicly elected board? I believe that the purpose of these districts was never about results.
Much in the way one builds speculative restaurants, not to turn a profit but to entice others to invest in the chain, these districts were created to get others to buy into the concept. See, when you build a spec restaurant, your profit doesn’t come from the number of burgers you sell, but rather the number of franchises you sell. Despite not showing gains in educating children in these achievement school districts, the privatization forces are looking good with potential franchises in the works in Texas, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Nevada. Business is booming, I’d say.
Our public schools are not under attack on only one front though. As evidenced by actions in Douglas County, Colorado, privatizers have mastered a whole new plan of attack. One that involves subverting the school board, hiring a sympathetic director of schools, and beginning the break up. It’s easy to close a school and turn it over to a charter operator if you are the superintendent backed by a majority of the school board. If you live in Nashville or just south in Williamson County and none of this sounds familiar, then you are just not paying attention. We can not just stand by and do nothing while a cornerstone of our democracy is converted to a private enterprise that only answers to shareholders and not community members.
Which brings me back full circle to the dysfunction of the Metro Nashville Public School Board. After recently appointing the current second-in-command, Dr. Jay Steele, to the position of interim director of schools, board chair Dr. Sharon Gentry used a ethics complaint to call an emergency meeting to rescind that appointment and appoint her selection. She did this despite one board member, Anna Shepherd, notifying her that she would be unable to attend due to pre-scheduled surgery and requesting a delay of the vote for one week. At the emergency meeting, two board members, Amy Frogge and Jill Speering, also made impassioned pleas to delay the meeting one week. Dr. Gentry and other board members denied this request and proceeded with the vote that turned out as predicted with Gentry’s choice in place as interim director. Now instead of one ethics complaint there are three. This is a huge deal.
It was argued after the emergency meeting that even with Ms. Shepherd’s vote, nothing would have changed with the outcome. How is that known? Because by denying her voting privileges, and by proxy that of her district and all the people she represents, the right to argue the merits of her choice was also denied. How is it known that she wouldn’t have brought some new evidence forward that would have swayed another board member to change his or her vote? Maybe she would have raised a concern that others hadn’t considered, and they would have changed their votes. We don’t know, because other board members failed to show her professional courtesy by allowing a delay to take place and allowing her district’s voice to be heard. Was it just callousness or a hidden agenda? It’s impossible to know, but the door has been opened to speculation. As mayoral candidate Bill Freeman said in a recent letter, “the events of June 30 and the slate of candidates announced today demonstrate that the board has more work to do in an effort to ensure that indeed a clean and fair search process is conducted.” Unless corrected these actions will forever remain suspect.
Now we are on to the next stage of the selection process for a new director of schools with the four names having been announced as finalists. We might be expected to consider these two stages as separate enterprises but we would be remiss in doing so. It is all part of one process that is now mired in speculation and distrust. I would argue that the fight against Dr. Steele was waged because his appointment gave the board leverage to reject the presented pool of candidates and demand that the search committee do a better job. But with Dr. Gentry’s selection for interim in place, Chris Henson, the argument can now be made that he is a financial guy (he’s currently the district’s CFO) and that we need to get someone more permanent in place now. In fact if you watch the video of the revealing of the finalists, she attempts to get board members to agree to hiring one of the four before the names have even been released.
You can not corrupt a portion of a process without corrupting the whole process. In looking over the list of candidates, I can’t believe that anyone truly believes these are the best candidates available in the whole country. The selection firm has said that two other candidates withdrew their names because of the taint of controversy surrounding this appointment. This further proves my point: the corruption of a portion of the process corrupts the whole process. Would the taint of controversy be there if Dr. Gentry and her allies hadn’t tried to manipulate the process by calling an emergency meeting based on a single ethics complaint that never had the opportunity to be vetted? What about if Dr. Gentry had done her prescribed job and appointed an ethics committee and that committee held an emergency meeting to vet the complaint before what appeared to be a legitimate vote was rescinded? What if HYA, the search firm now in question, focused on their job and overcoming the challenges presented and less on shaping the search to their agenda?
We will never know what those two applicant’s resumes looked like because the process has been corrupted. People have said we need to move past Jay Steele and look at what our options are. I disagree. Dr. Steele serves as a known entity therefore providing a comparable to the selected finalists. I’ll be honest, I’m not convinced that he does not hold his own with this group. His body of work surpasses at least half this group and is comparable to the others without the taint of corruption. However, this isn’t about Jay Steele.
It’s about a series of actions that are either incompetent or corrupt. On the heels of reversing a vote by the board, ignoring the pleas of a fellow board member to be allowed to participate in the process and putting in place a interim director that is no threat to become permanent, Dr. Gentry is now defending a list of finalists that include a man who’s references apparently went unchecked by HYA. Anyone who looks at the history of Hazard, Young, and Attea, shouldn’t be surprised but like MNEA, should demand a refund. During the unveiling of candidates Attea spent about 25 minutes lecturing the board on how to conduct an interview and in particular board member Pinkston on the board’s ability to fire HYA. I strongly suggest we consider his advice. So back to what I hope to accomplish.
Board member Anna Shepherd has repeatedly stated that we have to get this right. If we don’t we run the risk of trying to fix something that is entrenched, always a difficult task. I hope to see us hire a director of schools who will be a great leader and steward to our school system for many years. One who was hired through a transparent and equitable hiring process. One that is put in place not because of either someone’s machinations or because they were the best of a sub-par lot. Nashville really is a unique place. We are blessed with a diverse population unequaled in the country. The last few years have seen unparallelled growth and the future is only getting brighter. We are recognized universally as an “it” city. Well, “it” cities don’t fall prey and they certainly do not settle.