At some point in the mid-1970s, the idea of the summer blockbuster was born and our movie watching habits changed dramatically. Previously, winter had been movie time. Summer was reserved for outdoor activities and family vacations. But then, studios discovered that you could create spectacles that would draw people in to escape the summer heat and engage in a little fantasy. As a 2010 Financial Times article states: “Most of these movies share a set of assumptions. It is reasonable to expect the spectator to bring a body and two senses: sight, hearing. It is unreasonable to expect him to bring a brain. The movies must be big on action, glamour, stars, spectacle, novelty (though not too much of that), but light on cognitive demands.”
I’d argue that this year’s Metro Nashville Public Schools board race meets the criteria for a summer blockbuster, and with Stand For Children involved, it even has its own Michael Bay. For those of you who don’t regularly attend movies, Bay is a director known for elevating the blockbuster format through the increased use of explosions, beautiful people, and minimal substance. In other words, with apologies to William Faulkner, sound and fury signify nothing. To this point, that is exactly what the MNPS school board race has been. You have social media dust ups, campaign managers from one campaign resigning just before the filing deadline to launch their own campaigns, and other candidates attacking a spouse’s work record like it was their opponent’s. All entertaining to watch, but largely lacking substance.
On August 4, 2016, Nashville voters will cast their vote for five open seats on the school board. As fate would have it, three of those seats belong to public education’s staunchest defenders, Amy Frogge, Will Pinkston, and Jill Speering. Another one is the open seat previously occupied by Elissa Kim, an executive with Teach For America. And the fifth seat belongs to current chair Sharon Gentry, and, in keeping with the summer blockbuster theme, she should by all accounts be ripe for a pick off by challenger and former teacher Janette Carter, except that Gentry led the search that produced Nashville’s first African-American Director of Schools.
Still, under Gentry’s leadership, board procedures have been atrocious. Rebuking a fellow board member through a letter read by another board member because she was absent (shades of Star Wars), important votes held when board members were absent, ethics complaints unaddressed, and the list goes on. But she did lead the search and got the board to unanimously approve the hiring of new director Dr. Joseph. A recent blog post by former school board member Cheryl Mayes presented an interview of both Gentry and Carter, and it clearly illustrates the differences in depth between the two. But since it is blockbuster season, it is all about the optics. Have I mentioned that Gentry single-handedly swam in shark-infested waters and climbed Mount Everest to deliver Nashville’s first ever African-American Superintendent? Don’t worry, she won’t let us forget it. Never mind that Carter has actual experience as an educator or that she might be more qualified.
This is where Stand For Children enters the fray and assumes the role of the esteemed Michael Bay. See, there probably wouldn’t even be a summer blockbuster if SFC didn’t have an agenda and the means to launch it. Up until a week before the filing deadline, two of the aforementioned school board races had no second candidate. Luckily, SFC and their friends at Project Renaissance were able to scare up a couple people who were just fed up to the hilt with the dysfunction of this current board but hadn’t been able to get around to filing until days before the deadline. Neither really had an actual platform other than to be more amicable, but who needs substance when you are making a summer blockbuster? I particularly love District 3 candidate Jane Grimes Meneely who grudgingly acknowledges that she’ll probably be considered the charter candidate and then proceeds to have every known Nashville charter supporter like every Facebook post she makes.
Last week, Stand For Children announced their endorsements for the current school board race. Three former teachers are running – Jill Speering, Christiane Buggs, and the aforementioned Janette Carter, and guess what? Not one of them received an endorsement from SFC. Also, in their endorsement post, SFC lists all their perceived criticisms with the current board, and then proceeds to endorse retaining the leadership by endorsing current chair Sharon Gentry. Ask yourself, when the Titans don’t make the playoffs repeatedly, do they fire the whole team but still keep the coach? I love that all the challengers cite a need for a brand new board, yet are happy to be included in an endorsement photo with the current leadership. Everybody sure looks happy don’t they? I wonder if they told Dr. Gentry how dysfunctional her wards have been.
Unless you are someone who closely follows education politics, you are probably not that familiar with Stand for Children. You probably looked at their website and nodded your head and said to yourself, “Yeah, I can agree with that.” After all, everybody wants to stand for children and organize the collective power of our community to create a political voice for children and make lasting changes in our education system, right? Well, sit right back and you’ll hear a tale…
Stand for Children was founded in the late 1990s, centered in Portland, Oregon, as a way to advocate for the welfare of children. It grew out of a 1996 march by more than 250,000 people in Washington, D.C. The aim of the march was to highlight child poverty at a time when Congress and the Clinton administration were preparing to “end welfare as we know it.” At that time, they advocated for things like smaller classes, after-school activities, free lunches for all kids – you know, the kind of things we can all support. Then things got confusing.
SFC threw their support behind Race to the Top and spent heavily in promoting the anti-union film Waiting for Superman. In Chicago, they found out there was a lot of Walton and Gates money in union busting. They pushed initiatives in Massachusetts that made teacher’s jobs considerably harder by making it easier for them to be displaced. In Denver, they got themselves in trouble when they initially gave the appearance of district endorsement and then proceeded to get involved in the school board race. In Indianapolis, they invested heavily in that school board race, some suspect as high as half a million dollars. I can’t really tell you the actual amount because SFC uses their IRS status to avoid telling you what they spend and where the money comes from.
This past year in Louisiana, Stand For Children once again got involved in a local school board race. I know, much like the summer blockbusters in theaters, this plot is becoming highly predictable. In Louisiana, though, they added a new twist. They created a fake TV ad that gave the appearance that their non-favored candidate had warrants out for their arrest which was untrue. Hmmm… it’s probably just a coincidence that this past weekend, Nashville’s District 9 and District 3 residents were the recipients of a push poll that gave the impression that Amy Frogge, a lawyer, represented clients who are actually represented by her husband, a well-respected defense attorney known to take on clients some may consider less than optimal. Clients, I should add, that according to the Constitution deserve representation like anyone else. Nevertheless, the information in the push poll was false. SFC-endorsed candidate and Frogge’s only opponent Thom Druffel disavowed the poll claiming they were spreading lies about him as well, but not once does he acknowledge Stand for Children’s record, nor does he disavow SFC’s endorsement or offer to give their cash back.No, he just acts offended that Mrs> Frogge’s supporters accuse him of being the dastardly villain. My grandmother always did say, if you hang out with dogs you are bound to catch some fleas.
If he needs instruction on how to stand up to Stand and their kind, he only needs to look north a few hours to Indianapolis. Gayle Cosby was a candidate there who struggled to raise money for her candidacy until some Ed Reformers got involved. She quickly found out that it was going to be the tale wagging the dog and has come to regret her initial embracing of Stand and their agenda. These days she refutes them and does her best to be a thorn in the side of Indianapolis’s Ed Reform crowd.
The reform crowd likes you to believe that everything happens in a bubble. They like to say those things are happening somewhere else, but we are only concerned with Nashville. Well, here’s a news flash for you – whether I walk into a Wal-Mart in Denver or Nashville, they are essentially the same. The Wal-Mart in Nashville isn’t suddenly selling high-end goods and telling me, “Yeah, those other Wal-Marts are different. Here in Nashville we carry Gucci and Coach products.” If they did, you’d meet those claims with skepticism. And you should have the same skepticism here with SFC’s involvement in our local school board race. If you want more reason to be skeptical, just take a look at this race four years ago.
It’s worth noting here that Stand For Children is not the only organization trying to influence local school board elections. The last several years have seen spending on school board races shoot through the roof. It’s no longer shocking to see candidates raising upwards of $100k for their campaigns. Here in Nashville, former Mayor Karl Dean and his cronies have formed an organization called Project Renaissance to influence local education policy. They have an arm called Nashville Rise that “with commitment and consistency, will inform, empower and engage parents across Davidson County.” Notice the word transparency missing from that sentence?
Like SFC, Project Renaissance uses language that gives the appearance that they are all about empowering parents and teachers, and have no political agenda. Let’s look a little deeper though. Look who they use as a branding company. Proof Branding, the very same company hired by Valor Academy and KIPP charter schools as well as the Tennessee Charter Center. How much money that could be going to kids is being diverted to a branding company? I would think the work should create the brand, not the other way around.
As Mayor, Dean showed little love for our public schools, and in fact went above and beyond the call of duty to recruit and subsidize the establishment of charter schools and Teach For America in Nashville. Truth is, Project Renaissance is stocked full with like-minded visionaries. So they may sound like an uplifting, agenda-free organization, but I can’t help but be reminded of the old parable about the venomous snake convincing a young boy to take him to the top of the mountain to see the sunset one last time.
The story goes something like this – A boy came upon a snake that was old and appeared harmless. He promised not to bite the boy if he would help him, and so the boy acquiesced despite some misgivings. After taking the snake up the mountain, the snake asked if the boy could now bring him home to die. The boy, figuring the snake had been harmless to this point, agreed. Once they got to the bottom of the mountain, the snake bit the boy in the chest. Horrified, the boy cried to the snake, “But why? You promised not to bite me, and we’d collaborated so well together.” The snake just smiled and replied, “But you knew what I was when you picked me up.”
All it takes is a little googling and a little reading to get a true impression of what these groups really represent. They may refer to themselves as grassroots organizations, but it’s been my experience that billionaires don’t donate to grassroots organizations. Make no mistake: the wealthy have helped fill the coffers of these organizations. If their agenda was working, then you could almost argue for the influx of large donations from the wealthy, but even they concede that their influence has not produced the desired results. Their results do not benefit all children. They help design a system that picks winners and losers based on race and economic status. Something that should not be acceptable to any of us.
Here in Nashville we are lucky to have the formation of a new, truly grassroots education group and PAC, TNRefinED, that has been organized in recognition of the big money forces aligned against public education. They recognize that financially they will never be able to compete against the Stand for Children and Project Renaissance’s of the world, but they will attempt to counter them in authenticity. TNRefinED is a true grassroots organization formed by parents, teachers, and community members that don’t like what they are seeing private entities do to their children’s schools and have chosen to fight back. Sounds like it’d make a great movie since everyone loves an underdog. It’d have to come out in the fall or winter though because TNRefinED doesn’t have lots of cash to throw around to make a splash or a bunch of beautiful young people to talk about saving that one child, it just has a bunch of over worked parents and underfunded teachers striving to make sure that all kids get a quality education. Or maybe it’s underfunded parents and overworked teachers, either way works.
Blockbuster movies are a fun distraction during the summer months, but they are just a shallow representation of the power of cinema and its ability to shape our lives. During the other nine months of the year, the movies of substance and depth are released quietly and often with out fanfare. These are the movies that tend to stay with us and make our lives better. The same holds true for Nashville’s school board race. Summer is the time for big accusations and large productions that will keep us amused, but come December, we will be hard pressed to recall them. What will continue to resonate is the high quality work the incumbent school board members have done away from the spotlight.
SFC and its ilk would like you to believe that all this board has been focused on is charter schools and nothing else, as if it’s an either/or proposition. They want you to forget how much Will Pinkston has championed our English Learner community. They want you to forget how hard Jill Speering pushed for an increased focus on literacy. They want you to forget how hard Amy Frogge fought to secure funding for Community Achieves and strives to protect our children from excessive testing. This is just a sampling of the issues they’ve pushed away from the spotlight in these past few months.
Frogge, Pinkston, and Speering have raised questions about the effectiveness of charter schools and the financial impact of their unchecked growth. They should because it’s their job to do so. But to give the impression that they’ve focused on one issue to the exclusion of all others is just another canard put forth by shadowy groups like SFC that have a proven history of being challenged by the truth. Groups that I challenge, to quote a former movie blockbuster, to show me the money. If you are truly about the child, then transparency shouldn’t be a challenge.
We all love the cinematic escape of a summer movie. We are willing to ignore the crappy dialog and improbable action scenes to escape for just a few hours. But eventually we need to return to reality and face our day to day challenges in a practical and effective manner. The truth of it is, none of these challengers have the depth of knowledge or conviction of the incumbents, Buggs, or Carter. This election could just as easily be titled the summer of the B-Movies. We’ve got a new director of schools now and when August 4th rolls around it is our responsibility to give him a cast will allow for the crafting of a masterpiece, let’s not drop the ball and succumb to big money outside interests. It’s time to increase the cognitive demands.