Stand For Children Buys Its Way Out Of The Race

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cashBack in June, I wrote how the Nashville school board race was shaping up to be the equivalent of a Michael Bay summer blockbuster. We were going to have big explosions, bad dialogue, and lots of pretty people, but not a lot of substance. Little did I realize, though, that Stand for Children’s Dan O’Donnell was determined to play the role of Harvey Weinstein. But I guess somebody had to pay for the spectacle here, and Stand for Children has certainly written the check.

State financial disclosures were due yesterday, and they revealed that just since the beginning of July, Stand for Children has invested over $700K in campaigns across the state of Tennessee. According to The Tennessean’s reporting, SFC has spent over $200k in support of the 4 charter-friendly candidates in Nashville’s school board race. That includes roughly $55K just for mailers for each candidate and another $2K for digital marketing. Adding in donations from the Chamber of Commerce and other charter supporters, it adds up to roughly $140K spent against each of the incumbents, Will Pinkston, Jill Speering, Amy Frogge, and newcomer Christiane Buggs. If those numbers don’t offend you, let me put it in perspective.

$140k is no small chunk of change. First, let’s give everybody a $50k ceiling to run each of their four campaigns, generous I think, which would leave $90k leftover per district. $90k would be enough for three extra teacher assistants per district. Say a laptop runs $500, then $90k would be enough for 3,615 computers per district. $90k would be enough for an additional two school nurses per district. $90k would pay for two additional EL-certified teachers per district to work with English language learners. I could list alternatives all day, but instead Stand for Children is taking that money and using it for a barrage of misleading mailers.

13872642_10157221786110427_553173828306180840_nA recent article in Nashville Scene  says the amount given by SFC on the four school board races is actually over 230 thousand dollars. So what has SFC gotten for their $230k? Well, they got a longstanding Nashville non-profit in hot water, as it was revealed that SFC hasn’t been just spending money to influence but also collaborating with the charter community to funnel even more resources to the candidates they were supporting. By the way, that’s illegal.

They’ve also gotten a candidate in trouble, as District 9 candidate Thom Druffel has admitted that he met with SFC head Dan O’Donnell a few days ago to talk strategy. “I think we were trying to detail for the last 10 days what we were going to do and nothing more than that,” Druffel said. That would be another violation. Since it is one day after the blackout period and candidates are prohibited from interacting with PAC’s. No reason for concern though, O’Donell wasn’t working that day. He had taken the day off, so it’s all good. Well except that it’s still potentially illegal. As attorney Gerard Stranch, who has worked on campaign finance law says, “From my experience this not only looks bad, it is bad and it shouldn’t have happened.”

Last weekend, MNEA, the local teacher’s association, sent out a flier that mistakenly defined District 5 candidate Christiane Buggs as an incumbent. The error was most likely the result of a file merge at the printer. Stand for Children and their supporters quickly jumped on Buggs to immediately call for a retraction of the flier. But for her to do so would have been an election finance regulation violation since the flier did not come from her and a candidate cannot coordinate with a PAC . Unfortunately for them, Buggs was educated enough not to fall for it, and instead, waited until Monday to issue a well-worded response for a situation she had nothing to do with. Yep, I think it’s safe to say that a copy of “Election Campaign Finance Law for Dummies” did not came with that $230k.

Turns out that Stand for Children shouldn’t have been so quick to jump on Buggs.

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Coa0wEwWIAElTEaIt turns out that $230k doesn’t buy a spell check either. A recent flyer directed at school board member Amy Frogge included misspellings of both “Nashville” and her challenger’s name.  How ironic is it that SFC doesn’t even know how to properly spell the name of the candidate they are supporting? I mean you can’t make this stuff up and it probably should be a standard, that if you can’t spell the city, you can’t run an attack ad.

The best part of all this has been the variety of responses we’ve seen from SFC’s representatives. Ringleader Dan O’Donnell, when asked about the money by Nashville Scene, said “he was not responsible for the spending but would put the Scene in contact with Krista Spurgin, who works for Stand for Children’s independent expenditure committee and is listed as part of Stand for Children’s national staff.” Apparently there are two separate entities: Stand for Children Tennessee’s PAC has been active in this state for a long time, advocating for expanded pre-K as well as charter schools. But according to what O’Donnell told the Scene, “the Independent Expenditure Committee is run by ‘someone else entirely’ and ‘I found out about the disclosures when you did.’” O’Donnell goes on to say, “These are incredibly important school board races on the most important issue in Nashville and advocacy groups are going to advocate in the best way that they know how. There’s nothing unusual about having a political action committee and an independent expenditure campaign.”

In digesting this canard, please note both the PAC and the “Independent Expenditure Committee” share the same address. Is O’Donnell, the director of SFC Tennessee, seriously saying he doesn’t know the goings-on in his own office? And what about the responses of the SFC-endorsed candidates? According to the Scene, District 5 candidate Miranda Christy claims, “I don’t even know who runs that part of Stand, so I have no control over that part of it or even any say. I wish I did, but legally I know that that’s the rule and I don’t even know who I would contact.” Jane Meneely, District 3 candidate says, “I earned the endorsement from Stand for Children’s parent endorsement committee. I received contributions from their PAC. I have had no interactions at all with their independent expenditure campaign.” District 7 candidate Jackson Miller echoes the others by claiming there’s been no coordination with SFC. Interesting side note: Up until July 1, Miller had raised $90k. But this last month, he’s only raised $8k, with $6k of it being a PAC check from SFC. It seems if you take the Stand money and the rich benefactor money out, Miller becomes just an ordinary first time candidate fund raiser. Same holds true for Christy, Meneely, and Druffel. Whatever they are saying, something just seems a little fishy. With that much cash in play, making that big a difference, you’d think that somebody would have noticed.

Furthermore, despite the emails that clearly show them working with Stand for Children, Marsha Edwards of the Martha O’Bryan Center continues to deny any inappropriate behavior. Though it is worth noting that their statement CojUofwWcAILnqQtalks more about the good work they’ve done than it does about the wrongdoing. In all the years that I’ve been involved with education advocacy I don’t think I’ve ever once heard a charter operator just say, “We were wrong. We behaved badly and in the future we’ll work on doing it better.” Nope, it’s always because somebody is out to get them.

To believe any of these defenses, you would have to defy reality. If somebody spends $60k toward my goals, I would definitely take notice. What did these candidates think, that there was a special on mailers – buy 6, get 1 free? If these candidates honestly expect us to believe they were unaware of what SFC was doing, then they better go back and scrub those canvassing pictures where everyone in them was a charter school teacher or parent. Because a close look at who has been involved in their campaigns, whether it’s door knocking, phone calling, or writing checks, paints a different picture then the one the candidates are trying to present. Furthermore, their responses beg the question, if you can’t keep abreast of things as a candidate, how are you going to do it as a board member? Back in 2014, when StudentsFirst ran an ad that was offensive in support of then-candidate Mary Pierce, to her credit, Pierce noticed and asked that the offensive ads be stopped. “Our campaign strongly denounces this piece and asks that any other such communications cease immediately,” Pierce wrote in a Facebook post and it may not of stopped things entirely but it curtailed them.

Stand for Children continues to do the opposite though, they try and justify their behavior and spread half-truths. They refuse to go on camera and instead, like secret donors, send out anonymous statements that seem to suggest that somebody understands what both hands are doing. In their statement they talk about the investment of $216k being necessary because of the “array of powerful forces aggressively defending the indefensible status quo in Nashville”. Here’s a newsflash, SFC: those POWERFUL FORCES are a handful of school board members, a couple of unpaid bloggers, and some teachers and parents and they are not protecting the status quo, they are protecting their children from entities that promote policies that are harmful to them. Your statement is like King George III crying we had to attack the colonies because of the powerful forces aligned against us. This is ludicrous, and seeing that most, if not all, of the money comes from Portland, I have to ask, when did Nashville look westward to protect itself? And if we looked westward we’d see that Stand is trying to pull the same tactics in Washington state as they are here in Nashville.

Per teacher blogger Mercedes Schneider, On September 24th, 2014 the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that the state’s law regarding charter schools was unconstitutional because it depended upon funding meant for the state’s common schools. The Court upheld its opinion in November 2015. The author of the ruling is WA Supreme Court Justice Barbara Madsen, who happens to be up for reelection in 2016. Stand is bringing the checkbook to make sure she doesn’t get re-elected. Her opponent is Greg Zemple who favors charter schools. Zempel stated that he is running because the state supreme court is “unpredictable.” He said, “[The court is] highly politicized and they are not deferential to other branches of the government or citizens.” Zempel said that he had decided to challenge Chief Justice Madsen rather than a justice who had been on the court for less time because the chief justice is “more responsible” for the tone of the court.

Sound familiar Nashville residents? Madsen has raised roughly 30k and Zemple 40k but Zemple has the backing of Washington’s Stand for Children’s Independent Expenditure Committee. They’ve already spent $116k and have raised over $700K. Starting to sound real familiar now isn’t it Nashville? One time is an incident. Repeat an incident and you have a pattern of behavior. That’s what we have here and it’s one that should concern all of us.

Stand for Children has always been a little controversial, so there is lure to write this off as more of the same old same old argument. That would be a mistake. Over the last five years SFC has morphed into an organization that many of its early members barely recognize. Read the words that former Nashville member Bonnie Speer wrote in a recent Facebook post, “There was a time when I was the longest member of the Nashville Chapter of Stand for Children. SFC was a grass roots organization that advocated for local issues chosen by local members. It saddens me that it has strayed so far from its local roots. I have had nothing to do with SFC for several years and encourage anyone who still supports SFC to rethink his/her position. They no longer care or support what is best for children in our community.”

Election day is August 4th. Early voting turnout has been low so far. The question now becomes will SFC’s behavior be rewarded next Thursday? Or will Nashville send a message that our elections are not for sale, and will we not allow outside forces to dictate what our school board looks like? Recently the Reverend William Barber addressed the Democratic National Conference. He challenged attendees, calling for them to,”Vote together. Organize together. Fight for the heart of this nation.” He meant those words to galvanize voters to the polls in November. But in Nashville, August is every bit as important and the fight has to begin in each community.

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A Charter Cadre Conspires

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liesImagine, if you will, the following. It’s about a month before the local school board election and ten or so principals are hunkered over keyboards in their offices. They are hammering away at emails, cooking up plans to sway the election in a way that is beneficial to them. The plans involve utilizing rich donors and school resources. If they can get the right people elected, it would provide an advantage for their schools.

If the public got wind of this, I imagine they’d be pretty upset about it. Not to mention the legality of their schemes. Well, in Nashville, we don’t have to imagine because apparently it’s happening. Only it’s not public school principals, it’s the heads of local charters and lobbyist groups doing the scheming, according to these emails.

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Pretty interesting correspondence here, if you ask me. But before we go any further, let’s go to the address line and identify the players. The sender of this email is none other than the esteemed Dan O’Donnell, Nashville City Director for Stand For Children. You’ll remember I told you about O’Donnell and SFC last week. Seems like he’s been really busy this year.

This email is addressed to the following people: Bill DeLoache, a wealthy charter school backer who sits on the board of the Tennessee Charter School Center and Project Renaissance; Brent Easley, the Tennessee Director of StudentsFirst; Marsha Edwards, President and CEO of the Martha O’Bryan Center, East End Prep, and Explorer Community School; Shaka Mitchell, Regional Director of Rocketship Education in Tennessee; Ravi Gupta,  CEO of RePublic Schools; Charles Friedman, head of Nashville Classical Charter School; Todd Dickson, CEO at Valor Collegiate Academy; John Eason, a philanthropist with an interest in charter schools [interesting side note: In 1992, Eason and DeLoache tried and failed to create a magnet school in Nashville focused on international studies. Interestingly enough, they formed a company  and took over the Turner School in Pittsburgh, and reading its history is like reading the blueprint for future charter schools: limited success, high turnover, and half-fulfilled promises.]; Alan Coverstone, currently a professor at Belmont University; Ben Schumacher, the newly-named Executive Director for Teach For America-Greater Nashville; Randy Dowell is Executive Director for KIPP Nashville Charter Schools; and Shani Dowell, former Executive Director of Teach For America-Nashville and now with the Relay Graduate School of Education.

There are a number of red flags that need to be thrown on the contents of this email. Both Todd Dickson and Shani Dowell were recently named to newly-hired MNPS Director of Schools Shawn Joseph’s transition team. Yet here they are, copied on an email that proposes taking advantage of the incumbents being away on a board retreat. It should be noted that retreat was to lay the groundwork for the upcoming transition. So how does that work? By day, you help ease the new administration into place and by night, you plot to manipulate the school board race to your cadre’s benefit? I would say that’s a bit of a conflict of interest, no? Both should be recused from the transition team as these emails make it clear that they do not offer an unbiased view.

This email also confirms some things that we’ve known all along but charter schools were able to convince the general public that it was just conspiracy talk. Charter schools like to say they are public schools, but the reality is that they’ve never shown any inkling to work within the school system. Any attempt to bring oversight is always met with defense and push back. These emails openly confirm that they collaborate behind the scenes to rig the system to benefit themselves. There is little interest in building anything past their individual success stories.

In reading this email, one of the most maddening traits of the charter crowd is revealed, the ability to talk out of both sides of their mouths. Out of one side of their mouth, the charter people talk about the value of parent voice, yet out of the other side they bemoan that school board incumbent Amy Frogge has an “army of moms out there.” Excuse me if I missed a memo, but I thought that was the goal. And if Frogge can mount an army of moms in support of her, well, parents know best, so perhaps Stand For Children and friends should be supporting her. Instead, the cadre is trying to raise an army made up of employees and paid canvassers for a opposing candidate. One that is willing to ignore that “army of moms” to promote Stands positions. You know, since they can’t get more than the same old 12 people to knock on doors.

Which brings up another point. Charter folks are always talking about the demand for charter schools and how parents are voting with their feet, yet they can only get the same dozen people to get out and support their candidates. That kinda speaks volumes, doesn’t it? Especially since they also admit that Jill Speering has MNEA volunteers out in force. So of course privateers do what they always do, break out the checkbook and try to convince us that reality isn’t what we see.

I can’t help but reflect back on the case involving Williamson Strong from last year. If you’ll remember, WS is the parent group that was found to be operating an illegal PAC despite the fact that they never solicited any money from anyone nor ever gave any money to anyone. I would think the behaviors discussed here, of which an actual monetary figure could be attached, certainly meet the criteria for running an illegal PAC. There are identified candidates, explicit contact information, and a call to action. The call to action, at minimum, requires an in kind donation. Though I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, it seems pretty cut and dried to me. It’ll be interesting to see if this gets pursued as relentlessly as the WS case was pursued. Maybe not, since there are no actual parent voices involved.

The real question of legality, though, comes in a follow up email from Marsha Edwards, President and CEO of the Martha O’Bryan Center and the two charter schools run by the center. As Nate Rau reports in The Tennessean, the Martha O’Bryan Center is “headquartered among the James A. Cayce Homes, a government housing development in East Nashville,” and “was founded in 1951 to combat poverty issues. The center helps families with rent payments and utility bills, and runs employment and tutoring programs.” Six years ago they got into the business of charter schools.

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Edwards, at the behest of Stand For Children’s Dan O’Donnell, puts out a call to action to all Center employees for paid canvassers. She also lists what candidates are “in play.” Edwards defends her actions telling The Tennesean, “the center was not providing direct or indirect support to the campaigns, which tax law forbids, but instead passing along a job opportunity to ‘students in our programs and employees.’” Wow, I had no idea that the CEO of a non-profit and two schools also had the task of running a job board for its employees and students. She goes on to say, “The email that was forwarded was a paid job opportunity that we passed along to students in our programs and employees within our organization… Our employees, like the employees of any private organization (nonprofit or otherwise), are absolutely free to engage in political activity on their own time. And, we cannot see that there should be any concern in our sharing opportunities for political or civic engagement, which is all that occurred in this instance.”

I’m assuming she also reached out to incumbents Will Pinkston, Jill Speering, and Amy Frogge  offering her assistance , but probably not. There is also the fact that there are several million dollars at stake in the school board race. Martha O’Bryan is currently the 4th largest charter school in MNPS and despite being recently denied their bid to take over Napier ES, has big plans to grow in the future. Plans that won’t come to fruition without the right kind of school board member. And as Ms. Edwards points out, Ms. Meenely is already working as an event consultant on an event they are planning. Passing along a job prospect or not, the reality is that federal tax law strictly forbids non-profits like the Martha O’Bryan Center from getting involved, directly or indirectly, in elections. It is not a stretch to find Edwards in violation of federal tax law in this instance.

These emails confirm what Frogge, Pinkston, and Speering, along with board member Anna Shepherd, have been saying for a long time.  They serve as authentication for statements Ms. Frogge made before the board on April 23, 2014. A month earlier Will Pinkston had offered similar warnings.  At that time, as it happened every time the issues were raised, they were met with ridicule and ignored by The Tennessean and others. I don’t mind saying it,  I think The Tennessean owes the board an apology. In reading these emails, it becomes clear that the people included in these emails do not have a “Hey guys, can you help me out here” relationship, but rather one of long standing collaboration where everybody knows everybody and shares common goals. The emails reek of familiarity. A familiarity that the Tennessean has ignored and Dan O’Donnell is exploiting through Stand For Children in order to create a board that will be more sympathetic to their agenda.

The bottom line is that Stand For Children has been driving a very specific agenda here in town. One that is financially beneficial to them. I often hear people refer affectionately back to the days when Francie Hunt ran the organization and they focused on things like expanded pre-K and other student-centered issues. Let’s be clear,this is not the same organization. This is a purely highly-monetized political entity. One that works its agenda while disregarding the desires of teachers, parents, and the community members it purports to stand for. Keep in mind as well that, as noted above, both DeLoache and Eason both have a history with running a for profit charter schools. I don’t believe that, with the amount of money being spent, its too far a stretch to think they wouldn’t like to revive that business model.

Education reformers always like to say we need to put the needs of children before adults. Unfortunately, as demonstrated here, their actions do not match their words.  Furthermore their actions demonstrate that they are willing to ignore an army of mothers in order to create an environments more genial towards them. They are willing to fund over a hundred thousand dollars on a candidate  with a highly questionable past just to try and take a board member that opposes them off the battle field. They are willing to state in an interview that they would not say anything negative towards an incumbent out of respect and then turn around and target her district with fliers that make her appear unresponsive to constituents. They are willing to issue a public letter to try and intimidate another candidate into apologizing for an action she never committed knowing that if said candidate did, it would be a violation of campaign finance law. It has to stop. But it will only stop if the public makes them accountable.

Early voting has started. Election day is August 4. Please go vote and make Dan O’Donell , Stand For Children, Teach for America, Students First, Bill DeLoache, Ravi Grupta, Todd Dickson, Randy Dowell, Shani Dowell, Shaka Mitchell, John Eason, Alan Coverstone, and Marsha Edwards understand that we take democracy pretty serious in Nashville. We don’t like people trying to manipulate the democratic process. The Martha O’Bryan violations are the most obvious but now that we’ve begun turning over rocks, who knows what we’ll find.

TELL ME AGAIN HOW IT’S ABOUT THE KIDS

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FullSizeRenderNashville has, for the last several years, been an under-the-radar playground for the education reform movement. People may be familiar with the stories of New OrleansNewarkLos Angeles, and lately, Denver, but the battles have been just as fierce in Nashville. Things ratcheted up in 2008 when Karl Dean was elected mayor. Dean fancied himself as a bit of the next coming of Michael Bloomberg when he opened up the doors wide to the education reform movement and invited them in with open arms.

Those were the salad days for the reform movement in Nashville. Nobody could really predict the unintended consequences of many of the policies, and they all sounded so great, there was little opposition. Teach for America was invited to town with full mayoral support along with the New Teacher Project. Dean set up the Charter Incubator, which was designed to help grow more charters faster. Next thing you know, Ravi Gupta and Todd Dickson showed up in town to great fanfare with their charter school models. Life was good for the reformers. Then came the overreach.

In 2012, Great Hearts Academy was invited by a group of wealthy charter school advocates to open a charter school in Nashville. One that would be located in an affluent part of town but wouldn’t offer a transportation plan. The proposed school was also lacking a diversity plan. That’s when the battle lines began to be drawn. Previously, charter schools were something that happened to those “other people,” but now they were coming to middle class neighborhoods and people were starting to question why. Great Hearts’ application was denied after a fierce public battle, and despite a hefty fine imposed on Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) from the state, the days of easy expansion for charter schools came to an end. People had gotten a look behind the curtain and weren’t impressed.

Over the last four years, it has been one fight after another over charter schools. Fights that were often initiated by the charter community’s over-zealousness for expansion. Despite numerous studies showing the negative financial impact that charter expansion would have for MNPS, then-Mayor Dean and others continued to push for more expansion. Unfortunately for them, parents had begun to read the research and fight back. Over time, the efforts of charter operators to expand have been met with dwindling success until this year, when no new charter school applications were approved.

Back tracking just a bit, 2012 saw the first of the big dollar school board elections in Nashville. In District 5, Elissa Kim brought in just shy of $84K and ended up winning the election. Interestingly enough, District 9 candidate Margaret Dolan raised over $100k, but still lost to Amy Frogge, who raised only $17,864. The 2014 election saw a little less money invested and allowed the charter contingency to pick up two backers in Mary Pierce and Tyese Hunter. This year also saw a proliferation of negative mailers from outside groups. In all fairness, candidate Pierce did renounce negative mailers sent out by Michelle Rhee’s Students First organization during the campaign. Despite picking up these two seats, charter supporters were losing the fight for more charter growth and public sentiment was beginning to turn. This was largely due to board members Will Pinkston and Amy Frogge being far more effective at making the argument for temperance in charter growth than their opponents did for expanding.

That’s why, along with their opposition to vouchers and their insistence that the state properly fund public education, both Pinkston and Frogge have found themselves subject to a well-financed attack in their respective bids for re-election. Pinkston, specifically, is a prized target. His opponent, a small businessman with 5 children in MNPS, has somehow managed to raise $90K despite never having run for office before. That’s the kind of money you need for a statewide election, not a local school board position. It begs the questions why and how did the candidate become that skilled a fundraiser? With final disclosures still a week away, it’s not hard to envision the campaign beating the 2012 record of $113k raised. That’s just obscene. To make things worse, Pinkston and Frogge are not alone in facing abnormally well-funded opponents. Let’s take a closer look at the District 5 race where there is no incumbent.

District 5’s current representative Elissa Kim decided not to run for re-election. Kim, along with board members Mary Pierce and Tyese Hunter, have been the voices of the education reform movement on the MNPS board. Kim’s tenure on the board has been a tumultuous one. Her strong ties to Teach for America, where she was VP of recruiting, and the reform crowd often left her open to criticism about her seeming conflict of interest and lack of support for the traditional schools in the district. Two years ago, emotions erupted over Kim’s lack of communication with constituents. Had she chosen to run this year, it would have been a difficult campaign for her, to say the least.

Currently there are four candidates running for Kim’s vacant position, Christiane Buggs, Miranda Christy, Corey Gathings, and Erica Lanier. With roughly two weeks to go until election day, Christiane Buggs and Miranda Christy have established themselves as the front runners in the race. Interestingly enough, Christy has become the charter school crowd’s candidate of choice despite Lanier having a child enrolled in a charter school and having been the chair for the MNPS Parent Advisory Committee for several years. But money likes who money likes.

In Buggs, you have a candidate who seems tailor-made to represent District 5, a district that encompasses East Nashville, North Nashville, and downtown. It’s a district with a large percentage of African American residents, has large portions beset by poverty, and is home to a high number of charter schools. Buggs is a young African American woman who has taught in both traditional schools and charter schools. A graduate of MNPS, she holds Master’s degrees in education from both Vanderbilt and Tennessee State University. Her uncle is Harold Love, a Tennessee State Representative. She is a life long resident of Nashville and has deep ties to the community. Anyone meeting her comes away highly impressed, and she seems like a natural selection for this district.

Christy is a white attorney from Kentucky who moved here 15 years ago to get a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Vanderbilt. She’s chaired the Nashville Chamber’s educational committee and served on the board of Nashville Classical, a charter school in the district. She has no children in Metro schools, nor has she voted in any previous school board race. To her credit, she has not shied away from her views on charter school expansion, stating unequivocally at the Nashville Rise candidate forum that she is a strong proponent for charters, something few candidates are willing to do. In my opinion, there are other parts of town she seems more suited to represent, and you have to wonder if she will be able to communicate to the community on their terms or if, once again, just one constituency will be served.

Look at the financial disclosures for Buggs and Christy (Read over the full disclosures for the first quarter here. Disclosures for the second quarter have yet to be uploaded to the Davidson County Election Commission’s website.) and you start to see just how much the charter community has invested in this district. To date, Christy has raised $30,010 to Buggs’ $16,495. Buggs’ donations, for the most part – save a contribution for $7,600 from MNEA, the teacher’s association, and $1,500 from the pro-public education, parent-created PAC, TNRefinED – are of the $250 to $500 variety. On the other hand, Christy has 13 donors who each made the maximum individual amount allowed, $1,500, and many of them are couples who made two individual donations. They are Emily and James Flautt, Thomas and Pamela Wylly, Joseph and Dorothy Scarlett, Linda and Blair Wilson, Andrea and Rick Carlton, Mary DeLoache, William DeLoache, and Lee Beaman. That doesn’t include long time “education philanthropist” Townes Duncan’s donation of $1,000 and smaller donations from other people.  Looking at zip codes, Christy raised $17,700 out of 37205 and $7,550 out of 37215, neither of which are part of District 5.

Inspect the zip codes of these “education philanthropists” and you’ll see they are clear across town in Belle Meade and Green Hills. That is board member Mary Pierce’s district. In 37205, the 2010 census shows a white population of 22,835 and a black population of 620. It begs the question: why are wealthy white people from across town interested in what happens in District 5? It makes things even more questionable when you look at all the candidates’ financial disclosures and see that the same donors are maxed out on donations to the challengers of the three incumbents in Districts 3, 7, and 9 as well. Why are these wealthy white folks trying to influence policy over schools their children will never attend by seemingly trying to buy an election?

Despite the money, the incumbents seem to be holding their own. Mostly because the challengers lack a compelling reason for change. Most parents and teacher acknowledge how hard the incumbents have worked for them. The challengers’ major argument seems to be that they’ll be more genial. When you look at the money being invested, it’s hard not to ask who they’ll be more genial towards. Especially considering that several of these maxed-out donors sit on the board for the Beacon Center, a organization with a very clear agenda. In addition to supporting charter schools, the Beacon Center takes a favorable view of vouchers and frowns upon lawsuits directed at the state in regards to education funding. It should also be noted that donor Lee Beaman was a leading proponent for a recent English-only initiative. I’ve always believed that if you accept a person’s money, on some level, you also accept their politics.

District 5 is different, though. Buggs is in a dog fight, and since she does not have a record to fall back on, she is tasked with making an argument compelling enough to survive Christy’s financial onslaught. That is a difficult position to be in, but it becomes even worse when you add in the financial might of “independent” education advocacy groups like Stand For Children. SFC has already targeted District 5 voters with 5 separate mailers and Stand for Children’s Dan O’Donnell checks are on the way from his organization to candidates they support. This week flyers like the ones below hit mailboxes across the city courtesy of O’Donnell and Stand.

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In looking at their state financial disclosures, we see that SFC has already spent $220,000 statewide on 4 house races and 4 school board races. They’ve brought in $86K, with $36k coming from the home office in Portland and $50k coming from the Ingram Family. They currently have $12,600 on hand, with outstanding obligations of $147k as of June 30, plus whatever else they choose to spend in July. As outside money starts to tip the scales, the process starts to feel more like a financial transaction and less of a democratic one.

It would be easy to just write this off as a local affair if I hadn’t sat in on a session at the recently held 2016 National Charter School Conference called “The False Advocacy Debate: Grass Tops or Grass Roots.” On the panel were Nicole Brisbane from Democrats for Education Reform in New York, Maya Martin of Parents Amplifying Voices in Education, and Nick Bolt of the Walton Foundation. The three discussed various strategies they utilize in influencing school board races. Brisbane favored using Grass Tops, a term that, as a parent advocate, I was unfamiliar with. It involves the targeting of influential individuals in a community and activating them, meaning turning them into funders and advocates. Martin extolled the virtues of utilizing parents to recruit other parents so that the movement felt more authentic. But don’t think for one second she was concerned with just getting parents involved; as she stated, that’s called mobilizing. What they are doing is organizing. In other words they don’t just want to send parents to the polls, they want to send parents to the polls with a very specific objective. I must add, that it has always been my experience that when you have to explain how to be authentic, it comes across as inauthentic, which it is.

I don’t know how else to say it, but these two women were no joke. They systematically described how they successfully won school board races using a combination of the two tactics effectively, and with a member of the Walton Foundation sitting with them, it wasn’t hard to see where the financing was coming from. Since Nashville is currently in the midst of a school board race, while watching this panel it began to dawn on me that the incumbents and Buggs weren’t just running against their challengers. They were running against people like the ones sitting on that panel and the organizations they represent. Organizations that had invested millions in researching exactly how to create advocacy groups that appeared to be parent driven but in reality were merely vehicles for a private agenda. It was scary to say the least, and seemed to me to be a subversion of the democratic process.

In listening to them talk and comparing what was happening in Nashville, it wasn’t hard to see the connection. They’ve employed these tactics in IndianapolisBuffaloMemphisOakland, and Denver, among others. Denver is probably the most problematic example. Stand For Children has been successfully active in school board races there since 2009 and have shaped the board to their will. Reformers like to paint Denver as a success and the new face of education reform. A look below the surface, though, doesn’t paint as rosy a picture.

Denver is truly a cautionary tale for the voters of District 5 and for Nashville as a whole. Expansion of charter schools, big outside money going to sympathetic candidates, incumbents being outspent, a desire for more amicable board members… it’s all there and the choice is ours. Local education reformers always like to say that you can’t look at other cities and base judgments about Nashville on them. That Nashville is a unique environment. But would you bet our children’s future on that? Would you trust in Nashville’s uniqueness over mounting evidence nationwide? I think there is way too much at stake to ignore the evidence.

I tell my kids that life is like traveling down a highway. Sometimes that highway leads to an undesirable destination, but if you pay attention to road signs along the way, you will have ample opportunity to exit and get on a highway that leads to a more desirable outcome. The problem is, too often we ignore those signs and just keep speeding on down the wrong highway, and the exits get further and further apart until we are finally at that undesirable location. Christiane Buggs, along with Amy Frogge, Will Pinkston, and Jill Speering offer a road to a more the desirable destination. One where we can start to leave the charter school debate behind and focus on the areas that these candidates have tried to direct us towards; increased focus on literacy initiatives, community schools, how to better serve our ELL students, better testing policies. The question is, are we going to take that exit or remain blinded by the high dollar spending of Stand For Children and other outside influences and stay on the wrong road? A road fraught with more fights over the privatization of our school system distracting us from what our children really need.  Early voting has started, so the decision is ours.

 

A Parent and Teacher Welcomes Dr. Joseph to Nashville

Mary Holden is someone who without I couldn’t have created Dad Gone Wild. Take a listen to her wise words and you’ll understand why.

MY TWO CENTS

My daughter attends elementary school in the Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS). Public schools in Davidson County tend to get a bad rap, and that’s a shame because there are some wonderful things happening here.

Recently, MNPS hired a new Director of Schools, Dr. Shawn Joseph. To say that the expectations are high for him would be an understatement. Also, the process of hiring a new director was not an easy one. My friend TC Weber wrote a thorough analysis of that process here, as did the Tennessee Education Report here and The Tennessean here. Still, I feel hopeful about what Dr. Joseph will do here.

Back in April, I, along with other parents and teachers, spoke at that month’s school board meeting (during the public comment portion of the meeting) about what I would like to see in a new Director of Schools. Here were my remarks…

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NASHVILLE SCHOOL BOARD RACE: ENOUGH IS ENOUGH

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image1 [104421]Sunday morning I sat down to write another post about my visit to the recent 2016 National Charter Schools Conference. I really need to share information about the Achievement School District panel that I attended while there. Unfortunately, I opened up The Tennessean first and read their endorsements for this year’s school board race here in Nashville. It immediately became clear that the ASD was going to have to wait because the sheer audacity of these picks demanded that a response take precedent.

A little heads up here before we get rolling: you may find that some of what I’m about to say is offensive. Now that’s not my goal, but like board members Amy Frogge, Jill Speering, and Will Pinkston, I believe that some things are so important that voicing them takes precedent over protecting sensibilities. Truth is, people often default to being offended when they hear things they don’t want to hear. Instead of actually analyzing what’s being said, they jump to being offended. This allows them to attack the person instead of the argument. Something all three of the aforementioned board members have been subject to. The Tennessean and their endorsement process being just the latest.

A prevailing theme in The Tennessean’s justification for their endorsements is the candidates’ use of social media. A few are chastised for the tone they use, but one is commended for not getting “distracted” by it. Here’s a news flash for The Tennessean: social media is a form of communication and has surpassed newspapers as a primary source of information. The number of people getting their news via mobile devices instead of newspapers continues to grow at a rapid pace. Being a newer form of communication, the rules and etiquette for social media are still being written.

Does an elected official have an obligation to allow everyone to comment how they please on personal social media pages? Is it bad form to delete comments? Must all interaction be genial? How responsible will a candidate be held for past comments? These are all questions being debated as we speak. Social media is like a giant flashlight shining light on previously unexposed corners. The true power of it that it makes conversations transparent. A candidate can no longer say one thing to one constituent and then a totally different thing to another constituent without being exposed. You can’t just make up “facts” without somebody fact checking. In any case, the guidelines will be determined by users and not by previous communications outlets. Newspapers will no more get the right to make rules for Twitter then Twitter makes rules for newspapers. In many ways social media is the great equalizer.

It’s interesting to note that if you took a look at the Founding Fathers of America, who are revered by all of us, you would find that they were not overly  concerned with etiquette and often took a tone more closely aligned with Will Pinkston’s than with The Tennessean’s view. As respected historian Ron Chertow notes, “Such highly charged language shouldn’t surprise us. People who spearhead revolutions tend to be outspoken and courageous, spurred on by a keen taste for combat.” Seems to describe Pinkston, doesn’t it? And though they are not as fond of combat as he might be, Frogge and Speering tend to be equally as outspoken and courageous. These are traits that should be commended, not chastised. I think people need to realize that serving on a school board is not a job for the faint of heart. Seeing that some would liken policy debates to being at war, it is a job that takes a bit of a warriors heart.

Amy Frogge’s school board Facebook page has over 3,200 followers and her Twitter feed  has over 2,200 followers. Will Pinkston’s Facebook page has over 2,800 followers and his Twitter feed is at over 2,000. To give some context, fellow board member Mary Pierce has 805 Facebook followers  and board chair and Tennessean-endorsed incumbent candidate Sharon Gentry has 149 followers on Twitter. I think it’s pretty clear who’s utilizing social media effectively. That said, let’s take a look at thsese individual endorsements by The Tennessean.

In District 1, The Tennessean chose incumbent and board chair Sharon Gentry over challenger Jeanette Carter. This isn’t surprising because of several reasons. For personal reasons, Carter has missed a few opportunities to get in front of voters and this has been a hindrance in her getting any real traction. What is surprising is the Tennessean’s praise that they’ve heaped on Gentry. The Tennessean states, “As public officials become more experienced, they should show growth, and Gentry has done so and helped move the board in the right direction.” Yet they cite no evidence of this growth or direction. Furthermore I’m not so sure how much any moving in the “right direction” can be attributed to her leadership versus the board’s growth. This board has been fairly intact with minimm change in membership over the last 4 years and it can be argued that with familiarity has come a better ability to communicate. It does fascinate me that a newspaper that warned the school board just two months ago to “not screw it up” in regards to the superintendent search and has long driven the narrative of a “broken board” would call for the leader of said board to remain.

In District 3, The Tennessean endorsed Jill Speering  over her challenger, Jane Grimes Meneely . This makes sense, as Speering is a life-long educator and an effective advocate for teachers and strong literacy programs. The endorsement came with the caveat, though, that Speering needs to be careful: “She is not beholden to the Metro Nashville Education Association.” Funny though, nowhere does The Tennessean admonish other candidates to not become beholden to Stand For Children, the Tennessee Charter School Center, Project Renaissance, or any other organization pumping money into this campaign. These outside organizations openly have an agenda of promoting charter schools, creating vouchers, and ensuring that the state is not sued for not properly funding the BEP. An agenda that is contrary to parents who actually send their children to Nashville public schools. Yet they demonize the teacher’s association, which represents actual teachers working in Nashville. Why do you think that is?

District 5 is where things start getting interesting. The Tennessean endorsed Miranda Christy over Christiane Buggs. District 5  is home to a large African American population and is dramatically impacted by issues derived from race and poverty. Buggs  is a veteran of the MNPS schools, both as a graduate and as a teacher, having taught at Neely’s Bend Middle School and at a charter school. She is young, extremely well educated, having Master’s degrees in education from both Tennessee State University and Vanderbilt, and knows the issues intimately through her long standing involvement in the African American community. She serves as a tremendous role model for children in her community and could be equally impactful in the lives of young girls and children of color across the city as a model of what can be accomplished through the power of education.

At a time when issues of race and its impact on society is front and center, Buggs is a perfect representative to lead Nashville forward and provide inspiration for the students of MNPS. The Tennessean chose to turn a deaf ear to that potential and instead sent a message that for people of color, the bar will always be higher. As defense of this endorsement, they cited Christy’s interview: “MNPS is a vast and complicated system, and our district needs a strong advocate and consensus builder who can navigate the complex layers for the good of all kids.” As if a former teacher with two Master’s degrees and who currently serves as the Assistant Director of TRIO Programs at Tennessee State University was incapable of such.

Christy may be a great consensus builder, but she has never taught in the district, has no children in the schools in the district, and the best I can tell, has never voted in a school board race in the district. A prevailing conversation has been the need to get more teachers who look like their students into classrooms. Will Christy be leading that conversation?

I encourage you to watch both Christy’s interview and Buggs’ interview, and then decide who should have gotten the endorsement. Nobody should get a job based solely on race or gender, but when a candidate is as qualified as Buggs is, with the added benefit of matching the demographics of constituents, but is dismissed for a less qualified candidate who happens to be white and openly supports the growth of private interests in our schools, it is appalling. But when you look at who one of Christy’s major sponsors is, you shouldn’t be surprised. Though you would think she’d have been able to remember Mr. Beaman’s name when she was asked at a recent NOAH debate who her major sponsors were.

In District 7, The Tennessean ate a little crow and endorsed incumbent Will Pinkston over challenger Jackson Miller. I’m 99% positive that The Tennessean was hoping to endorse Miller over Pinkston, but unfortunately, revelations about Miller’s past made that an impossibility. So the best they could do was lecture Pinkston about his behavior. Something not taken into consideration is the fact that Pinkston, and his cultivated persona, likely played as large a role in getting the board to come together around hiring Dr. Joseph as the new director of schools as anyone else on the board.

Also worth noting is that Pinkston’s perceived victims have all now left their previous positions. Dr. Jesse Register, Alan Coverstone, Chris Barbic, Ravi Gupta, Hunter Schimpff  – they have all moved on to the private sector or to out-of-state jobs. Apparently,  they didn’t feel as if fighting for kids was worth the prolonged effort. Yet Pinkston is still here, still fighting for increased pre-k, equity for English Learners, financial sustainability, and he ‘still enduring the slings and arrows for it. I guess when he says he cares about kids, it really is more than just words. It’s refreshing to see someone who doesn’t just talk the talk, but also walks the walk.

This brings us to District 9, quite possibly the most egregious of all the endorsements. The Tennessean chose to endorse challenger Thom Druffel over incumbent Amy Frogge. In doing so, they didn’t only endorse Druffel, but utilized this opportunity to take Frogge out to the proverbial woodshed in a manner that runs counter to their call for greater civility among board members and honestly, came off as a personal attack. They wrote, “A passionate parent and attorney, Frogge also has served as a disruptive force unwilling to step outside her box and has shown a pattern of being responsive and respectful only when constituents agree with her. Whether it involves social media behavior like writing acerbic posts and deleting comments that are critical of her, this behavior is not conducive to productive community engagement.”

Hmmm… let’s take a look at some of those posts and you be the judge. There was a piece Frogge wrote on excessive testing that was picked up by the Washington Post, another from The Tennessean about the importance of teacher voice in the national discussion on education, and one that Diane Ravitch picked up on her blog where Frogge discusses discipline issues in a local charter school. The tone throughout these posts is direct, factual, and research-based. The one on discipline caused the most uproar, but tell me, how is that different from the what Secretary of Education John King has been recently saying about discipline practices in charter schools? I guess when the Secretary of Education says it, it’s thought provoking, but coming out of the mouth of an intelligent and vocal woman, it’s being a disruptive force.

The only difference between Frogge’s comments on charter school discipline policies and John King’s comments is that Frogge began making hers almost two years ago. Truth is, she’s been ahead of the curve on nearly every issue, and furthermore, her views align with those held by most parents and teachers: There is too much testing. Kids need more physical activity. “No excuses” discipline models are harmful and need to be examined more closely. We need teacher retention programs as much as we need teacher recruitment policies. I would challenge The Tennessean to name an issue that Frogge wasn’t ahead of the curve on or one where she lacked research in her responses. There just isn’t one. She writes with the passion of a public school mom who not only wants the best education for her children, but for all children, and will fight to get it done. This is not a fault; it is a trait highly desirable in a school board member. One that frankly, is a lot rarer and more valuable then the “ability to build consensus.”

Others have recognized Frogge for her tireless work and academic knowledge. She was named a “Hero of Public Education” by former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, Best Public School Defender by the Nashville Scene, and School Board Member of the Year by the national blog Schools Matter. She also received the Distinguished Service to Our Community  honor from Delta Kappa Gamma, a teacher organization, and the Robert Chandler Ambassador Award from the Nashville Adult Literacy Council. Quite a distinguished list.

In supporting Druffel, The Tennessean noted that “his temperament is such that he will show respect and discipline to fellow board members, MNPS staff and the public.” In working closely with Frogge over the last several years, I have never once seen her be anything less than respectful to fellow board members. In looking at the wording The Tennessean chose regarding Frogge, and then examining her actual record as a board member, it’s not much of a stretch to conclude that Frogge’s gender has as much to do with the criticism as her actual words do. After all, The Tennessean credited Jill Speering for “not becoming distracted” on social media. In other words, not being too forceful. But with Frogge, they were critical. Many politicians have been slow to embrace social media because of it’s many inherent risks and the potential loss of control. Frogge has never shrunk from the challenge. Showing a willingness to not just engage her constituents but to educate them as well through well researched pieces. A trait that again, should be praised and not demeaned.

In defending their endorsement of Thom Druffel, the Tennessean tried to reinforce the false narrative that Frogge attempted to derail the process of hiring a new director of schools, despite Dr. Joseph, the new director, praising her for raising an important issue during the hiring process. The two have in fact already fallen into an easy and professional working relationship. It can’t be repeated enough, Ms. Frogge was not out  of line in making her request that an additional candidate be interviewed. She followed procedure by making a motion. A vote was held and it did not fall in her favor. She accepted the vote and moved on. She never brought up her motion again after the vote and embraced the presented candidates. Dr. Joseph did not feel threatened, so I’m not sure why the Tennessean has held onto this narrative like a dog with a bone. The only conclusion that I can arrive at is that they were heavily invested in the process and Ms. Frogge wouldn’t follow the script. She didn’t know her place. Truth is, she thought it was more important to get it right then to get along.

Riding in the car the other day, my 7-year-old daughter voiced her excitement at a Hillary Clinton presidency. “Daddy,” she said, “It’s crazy what they used to think girls couldn’t do. I’d never let them tell me what I couldn’t do. If they tried, I’d just keep right on doing it. Even if they put me in jail, when I got out, I’d go back to doing it.” My heart swelled, I smiled, and I thank God she has role models like her mother, along with Amy Frogge, Jill Speering, and Christiane Buggs to show her what that looks like, because if she followed The Tennessean’s lead, she surely wouldn’t.

Times have changed, and we no longer have to depend on the skewered reporting of the local paper. A simple Google search will often reveal an opposite view of the narrative put forth by the local media. The Tennessean’s editorial board is woefully out of touch with how voters in Nashville really feel about educational issues, and that’s a shame. Just listen to parents and teachers, the real stakeholders here, when they speak about Amy Frogge, Jill Speering, Will Pinkston, Christiane Buggs, and Jeanette Carter, and it is obvious who to vote for. Contrary to their opinion, geniality does not trump knowledge, courage, or work ethic. The future of our children depends on more than just being able to play nice.

UPDATE: Steven Hale and Amanda Haggard take a deeper look at the race and the money for the Nashville Scene. It’s interesting to see just how much is being invested by people outside the individual districts. It’s also amazing how four supposedly disparate challengers were able to all find the same revenue stream.

A Dad Walks into a Charter School Convention

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image1Two weeks ago as I was settling down to watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones, I got a call: “Did you know that the National Convention of Charter Schools was going to be held Monday, right here in Nashville, Tennessee?” I did not. “Yes, indeed, representatives from charter schools and related businesses would be here for three days to celebrate all things charter.” Wow, was all I could say. “You should go down there and then write about it” it was suggested. Of course, I thought that was a great idea.

That’s how I found myself last Monday morning, picking up my pass for the 2016 National Charter School Conference at the Nashville Convention Center. Perusing the program, I was impressed with the speakers. Dr. Howard Fuller, Secretary of Education John King, former tennis great Andre Agassi – they would all be addressing the throngs. Throughout the day would be sessions with titles such as: 10 HR Mistakes that Could Sink Your Charter, Hacking the Brain: How to Access the Affective Learning Domain, How to Recruit Quality Charter Management Organizations to Your State, and my favorite, The False Advocacy Debate: Grass Tops or Grass Roots? This was going to be interesting, to say the least.

Since I had a little time to mingle before things kicked off, I decided to roam the promenade to try to talk to a few folks. My first impression was that people attending the conference were a lot older than I anticipated. I had expected the convention goers to all be in their 20s, maybe early 30s. That wasn’t the case at all. Most tended to be in their mid-30s to late 40s. The crowd was extremely diverse as well. Which I guess shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did.

In the 45 minutes before things began, I talked to a man from Chicago who sold insurance for charter schools, a teacher from Atlanta, and another teacher from Washington. The one thing all three had in common was that they were extremely nice. None tried to convert me to anything or engage in secret handshakes. We talked about our cities, the weather, sessions that might be interesting – all normal conversation items. I was starting to feel at ease. Truth is, the majority of the people I talked with had more questions than answers.

Heading off to the first morning’s keynote session, I found myself outside the elevator with a woman from Ohio. You could tell because everybody gets a little sticker with their state to put on their conference badge. “Ah,” I said, “You’re from Ohio. And what do you do there?” “I work for DFER, Democrats for Education Reform,” she replied. So I thought, as I looked at her, this is what these mythical Republicans in sheep’s clothing look like. DFER and the policies they push have long been a source of irritation to me in that they tend to fall more to the Republican side of the discussion despite having “Democrat” in their name, and few organizations have done as much damage to public education as they have. She looked at my badge, and I saw a look of puzzlement come over her face, “I know that name…” Smiling, I replied, “I write a blog, Dad Gone Wild, and I’m sure I’ve written a few not nice things about DFER.” The light bulb went off, and she smiled and said, “Yes. Well, have a nice time at the convention.” Which I took to mean something along the lines of the Southern phrase, “Bless you.” Maybe everybody wasn’t going to be so welcoming.

Entering the main area for the morning speeches was like entering a high-end disco. The room was lit up like the set to WWE Smack Down, with two giant video monitors flanking the stage, loud music, and ever changing lighting. I half expected the Rock to bound on the stage and holler, “Can you smell what the Rock is cooking!?” The music selection that was being pumped loudly through the room induced a bit of a chuckle. “1999,” “Centerfield,” and “Life is a Highway” were among the tunes meant to pump up the crowd and convey a sense of being on the cusp of greatness. If the charter movement were suffering from setbacks, it certainly wasn’t evident in this room.

It was time to get the show started. Two young men from Grizzly Prep performed a rap routine and then the music lowered and onto the stage walked Tennessee’s very own Governor Bill Haslam. Haslam publically likes to portray himself as a bit of a moderate, but he wasn’t wearing that mask today with this crowd. Today, he was a full on charter fan. Of course, he had to bring up those NAEP results from 2013 showing Tennessee as one of the fastest rising states in the union. I can’t help but think that at some point we’ll arrive at the expiration date for those numbers. Haslam closed by telling the crowd how glad he was to have them in Nashville, and that they may hear some criticism but to ignore it because they are doing the right thing and we wanted more of them to call Tennessee home. I suspect the irony of him calling for more charter schools, at the same time as law suits from his urban districts in regards to the proper funding of existing schools were growing, was lost on just about everyone, including the governor.

Next up was journalist Roland Martin, who was also broadcasting from the convention. If I had any notions of this being a welcoming, feel good, we entertain all kinds of ideas type of convention, they went screaming out the window once Martin began speaking. He made it clear from the get go that we are in a war, and he had no time to be nice, no time to entertain alternate opinions because this was a fight. Martin issued a warning to any who opposed charter schools: “We will fight you until hell freezes over, and then we will fight you on the ice.” What made things even more disturbing was the thundering applause in response to his remarks. It was clear Martin was not alone in this sentiment. Martin also went on to make claims that the only reason that education policies were declared a right in southern state constitutions was because after the end of the Civil War freed slaves demanded it. First I’d heard of that but he sounded awful sure of it.

This tied in to Martin’s disturbing rhetoric that shaped the charter “fight” as a continuation of the fight for Civil Rights. Proclaiming, “If we had the courage to bring down Jim Crow, then we should have the courage to fix education in America.” He made statements like this despite continuous reports that show charter schools increase segregation. Yet when he evoked the image of civil rights battles, he’s met by applause instead of challenges. I certainly believe that the privatization of our public schools and the quality of our public schools in general are civil rights issues, but charter schools are among the perpetrators, not the defenders. I also don’t believe for one minute that Martin Luther King would be a proponent for the harsh discipline practices utilized in many charter schools. Practices that newly appointed Education Secretary John King would later urge them to reconsider.

Martin was followed on stage by Nina Rees. If I thought Martin was scary, Rees took it to a whole different level. She called for charter schools to enroll 4 million more students over the next 5 years, and warned conventioneers that “we are still busy in this movement making the academic case for charter schools when our opposition is out to destroy us. We cannot let our future growth depend on people who oppose us. We need to play better offense.” For Rees, just using civil rights language wasn’t enough; she went on to compare the charter movement to the democratic movement in Iran. Apparently, unbeknownst to me, charter operators are being arrested and some are dying suspiciously. Perhaps somebody should alert the press because if true, it’s being seriously underreported.

Rees reminded attendees that the federal government, under Presidents Bush and Obama, has been one of the charter movement’s best friends. She did warn that this election was a bit more unpredictable, and twice asked people to pull out their phones and text a number that went directly to Clinton and Trump signifying their support of the charter movement. I declined to participate. People need to keep this in mind when they think education policy is a partisan issue. The Charter crowd makes sure to pander to both the right and the left.

Throughout her talk, Rees threw out numbers like a barker at a county fair. Numbers like 30% of all schools closing the achievement gap across the country are charter schools despite only being 7% of schools, or 5 million parents would make a charter school their first choice if one was available to them. Her whole speech was peppered with “facts” like these. Where do these numbers come from? I have no idea. Are they true? Maybe in some context, but since she never shared where they came from, I have no idea what context that is. I will say that’s it been my experience that the education reform crowd has never been afraid to misrepresent statistics or claim success where there is none.

Last to take the stage was Dr. Howard Fuller. Fuller mashed the pedal to the floor on both the war and civil rights rhetoric, declaring “we bring a PowerPoint presentation to a street fight.” Fuller has a long and distinguished career in both civil rights and education. Interesting enough, Fuller served as superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools from 1991-1995, and this past week, Milwaukee parents won a huge victory against a new law that would have allowed charter schools free reign to take over traditional schools. Doesn’t seem like this war thing is working when your opponents are public school parents.

Fuller’s speech, to be honest, on one level was extremely uplifting. He challenged charter operators to face the fact that not all operators were in it for the right reasons, calling out “scoundrels and crooks who have used charter schools for their own personal gain and in the process have done harm to our children.” He drew light on issues like people who are struggling to earn a living wage, affordable housing, hunger, and the effects of all these issues on education. It was very easy to get caught up in the fever until you realized everything was cached on increasing the number of charter schools with little real acknowledgement of the mounting evidence that community schools served children and communities more effectively. Perhaps like an old general he has been at war to long and can no longer shift his vision based on changing data.

Fuller proclaimed, it was a struggle and needed to be a struggle. The amount of success could be directly measured by the amount of opposition. “This is America and sometimes we got to fight. No, we can’t all get along,” Fuller said. “But the needs of our children dictate that we stay in the room and find common ground on what we agree on — the value of charter schools.” The needs of our children also dictate that we stay open to current research and not cling to a vision that research no longer supports. I can’t help but think that his struggle would be better served fighting for schools more attuned to his own vision and history. Schools that were ready to face the challenges he laid out and not just place those goals as secondary to raising test scores and expanding an experiment with limited success as it appears to be with the current charter movement.

I do agree, we need to stay in the room. But in order for that to occur, the language and the attitude has to become a whole lot less militant. The difference in the tone presented to the public and the one shown behind semi-closed doors was striking. I had expected a more conciliatory and collaborative tone. It was clear that their definition of collaboration was different than mine, and the goals were not increased collaboration traditional schools but to replace them. I also came away realizing the stance the MNPS school board members here in Nashville have taken regarding charter expansion is absolutely the right one, and they should be praised for their foresight and courage. Public education is not a marketplace and shouldn’t be treated as one. Yet every message I received at NCSC16 was one that was market driven.

Over the next couple of days, I attended several workshops, and I’ll share my experiences in future blog posts. I would be remiss, though, if I did not point out the strange dichotomy of this event. Throughout the conference, I met fantastic people. Charter school teachers from Philly who had unionized their schools and teachers from Ohio trying to get a better understanding, entrepreneurs trying to find homes for their creations, a principal at an Indiana school that allows adults to get their high school diploma instead of a GED, administrators who had worked in New Orleans and Boston, members of the American Federation of Teachers – the point being it wasn’t hard to find good people doing great work. Unfortunately, the tone of the national organizations hung like a pall, for me, over the proceedings. I know that organizations are made up of people, but the agenda of the people did not reflect the agenda of the organizations. That’s a dichotomy that somehow needs to be resolved.

But can it be resolved? If the leader’s attitude really is that we are at war?? Can these charter supporters really stop, take a step back and look at what they are doing, and turn things around? I am torn. There’s so much money and capital at stake – or I guess they would say, there’s too much at stake – for them to turn back. Maybe we are at war after all. Even if the soldiers are more interested in solutions rather then victories.