Two 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.