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.