Nashville 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 Orleans, Newark, Los 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.
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 Indianapolis, Buffalo, Memphis, Oakland, 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.