Note: I was busy finishing this blog post last night while the protests raged in Charlotte. After posting, I scrolled through my social media feeds and saw that many of my white friends could not understand the depths of rage felt by those in Charlotte. To them I would say, the seeds are right here in this post. There is not a wealthy white school in America that would tolerate the conditions of the school my kids attend. Children are resilient but they don’t forget. They will remember how we treated them, Our public education system has let down generations of children of color. We need to acknowledge that, But the solution does not lie in taking power out of the hands of communities and putting it in the hands of private entities. We need to tend to our public schools. The situation in Charlotte saddens me, but we have the opportunity to make change right here in our communities. The choice is ours.
It’s 4:30 in the morning, and I’m wide awake. I’m wide awake despite the fact that I didn’t get home until after midnight from working nine straight hours. I’m awake because despite everything our kids still don’t have the resources they need in their schools. My gut burns with anger towards the fight against charter schools and how we focus more on the supply than we do on demand. We celebrate our small victories in preventing the growth of charter schools, but are we really improving the system for all children? Are we making sure that all of our neighborhood schools have the resources they need? I’d argue no.
The charter school fight has been raging in Nashville for the last 5 years. It’s been fought passionately on both sides, and the conversation, to the credit of some dedicated advocates, has changed dramatically over the years. Like the rest of the country, Nashville once welcomed charter school expansion with open arms, it now voices a desire to keep them at arm’s length and instead support our traditional schools. It’s a transformation that I support; however, I question whether we’ve focused enough on improving our existing schools. Can we look parents in the eye and tell them that public schools are the best option and that there isn’t a need for alternatives? I’ve got my doubts.
I point to the war on drugs to further illustrate my point. Over the years we’ve sunk billions of dollars into combating illegal drug use. But we’ve focused almost exclusively on the supply end of things while ignoring the demand. We spend less and less on mental health issues. Poverty levels continue to grow. We celebrate financial success while the wage gap continues to grow. Yet we wonder why the drug trade still thrives. We are doing the same thing with our schools, expending 10 times the energy fighting the supply while all but ignoring the demand.
We all seem to be willing to work harder when there is a boogeyman to face. Charter schools make for a convenient boogeyman in the same way that the cartels do for the war on drugs – now before everybody loses their mind, know that I am not equating charter schools to drug cartels in any way but in their use as scapegoats. There wouldn’t be cartels in the illegal drug trade if there were no demand, and the same goes for charter schools in that there wouldn’t be charter schools if the demand wasn’t there. I do have to ask, though, what if the boogeyman is really us and our inability to provide equitable educational opportunities for all children? Case in point: have we expended as much energy in improving our schools as we have in fighting against their takeovers? Can we look at parents who are considering sending their children to a charter school and honestly say we’ve done everything to make the public option better? It is time to get beyond this single hot-button issue and focus on the inequities that exist in our schools.
We seem to focus so much on whether a person is on Team Privateer or on Team Status Quo that we lose sight of what’s actually happening. Charter school supporters are quick to defend their own against any charges of impropriety. And traditional school supporters quickly jump on any whiff of impropriety in charter schools while ignoring things that may be going wrong in their own schools.
Take Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS), for example. We recently hired a brand new director of schools, Dr. Shawn Joseph, from Prince George’s County in Maryland, at a salary of $285k per year. A significant raise from the previous director’s salary. We all clapped ourselves on the back because he didn’t seem to be a reformer. But everything is not that simple. I recently put in a FOIA request for what has been spent since Dr. Joseph came to Nashville, and I found some pretty appalling things happening. Maybe the public and the school board have been too busy with other things to notice. But we ought to be asking questions, even if it’s unpleasant. Just because someone does some things that are okay, it doesn’t mean everything is okay.
Once Joseph began his tenure here, he proceeded to hire 4 “Chiefs,” 3 from out of state, at an annual salary of $185k each along with the use of a car. In order to attract a few other desirable hires, the pay schedule for Executive Officers was raised to $155k and there are 8 at that designation. If I’m reading the previous salary schedule correctly, EO’s should max out at $110k per year. To put things in context, the previous Number 2 person in the district, responsible for creating an academy model that has won national accolades, earned only $154k a year until he left the district in April. Just 5 months later and there are now 12 people making over that amount. Perhaps the district pay schedule was way out of line, but that is a significant difference, and if so, I’m not sure that it’s one that should be rectified in one year. Especially when teachers have been asked to be patient for so long.
Here is a chart of current salaries for the new Chiefs (the 4th Chief began her job after my FOIA request) and the Executive Officers, all of whom are making significantly more than their predecessors:
|CHIEF – ACADEMIC OFFICER||7/1/16||185,000.00|
|CHIEF – FINANCIAL OFFICER||7/1/02||185,000.00|
|CHIEF – SCHOOLS||7/1/16||185,000.00|
|EXEC OFCR – SUPPORT SERVICES||8/26/92||159,120.00|
|EXEC DIR – TALENT STRATEGY||1/22/13||155,000.00|
|EXEC OFCR – CHARTER SCHOOLS||7/1/16||155,000.00|
|EXEC OFCR – EQUITY & DIVERSITY||7/1/16||155,000.00|
|EXEC OFCR – HS||7/21/04||155,000.00|
|EXEC OFCR – LEADERSHIP DEVELOP||6/1/10||155,000.00|
|EXEC OFCR – MS||8/9/99||155,000.00|
|EXEC OFCR – PRE-K & ES||7/15/13||155,000.00|
|EXEC OFCR – PRIORITY SCHOOLS||7/1/16||155,000.00|
Each of the chiefs are also supplied an automobile. In this case, a Chevy Tahoe. A vehicle with a price tag similar to the salary of an MNPS teacher with 7 years of experience and a Master’s degree. District officials, when questioned, claimed that these vehicles were previously used by other administrators in the past. Which would beg the question of who was using them because the previous director drove a Ford Edge and his Number 2 used his own car except on rare occasion. It is also extremely fortuitous that we had 5 Tahoes already in the fleet given that the “Chief” positions are all new positions. I’d say this opens a lot of questions about our fleet management. It appears as though some of these Chiefs may have returned their Tahoes to the fleet. If true I have to ask, why did they wait until people raised a fuss?
In contrast, when recently elected Nashville Mayor Megan Barry took office, she was told that it was tradition to supply the new mayor with a new vehicle of their choice. Mayor Barry politely declined a new car. The vehicle of her predecessor would be sufficient for her. I’ve written about how teachers didn’t get into education for the money. Administration shouldn’t be the pathway to work in education and get wealthy. Much is written about the salary gap between workers and CEO’s. In this case you are looking at salaries nearly 4 times the salary of average teacher and the director almost 6 times as much. I thought the teacher was the single most important in school factor in a child’s education. These numbers don’t represent that.
Much has been written about the outside money that tried to buy this year’s school board race. In fact, last week the Election Commission announced that there was enough evidence to warrant an investigation into Stand For Children and the candidates they supported in the election. Dr. Joseph’s response was to hire Jana Carlisle as the new Chief of Staff. She is from New York City and knows virtually nothing about Metro Schools. She worked to enact the charter school laws that were recently ruled unconstitutional in Washington by utilizing a flood of outside money – the very same tactics that were employed in Nashville. Despite voters and parents clearly saying they were against the policies that organizations like Stand for Children support, Dr. Joseph ignored those voices and offered Carlisle $185k per year, a car, and money to relocate from NYC to Nashville. Dr. Joseph argues that she is extremely smart. I’d argue that there are a lot of smart people in Nashville who don’t have ties to dark money.
Now I ask: what’s the difference between a charter school’s board of directors that ignores the community and a Director of Schools who does the same? We argue often about the manner that charter schools lock out the voices of those who they serve. How many times have we heard it argued that with an elected board, a parent who has concerns has a venue to voice those concerns? But if a community makes its opinion known and a school board director chooses to ignore it, what’s the difference? I don’t know that there is a bigger expression of a community’s voice than the results of an election. So if nobody’s listening to our voices, we’ve got a problem.
Dr. Joseph recently spent $200k on a StrengthsFinder training program for approximately 60 administrators who work in central office. StrengthFinders is a respected program, but I question its current value in light of the fact that the last MNPS budget saw English Learner programs and Literacy programs funded at a less than requested amount. Are we to ignore this large sum of money being spent – money that wasn’t budgeted for this reason – on leadership training while other more pressing issues like EL and literacy programs are underfunded simply because our new Director doesn’t support charter schools? Are we blindly giving him a pass here?
Last week, the new school boardroom makeover was unveiled. Leadership offices have also been remodeled. Meanwhile, my children’s elementary school does not have a playground and backs up to a construction site for the new school, which is scheduled to open next year. Here’s what it looks like right now. Sure glad that board room got remodeled.After I’ve raised a considerable fuss, district leaders have promised to look into the situation and see what can be done. But we are already well into this school year, and why is meeting the basic needs of children contingent on me jumping up and down and hollering? Shouldn’t I be able to send my children to a public school secure in the knowledge that their basic needs are being met?
Somehow, the fact that next year the kids will be getting a new school justifies them not having a playground this year. Initially, when I complained about boardroom renovation, I was told that the chairs in the old boardroom were uncomfortable and that people cringed whenever somebody tried to use the audio system. So those concerns get addressed, while 800-plus children, 97% of whom live in poverty and 71% of whom are English learners, attend a school with 23 portables that are inadequate by any measure and are packed in tight next to the construction site of their future school. Currently they have no playground. This is an unsafe situation, with many kids having nowhere to go during recess times. For many of these children, we have essentially taken them out of one refugee camp and dropped them into another. I love my kids’ school, but this shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone.
I’ve also got to ask, in this shuffling around of money, obviously all these items were not included in the current approved budget, what is being sacrificed? I’m told nothing in classrooms. Maybe not, but I find it hard to believe none of it has come from programs that directly affect children. For example, all the elementary coaches and principals attended work sessions in which they were instructed in literacy instruction with methods that many believe run counter to Reading Recovery, which is what the district currently uses and what they specifically presented to Metro Council when asking for additional funding last year. This comes on the heels of money already having been cut from Reading Recovery and designated teachers being reassigned. There is something that doesn’t seem quite ethical about this. It all makes one nervous. In other words, if these new programs, perks, and positions were truly in the budget, then damn! We’ve got money to spend on some extravagances! But I think this is not the case. We’ve got real needs to attend to. But no one is attending to them. Seems like we are focusing more on the comfort of adults new to MNPS than the children of MNPS.
Right now some of you might be saying, “Damn Dad! You sound like those people promoting charters. What’s up?” Don’t get confused. I am as anti-charter school as anybody you will meet and will continue to fight their expansion, but I will not argue for the eradication of charter schools only to force children into schools that are grossly inadequate. I will not focus on the fight against charter schools while ignoring the fact that the amount of time spent on testing is growing. And mark my words – right now, Nashville, the amount of testing is going to grow even more; in fact they’ve already added an assessment that benchmarks nationally despite parents overwhelmingly saying there is too much testing. I will not write blog posts about the horrors of charter schools while teachers are afraid to teach because we haven’t fully fleshed out our discipline policies to both support the at-risk child and ensure safety for everyone else. I still believe that charter schools create an environment where some are rescued while others are left further behind. I’ll never support taking the education of our children out of a community’s hands and placing it in the hands of private entities or one that further segregates our society.
Here’s the truly maddening thing. The level of instruction at my children’s school – and across the district, for that matter – is top notch. I am amazed at the ability these teachers and administrators have to show up daily and overcome the obstacles put in front of them. The word heroic gets tossed around a whole lot these days, but as someone with a front row seat, I can attest they earn that praise everyday. All across the district, every day, I see and meet dedicated professionals doing heroic work despite making one-fifth of the salary of a Chief and not having a Tahoe provided to them to get to work each day. We don’t need to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to outside consultants or on new cars or office furniture without ever observing a large number of these teachers in action. Observe them, talk to them, then invest in the things that matter most to our children, based on what you see in our district, not the one you were previously in.
The true shame of all this is that the average parent has no way of recognizing the effort our teachers and school-level administrators are putting forth. They see the inadequate facilities, the low test scores, the unsafe conditions, and the underfunded mandates, and they rightfully question whether district schools can adequately meet the needs of their children. I would charge that we are fighting against charters while pursuing policies that drive parents into pursuing those very options. That’s something I’m not comfortable with. We should apply the same level of diligence to ourselves as we do to charter school operators. One of the reasons I get so incensed by charter school operators is their propensity to drive Tahoes, make exorbitant salaries, and have their administrators work out of pristine surroundings while children are under resourced and toiling in inadequate facilities. So why should that be tolerated from public school officials?
When I raise these concerns to district officials, I do get some acknowledgement that, yes, I’m right, the optics are bad. Let me be clear here – it’s not the optics that are bad, it’s the practices. If we want to stop the privatization of our public schools, then our administrators need to not act like corporate CEO’s at the trough. I spent an entire summer helping to fight off the attempt by private entities to buy a school board election. And through hard work, we won. But what did we win? The right for public officials to conduct themselves as employees of a private corporation rather than caretakers of a public trust? I’m using Nashville as an example here, but I don’t doubt that parents in other districts could present similar examples.
It is vital that as we fight off corporate attacks on our public schools that we are not just focusing on the supply, but have an equally diligent focus on the demand. We need to make sure that we are not falling into the trap of rewarding perks to adults while children are asked to make sacrifices. We need to ensure that we are applying every possible resource to directly impact the educational opportunities for our children. We need to demand that ALL of our public schools are better then charter schools. We need to shift the focus from just MY child back to OUR children. Because if not, then I see absolutely no reason whatsoever to continue to fight against the proliferation of charter schools while we are ignoring the needs of our children. As Nietzsche said, “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” Words to heed.