Earlier this week, something interesting happened. Scrolling through my social media threads, I found several references to an article by Nashville school board member Amy Frogge on how KIPP made its money. The article was actually written last year by Frogge, but I wasn’t shocked that it was being reshared now because it really is quite good. In it, she countered arguments that former fellow board member, and now State Board of Education member, Elissa Kim made on the board floor during a meeting the night before. The article is an excellent primer for parents and community members on how money and politics intersect when it comes to our educational system. I am sure that it was appreciated by countless people. However, the irony now is that article wouldn’t be possible under the new policies the current MNPS board has adopted.
One of the first tasks that Dr. Shawn Joseph undertook upon his hiring as Director of Schools for MNPS was to train the school board on how to be a board (well, that, and open up the Prince George’s County federal witness protection program, as the majority of his hires have ties to Prince George, but I digress). Apparently the way the board functioned before Joseph’s arrival was unacceptable, despite the fact that the incumbents won their recent reelection campaigns by overwhelming margins. Voters, apparently, didn’t have any issues with the way things were being handled previously and expressed appreciation for the fact that Frogge, Will Pinkston, and Jill Speering wore their passions on their sleeves and were willing to fight for their convictions. In knocking on doors, calling people, or writing blog posts, I never heard a supporter say, “Please stop fighting.” Rather, it is important to have leaders who are willing to have the hard conversations in public and stand up for what they believe in. It’s part of what got them re-elected.
So where did this narrative of a school board that needs to be taught how to be a board come from? Well shockingly (yeah, not really), it came from wealthy people who never had the intention of sending their kids to public schools. The narrative was created by the Chamber of Commerce, The Tennessean, and private foundations that heavily funded the opponents in this summer’s school board election. Furthermore, a narrative was created that the first director search was a failure because of board members. It was this narrative that empowered Dr. Joseph to get the board under control.
Over the past several months, the school board has undertaken five out-of-town trips and utilized three consulting groups in order to “become a better board.” As part of this improvement, they’ve agreed to stick closer to policy governance, and, as related by Board Chair Anna Shepherd via a Facebook post, “at one of our recent retreats we all agreed, ALL NINE OF US, that we will speak as one voice. We will have discussion and dialogue on the board floor, take a vote if indicated, and speak with what the majority of us decided. No sulking. No social media posts. Just agreement that we will speak as one.” That’s all fine and good, but now apply that rule to the article written last year by Frogge.
In that article, Frogge counters a fellow board member. She continues the discussion past the meeting. She informs parents and community members where her fellow board member was wrong, and I would argue, because of her willingness to confront a fellow board member publicly, the district benefited as a result. You see, at that time, the board was made up of a majority of members who supported Teach for America, the Achievement School District, and unchecked charter school growth. The only way that the general public was able to beat back the direct attacks on our schools was through information garnered by social media posts from Frogge, Pinkston, and Speering. Think about the fights that have been fought over the last several years and where we might be without their very public leadership. Now, per the words of the board itself, that resource is not going to be there anymore, and I think that’s a huge loss. Our board members – and as a result, what they stand for – have been silenced in the name of getting along.
I’ve never understood how publicly questioning someone is the equivalent of undermining them. The only way that they are undermined is if they fail to be able to reasonably answer the questions. I also fail to grasp the concept that if you philosophically oppose someone, you must also personally dislike them. Here’s a news flash: I semi-regularly talk to many who fall into the “reformer” camp. We will argue as passionately as imaginable, yet that doesn’t prevent us from being able to behave towards each other in a respectful manner. The world is full of gray areas; it’s not just made up of for and against. I follow Voltaire’s words, “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.” (There is some question as to whether he actually ever wrote this, but for my purposes I’m appropriating it.) I would much rather see the board embrace this tenet as opposed to that of a style-over-substance approach.
In adopting this new approach to governance, school board members are asking for an unprecedented level of trust from the public. They are asking that we have faith that the hard questions are still being asked despite the lack of evidence of such. That’s a hard thing to ask, especially in light of what’s transpired in public education over the past several years, as well as what is currently transpiring in the world around us. It also means that we accept that board members have suddenly become omnipresent and can sense every threat. I’ve always believed in the power of the collective over the individual. The power of Frogge, Pinkston, and Speering derived not just from their innate intelligence and courage but their ability to draw the community together in a collective action.
Private entities have become very sophisticated and are utilizing more than one attack strategy in seeking to destroy our schools. Some of their methods are extremely overt, like spending on political campaigns, while some of their methods are much more subversive and deceptive. Writer Jeff Bryant does an excellent job of illustrating this distinction in a recent piece on Betsy DeVos and how rich people’s grip on the nation’s public education system has reached a choking point.
Bryant makes the argument that charter schools and vouchers almost serve as a distraction while the real threat of big money slips into our school system and quietly remakes it. As he states, “No doubt, education policy led by Trump and DeVos will differ from the previous administration, but what’s staying the same is how wealthy private interests will strongly influence policies. Grasping this essential truth matters a lot in the ‘nasty’ politics of education today, where the real debate is not so much about charters and choice as it is about who is in control.” In Nashville it is all around us. The Chamber of Commerce, Project Renaissance. Nashville Public Education Foundation, all funded by wealthy donors who are trying to exert their influence over an educational system their children or grandchildren will never participate in.
One of my favorite bloggers, Crazy Crawfish, made a similar observation in a recent blog post. He states, “What most folks don’t know is they or their meddlesome allies have been in charge the entire time in one form or another. It’s quite an ingenious strategy. Create a mess; invite yourself to clean it up, create more messes for yourself or others to clean up, blame any failure to clean up messes on predecessors (you/allies) and deflect the attention that should be focused on your failure as a need to do some new and expensive untested things someone saw posted on Reddit.” Man, those words ring true.
Here in Nashville, our millionaire meddlers adhere to the playbook religiously. What’s worse is that we allowed the failing school board narrative to open the door for them. For example, Nashville’s school board turned to Nashville Public Education Foundation to assist with the director search. At the time, I screamed that allowing them to pay for the search would just empower a private entity to meddle in our public school system. I was ignored, but unfortunately have been proven right as NPEF has continued to interject themselves into the workings of MNPS. Heck, Shannon Hunt is even helping Dr. Joseph find suitable housing. Hopefully advise is the extent of it.
Shannon Hunt, as director of NPEF, has used their involvement in the director search as leverage to have even greater influence on district policy. I’ve already pointed out that right from the beginning of Dr. Joseph’s tenure she was pushing for the director to meet with Josh Edelman and other representatives of the Gates Foundation. NPEF has also set up meetings with the director for the Scarlett Foundation, the Ingrams, and the Joe C. Davis Foundation. On the surface all appear highly altruistic but all are heavy investors in Teach For America, charter schools, and the candidates who ran against the incumbent board members on a platform of creating a more congenial board. In other words, the outcome of the school board election meant nothing because those with cash are still getting access and the ability to push their agenda to the district. NPEF is still pushing the Gates talking points.
Talk about a subversion of the democratic process. There is no need to look any further in trying to understand why less than 50% of the population voted in the last presidential election. What’s the point? If nothing changes why should the average person exert extra effort and get more involved? I can’t answer that.
Through the credibility gained from the director search, NPEF has become integrally involved in the process to create the district’s Vision Statement, Mission Statement, Core Values, and ultimately the Strategic Plan. Recently, NPEF sent out an email that included a link to an op-ed piece written by board chair Anna Shepherd and Dr. Joseph touting their involvement and a letter from John Ingram that included this admonishment: “Unfortunately, I have read recently, with great disappointment, that some level of sniping has begun to stir on the fringe of the discussion for better schools – silly comments about vehicles, salaries, and the number of seasoned administrators that Dr. Joseph has brought with him. As Nashvillians, we know there is no time for that.”
With all due respect, Mr. Ingram, I don’t consider putting unqualified or inexperienced people in charge of our neediest students education to be a silly issue, I consider it to be a moral issue. I would think that in order for someone to oversee our English Language Learners’ instructional practices or the professional development of our educators, some classroom experience would be a minimum requirement. The email from NPEF also provides a link to take the survey on our proposed vision, mission, and core value statements. These statements don’t seem to be reflective of the new administration’s actions over the last several months. How can you speak to the value of diversity and equity when some schools still look like this?
Quick side note here. The proposed vision statement is as follows: Metro Nashville Public Schools is the fastest-improving urban school system in America, ensuring that every student is prepared for success in college, career and life – and that every school is a great school. Why do I care if we are the fastest-improving urban school system in America? That sounds like something somebody puts on a resume. Why is it too much to ask that you simply provide a quality education for my child? Also, who gets to decide the definition of great? Remember those reformers I talk to regularly? Their definition and my definition of a great school are a whole lot different. Who’s right? I don’t know, but I’m willing to bet that will a passionate discussion. Until we start to define our terms, I’m afraid we will continue in the same constant swirl.
These are interesting times we are heading into. We’ve spent a lot of time in Nashville arguing about charter schools and choice, and I’ve slowly come to realize what Bryant gives voice to in his article: “In this sense, arguing for or against charters and choice has in many ways become a distraction. Many communities already accommodate charter schools and eagerly embrace the idea of offering parents a range of choices, if the district can afford it. What pisses people off, though, is when private foundations force charter schools on their community and parents are told by powerful outsiders what kind of choices they have.”
Bryant continues, “We should worry, Dorn and Potterton write, ‘when policies are shaped substantially outside ordinary public politics by an increasingly private set of actors, whose relationships with the public sphere can simultaneously be rivalrous, symbiotic, and parasitic. One does not need to be paranoid to worry about the concentration of decision-making in the hands of people who are friends and who are not accountable to the general public.” Dorn and Potterton elegantly write out the argument I continually try to fight for and which continually seems to slip further and further away.
So now, it is into this new reality we go without our leading voices. It’s my fear that this more congenial board has the potential to cost Nashville’s children a great deal. The current board members have worked to create a better culture for themselves, but while they’ve focused on themselves, a different culture has sprung up throughout the district. I talk with teachers and administrators regularly, despite their reticence to do so, and almost universally they express apprehension over job security, lack of clarity on objectives, the continued growth of testing, lack of support on discipline issues, and an overall feeling of uneasiness. Unfortunately, despite the promise by board members of great revelations and improvements coming in the near future, I see no signs of anything that will temper the growing feelings of apprehension and impact our students in a meaningful way. The resolution on TVASS was appreciated but more needs to be done.
How do you improve culture if you have done little to earn the trust of those most impacted? You can’t earn trust until you actually listen and appreciate those doing the heavy lifting. It’s way past time for things to come out of the boardroom and into the classroom. The only true measurement of success should come from its impact on students, and at present, unfortunately, we are falling short. It is in this light that I am reminded of a quote by Teddy Roosevelt, “The human body has two ends on it: one to create with and one to sit on. Sometimes people get their ends reversed. When this happens they need a kick in the seat of the pants.” That Teddy was a smart guy.