WHAT’S OUR PRIORITY?

6

Over the past year, while officially out of work, I’ve taken several part time jobs. One of my jobs is working a couple hours a day a couple days a week with an after school program. The program is made up of a mixture of kids between the ages of 5 and 13 from various backgrounds. This experience has been extremely rewarding, reminding me of some things, changing my opinions on others, and teaching me new things.

The other day, I was sitting across the table from a Hispanic fourth grader, and I asked him if he was excited about moving on to his zoned school, McMurray Middle School. Now I must disclose here that McMurray holds a special place in the Weber household’s heart. My wife taught there for 8 years and worked with some amazing teachers and students. That said, the child looked at me and said, “I’m not going to McMurray.” I asked, “Where are you going?” He had to struggle to think for a moment, but then answered, “Valor Collegiate Academy.”

Talk about a moment of standing at a crossroads. Valor is a local charter school and anyone who has ever listened to me for more than five minutes is acutely aware of my feelings regarding the way they do business. I’ve voiced my disdain for them to everyone from their CEO, to our local school board members, to other local parents. Now I was sitting across from a wide-eyed Hispanic fourth grader who had just informed me of his intent to enter those halls. How would I respond? I responded in the only way that I could with a clear conscience. “I think you’ll enjoy it there, and it’ll be good,” I said with a smile.

How could I answer any different? This child had just spent the last two years at Tusculum Elementary School in a portable classroom, adjacent to a practically uninhabitable elementary school. Next year, McMurray is getting badly needed renovations and subsequently will be utilizing one of two strategies: A) they’ll get 31 portable classrooms, or B) they’ll house 5th and 6th graders in that aforementioned uninhabitable school. Meanwhile, Valor has a nice new building where the roof doesn’t leak, the rooms are warm/cool when kids enter, and technology is up to date.

Valor also practices what they like to call “managed diversity.” If I’m a parent who isn’t well versed in the manipulation of language often utilized by charter schools, that sounds a whole lot safer than my local school, where, whether I admit it or not, can be a little scary at times. Under managed diversity, you get all the benefits of diversity but without all the scariness . McMurray accepts all students and that means that a lot of kids show up suffering from trauma which leads to behavior issues. For a young family that has already faced countless challenges, quality facilities coupled with a feeling of security and academic rigor paint an attractive figure if not a realistic one.

Public schools are a microcosm of our society. They don’t get to pick the children they serve. That means that sometimes bullying and bad behavior in general will happen. I can tell you from experience that sometimes at your local public school, especially if it’s a high needs school, your children will get exposed to things at a much earlier age than you wanted. Public schools are wonderful, creative, chaotic, challenging places, where incredible work gets done. One thing they are not though, is perfect.

Unfortunately, some public school school supporters often try to portray them as gardens of virtue, thereby opening the door for charter schools to take advantage of parents’ fears. Instead of having an honest conversation about our public schools, we focus on what a wonderful place all public schools are and spend our time hammering the shortcomings of charter schools. The reality is that many of the shortcomings of charter schools exist in public schools as well. I think we do a huge disservice to our children by not having honest conversations that focus on solutions versus blame. Spewing insults of “profiteer” and “supporter of the status quo” back and forth do little to improve opportunities for children.

In a recent blog post, one of my favorite bloggers, Peter Greene, talks about charter school parents feeling under attack. He begins the piece by referencing rich, privileged people who are used to getting their way, in his own words “Part of it may be an illusion of privilege. When you are an rich old white guy who has always gotten his way, it can be shocking and destabilizing when people say “No” to you. If you are a money-soaked hedge-funder surrounded by compliant underlings, it may be upsetting when people who should know their place start getting uppity. When you live soaked in privilege, any denial of your God-given right to get your own way might well feel like an attack. But that doesn’t describe everyone who has thrown their support behind charters and choice.”

Now he does throw out the caveat that not every charter supporter is a rich, old white guy, but the picture has already been vividly painted of who the charter forces are. But there is no equally vivid counter picture of a parent who is just at wit’s end over the shortcomings of their zoned school and have chosen a charter school on a wing-and-a-prayer hope that it’ll be something better for their child. The meat of Greene’s piece is an intellectual argument of why charter school proponents and public education supporters are locked into a “cage match.” He concludes by declaring, “And so charter schools and their fans, even the well-meaning decently parental ones, must live with the feeling of being under attack, because the system is currently constructed so that charter schools must be a threat to the health and continued existence of public schools, and public school supporters can either fight back or lie down and die.” As much as I admire Peter, I’m going to have to counter some of his assertions

Let me preface my argument by recounting a conversation I recently had with a fellow public school parent. We were discussing an idea being bandied about in Nashville of moving 5th graders back to elementary school as a means to keep kids in the system longer. Now, most everybody I know thinks this is a good idea, but this parent lamented to me, “I think it’d be a good thing, but it just bothers me that once again we are basing a decision on what’s good for the system instead of what’s good for the child.” Sometimes the simplest statements will resonate with you the longest.

Looking at Greene’s piece through that lens, the message that emerges to poor parents is that if you want something better for your kids, then you have to be willing to take the slings and arrows. We need you poor parents to suck it up and endure to preserve a system that some of us will not send our kids to. We seldom mention that when parents opt to send their child to a private school or home school there is still a cost to the zoned school. Any seat that goes unoccupied means less funding for the zoned school and one less family that could help that school improve. The tax money may not flow to a private entity but it also doesn’t flow to the zoned school who desperately needs it. Yet we never talk about the parents who explore private school options or home schooling as being hoodwinked, gullible, or greedy. I have always taken a position that whatever a choice a parent makes it up to them as long as they recognize that it all has a cost and that applies equally to private school, home school, or charter.

I believe that Greene 100% supports an equitable educational experience for all children, but I believe this whole “us vs. them” mentality forces us to narrow our focus.By not having honest conversations about zoned schools we actually hinder the application of equity. We get so focused on protecting the system, be it traditional schools or charter schools, that we fail to recognize that the system is made up of living breathing people. Unfortunately that’s not unique in education policy. Look at testing policies and requirements, teacher training, and on and on for further evidence of that.

In Nashville, while they enjoy limited oversight by the district, charter schools are still part of the public school system. Yet when parents choose a charter school it’s like they are suddenly assigned an “other status” and no longer considered part of the public school system. Little time is spent figuring out why they chose a charter school and what steps could have been taken to mitigate those choices. We tend to reduce them and their decision to how it affects the system and fail to examine how it impacts the child. I think that is a grave mistake. If we are not going to treat charter school parents like they are a part of the public school system, lets’ just end the canard and allow them to split off, form their own district, and elect their own governing body. Then we would have a legitimate “us vs. them” scenario.

Greene and others might make the argument that it is the charter schools who have assigned themselves the “other” status by refusing to be regulated by the local district and to a certain extent that is true. But it’s also not 100% accurate. It is true that charter schools enjoy a great deal more autonomy than public schools, but to say there is NO regulation by the district does not paint an accurate picture either. Already this year MNPS has placed Smithson Craighead Academy on probation over financial and academic concerns and is holding Rocketship Academy accountable for their failures with English Learners. Meanwhile the district is still gathering data on bus driver complaints. Seems to me that there is plenty of work to go around.

Now don’t think for a second that I’m letting the charter industry off the hook. They have seen a market opportunity and done everything in their power to exploit it. Much like Donald Trump, they have seized upon people’s sense of dissatisfaction and used it to fuel their growth. The parallels are very similar. People in the Democratic party, like public school supporters, refused to acknowledge the deep seated sense of frustration held by the general public. A strategy was employed to downplay that frustration and to make intellectual arguments against Trump. People read those arguments, shrugged, and voted Trump, thinking, how much worse can it be for me? Because their experiences weren’t necessarily our experiences. There are parents all across the country that choose the charter school option simply because they feel like it can’t be worse, and when we refuse to acknowledge that perception and don’t spend as much energy supporting our zoned schools as we do attacking charter schools, we are fueling the growth of that perception.

Many of us who advocate for public schools are so removed from the day to day life in a high needs school that we don’t fully understand the frustration. However, I can speak from experience that when I see district administrators here in Nashville traveling to exotic locations while my child is in a school where the roof leaks every time there is heavy rain, I’m ready to quit the system and I can’t afford private schooling or home schooling, so what becomes the option? When I see students forced to stage a walk out because they can’t get their administration to listen to them, I’m ready for alternatives. When my locally elected school board fails to publicly acknowledge a letter signed by 350 school parents and one board member not only ignores the letter but also feels compelled to ridicule the parents who wrote it, and is not censured, I can only conclude that the cage match has precedent over  children’s needs.

The truth is we don’t address the shortcomings in our public schools fast enough or honestly enough. Think of it this way. I’m laying on the ground with a gaping wound, do I want to wait while Bill and Ravi argue about the best type of band aid to use, or do I want someone to jump in and stop the bleeding? I really like Bill and so I allow him to treat me first. If Bill is slowing the bleeding and effectively treating the wound, am I going to encourage Ravi to jump in or am I going to tell him to just allow Bill to give me treatment? But if Bill is not stopping the bleeding and he just keeps telling me how bad at first aid Ravi is, thus making me feel like he’s more concerned with disparaging Ravi than treating my wound, then I’m probably going to get frustrated and get Ravi to jump in, right? That’s the conundrum faced by parents everyday and if we were more fully supporting our zoned schools, charter schools wouldn’t be invited in to stop the bleeding.

Let’s look at my kids’ school, Tusculum Elementary School again. We’ve waited 5 years for a brand new school and now we are on the cusp of finally having the kids in an adequate facility. What’s the district’s next move? Why, it’s to put 5th and 6th graders from McMurray Middle School in the old Tusculum school building while their building gets renovated. A move that not only leaves a an unsafe relic standing, but also creates more disruption for kids who have spent the majority of their life in turmoil. What’s the message sent to these families? Is there a sense of priority communicated? I once had a charter school parent tell me, “I didn’t choose to send my child to a charter school. I was forced to send my child to a charter school. I can relate.

Recently, a bullying case in Prince George’s County Public Schools was settled with the parents of the child who was bullied being awarded $100K. This case is a perfect analogy of what I’m talking about. Mother, Tierra Holland, states my point succinctly in regards to how parents are treated: “They never apologized, not one time. If I had gotten an apology or something disciplinary to students, I wouldn’t have done this, but I needed some kind of justice.” How much clearer can it be said? I was willing to accept the faults if you would just acknowledge me.

Now apply this statement to parents of children in our struggling schools in Nashville. When they are presented with a charter school option, how much more open would that parent be to choosing a charter school than they would have been if the district were more responsive to their needs and concerns? Why does Valor have to do any marketing when the district, by continually under resourcing its neediest schools and students, produces the most authentic marketing material?

Look, I am no more supportive of charter schools than I’ve ever been, but I want to be able to look a parent in the eye and tell them from the heart that by choosing a charter school they are making a mistake. I want to be able to point to empirical evidence and say, “This is why your zoned school is better than the alternative.” Going back to my Trump analogy, parents should be allowed to choose the absolute best option for their children and not be forced into choosing the perceived lesser of two evils.

Again, I get the argument that charter schools are robbing zoned schools of vital resources. But it’s kind of like complaining that your car insurance rates keep going up while you continually leave your keys in the ignition. At some point, you have to acknowledge the role you play in the equation.

If we truly believe that our public school system is the best means to serve ALL children, then we need to prove it by making sure that each and every zoned school is fully funded and resourced. We need to get out of the cage and realize that things are a lot more nuanced than just two teams engaged in a death match. It’s way past time for an honest conversation, and trust me there is already enough dishonesty to go around for everybody.

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6 comments on “WHAT’S OUR PRIORITY?

  1. Parent says:

    Thoughtful and thought provoking article. I’d like to add two observations as a zoned school parent.

    1) I agree that it’s not constructive and it’s insensitive to attack parents. However, I have frequently found that the political charter school movement (embodied by the TN Charter School Center, Project Renaissance, Stand for Children, etc) tries to deflect all criticism of charter schools, charter schools laws, or their political organizations as somehow an attack on parents, when actually very few of their leadership are charter school parents. I find this frustrating and dishonest, and a way to avoid answering questions.

    2) I applaud your gracious response to the 4th grade child. It should be a no-brainer that we talk to children and families with respect, and are encouraging when speaking to children about their schools. You were much more gracious in response to that child than many have been to my family and child when they ask where my child goes to school. ( By the way, it’s a great school and we love it.) Some responses have been – ominous looks, “oh……….,” “Is it really easy?” “It’s okay, maybe you’ll get lucky in the lottery next year!”, or my favorite, “I would never send my child there,” all said directly in front of my child. (Indeed, at election time, we’re all quite used to our children having to see commercials and mail pieces announcing how terrible their Metro schools supposedly are.) My point being that there is much “othering” of zoned school families in this town, and there has been for years. It’s become very normalized in Nashville culture.

  2. Mark Duren says:

    Old news daddy gone wild, Funding and resourcing have been the obvious issues for decades. Yet you did not address any of that in this article

  3. Joyce Cole says:

    Refreshing to see a piece from you that is centered on the “Child” first. There are many reasons why a parent chooses to look for options in educating their child. Quality of education is one, but safety, security and environment all play equal parts. As a parent who has had to revisit school options way to many times, the conversation should always be about the child. No two children are the same, just as no two schools are the same. Open conversation with all parties listening will work to creating the best educational landscape for Nashville.

  4. Aidan says:

    I’m glad you wrote this. And I agree with Joyce’s comments, too.

    The dialogue around school choice in Nashville needs to include actual parent and student voices. The discussion about charters has become so polarized that it sometimes seems completely divorced from the realities faced by Nashville families. For example, as a parent who opted for a charter school, I am by definition a “charter supporter” in that I support the school we chose. But, that doesn’t mean I support all charters. And it certainly doesn’t mean I support vouchers. I am not a “charter zealot.” There are good and bad charter schools just like there are good and bad traditional zone, magnet, and private schools. It’s not one size fits all.

    But often, local media, as well as blogs (like this one), Facebook posts, and tweets from education advocates and our elected school board members, force families that chose charters (“charter supporters”) into extreme characterizations. For example, we’re either depicted as corporate minions out to privatize and destroy public schools with unabated charter growth and vouchers; or we’re painted as poor, uneducated parents who have no choice, don’t care, or don’t know any better.

    This is simply not the reality. Nashville families who choose charters ARE public school supporters with all the myriad concerns, pressures, preferences and challenges faced by any family. Demonizing families for choosing the schools they feel best fit their needs, or talking about those families in a patronizing way, does not help kids.

    We chose our neighborhood school K-4 and loved it there. When my spouse and I chose a charter for 5th grade for our child, it was NOT because we feel charters are a magic bullet that will save public education; it was NOT because we wanted our neighborhood public school to fail. We did NOT make the school choice based on what we felt would be the right choice according to school board members, district superintendents, nonprofit organizations, or education policy wonks.

    What we DID do was spend months reading everything we could find about the specific schools, visiting the schools, asking lots of questions, talking to other parents, taking our child to visit the schools and shadow, and talking a lot with our child about the options. I personally also did a lot of soul searching to balance everything we learned with my strong belief that public education forms the backbone of our democracy, and that every child has a fundamental right to a good education.

    These ARE the reasons why we chose our charter school:
    * a discipline policy grounded in restorative justice practices
    * a curriculum guided by and integrated with social/emotional learning practices
    * a unifying community identity intentionally informed by the diversity of its learners
    * a culture of engagement that includes every child in the learning process
    * bus transportation – without which it would not be an option for us

    I’m not saying this all works perfectly. Like at any school, there is room for improvement. Nor am I saying that other schools don’t incorporate some of these same practices. The point is, MNPS made this public charter school available to us, we carefully examined all our options, and we believe it is the best fit for our family, as well as a benefit to the broader community.

    I am aware that there are shady business practices that have made it possible for unscrupulous people at some charter organizations to profit off of failing schools paid for on the public dime. For example, you have probably read this recent publication and the commentary surrounding it on social media: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2924886. Corruption and profiteering in charter organizations is no more acceptable than it is in our existing public school system. The very serious problems – and sometimes outright misconduct- raised up by charter opponents are not lost on me.

    But that does not mean that EVERY charter school or charter supporter is corrupt or willfully blind. What that does mean is that our city and the state of TN should only authorize highly qualified, rigorously vetted charter organizations that meet communities’ needs, and that also agree to transparency and regulatory oversight. I believe this is possible. There is room in Nashville for great public schools, be they traditional zone schools, magnet/theme schools, or public charter schools.

    I know that my family is not alone in the level of care taken to choose the right public school for our child. I have no doubt that if those who very vocally and publicly oppose charters would keep this in mind (instead of generalizing about “charter supporters”), it would drive more meaningful and productive community dialogue around school choice.

    I appreciate your blog.

    Respectfully,
    Aidan Hoyal
    Nashville parent

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