I was casting about today looking for things to write about. A week of snow days, and an extra edition, translated into fewer new things to share. Luckily, Nashville’s 19th District is home to a Council Member (CM) who is deeply invested enough in public education to keep his finger on things and raise questions when appropriate. Today I have two items to bring to the forefront, courtesy of CM Freddie O’Connell, and for that, I am very appreciative. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all CM’s were as involved in public education as he is?
Back over the Christmas holidays, I wrote about MNPS Director of Schools Shawn Joseph making a questionable call for donations to the Nashville Public Education Foundation (NPEF). In my eyes, there are a lot of non-profits doing exceptional work in the district, and the students of MNPS would be better served by Dr. Joseph making a broad appeal for giving, instead of singling out just one charity. Many of you indicated that you held a similar view.
Things have since gotten even more interesting with NPEF. Today it was announced that the head of private prison giant CoreCivic — formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America — will join the NPEF Board of Directors. According to NPEF’s president and CEO:
“We know that large employers have a lot at stake when it comes to Nashville’s public education, for both attracting and recruiting employees and for building their future pipeline,” said Shannon Hunt. “That is why it is so important for us to expand our board to include these two business titans, who know that the success of Nashville’s business community is dependent upon the success of our public schools.”
That’s a beautiful statement. Since CoreCivic’s business is the operation of jails and prisons, I think it’s safe to say that they have a deeply-vested interest in the success of our public schools.
Private prisons were an idea hatched back in the 1980’s. That was the heyday of getting tough on crime and having fiscal responsibility. The drug war was in full swing and Republicans had discovered that getting tough on crime was a message that resonated with voters. Turning over prisons to private contractors allowed the building of more prisons at less cost to taxpayers. Currently, private prisons oversee about 8 percent of the country’s total prison population.
A recent article in Mother Jones Magazine, written by a journalist who went undercover as a guard, outlines how private prisons get paid:
Whatever taxpayer money CCA receives has to cover the cost of housing, feeding, and rehabilitating inmates. While I work at Winn, CCA receives about $34 per inmate per day. In comparison, the average daily cost per inmate at the state’s publicly run prisons is about $52. Some states pay CCA as much as $80 per prisoner per day. In 2015, CCA reported $1.9 billion in revenue; it made more than $221 million in net income—more than $3,300 for each prisoner in its care. CCA and other prison companies have written “occupancy guarantees” into their contracts, requiring states to pay a fee if they cannot provide a certain number of inmates. Two-thirds of the private-prison contracts recently reviewed by the anti-privatization group In the Public Interest had these prisoner quotas. Under CCA’s contract, Winn was guaranteed to be 96 percent full.
Now how do you think a state makes sure that it’s not making payments for beds it’s not using? By making sure that legislation is reflective of the need to keep filling beds. Who is going to make up those beds? Why, the poor and undereducated, of course. So more than any other business in the district, CoreCivic’s bottom line is affected by the quality of our schools. I would say that makes for strange bedfellows.
I must say, though, that NPEF has never appeared to be particularly concerned over their bedfellows. If you’ll remember, shortly after Dr. Joseph arrived in Nashville, Ms. Hunt was trying to set up meetings between the newly-arrived Director and the Gates Foundation. This was in spite of a just-held school board election where voters expressed little interest in increasing private involvement in the public school system. It seems that wherever there is a check to be had is where you’ll find NPEF.
Now if NPEF was just one of a handful of education-related non-profits floating around on the outer edge trying to peddle influence on education policy, none of this would probably matter. But over the past couple of years, the relationship between the organization and MNPS has become increasingly entwined. Originally, NPEF was hired to help fund the search for the new Director of Schools, and they also served as a vehicle to prevent the over scrutinizing of the search, since they weren’t susceptible to Sunshine Laws. Along with the donation ask from Dr. Joseph at the end of last year, principals were greeted upon return this year after break by an NPEF survey soliciting their opinion on principal meetings. Several principals were told that their responses were mandatory. Now why is a private entity soliciting feedback on district employees’ feelings on employee meetings?
I’m sure that in exchange for seats on the NPEF Board, the CEO of CoreCivic wrote some fair-sized checks. After all, that’s the way it’s supposed to work, right? You help us with our much needed makeover, and we make some resources available to you. The question is, what are those resources going to be utilized for? I don’t know. Your guess is as good as mine. Remember that Sunshine Law thing? I think there is more than a little to be concerned about here. Thanks to CM O’Connell for raising awareness on this one.
SNOW DAY DEBATES
The other issue that O’Connell has drawn attention to this past week is the use of snow days. This past week, MNPS students were out the whole week due to snow conditions. Invariably when this happens, questions start to surface as to why the whole school district has to close and why don’t we allow individual schools the flexibility to make that decision. These were the questions that CM O’Connell was asking this week. I think they are very reasonable questions.
My concerns with such a system would be one of equity. Those schools that would seldom be forced to close would be more appealing than those in areas that needed closing more often. O’Connell entertained the idea of allowing schools to grant “snow absences.” That would be a fine idea in schools populated by wealthier students, but in our poorer schools, every hour of every day is essential and inadvertently those who most needed the schooling would be the ones who amassed the absentees.
MNPS is a large and diverse district. A snow day presents a unique challenge to all those involved. Often we tailor our decisions towards the neediest, but equal consideration should be given towards our working parents. Joseph’s team deserves credit this go around for making announcements in a timely manner so that parents had adequate time to plan. But could some of the weekdays have been spared if some schools had more flexibility? And what should that flexibility look like? I think that is a valid conversation.
Perhaps we should turn the question back to Metro Council. Activist John Little pointed out on Facebook that MNPS posted pictures of roads that were still trouble spots. If those roads were trouble spots today, then they would probably be trouble spots in the future, and maybe somebody from MNPS could get together with Metro Government and develop a plan to address those streets. Maybe all that’s needed is the simple purchase of a couple additional salt trucks and a re-prioritizing of which streets to clear first.
I would also suggest getting together with community centers and seeing what it would take to make them more accessible to working parents during snow days. I know that borders on offering free day care, but is that such a bad thing? Perhaps MNPS could partner with the Chamber of Commerce and explore different ways that individual businesses could ease the burden on working parents during snow days.
Everybody loves a task force. Seems like this would be a perfect opportunity for one. At the very least, it’s a conversation worth having. Hopefully one that won’t remain relegated to social media pages like the conversation on later start times for high school students has been. Like how I did that?
We have all heard the clarion calls on the dire state of public education in America. We are constantly reminded that two out of three kids are not reading on grade level and we are sufficiently alarmed by that. My question, though, remains. What does that statistic really mean? How is “grade level” even derived?
Interestingly enough, this week saw the release of a new study conducted jointly by the National Superintendents Roundtable and the Horace Mann League that concludes that the benchmarks used for Common Core assessments are wildly unrealistic. In fact, in no nation do a majority of students meet the NAEP Proficient benchmark in Grade 4 reading, and only three nations have 50 percent or more of their students meeting the Proficient benchmark in Grade 8 math (Singapore, Republic of Korea, and Japan).
In an interesting twist, Dr. James Harvey, Executive Director of the National Superintendents Roundtable states:
“The report also encourages school leaders to educate communities about the flaws with the term Proficient and how school systems abroad would perform if held to the same standard. “This report doesn’t endorse an anti-testing agenda or seek to lower standards. We believe in assessment,” says Harvey. “But in the words of a Turkish proverb, no matter how far you have gone down the wrong road, turn back.”
I encourage you to read the whole report.
Tuesday, January 23 is the date for the 2018 Tennessee Gubernatorial forum on education. Put it on your calendar and watch. It should be an indication of what to expect from the state in the future.
Have you heard the one about Tennessee teacher education programs turning out bad teachers? Andy Spears over at TNEd Report has, and he doesn’t find it very funny. Make sure you read his deconstruction of the joke.
By now, everyone should be familiar with the incredible work being done at Overton HS via their Cambridge program. Here’s a chance to take a deeper dive.
During the recent snowpocalypse, Family Resource Centers across the district opened up to get needed food to families. There wasn’t a Family Resource Center in the Donelson/ Hermitage area, so the Community Achieves Partners at Two Rivers Middle Prep stepped in to support. Nice Job!
Vanderbilt’s SSMV is looking for Metro Schools eighth graders interested in launching a career in math and science.
Indianapolis has many of the same education battles as Nashville does. Now they have a study that shows where Indiana students go when they leave a public school district. It’s an interesting data dive.
I consider James Lee Burke to be one of America’s greatest living authors. He’s got a new one out called Robicheaux, and you’ll want to check it out.
Looking for something new music-wise? Check out the latest by Glen Hansard. It provided the soundtrack for this edition of Dad Gone Wild.
That’s it for now. If you need to contact me, you can do so at Norinrad10@yahoo.com. I try to promote as many of the things sent to me as possible, but I do apologize if I fall short. I have started using Patreon. If you think what I do has monetary value, you can go there and make a donation/pledge. Trust me, I know I ain’t going to get rich, but at the end of the day I’m just a Dad trying to get by. Check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page as well.