“Watch what people are cynical about, and one can often discover what they lack.”
Over the last several weeks I’ve been circling around an idea without ever really grabbing hold of it. The idea is rooted in trying to understand why so many smart people are continually supporting MNPS Superintendent Shawn Joseph in spite of all the tangible evidence. “What am I missing?”, I ask myself.
It’s started to dawn on me that there are some very familiar elements currently at play. Elements that I’ve missed because I’ve been so determined to move past the charter school conversation and instead focus on making our traditional schools better.
Throughout the last two years, I’ve repeatedly preached that the argument over charter schools was passé and it was time to move on. It’s long been my argument that a winning strategy needed to focus on demand and not on supply. But what if I was wrong?
If you look where Dr.Joseph’s support comes from outside of the African-American community you’ll find leaders of the choice movement strongly in his camp. At a recent principals meeting, Joe Scarlett appeared on stage with Dr. Joseph with Dr.Joseph referring to him as a mentor. Interesting, over the last decade few people have spent as much money trying to break up MNPS as Joe Scarlett has through his family’s Scarlet Foundation.
Are we supposed to believe that Mr. Scarlett has suddenly had a change of heart and in Shawn Joseph, he sees a leader that can make school district succeed where he has accused it of failing for years? Has he suddenly had a change of heart on charters and vouchers? These are two ideas he’s championed throughout his tenure as vice-chairman on the board of the Beacon Center of Tennessee.
A quick trip to the Beacon Center page reveals their commitment to putting “parents back in the driver’s seat” and their vision of how that happens.
- Expand the Individualized Education Account program’s eligibility to include more student populations across the state.
- Allow third-party providers such as universities and trade schools to expand the number of courses offered in the new Course Access Program.
- Pass a robust education savings account program for students across the state, regardless of their demographic, geographic area, or income levels.
So what exactly is Mr. Scarlett mentoring Dr. Joseph in?
Supporters of choice will quickly point out the many different organizations across the city that receive support from the Scarlett Foundation. While it is an impressive list, it’s one tilted towards organizations that share a similar mindset towards educational choice. It’s also disturbing to me to see a number of organizations that employ MNPS board members on the list as well.
Back over the summer when I was running for school board, I met with several leaders of Nashville’s Choice community in order to secure their support. More than once it was brought to my attention that Dr. Joseph had been good for the Nashville school choice movement. While he wasn’t a supporter, he left them alone and didn’t try to restrict them in any way. I was known as a detractor of Joseph’s, so why would they want to risk drawing his ire in order to support me?
That’s a good question and one I haven’t spent enough time asking myself. What’s in it for the school choice crowd if Joseph is removed before the end of his contract? They know what they have in him, a non-supporter but one that won’t restrict them.
There is no guarantee that a new superintendent would share his vision and plenty of risks that a new chief could potentially be adversarial to the choice philosophy. With the current board there is no guarantee that the new superintendent would be sympathetic to the choice agenda. Why would anyone want to dance with a new devil when they could live with the one they had?
Whenever I would respond to choice leaders question by listing a number of Joseph’s shortcomings, they would wave them away and cite a lack of details. Or they would acknowledge and chalk the missteps up to inexperience. In all my conversations, I’ve never heard one person offer the opinion that Dr. Joseph was doing a good job. Yet publicly all offer support.
Currently, a popular postulate being advanced is that if left alone, Dr. Joseph will just come to the end of his contract and sans extension, he will just leave. Sounds good if you say it fast. It’s clean, it avoids all the messy arguments about job performance and we don’t have to worry about that pesky negative picture. I’ve heard this position privately advanced by several choice leaders.
That scenario though comes with a lot of benefits for the choice movement. Joseph’s current contract ends 2 months before the next school board election. That means that the next school board will be charged with selecting the next superintendent of MNPS. It’s a school board that in all likelihood won’t have Amy Frogge, Jill Speering, or Will Pinkston as board members.
In watching board meetings it’s clear that both Frogge and Speering are exhausted by the constant battles. As a side note, I hear detractors accuse both of only trying to satisfy their egos, trust me there is a much less painful manner of stroking one’s ego than fighting for kids and teachers on the school board. If you’ve never been alone on an island defending your personal convictions, try it sometime, it makes a root canal feel like a tickle party. It doesn’t matter that the masses eventually join you on that island, the waiting for their arrival is excruciating.
Pinkston may choose to run again, but let’s be honest, his opponents are licking their chops at the opportunity. They are already raising money and considering candidates. I’m pretty confident in the prediction that if they do nothing else in the 2020 election, they will deny Pinkston a seat on the board.
Perhaps 2016 will repeat, and once again all the choice candidates lose. Like them or not, it is undeniable that Speering and Frogge are among the most popular board members. No new board will bring the muscle possessed by these two.
In all likelihood, a new board with a deeper sympathy toward charter schools will be seated in 2020. When it comes to choosing a superintendent they will have a couple of options open to them. First, they could keep Joseph and just pressure him to support charter schools. Or they could remove him based on the long litany of offenses already documented. It really is a win/win for them.
Look around the city and you’ll see more and more choice proponents and organizations taking prominence. The mayor has a solid choice supporter in his education advisor In Indira Dammu. Nashville Public Education Foundation just drew a new executive director from the choice ranks in Katy Cour. The The New Teacher Project after being on life support for years has seen a big expansion of its role in Metro Schools over the last year and a contract extension for Teach For America is sure to pass next month.
Today’s paper has news of a plan to build workforce housing on property currently owned by MNPS. If such housing is built who looks the benefit the most? TFA would be able to tell their new recruits, come to Nashville and we’ve got housing covered. I suspect it would become an incredible recruitment tool.
Skeptics have argued with me that the public thirst for charter schools has abated, but I counter that the number of students in Nashville served by charter schools continues to grow despite no new schools being added in the last 4 years. Some point to the extension of grade levels as a cause for that growth. But remember in order to maintain, or increase growth by grade level, they need to be successful at back filling as well and Nashville’s charter are continuing to fill lower grade levels as existing students move into higher grade level offerings.
I’m not contending that some great conspiracy theory is afoot in Nashville, but rather that some folks are just taking advantage of opportunities as they are presenting themselves. They will likely argue that they are making rational decisions based on the data. Some may argue that they would never put kids second to a political agenda and that it is irresponsible for me to even suggest such a thing.
But remember, in 2016 there was a number of people who believed strongly enough in the theory that MNPS was failing to serve students that they were willing to invest nearly half a million dollars in order to elect officials that agreed with that position. Why a mere 3 years later would that view change?
They could justify their actions for enabling Dr. Joseph with the argument that MNPS has failed children and that they are merely protecting the only vehicles of change available until 2020 when real meaningful change can be made. It’s a very rational argument and if you truly believe that charter schools exist as primary change agents of change, an easy one to accept.
Last month 12 of Nashville’s Charter organization united under a common umbrella as the Nashville Charter School Collaborative for the auspicious purpose of increasing collaboration. None of the members of this organization have been shy about getting involved in politics in the past, so there is no reason to believe they will be in the future.
I must say that the prospect of re-fighting the charter school wars in the near future depresses the hell out of me. Over the last few years, I’ve at a minimum mended fences with members of the choice crowd, and become dear friends with others. I love them as people while being deeply opposed to their views on public education. The fight this go around will be as much about perceiving those relationships as it is fighting their policies. Not an attractive prospect.
Back in 2016, the Nashville Scene did an article about the 2016 school board election. In it, I am quoted as follows,
“I think it’s coming down to what it always comes down to,” says T.C. Weber, the parent of a student at Tusculum Elementary, when asked what he makes of this round of school board elections. “It’s never about charter schools until it’s actually about charter schools. And it’s always about charter schools.”
I sure hope I am not a prophet.
SUNSHINE ON MY SHOULDER
On Friday, while the public called for calm from the school board, Dr. Joseph decided to further stoke fires with his weekly update to the board. Update to the board is a bit of misnomer as members of council and state representatives are also emailed the update. dr. joseph weekly memo 01.11.19
In his memo Dr. Joseph makes the charge that after consulting with an attorney from the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents(TOSS), he is of the opinion that board members Fran Bush, Amy Frogge, and Jill Speering are in violation of Tennessee State Sunshine Laws for an editorial they wrote several months ago. He describes his action steps in this paragraph.
I contacted the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (TOSS) for a legal opinion, and that opinion was delivered to me in mid-December. As I have done previously when Board members broke from our written board policies, I did not comment because I did not want to bring negative attention to the board. However, after this week’s outcry, I realized that I should provide the board with the information given to me.
Let me get this straight, he suspected policy was being broken, confirmed it, and then followed an established pattern by…doing nothing out of fear of bad publicity. But after this week’s outcry, he feels compelled to come forward, though this week’s outcry had nothing to do with Sunshine Laws or even formal charges of violating board policy.
That paragraph is an amazing piece of writing for a man who leads a school district facing multiple sexual lawsuits based on the accusation that they knew of the incidents and failed to act. I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, but I would think the question of, “In what other instances did you know of policy being broken and “didn’t comment”, begs to be asked. Was it board policy you were speaking of or district policy is a follow-up question I have.
Is there a shortage of mobile phones that I am unaware of? Nobody in Nashville government seems to have the ability to call anyone. How is there a risk of negative publicity if the director picks up the phone, calls the board member, and says, “Hey I think you are breaking board policy. Let’s talk about it.”
What Joseph publicly admits in this newsletter is that he does not have the ability to effectively communicate with his boss. I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life, but I never had one where I succeeded if I couldn’t communicate with the boss.
Like it or not, the board, and by de facto, the public, are Joseph’s boss. Last week it was expressed to me that some people didn’t like the board reminding him of such, they regarded that as a microaggression. If that’s true, I’ve experienced a lot of microaggressions in my life.
But it’s not just the rogue board members that he is not effectively communicating with as evidenced by this paragraph,
To that end, I am taking this moment to express my concern about the action taken by three board members to evaluate my performance outside of the established Board process, and to publish that evaluation in the form of a letter to the Tennessean. When the letter was published, I spoke with Board Chair Dr. Sharon Gentry about it because I felt it was inappropriate. My evaluation should be conducted through the Evaluation Committee that Mr. Will Pinkston and Dr. Gentry chair and co- chair, respectively. I asked Dr. Gentry whether it was legally appropriate for such a letter to be written, and she suggested that I obtain a legal opinion for the board to be able to determine next steps.
In other words, he brought concerns to the chair and she sloughed him off. Per the information contained in the newsletter, she didn’t say she would speak with the offenders, nor did she say she would investigate it further, she just suggested he obtain a legal opinion. Am I the only one who sees a pattern of behavior here?
I appreciate Joseph’s overture to have a deeper discussion about Sunshine laws. We can talk about out-of-town retreats, retreats that aren’t properly publicized, committee meetings without publicly available agendas, committee meeting without minutes available to the public, and much more. The board for years has had a very loose adherence to Sunshine laws and so I would welcome an in-depth discussion about policy alignment with those laws.
It’s important to note that the three board members in question wrote their October 5 Op-Ed piece in response to one written by Mayor David Briley, Vice Mayor Jim Shulman, Nashville School Board Chair Sharon Gentry and MNPS Director Shawn Joseph. In their piece, the four city leaders attempted to offer their own public evaluation of Dr. Joseph performance. It’s an essay that reads like a Will Pinkston script. Seeing that Pinkston is also an MNPS board member, who has been known to portray himself as running the district, I would say there is evidence that a much deeper conversation is begging to be held. Let’s see if Doctor Joseph will indeed apologize if it’s shown that he has broken board policy.
Sometimes politicians need to remember the old adage, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.” This past weekend, when asked if he supports Dr. Joseph Mayor Briley offered the following response,
“When we have a school board that isn’t functioning properly, no leader can succeed,” Briley said in a statement. “We must have a body that governs with purpose and vision and puts the needs of our children above politics and individual agendas.”
Obviously, the board is operating in a manner that less than optimal, but I see no evidence that they are operating in a manner that fails to put kids above politics and personal agendas. While I disagree with Christiane Bugg’s actions and many of the policies she is driving, I don’t doubt for one second that she comes from a place that puts kids first. The same holds true for Jill Speering. I would not argue that either abandon personal convictions in order to avoid a negative impression. Something that based upon the above passage, is an all too often occurrence in MNPS.
Both the school board and the mayor’s office are elected entities charged with overseeing two separate bodies. There is a reason that leadership is elected separately for the two divisions of city government. I don’t believe that the mayor would appreciate the school board casting aspirations towards his motivations in governing, so I don’t know why he feels that his observations, in this case, would be a welcome addition to the ongoing conversation. I could be wrong. There is an election in August and we’ll find out just how much people agree with the mayor’s vision.
In all fairness to Mayor Briley, there is nothing in the Tennessean article that matches the tag line on the home page of the electronic issue, “Briley has Joseph’s Back in Dispute with School Board.” But by now, I’m kind of used to that sleight of hand being played by the Tennessean. They are fully aware that many people read nothing but the tag line, or headline, so it’s very disappointing that at a time when journalists are under more scrutiny than ever, they continue to traffic in these kinds of parlor tricks.
Briley does go on to say in the article,
“If we are going to make the kind of progress we need for our children, we all have to be careful to use language that brings us together, not language that divides us.”
I believe that is a warning for all of us.
I’m running out of space here, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that both Andy Spears and Vesia Hawkins have written two very excellent blog posts. Posts that should raise levels of concern for everyone.
Someone also needs to ask why career educator Gloria Johnson is left off the Tennessee State House Education Committee while accused sexual offender David Byrd is not only placed on the committee but given leadership of a sub-committee. Luckily someone is.
I’m going to try to do this quickly, but we got higher than the ordinary response to this week’s poll questions, so I feel the need to share and comment on results.
The first question asked. “If Dr. Joseph’s contract was up for renewal today, would you support an extension?” Out of 181 responses, 155 said, “Hell to the no”. Only 5 answered, “Absolutely.” I don’t know what else you need. Here are the write-ins:
|No. A new contract for Dr. J is the proverbial straw.||1|
|Do the sychophants remain too?||1|
|No. To the Board’s shame, turning their accountability job => Racism Accusations|
Question two asked how you felt about your principal. My reason in asking this question is that defenders of the district’s role in teacher attrition often point to principals as being more complicit in teacher turnover than the district. Your responses, as they were all over the board, do not really lead credence to that argument. Out of 155 responses, 44 of you indicated that you had a rockstar. 29 of you answered, “Nice person, not a good principal.” 24 of you said they were always improving and 24 described them as train wrecks. Again, not exactly numbers that would indicate that principals are wholesale driving teachers out. Here are the write-ins:
|Have many different schools, the admins hired by Joseph are a joke.||1|
|I teach in Robertson County and LOVE my principal||1|
|New admin- Jury is still out but not impressed so far||1|
|Thank goodness Austria is gone from PM||1|
|I have a very good principal. We are a priority school and his hands are tied||1|
|Intimidating. Tows the party line, whether in students’ best interests or not.||1|
|Know several: one rock star, one train wreck, one improving|
The last question was about the state of discipline in MNPS. Out of 165 responses, 61 of you described it as a crisis and another 46 said it was the number 1 reason why teachers were leaving. I’m not sure I need to add anything to that. Here are the write-ins:
|The people asking for change have never worked in a school.||1|
|Needs a working policy -but not the number one reason teachers are leaving||1|
|Crisis. Too many building admins. buying into horrible policy. Teachers are done||1|
|crisis that is #1 prob & big reason teachers leave||1|
|The only solution is parental involvement and accountability||1|
|A giant smokescreen to the public and a crisis to the teachers||1|
|Probably worse than we want to admit||1|
|After 32 years of teaching, I’ve never seen such behavior problems.||1|
|Wreck of the unfunded mandate. Kids need intervention.||1|
|Worse than in past years.||1|
|Believe in ideal of RJ but this implementation all wrong, like all things MNPS||1|
|It addresses only part of the problem||1|
|Number 2 reason teachers are leaving. #1 being horrible mid career pay.|
That’s a wrap. Check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page. It’s a good news station with lots of a teacher of year announcements. If you need to get a hold of me, the email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Keep sending me your stuff and I’ll share as much as possible.
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