“In the Book of Life, The answers aren’t in the back.”
On Wednesday I headed up to the state capitol to watch your tax dollars at work. That morning the Governor’s vouchers bill was scheduled to be voted on by the House of Representatives Education Committee. I know, we are calling them Education Savings Accounts these days, but that doesn’t change what we are really talking about – vouchers.
As I’m sure most of you know by now, the bill advanced by a vote of 14 – 9 with one abstention. To get er done, the bill had to undergo a few changes. Home school students are no longer eligible, the program was capped at 15k students, and the state education department has been charged to produce a report on student enrollment and performance after the first year instead of following year three. Let’s look at that last one for a second.
This year brand new State Superintendent has undertaken two major initiatives – cleaning up the state’s standardized testing program and fixing the Achievement School District. Those are some heavy lifts. Has anybody taken a minute to consult with the TNDOE, and it’s director Penny Schwinn, to see if they have the capacity to oversee a brand new voucher program?
To my untrained eye, it appears that once again we are forgoing the needs of the majority in order to focus on the desires of the minority. State Standardized testing and the Tennessee State Achievement District are two long-suffering initiatives whose problems are well documented. They are also two of the state’s initiatives that impact the most student lives. Early indications are that Schwinn is starting to get her arms around both of these long-standing challenges and may actually bring forth some solutions. So now we are going to hamstring her and split the department’s focus?
At the very least shouldn’t Schwinn be called to testify on how she sees ESA’s impacting her department’s focus? Lee prides himself on being a businessman, businesses usually gauge a departments capacity before adding initiatives, yet that does not seem to have been done here.
The ESA bill is only going to affect urban districts. Families are only eligible if they live in a district that has three “failing schools” as being defined by being included in the states priority school list. Maury County has 12 schools, the odds are pretty slim that a third of their schools are ever going to simultaneously find themselves on the priority list. Yet here we are spending hours and months discussing a program that will impact less than 5% of the districts in Tennessee and when capped at 15k students represents less than 18% of the kids in MNPS alone. Does that really sound like a prudent use of time and resources to you?
It’d be one thing if there was evidence out there of the overwhelming success experienced by states who implemented ESA programs, but there is not. At the very best the results are mixed. So the governor is proposing that we pursue an initiative with minimum upside that impacts a minimum amount of residents at the expense of focusing resources and energy on initiatives that impact the most amount of students with the potential of having huge upside. Good thing the Governor isn’t taking TNReady this year because that math doesn’t add up.
Wednesday provided an opportunity for the Governor and House Speaker Glen Casada to send notice of how they’ll be playing things when it comes to passing legislation. The days leading up to the vote saw Lee leaning heavily on freshman legislators – either by a stick or by carrot – to get them to follow the playbook. On Wednesday morning, conversation on the floor about the bill under consideration was limited to the merits of the bill, a caveat that was strictly enforced. Casada, doing his best imitation of Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinnie, showed up in chamber shortly before the vote – just in case anybody was unsure of the importance of this vote.
One person who didn’t get the message was embattled representative David Byrd. Casada had been a staunch defender of Byrd, who has been dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct in the 1980s when he was a high school girls basketball coach. Once Byrd voted wrong on Wednesday that support dried up. Casada pleads correlation and not causation, but as pointed out by Rep. Bo Mitchell, a Democrat from Nashville,
“Months and months of sexual assault victims coming up here pleading didn’t make the case. But within 24 hours after voting against that voucher bill, he’s no longer a chairman. I think it speaks for itself,”
The bill still has to progress through the house governance committee and then the full Senate. The Senate has yet to take it up, but in the past, they’ve been very receptive to the idea of vouchers and there is no indication that this year will prove any different. That said, this ain’t a done deal and I encourage all of you to contact your state representatives and let them know that bill is not good for the Tennessee education system.
A couple other quick observations from my brief time on the Hill. Watching Representative Mike Stewart work the hall outside of chambers reminded me of just how dedicated a public servant Stewart is. While others used the hallway to engage in banter with lobbyists and fellow legislators, Stewart demonstrated a singular purpose and focus. It was clear that he takes his responsibilities to the citizens he represents very seriously. If you get a chance, reach out and tell Mike thank you. He’s earning that appreciation every day.
I was also afforded an opportunity to talk with John Ray Clemmons. As you may, or may not know, Clemmons is running for Mayor of Nashville. I’ve made no secret of my dissatisfaction with David Briley as mayor, but have been reserved in embracing Clemmons candidacy. The more and more I talk with John Ray the less reticent I become to endorse him.
He seems to understand the challenges of Nashville’s school system and more importantly, he seems ready to really listen to constituents. Furthermore, unlike Briley, he recognizes that Nashville’s tremendous growth has actually benefited very few of our residents. I’m beginning to believe that would change under his leadership. Color me a 6 on the scale of 1 to 10, but I’m really warming to John Ray Clemmons as mayor of Nashville.
I’m at a loss to find the adjectives to adequately describe the early week activities of MNPS Leadership. Tuesday’s board meeting, including Dr. Joseph’s address to the board, made the job even more difficult.
Anybody in search of a reason why Joseph is facing such a harsh punishment from the state only needs to watch his 20-minute speech at the beginning to gain clarity. It’s the lack of humility and the lack of remorse. Nowhere in the 20-minute diatribe does Joseph accept any responsibility for the events that transpired, nor does he show any remorse.
I know that some will read racial overtones into my observations – why is a black man being expected to humble himself – but the reality is that humility and the willingness to acknowledge mistakes are important traits for any leader. Throughout his tenure in Nashville, Joseph has never once acknowledged any missteps. He gave himself a 2 on student achievement on his recently completed self-evaluation (2018-19 SJoseph Formative Self-Eval Evidence Companion FINAL 012919) but never followed up with descriptions of why.
In Tuesday’s speech, Joseph blames the district for not providing enough resources, the state for being too harsh and makes a claim that he has discovered that he and the board have a different value system. He claims that his ‘equity agenda” is showing results, yet he also scored himself a 2 on his self-evaluation in regard to shrinking the achievement gap between students.
At one point Joseph addresses the perception of his poor treatment. He admonishes that, “now is not the time to point fingers” and then proceeds to do just that by reminding us of the importance of voting. Clearly a shot at members of the board who have been critical of his performance.
Things get surreal when Joseph evokes Martin Luther King’s last sermon the Drum Major Instinct to draw parallels between himself and Jesus Christ. I urge all of you to read, the whole sermon. It is well worth your time. The reference to Christ is only a small portion of it.
The central theme is humility and service to others. Humility means on occasion owning your mistakes. It means sometimes accepting that your actions have resulted in less than optimal outcomes. Something Dr.Joseph has never shown a willingness to do. Of course, I find it more than a little ironic that within King’s sermon is contained a warning about fraternities,
Now the other problem is, when you don’t harness the drum major instinct—this uncontrolled aspect of it—is that it leads to snobbish exclusivism. It leads to snobbish exclusivism. (Make it plain) And you know, this is the danger of social clubs and fraternities—I’m in a fraternity; I’m in two or three—for sororities and all of these, I’m not talking against them. I’m saying it’s the danger. The danger is that they can become forces of classism and exclusivism where somehow you get a degree of satisfaction because you are in something exclusive. And that’s fulfilling something, you know—that I’m in this fraternity, and it’s the best fraternity in the world, and everybody can’t get in this fraternity. So it ends up, you know, a very exclusive kind of thing.
King also calls for unity in his sermon. He talks about his time in the Birmingham jail and how he always tried to convert people while there. Upon talking with guards and finding out how much they make, he told them,
“Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. [laughter] You’re just as poor as Negroes.” And I said, “You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. (Yes) And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white. And you’re so poor you can’t send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march.”
Sadly during his tenure Dr. Joseph has never preached such unity, nor has he ever shown the humility MLK calls out for in his Drum Major sermon. Instead, he has tried to assume the role of the drum major. Through him being the only way Nashville can arrive at equity.
The true beauty in Joseph’s farewell exit speech is that he juxtaposes the MLK sermon with a Tupac song title, I Ain’t Mad Atcha. All one has to do is take a brief glance at when the Tupac song was recorded and its general perceived intent, and you can divine the message Joseph’s is sending to the board. Some may interpret it as the Maryland version of, “bless them”.
If nothing else, Tuesday’s board meeting makes it crystal clear that it’s time to end this bad marriage. It’s time to find an interim superintendent and get on with the healing. As it is, we are spending too much time focused on the departure of Dr. Joseph and not nearly enough on the future of MNPS. We thrash around defending the man with nary a second thought to the potential rifts we are causing with people we need if we ever are going to fix this system. Therefore I say, let’s get this over before even more damage is done.
THE MAYORS REALLY DUMB PRESS CONFERENCE
I’m not quite ready to delve into Mayor Briley’s really bad idea yet, so I’m going to save most of my commentary on today’s mayoral press conference for Monday. Let’s just say that if the Mayor had any hope of quieting things down and helping to ease things into a peaceful transition, this wasn’t the move to make. If his hope was to inspire a deeper conversation on racial inequities, this wasn’t the speech to give. If he was hoping to showcase himself as a diminutive leader…I mean definitive leader, this was not the means to do it.
Briley gave a speech that wrote off all the broken federal and state laws, the audit reports, and the testimony from teachers as such, “I may be out on a limb here, but I think Dr. Joseph, too, would say with the benefit of hindsight that he would have done a few things differently.” He placed the blame for the current state of MNPS solely on the shoulders of the school board. Well let’s not fool ourselves, he places blame on the shoulders of 3 board members.
In doing so he completely ignores the fact that compromise is exactly what these board members adhered to during Joseph’s first 18 months and that it was Joseph that broke the trust established and caused the current turmoil. Briley made his accusations while ignoring the fact that all three of these board members won an election just like he did, one just months ago and running on a platform that was critical of Dr. Joseph. Maybe it is his to turn his back on constituents desires once elected, but it is unrealistic to expect others to do so,
Briley decries the board’s toxicity, yet says not a word about the role one of his own personal advisors has played in that dysfunction. That’s the thing about Will Pinkston, he exposes our moral failings, as we are willing to accept his aid and defend his means as long as we are beneficiaries. That’s not leadership though, that’s opportunism. And it’s eating at the moral fabric of our city.
Briley’s speech today made it clear that Nashville is still a good old boys town, the key word being boys. I don’t envision Briley’s idle threats playing as well with a board made up predominately of males.
Equally telling is who’s side of a fray sated in misogyny Briley has landed on. He chose to recognize Joseph’s job as the hardest in the city while ignoring the work of teachers, a workforce composed primarily of women and essential to MNPS’s success. He went as far as to offer a vague threat of denying funding for a wage increase if his wishes weren’t adhered to. The message delivered seemed to be not one so different as those delivered in the not so distant past by a husband burdened with a fussy wife, “Come on Shawn, I’ll help you get them gals back in line. We’ll just take away their shopping money.”
That’s the threat Briley made this morning in demanding that board members ignore state and local statutes and sign his proposed MOU in order to get any additional funds. Not sure that’s a game of political chicken he wants to get into, but he’s fired the first shot, following it up with an ultimatum, “I believe this is the school board’s last chance to be a positive change agent that will make a difference in our children’s lives — their last chance to get it right,” Briley said. Which sounds great on a t-shirt or coming out of Bruce Willis’s mouth in Die Hard 17, but what does it really mean?
Briley continues the recently created Nashville tradition of using board member Jill Speering as a public punching bag. Of course, Briley doesn’t have the courage to actually use her name or fully call her out, instead choosing innuendoes and supposition to paint his desired picture.
“Let me be clear: I am not calling anyone a racist,” Briley said. “Some of our school board members have not acknowledged why their actions are seen through a racial lens. They’ve failed to acknowledge the legacy of racism … the legacy of inequality that this city is still trying to overcome today.”
Yes, David you are and you are doing it in a room devoid of any school board members and surrounded by supporters. We got a name for that back home…but this is a family blog.
The problem with all of this Sideshow Bob nonsense is that it desensitizes people to the very real vestiges of institutional racism. You may “win” the day, but in the end, real tangible progress fails to be made. In order to make real change, you need people’s minds to be open and today’s actions did nothing but close people’s minds.
Briley wasn’t the only one to try and grandstand today, David Plaza of the Tennessean saw the opportunity to shout some rhetoric and lost no time in getting an op-ed out proclaiming that Briley “distinguished himself from school board members as a leader Friday, laying out critical obstacles Nashville schools must overcome and why the board’s dysfunction must stop.” It’s amazing how fast he churn this stuff out when there is an opening on stage.
Reading Plaza’s piece an uninformed reader could be forgiven for coming away with the impression that Superintendent Joseph bears no fault in reading levels being flat, a toxic culture, or a continued failure to follow state, local, and board statutes when executing contracts. To reinforce this narrative the Tennessean has been tripping all over itself this week printing op-eds praising Joseph’s tenure in Nashville. Psst…guys, your bias is showing. If you are keeping score at home that’s one a day this week.
The Tennessean would likely argue that these op-eds are independent submissions and that they have received no counter-arguments. Maybe so, a likely cause for that being that Joseph’s main critics are not the elected class of Nashville nor self-appointed tastemakers either, and as such, they are busy teaching class, running schools, or raising families instead of crafting flowery prose with little connection to reality. Nashville doesn’t just deserve leaders, it deserves better journalists.
In my opinion, today David Briley opened the door for John Ray Clemmons to become the next mayor. I don’t know if Clemmons can garner enough votes to win, but I do know that today more people are giving him a serious look than there were giving him a serious look yesterday. I do know that over the next several months I will be doing as much as possible to help him win. This morning’s press conference was among the most shameful pandering I’ve ever seen from a politician and I believe that in his heart David knows that as well.
However, as long as Briley takes advise from Will Pinkston, as rumors say he is, it won’t be the last moral compromise he’ll make. Briley has a choice, he can listen to a failed political operative engaged in a self-proclaimed war on a local news station, or he can listen to the teachers and parents of a city he purportedly loves. It’s really not a hard decision to make.
In a town known for its songwriters, Nashville officials seem to have lost the ability to recognize irony. In addition to the aforementioned Joseph offenses, Briley grandstands today for the public while admonishing the school board, “Our city’s expectation is for growth, not grandstanding,” he said. He also chastised the boards use of social media, yet tonight I am inundated on every social media platform by his sound and fury signifying nothing. More than anything I bemoan the lack of appreciation for irony shown this week.
One last thing, can we please stop having discussions and meeting about Public Schools at times that make it difficult for teachers and parents to attend. It sends a terrible message to teachers. It ain’t hard. All you have to do is care,
That’s going to have to be it for tonight. Be back here on Monday when we’ll dive deeper into today’s actions. We’ll try to figure out what it all means.
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