“I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones, and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life. And I am horribly limited.”
“Do you know how you felt when you would lean all the way back in a chair, and just before you were about to tip over, at the very last second, you’d catch yourself? That’s how I feel all the time.”
Time to break out the whiteboard, because this week has started with a whirlwind of activity. While at first glance it might appear that events are unconnected, closer scrutiny reveals otherwise,
Let’s start with yesterday’s local events. The MNPS school board held a special meeting to consider the consolidation of several schools and to approve a budget to place before the Mayor later in the week.
Over the last several years Nashville has seen a continued decline in enrollment at several North Nashville Schools. This has resulted in severe underutilization of their buildings, which has contributed to a loss in resources and which has factored into these schools now finding themselves on the state’s priority list. Faced with a looming budget crisis, brought on by a series of natural disasters, MNPS has now found itself in a position of having to explore every option in order to stretch resources. As a result, the consolidation of the following schools was under consideration,
- Buena Vista Elementary School would be closed and its students sent to Jones Paideia Elementary School.
- Robert E. Lillard Elementary School would be closed and its students divided between Alex Green Elementary School and Cumberland Elementary School.
- Joelton Middle School would be closed and its students sent to Haynes Middle School.
- Finally, the Cohn Learning Center would be closed and its students absorbed by high school courses throughout Davidson County.
By a unanimous vote, the school board approved the proposed actions. School consolidations are never a popular consideration, and some questioned the pace behind yesterday’s actions, I firmly believe the board made the right decision. Not just because it saves money, but also that increases opportunity for students.
If you look at Buena Vista, it is roughly 200 students of which 99% live in poverty. I don’t believe for one second that leaving students in such a homogenous environment their entire elementary career is beneficial to anyone. Even if you got everyone reading at 5 grade levels above their current grade, they would still be at a disadvantage. School is more than just learning to read and write – it’s learning to navigate the tiers of society, it’s the learning of social cues, it’s the building of relationships outside of your socio-economic sphere. It’s one of the reasons I’ve never been a fan of prep schools. Kids need varied experiences and interactions in order to develop to full potential.
The goal of consolidation is to open the doors to more varied and diverse experiences for these students in underutilized schools. As a parent of children that have spent their early education years in a school that for much of their time enrolled was teetering on the edge of a state takeover, I’m well aware of the challenges faced in providing those all too important experiences to students. I love my kids’ schools and fully appreciate everything done for them by their teachers, but fully recognize that they missed out on certain experiences that kids in wealthier schools take for granted. In all fairness, they also received some experiences that they would have missed in those schools.
I could focus on the potential benefits for a whole piece and opponents of the move could provide equal focus on why it’s the wrong move. And either one of us could be proven right in the future. The move itself does not determine success or failure. What comes next, will be the decider. If the district considers the initiative as completed and fails to offer proper follow-through, results won’t improve. If the district uses the move to offer renewed focus, garners increased community involvement, and provides adequate resources, outcomes will improve. Based on Battle’s actions during her admittedly short tenure, I’m choosing to have faith in the latter.
The consolidations have once again elevated the conversation around the impact of charter schools on district funding. Yesterday, Amy Frogge voiced the thoughts of many,
“We are following the playbook that has played out nationwide in different cities,” Frogge said. “When we open a large number of charters when any city does, the enrollment is going to decrease in the zoned schools in the traditional schools served by the district. So now we are finding ourselves trying to fund two separate, competing school systems with the same pot of money.”
She’s not wrong but she’s not 100% right either.
Charter proponents immediately pushed back, citing that in the school’s affected, while most chose to attend a school outside of their school zone, the majority were attending other MNPS schools as opposed to charter schools. They use that data as evidence that charter schools are not complicit in the consolidated schools’ declining enrollment. They are not 100% right, but they are not wrong either. The fallacy that they are tying their argument to is that “choice” comes with no cost and that is just not true.
Back in the early part of the decade, for Nashville, charter schools were more of an unknown entity but it was beginning to be recognized that North and East Nashville school districts had been underserved for decades, as a result, parents were looking for options. Charter schools saw this demand as an opening and quickly moved to fill the void – some with altruistic intent and some out of self-interest. East and North Nashville suddenly found themselves inundated with new charter schools.
For some families, charter schools proved to be the needed elixir, for others nothing changed but the physical location. Over a short period of time, many came to the realization that charter schools and public schools were similar in that some are good and some are bad, there is no universal outcome. This left families, looking for new options.
Once you make the decision to explore other options, you are unlikely to return to your original option without taking a look at other offerings. With an openness to change comes an openess to a desire to explore. Perhaps the family just made the wrong choice with their first choice, and the next will be more beneficial. It’s a process we go through regularly as consumers, and as such, easily adaptable to school choice.
Let me give you an example. I’m a dyed in the wool Coke drinker. It meets most of my needs and I feel no need to explore other options, but lately, it feels like… maybe…there should be something more. After wrestling with the decision for a while, I decide to try Pepsi. I drink it exclusively for a couple months, but conclude it’s not really as good as my Coke. I decide Pepsi is really not for me. Now I’m faced with another decision.
I could return to Coke, but maybe I just made the wrong initial choice with Pepsi. Maybe I should have chosen RC Cola after all my neighbor loves it. Maybe it’s not even a cola I want. What about one of these other soft drinks besides Coke? It’s unlikely that I return to my original beverage without trying a few other options.
Now it’s unlikely that I’m the only person facing such a beverage dilemma. There are probably quite a few other folks exploring their options as well. As people move away from Coke, profits dip. Perhaps quality dips. Eventually, Coke is faced with a dilemma of their own – close, change, or die.
One counter move is to introduce Cherry Coke, Coke Zero, Dr. Pepper…all variations, but if you chose them the money still goes into Coke’s corporate coffers and allows them revenue to reinvest and to ensure product success. Which is not disimilar to MNPS opening up the entire district as choice options.
Regardless of what Coke does, an undeniable outcome will be one where alternatives get chosen and as a result prosper, unfortunately, the flip side will be that some will not get chosen and as a result suffer. That’s what has been playing out with Nashville’s school system for the last decade there by creating a perpetual chicken or the egg discussion – did declining schools create charter schools or did charter schools create declining schools?
I don’t know the definitive answer, but I do know that with choice comes unintended consequences. You may believe that those consequences don’t mitigate a parent’s right to choose where their kids attend schools and that competition makes everyone better. Or you may decide that the instability created by an all choice district is too high a price and that such a return weakens the whole system. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but there needs to be a recognition that both paths come with costs. Furthermore, no system exists where everyone has a choice and when more emphasis is placed on “choice”, less is put on improving options for those with no choice.
Now, let’s look at it from a cost perspective. Educating kids is an expensive proposition. Doing so takes a whole lot of tax dollars and that amount seems to be continually growing. Charter schools are an attractive proposition in that a fixed amount in tax dollars is hypothetically set aside and once delivered, any additional costs are passed on. Unlike traditional schools were costs are continually in flux depending upon the needs of students. English learners, impoverished kids, and others with special needs, come with higher costs and as a result require more tax dollars. Charters were once advertised as a means to provide better education at a lower cost, thus the attraction by policymakers. Unfortunately for supporters, they haven’t exactly lived up to the hype.
Over the last several years, as people discovered the mixed results of charter schools, growth has slowed. Some may point to continued growth in enrollments as a counter-argument, but I surmise that is a case of more people entering the choice pool and that an equal amount of students are flowing back to the district. As evidence, I would point to MNPS’s numbers staying relatively stable, while charter school numbers increase. The problem is, students returning to district schools don’t preserve a dime in tax dollars.
That’s where vouchers come in handy. Vouchers allow you to set a level of funding, deliver it, and pass on all other expenditures to a private entity. A student that once cost the taxpayer upwards of $13k to educate, now only costs the taxpayer less than $8k. That’s pretty attractive especially when coupled with the argument that the private sector always outperforms the public. If you are prone to those kinds of concerns, vouchers become an extremely attractive policy.
Another added benefit is that they provide a vehicle for those that have already entered the choice portal a place to go in the event they are dissatisfied with their charter school choice. It’s like introducing energy drinks to the beverage market, suddenly there is a whole new option, and funds are available to explore it. Charter schools had the potential to save taxpayer dollars, but vouchers…there is gold in dem dar hills. As a businessman first, politician second, I don’t doubt that all of this played into Tennessee Governor Bill Lee’s decision to pursue voucher legislation. Despite several legal setbacks, he has remained intent on starting the program in the fall.
Fortunately, the courts are less enamored with the prospect of transferring large amounts of taxpayer monies to private entities. Yesterday an appeals court made Lee’s desire of starting his voucher program this year a near impossibility by agreeing to review the case, but not allow the program to start prior to the pending review. The court set August 5th – two months after private school enrollment deadlines expire – to hear arguments.
This creates some problems for private schools because many of them were counting on taxpayer money to fund their school year. Coupled with the current crisis the loss of funds could prevent them from reopening. Some had made investments in anticipation of the potential windfall. This delay puts them in a bit of a conundrum. Luckily for those in Tennessee, the state has a private school champion at its helm. One who has no qualms about taking money from the needier and passing it on to the wealthier.
ChalkbeatTN revealed on Monday that the TNDOE is was planning on following the USDOE’s recommendation on distributing COVID stimulus money. Under this recommendation, while money is given to districts based upon Title-1 numbers, districts must distribute monies to private schools based on total enrollment numbers. Some states, like Indiana, have recognized the inequities in this recommendation – plus its lack of alignment with congresses’ vision – and declined to follow it’s guidance. Fortunately for them, they are not governed by someone who puts private needs before public needs.
The move will definitely put public school kids at a disadvantage as they scramble to make adjustments in response to the current crisis. Impacted will be both modifications to schools should students be able to return as well as the purchase of technology should that return not be possible. This, in turn, will work to fuel parent dissatisfaction in the offerings of public schools and potentially increase the number of those receptive to those open to exploring educational alternatives for their children. Alternatives that will negatively impact schools and lead directly to the consideration of more options like the one exercised yesterday by Nashville’s school board. And thus we come full circle.
As much as we like to pretend otherwise, it’s not a zero-sum game.
I know that right now you are getting bombarded with reports from think tanks about school reopening plans. If you only read one, I strongly urge it to be the one coming from the Chiefs for Change. The Chiefs are part of a cadre of ‘partners” that meet with the commissioner on a regular basis, so I wouldn’t be surprised if some of their recommendations make it into Tennessee’s plan. As an added bonus, since John Hopkins University’s David Steiner contributed to the report, it would afford commissioner Schwinn an opportunity to forge a relationship with him where none has had the opportunity to germinate, despite years of running in the same circles.
Bill Frist and his SCORE Chief – also members of the partner cadre – have their own observations on returning to school that they share in a piece for the HIll. It repeats the following ludicrous assumption by NWEA,
Research by the respected NWEA, a global not-for-profit educational services organization, suggests that students will return in fall 2020 with only 70 percent of the learning gains in reading compared to a typical school year. In math, students are likely to return with less than 50 percent of the typical learning gains.
Pure speculation, meant to frighten. While calling for a change in how we think about public schools, their recommendations bear an uncanny resemblance to their agenda items from the last decade. Including protecting the private interests of assessment and curriculum,
Policymakers and local leaders also should resist rolling back structural reforms, like annual assessments, school accountability, and curricular reform that have helped improve student outcomes. To provide students with the best support and know what they have learned, we need to protect assessments to quickly measure learning loss and create personalized learning plans for students. Transparency about school quality and student readiness remain critical.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Does anybody know how far is it from the office of the TDOE director of HR to the office of the commissioner’s chief of staff? Asking for a friend.
There has been plenty of discussion around the number of vacancies in MNPS schools last year. This year the human relations department is upping the game on getting schools fully staffed by the start of the school year. As each school reaches fully-staffed status, they are being featured in a social media post. Follow them on Twitter at @MNPSTalent to see which are schools are hitting the goal. Nicely done MNPS HR.
A couple exciting notes on the superintendent front. Maury County has announced its three finalists to potentially lead the district. Among the names is that of Dr. Aimee Wyatt. Wyatt is a veteran of MNPS and a talented administrator. She’d be an exceptional asset to Maury County Schools.
Fayetteville has secured the services of a legendary Tennessee school administrator to guide them while they search for a new permanent director. It brings me great joy that Dr. Connie Smith will be serving as their interim director. Great choice!
That’s it for today.
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If you so desire to join the rank of donors, you can still head over to Patreon and help a brother out. Or you can hit up my Venmo account which is Thomas-Weber-10. I don’t need much – even $5 would help – but if you think what I do has value, a little help is always greatly appreciated, especially this time of year when my contracted work is a little slow. Not begging, just saying. I would like to give a special thanks to those of you who contributed this week, I’m very grateful for your support and don’t take it lightly.
See you Friday.