A QUESTION OF INFLUENCE

“Don’t let us forget that the causes of human actions are usually immeasurably more complex and varied than our subsequent explanations of them.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot

“My life is full of broken halos.”
Keith Richards, Life

 

Yesterday an article came across my media reader that brought a smile to my normally dour face. It seems that Julian Vasquez Heilig is a finalist for the job of Commissioner of Education for the state of Kentucky. Ironically enough, Vasquez Heilig is also a major reason why you are reading these words today.

Back in 2012, or so, I was just dipping my toes in the waters of education advocacy. Julian was one of the first writers I discovered, along with a fellow out of Louisianna who worked for the state department of education named Crazy Crawfish, and I soaked up every word he wrote. I think at the time he was a researcher for Stanford University.

That Spring I had the opportunity to attend a weekend workshop sponsored by the Southern Education Foundation. In hindsight, that weekend changed the trajectory of my life. It was there I met many of the leading education advocates of today, including the Reverend Barber.  I’ll never forget the brief private conversation I had with the reverend in the lobby of the hotel as the weekend was winding down. Talk about inspirational.

One of the sole reasons for attending that weekend’s workshop was to meet Vasquez Heilig and I set out to do just that within minutes of arrival. Meeting him did not disappoint. The man is simply a rock star. In a room full of education advocacy superstars he shone brightest. Talking with him verified everything I was coming to believe.

As luck would have it, Vasquez Heilig and Crazy Crawfish were friends and I found myself deep in a three-way conversation with the two. After talking philosophy for a while Julian asked, “Why don’t you start your own blog.”

“I’ve thought about that, but would anybody read it?”

His answer was basically, don’t think about that, just do it. Just start writing. And so I did.

Shortly after returning from the weekend workshop, the first Dad Gone Wild was launched.

I haven’t really interacted with Dr. Vasquez Heilig since, other than a few brief social media exchanges, but I’ve followed his career from afar as he’s continued to surge ever upward. I hope he’s chosen as Kentucky’s Education Commissioner. Not just because the man is an incredible mind, but for selfish reasons as well – I’d be cool to say I was encouraged to begin my foray into writing by the Commissioner of Education for the state of Kentucky. Who knows, he may rise even higher.

MORE BITS AND PIECES

Information about the opening of school for Metro Nashville Public Schools continues to be parsed out. Yesterday, at his twice-weekly press conference, Mr. Cooper announced that Nashville would be moving back from phase 3 in the re-opening plan to a modified phase 2. This comes after many people questioned the initial move from phase 2 to 3 despite failing to meet the qualifications previously laid out to warrant such a move. They argued, not wrongly, that the criteria indicated that the city sound have remained in stage 2.

For my part, I’m not sure why you even create four stages if you are not going to adhere to the criteria set for each and if you are going to just manipulate data in order to create phase 3.1 and 2.5. The only answer that comes to mind is politics. But that’s another argument for another day, but one we will revisit in a minute.

Coupled with an earlier week announcement by Tennessee Governor Lee that he was extending his state emergency order to August 29, questions about the start of school on August 4 suddenly took on heightened urgency. In response, MNPS Director of Schools Dr. Adrienne Battle released a statement that said…absolutely nothing. It hinted at increased emphasis on remote learning but gave little detail. It went on to promise more answers next week. All in all, a press release that failed to inspire anything but more speculation by stakeholders, never a good thing.

Later in the day, MNPS confirmed that they were not considering pushing back the start of school until after Labor Day. A position that makes no sense to me, I understand the urgency of getting kids back to school, but that should be matched by a commitment to getting their return right. And at present, there are scant details on a strategy that must be implemented in less than a month.

To date, there has been no formal training for teachers in remote teaching by the district. We are unsure of how many laptops will even be available by August and even if they came in today, preparation and distribution by MNPS IT would take a herculean effort in order to have the district even partially outfitted by August. Furthermore, no training for families and students in the nuances of distance learning has been offered by the district either. The general assumption seems to be, turn on the computer, start teaching and learning will automatically commence. It’s a little more difficult than that.

Supposedly yesterday the Mayor’s advisory board for the re-opening of schools met to formulate plans. The board is made up of government and health officials along with representatives from private schools, charter schools, and MNPS. To my knowledge, unless they’ve been recently added, not a single school board member sits on this advisory council. Think about that for a second, not a single member elected by the city to oversee the governance of the city’s public schools sits on the advisory committee to re-open public schools. Seems counter-intuitive, no?

The gathering of MNPS with representatives from private schools and charter schools makes a wonderful political photo op, but let’s recognize something – neither of the latter two would even exist if all parties considered public education valuable. Both private and charter schools were born out of the belief that public schools were incapable of adequately serving the public? In that light, what would lead anyone to believe that they would align themselves in equity with MNPS? Just because you are an institution in Nashville that educates children does not mean that you all serve the same purpose.

Again, while I understand the political posturing, I’m not even sure why this advisory committee exists in the form it does. Nashville already has an advisory body charged with overseeing the city’s public schools. It’s a representative body whose members are elected by the city at large to oversee the operations of MNPS. The city’s charter clearly lays out the roles of both the city government and the elected school board, and it clearly states that the former should have no authority over the latter.

Unfortunately part of the blame lies at the feet of MNPS’s current board, whose members who have abdicated their responsibility by recently passing a resolution – albeit one that is non-binding – promising to adhere to the “Nashville Plan” in re-opening schools. A plan that is crafted by a national organization contracted through a non-bid process by the mayor and shaped by an advisory board with no school board representation. Anybody smell a problem?

Yes, we are in the midst of a pandemic that comes with unprecedented challenges. Yes, the school board should work with the mayor’s office, metro council, and the health department in order to make the most informed decision possible. Yes, the mayor should be allowed to advocate for a course of action that meets his vision for the city. But ultimately the decision to open schools should lay in the hands of those charged by the city’s citizens to set the best course for the city’s schools.

Instead, school board members are left to join their constituents in speculating on the best course for schools. At a recent election forum, board members Christiane Buggs and Freda Player-Peters – both of whom are running unopposed in the upcoming August election – voiced skepticism at MNPS’s ability to stick to their scheduled August 4th opening,

“With the limited budget that we have, I don’t think it’s realistic to think that we will have the resources to bring students in and to make them safe and to make our staff safe,” Buggs said. “We have adults who are members of the vulnerable populations, just like we have children who are. I think if we had more resourcing, quite possibly, but as it stands, no.”

Here’s a news flash, unlike the rest of us, Buggs and Player-Peters have the ability to influence the development of district strategies. If they are skeptical about the opening date and it’s related plan, why are they not voicing their concerns at board meetings? If their constituents are concerned about the district plan, don’t they have a duty to bring those concerns to the table? By publicly voicing their concerns about the opening of schools, aren’t they effectively undercutting the director of schools who has emphatically stated that MNPS has a plan that will effectively allow for the opening of schools on the prescribed date? If over 20% of the board is not convinced that the district has the viable means to open schools, shouldn’t there be a public discussion about moving the start day back?

The Mayor, as overseer of the city, is susceptible to political pressure from many different sources. Many of whom don’t have the best interests of Nashville’s children, teachers, and families, as a priority. I get it that there is a multitude of reasons why the mayor needs schools to open, but that is exactly why the city’s charter was crafted as it was, to keep its governance free of political influence. The MNPS school board’s only interest should be in doing what’s best for the stakeholders in MNPS. If that aligns with the mayor’s vision, all the better. If it doesn’t then they must honor their elected duties and due what is best for Nashville’s school system. But in order to serve their elected duty, they have to remain empowered.

SCHOOL BOARD ELECTION

Have you ever had two friends, both of whom you had a deep affection for, suddenly start flirting with each other? Knowing both of them, you knew that if they got together, it would be a disaster for everyone, but out of respect for all involved, you kept your mouth shut. As a result, they hooked up and as predicted, chaos ensued. That’s the quandary I face with John Little’s pursuit of Anna Shepherd’s recently vacated District 5 school board seat.

I consider Little a friend. He once delivered valuable basketball insight to my son and I’ve enjoyed many a pleasant conversation with him over the years. But when it comes to education policy, we are as diametrically opposed as possible and have often found ourselves on opposing sides in relation to proposed policy.

Little is a social justice warrior who has done tremendous work, he’s overcome early life challenges to create a company that serves to advise political candidates and fights for racial justice. Unfortunately, few of those candidates have held positions that are beneficial to public education. Be it Charles Bone, or LEAD Charter School founder Jeremy Kane, Little’s client’s have consistently advocated for the increased privatization of public schools. Be it through charter schools, Teach For America, or other efforts.

Little has been instrumental in the founding of PROPEL, the Nashville parent advocacy organization that grew out of Memphis LIFT. The organization, who received start-up money from the Scarlett Foundation, provides a valuable voice in the city’s public education conversation, but let’s not forget the role played by former Achievement School District head Chris Barbic and his wife Natasha Kamrani played in the establishment of PROPEL. Both are personal and professional relations of Little and have long worked towards the dismantling of public education.

Little often mentions Barbic as a guiding influence on his career. Barbic, after failing to produce promised results with the ASD, promptly joined the Reed Hastings and former Enron official John Enron’s financed City Fund, an organization dedicated to the destruction of public education. Upon inception, the Fund’s Managing Partner, and Barbic friend, Neerav Kingsland declared that the fund will help cities across America institute proven school reform successes such as increasing “the number of public schools that are governed by non-profit organizations.” Hello Scarlett Foundation and EduTrust.

Is it really a conspiracy theory when they tell you they are conspiring against you? Barbic seems an odd mentor for someone pursuing a seat on the school board.

The chair position on MNPS School Board is expected to be passed from its current occupant, charter school opponent Amy Frogge, to either Gini Pupo-Walker a supporter of charters schools or Christiane Buggs who has been ambivalent toward charter schools. With the departure of Frogge and Speering, there are few board members who will defend the district against the proliferation of charter schools. Adding Little will tilt the balance of the board even further.

In addition to Little, Metro Council has the option of three candidates who have extensive experience as educators, ones who I would argue are more qualified then Little. When presented with the opportunity last Fall to place an educator on the board, the council instead opted to appoint a political insider instead. Little through his work, has collected considerable political debts. The question is, will the city’s politicians choose to now pay off those debts or will they instead choose to do what’s best for kids and appoint an experienced educator to the board. We’ll know in two weeks.

QUICK HITS

Last week the Tennessee Department of Education announced the US Department of Education had approved the state’s plan, Strengthening Career and Technical Education in Tennessee, which will provide $110 million over four years in federal funds to implement CTE at the K-12 and postsecondary levels in Tennessee. The department also announced more than $3 million in Perkins Reserve Grants to 44 school districts for the 2020-21 school year. What that actually meant has proven to be a bit of a headscratcher to the state’s education advocates who are still trying to decipher the TNDOE press release. To me, it reads like the further expansion of STEAM education across the state, but I’m not sure.

Has anybody seen TNDOE Human Capital head honcho David Donaldson of late? The once-ubiquitous social media presence has been strangely quiet over the past few weeks. Is it time to put his picture on a milk carton? Asking for a friend.

When my wife first became pregnant, the best advice we received was to buy diapers and formula every time we went to the store. Stack them in the garage and when the baby arrived, we’d be thankful. This is probably good advice for parents of MNPS students. Every time you go to the store pick up some extra hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies. Come Fall, your kid’s schools are going to need them. Some advocate warn that this might send the wrong message and serve to let politicians off the hook and I don’t disagree, but we can stand on principle or face reality.

Need to give some props to MNPS’s Director of Schools Adrienne Battle. This week one of the district’s new principal hires started their tenure by releasing 3 120-day contract interventionists, who were considered vital to the school’s success, prior to even introducing themself.  In fact, the three interventionists and most of staff had yet to receive any communication from the new principal. The reaction by the school’s staff was swift and predictable. Imagine your reaction if the first interaction with your new boss was through the termination of valued team members.

When word reached Battle’s ear, the decision was quickly reversed and the interventionists reinstated. Even if the move by the principal was the right move, and by all accounts it wasn’t, the first interaction shouldn’t include terminations. Sets the entirely wrong tone for the year. That’s the kind of staff support that hasn’t been seen in a long time and deserves recognition.

Teacher PD on the district’s recently adopted controversial curriculum Wit and Wisdom has been halted due to the effects of the coronavirus and the possible impact on schools re-opening. Indications are that the district will delay the purchase of Wit and Wisdom materials as well. While this is welcome news, it comes a bit, and only after the curriculum department, despite repeated warnings, chose to waste the time of teachers and valuable district resources. Teachers were paid $85 a day to train in Wit and Wisdom, money that could have been spent of training in distance learning practices.

This past week the Supreme Court served a ruling that impacts the funding of religious schools with taxpayer money. There is a lot to unpack in this ruling and since nobody unpacks better then Peter Green, I turn it over to him. Green writes,

Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue has further extended the precedent set by Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, a case that for the first time required “the direct transfer of taxpayers’ money to a church.” Historically, the free exercise clause of the First Amendment has taken a back seat to the establishment clause; in other words, the principle was that the government’s mandate to avoid establishing any “official” religion meant that it could not get involved in financing religious institutions, including churches or church-run private schools.

To get the full picture, I suggest you read the full article.

That’s it for now. May you have a glorious and safe Fourth. We’ll see you on Monday.

Till then, if you’re looking for a smile, check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page, where we work to accentuate the positive.

If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to deliver is always welcome.

A huge shout out to all of you who’ve lent your financial support. I am eternally grateful for your generosity. It allows me to keep doing what I do and without you, I would have been forced to quit long ago. It is truly appreciated and keeps the bill collectors happy.

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 non-existent. Not begging, just saying.

Make sure you don’t leave before answering this week’s poll questions.

 



Categories: Education

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