WHO’S REALLY CALLING THE SHOTS?

“Trust the story … the storyteller may dissemble and deceive, the story can’t: the story can only ever be itself.”
James Robertson, And the Land Lay Still

 

In the Spring, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a new funding formula for the state’s public schools. It became law after a contentious debate, only exacerbated by the lack of concrete details in the proposed legislation.  Commissioner Schwinn and Governor Lee designated the rule-making process to provide those details. That process has officially kicked off.

Per the TNDOE press release.

The TISA Act specifically requires rulemaking in certain areas to further flesh out the law, define terms, and establish processes and procedures for funding disbursements. In alignment with the funding review engagement process, which generated over 1,000 comments, the department will collect public feedback and input that will strengthen the proposed rules that will accompany the statute and ensure its alignment as the state transitions to a student-centered K-12 public education funding formula.

Am I the only one unimpressed that a change in funding policy for a system that serves over a million students only garners 10000 public comments?

It becomes even less impressive when you include the large investment in public educatuon required by local municipalities. Nashville citizens might be surprised to discover that nearly 45% of their local tax dollars go towards funding the city’s public schools.

It’s a number that is growing in spite of the number of students served by MNPS dwindling. According to Axios, MNPS enrollment is down 14% over the last decade. A number that seems to concern everybody but MNPS School Board members and administrators. Despite a lack of evidence, they cling to the belief that numbers will magically rebound if they just keep doing the same old, same old.

To date, there has not been one robust board floor conversation discussing where the students have gone, and how to get them back. To be fair, many families have decided to enroll in a charter school option, Those numbers have grown from 3,251 students in 2012 to 12,926 this year. Not an insubstantial jump, especially considering the supposed public disdain for charter schools.

Though not nearly as much of the conversation as warranted, homeschooling numbers also continue to grow. To what extent is not readily known, but anecdotally, it is significant.

Now that Governor Lee’s voucher scheme has cleared a number of legal hurdles, expect to see a  growth in private school offerings. Personally, I’m not taking the Hillcrest College threat seriously, I believe that was a brushfire setting in order to get folks focused on shiny objects ensuring smooth passage of TISA. But I’m certain that there will be a growth in private school offerings facilitated by Governor Lee’s school funding change.

The switch to TISA was touted as producing a more transparent process since it made it possible for every parent to immediately know the amount of funding dedicated to their child. By now though you should know, that when a politician or bureaucrat talks about transparency, it’s not unlike McDonalds talking about the nutritional value of their offerings.

Before you counter-argue, read the proposed rules and then tell me how an average parent is expected to navigate this process with any clear understanding.?

Into the breach have rushed a plethora of non-profit advocacy groups standing ready to help parents understand the proposed rules, at least in how they align with their personal agenda. In fact, the whole process creates an advantage for those supposed non-profits to influence rules over the average parent. Quite simply it’s a rigged game and not one that favors students and their families. Despite all the talk about equity, it all becomes more inequitable by the moment.

It’s for this reason that school boards were created. Hypothetically, they are designed to represent families and protect their interests, due to them being democratically elected officials. But what happens when a board member is equally invested in protecting the interests of private entities over the system itself?

MNPS offers several examples of what I am talking about.

Let’s start with board member Gini Pupo-Walker. Midway through her term,, Walker took a position with Education Trust as their first state director. Not a problem, as Walker represents the most impoverished and diverse district in the city. One whose needs and desires readily align with her advocacy role at Education Trust. Unfortunately, that is not true.

Walker’s district is the most affluent in the city, and their needs don’t often align with the agenda of Education Trust. Making things even more questionable is the access afforded Walker by her school board role She serves as head of the board’s government relations committee and is thus afforded access that arguably makes her more effective as EDTrust’s state director. When push comes to shove, who’s agenda is favored and whose needs fall to the back?

No need to speculate because evidence abounds that serves to answer that question..

During the introduction of TISA legislation, it was the position of Nashville’s Mayor Cooper, the city council, and MNPS leadership that TISA was a bad hand for Metro Schools. It was not a position shared by Mrs. Pupo-Walker.

Education Trust was very much a proponent of the change in the funding formula. They put money awarded by the Gates Foundation – also a proponent – and used it to champion the change despite the fact that Nashville’s students and families would subsequently be at a disadvantage.

In fact, EdTrust signed a letter of support, with Walker adding her own name to the roster demanding passage. So much for protecting the interests of her constituents.

But now, as the rule-making process begins, she’s back at it again, releasing a Tessesean editorial that touts TISA as a win for students, and discounts any possibility of the formula facilitating the expansion of the state’s voucher program.

The new system, called the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement, will be a weighted student funding formula —one that begins with a clear dollar amount for every student and increases that amount with “weights,” or percentage boosts, for students in particular categories, such as students who have low-income backgrounds, disabilities, are learning English or live and learn in sparse or small districts. This kind of formula ensures that students are the focus, provides flexible dollars and allows districts to decide how to expend funds to meet students’ needs, rather than prescribing classroom or instructional ratios, as our current formula, the Basic Education Program, has done for decades. Additionally, the state made a historic $750 million investment this year in public education. All in all, this is a huge win for students in Tennessee.

Now, don’t you think if any of that was true, Nashville officials would have been 100% on board?

A primary concern for critics, beyond the cost to urban districts, is that by assigning a dollar figure to every student, it’s easy to start awarding vouchers. Mrs. Pupo-Walker doesn’t agree. In fact, she figures anyone who raises that concern, is in actuality working against students.

Debates about how best to support students are important, so we’ll be clear about our position: The Education Trust does not believe that ESAs or school vouchers are an effective way to provide our students access to a top-quality education. But we also believe that the conversation is getting muddied by those drawing a false connection between TISA and the governor’s ESA plan. Weighted student funding is about students — not about school choice.

Bullshit. Few parents are capable of actually looking at student funding and determining if it is adequate. Do we need to spend $15K on an impoverished EL student with signs of dyslexia who lives in a rural district, as opposed to just $8k on a student who has no recognized learning challenges? I don’t know. But I do know that not a single parent is going to accept the perception that their child deserves less than another child. Ain’t happening, and if the state’s public schools are not addressing this perceived disparity, there are options that will. Hence the tie to school choice,

Normally, I wouldn’t share as much of a ludicrous argument, but in this case, because Walker’s argument is so flawed, it’s vital,

That these two policies are not connected is evidenced by a look at school fundingand ESA programs around the country. For example, West Virginia has a school funding formula based on teacher units, similar to Tennessee’s Basic Education Program. But their formula did not prevent the state from enacting what the pro-school-choice group EdChoice calls the country’s most expansive ESA program. Tennessee already had the Individualized Education Account program, a form of ESA for students with disabilities, well before TISA passed.

Meanwhile, most states with weighted student funding systems — including Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas, among others — have no ESAs at all. Mississippi, which has a partial weighted student funding structure, does have an ESA program for a limited number of students, but the dollar value of the ESA bears no relationship to a student’s formula amount, and state law actually specifies that the ESA may not be resourced out of the state’s main funding formula. Just four states with student-based funding systems — Arizona, Florida, Indiana and New Hampshire — have ESAs whose funding levels are related to the formula calculation. A student-based funding system is not a prerequisite for an ESA policy and rarely exists alongside one.

Walker’s whole position is rooted in the false equivocation that all these states share identical circumstances. It’s utter bullshit and fails to take into consideration that Tennessee at the bare minimum, has a governor that has publically voiced and demonstrated his deep commitment to the growth of school choice. Something that goes completely unacknowledged in Walker’s op-ed.  Sometimes we have to listen to what people say, as opposed to what we want them to say.

Her tenure ends in September – so some would be affable to turning a blind eye -but until then she is free to use her pulpit to continually push the agenda of her employer over those she was elected to represent.  In fact, I would argue that the pending resignation emboldens her to serve other masters rather than those who elected her. Actions that hurt public school kids.

Recently when the conversation over extending the contract of MNPS’s Dr. Battle contract 2 years ahead of expiration came up, she declared, “I’m ready to vote right now.”

But of course, she was. It provided her the opportunity to reward a long-time friend, while not making her accountable for any future complications. The power she conceded by removing the only leverage the board has, wouldn’t be available to her after September anyways. So what if she was hamstringing future board members, it wasn’t going to affect her. Given the opportunity to do the right thing, Walker almost always chooses the one that best serves her.

To quote Maya Angelou, “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.”

But she is not alone. MNPS is currently facing several challenges with its middle schools. Always a difficult proposition, this year has seen several cases of malfeasance. Multiple instances show a school community deeply dissatisfied with the direction of their schools.  In one case, Oliver Middle School stakeholders banded together and scheduled a community meeting in order to discuss problems.

Over the past year, the school has been beset by a teacher being arrested for inappropriate contact with a student and an incident with a gun being brought to school. In addition, 24 teachers have left the school this year, including 4 band leaders. For those not familiar with Oliver, the band is among the best in the state and a deep source of pride for the school community. It serves as an attraction for local families that may have concerns about choosing a traditional option. All of these seem like legitimate concerns, and therefore elected officials, and candidates, at both the city district and school level were invited to discuss them. So how did they respond?

In the case of board member Rachael Elrod, it was with a lengthy Facebook post that encouraged community members to not attend the community meeting, and to wait for the district sanctioned one scheduled for sometime in mid-July, two weeks before the start of school,

Lastly, I have been informed that a parent called a meeting tomorrow night at church in the area to discuss Oliver Middle. Unfortunately, the school nor MNPS was included in the scheduling of that meeting. While I try to be as available as possible to everyone in my district, I’m not available attend tomorrow. Several weeks ago, I committed to attend a city-wide school board candidate forum with TIRRC that will discuss issues important to students and parents in my district and South Nashville. To my knowledge, no one from MNPS is attending tomorrow’s meeting because they were no longer available either when we learned of it last week. I know many parents and parent groups have not been aware of this meeting and over the past few days there has been some confusion about its creation, content, and purpose. I cannot answer those questions. I am not involved in the meeting being held tomorrow and there is no agenda for it. Last week, when we learned of it, the organizer was made aware that key MNPS staff nor myself could attend and that we were announcing the upcoming MNPS Oliver community meeting this week.
I wish this was not confusing for Oliver families. I am frustrated that families will make time to attend tomorrow’s meeting, expecting direct information and/or something actionable, only to be met by a panel that consists of a candidate for school board and a supporting councilmember – neither of whom are involved in MNPS nor Oliver and they have no ability to provide any meaningful insight nor assistance. That is not helpful to those that attend, nor will it benefit students or programming. Additionally, asking MNPS and/or school leadership to attend a panel in the same capacity or manner as a school board candidate puts MNPS in an unnecessary and inappropriate political position. This is especially true when encouraged to not speak if in attendance. (FYI: Mr. Edward Arnold was not invited. He has run for the seat more than once, so he’s well documented as a candidate. According to TIRRC’s event information, he will be attending their meeting like me.)
Once again, instead of responding to constituents’ expressed concerns, a board member treated them as something to manage and not people to partner with. In reality the meeting in question turned out to be quite informative and not the rauces bitch session alluded to by Ms. Elrod.
If only Mrs. Elrod could be considered an outlier, but the response from MNPS’s Chief of Schools Mason Bellemy was equally tone-deaf,
Thank you for reaching out with your concerns regarding Oliver Middle School. We appreciate your willingness to convene stakeholders at the same time, however, the Support Hub can more adequately address concerns specific to each student’s experience with each family. While we are not able to accept your invitation, we are committed to hearing the concerns, suggestions, and needs of MNPS families in several ways. Direct communication with the school administration is always encouraged first, but parents are always welcome to call the family information center to be directed to the appropriate department depending on the nature of your concern. Additionally, families may email the Executive Director of Middle Schools, Dr. Craig Hammond, to correspond through email or set a time for an appropriate follow-up as needed. Principal Wilson, in conjunction with Dr. Hammond, will be scheduling an information night for parents later this summer. We look forward to updating the Oliver community at that time regarding the plans for ensuring Oliver experiences continued greatness. We greatly appreciate the passion and dedication of Oliver Middle School parents, and we look forward to working with you to continue pursuing excellence at Oliver Middle School next year and for years to come.

Ironically, one of the district’s primary objectives is one of “every child is seen.” Does either response indicate a fidelity to that to that objective? Or even an element in creating a culture that valued parent voice?

Parent voice gets a bad knock these days. But despite all the noise, I would argue that all parents really want is assurance that their children are attending a school that is safe, values them, and is providing meaningful education. Address those issues and most parents will default to the public option. Ignoring them, and belittling their concerns spur parents in the opposite direction.

What if both Bellemy and Elrod had responded by acknowledging the deep commitment of the community to its schools as demonstrated by their willingness to hold independent meetings to address challenges in more than a perfunctory manner? What if in declining to attend they asked that the organizers take detailed notes, in order to streamline future conversations? What if the district would have taken those notes, researched the issues, and come back with responses at the July meeting?

I said this earlier, but it bears repeating, that no parent is going to leave their child in a school that they feel is not adequately meeting the needs of their children. One sure way to give the perception of underserving students is to ignore parents. Instead of acting like parents don’t have options and expressing gratitude for parents choosing district options, a sense of obligation is often expressed. As if parents have no choice, and are obligated to send their children to district-run schools. That’s not exactly how it works in today’s world.

Most parents have multiple options. Some may not be as convenient as the district-run schools, but we all love a story about parents sacrificing to ensure that their child gets the education they deserve. Don’t think that more parents won’t follow suit if issues remain unaddressed.

My last warning before closing. The squeaky wheel often gets attention, but in this case, it’s the silent wheel I would be concerned with. If I am willing to attend an independent meeting, facilitated by other parents, odds are I firm;y vested in the system. But just like parents are under no obligation to attend district-run schools, neither are they required to justify their choice, They will just quietly find other options, and eventually, only those with no other options will be left in our public schools.

QUICK HITS

The exit door at MNPS continues to revolve. Strafford principal Mike Steel has announced his intent to relocate to Maury County. While admittedly not everybody’s cup of tea, he could be a little rough around the edges at times, Steel has served admirably in a challenging leadership role. His will be hard shoes to fill and we wish him luck with his new assignment. So long and thanks for the fish.

Last week it was announced that board members Fran Bush, Amy Frogge, and Jill Speering won their lawsuit against Metro schools and former director Shawn Joseph, This was the second ruling in favor of the three, but leaves the door open for yet another appeal by Joseph. The question that is going unasked, is how much is all this costing Metro taxpayers? The board has yet to be briefed on the ruling or how much has been spent defending the interests of the former superintendent. If Joseph decides to pursue another appeal, it wouldn’t be on his dime, but rather on that of Nashville taxpayers.

This all becomes relevant because of the contract extention recently given to Director Battle. An extension that was crafted, and promoted, by the same board member who crafted Dr. Joseph’s contract, Dr. Sharon Gentry. Did she once again put Nashville taxpayers at risk? If you don’t ask questions about the past, how can you protect the future?

That’s it for today,

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

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Categories: Education

1 reply

  1. Provocative article! Thanks.

    ROFL at: “But despite all the noise, I would argue that all parents really want is assurance that their children are attending a school that is safe, values them, and is providing meaningful education. Address those issues and most parents will default to the public option. Ignoring them, and belittling their concerns spur parents in the opposite direction.”

    Gosh, I want that for my kids too. And while we’re at it: world peace, an end to hunger, and most importantly, reduced CO2 concentration back to the levels of 1750. “That’s all I want … really…” 🙂 It’s hilarious.

    I’ll have more to say (and do) in August 🙂

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