IS IT US OR THEM?

“Orozco’s despair was not just in finding himself poor, but in discovering that effort, honest intentions, and gentlemanly status had nothing to do with sucess in a commercial economy.”
Timothy Brook, Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World

 

I grew up a punk rocker, drawn by the subculture’s promotion of a DYI ethos.  In the early to mid-seventies, punk was not the defined commercial entity that it is today. It was a giant tent, that allowed room for everyone to push back against mainstream culture in a manner they defined. it was a place where bands like Talking Heads and Ramones could co-exist. X and the Circle Jerks could rally under the same flag.  Suicide and the Pistols could share an audience. There was room for anyone, no matter their race, religion, or sexual orientation, looking to challenge the established rules.

Writers like William Burroughs gained audiences along with pioneers in the rock music critique field like Lester Bangs. Artists like Basquiat and Banksy sprung from the scene, and fashion exploded in all directions. Conflicting ideas were regularly put forth and debated to stand or fall on their merit. As a thirteen-year-old just coming of age, it was inspiring, and I embraced it all. Regaling in the opportunities provided.

Somewhere though it all shifted, and suddenly;y debates were springing up over what was considered “punk rock” and what wasn’t. If you wore Birkenstocks instead of Docs, you belonged to that other tribe. Denim jackets belonged elsewhere, as the punk rock rules required leather. And so it went. Codes and rules were drawn and ultimately poisoned what had previously been in my eyes, something truly special.

Of course, that’s a bit of oversimplification, but it’s undebatable that purity tests became the norm and the debates on punk/not punk raged out of control, poisoning the well in the process. Out of this was born my hatred for so-called purity tests. I never grasped why I couldn’t embrace both the Clash and Green Day, and I rejected anyone that implied I was less, or more, of punk for championing one over the other. To this day I love both.

Unfortunately, our society is employing purity tests with increasing regularity. Lines are being drawn between differentiating between us and them, and the only people vilified more than those in opposition, are the people that refuse to choose sides. Even as we espouse dedication to creating new critical thinkers, we are busy purging the ranks of such.

Over the weekend I came across a piece from the Washington Post that illustrated what I’m talking about. Author Brian Broome writes,

When I was a young boy in Ohio, my mother insisted that my siblings and I attend every service at our Baptist church, every week. That meant all day on Sundays and sometimes on Wednesdays for Bible study. She gave meaning to the phrase “full immersion” Baptist.

Sunday school was fun for me — up to a point. I liked to listen to the Bible stories, sing the songs and use the paper, paste and glitter to make art. But Sunday school stopped being fun about the same time I started to ask questions.

What first got me in trouble was asking where my dog, Brownie, was going to go when he died. I liked my dog; I wanted him to go to heaven. But my teacher dropped her chin, looked over her eyeglasses and told me that animals didn’t go to heaven. My dog had no soul, she said, so when he died, he’d just be dead.

This didn’t sit well with me, and so I asked more questions. After all, my dog was a “good boy” — just like me. My questions led to more questions from the other kids: “Why doesn’t God like dogs?” And: “How can God be so mean?” Soon, the teacher drew the line. She said my questions were laying the groundwork for me to go to hell. I shut up immediately.

That back and forth is not too different from where we now find ourselves in America. Our political parties have become rigid, unforgiving religious sects that will tolerate no second-guessing — unless we want to be shunned.

In looking at his credentials, it’s safe to say Boome is a credible voice trying to sound an alarm, His debut memoir, “Punch Me Up to the Gods,” is an NYT Editor’s Pick and the winner of the 2021 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction. In addition to The Post, his work has appeared in Poets and Writers, Medium and more. Broome has been a finalist in the Moth storytelling competition and won the grand prize in Carnegie Mellon University’s Martin Luther King Writing Awards. He also won a VANN Award from the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation for journalism in 2019. His film, “Garbage,” won the Audience Choice Award at the Cortada Short Fil.

This rigid thinking has slowly been seeping into our schools, but the introduction of partisan school board races has rapidly acerbated things. Just looking at Nashville, what should be a fairly pedestrian race has suddenly turned into a raucous affair. To the point of the Democrat party investing $70K into the race in order to secure victory for their candidates. That’s a lot of cabbage.

Not to be outdone, despite only having two candidates running for a seat on the MNPS School Board, the Davidson County Republicans have committed $100k to the race. This is like a bidding war for a Lambrogini with no wheels, as neither seems to recognize the limited influence school board members wield. Seldom does the Director of Schools consider members’ opinions before creating policy, and even if both Republican candidates were to win, their issues would never make it onto the agenda, due to the board being populated with Democrats. The money invested in this race would be better spent depositing it in my personal account.

With this heightening partisanship comes little foresight, everyone is so focused on winning today’s war that no one has time to consider how they are going to win the peace.

I’ve always argued that the true value of public education lies in giving children exposure to all layers of society in a safe environment. Rich kids attend school with poor kids. Kids with single parents attend school with those in two-parent households. White kids, Black kids, Hispanic kids, and Asian kids all populate the halls together in a public school. Kids are forced to learn to navigate relations with others that look, feel, and think differently in a controlled environment with limited risk. Upon graduation, they should be able to navigate a diverse society.

But somewhere along the line, we lost focus, and we reduced education to a numbers game. Learning is no longer about becoming a better citizen as it is about creating data points. Yes, reading is important but equally important is the ability to travel out of your comfort zone successfully. Without the ability to navigate the halls of society, you could be the greatest reader in the world and still face limited opportunities. Try as we might. life can not be reduced to a numeric formula. Excelling on a standardized test does not guarantee a pathway to success.

So what happens when these school board races end and whoever wins takes power? Do those that oppose the current practices and policies get welcomed back to the fold, or do we revel in our cleverness and continue to label them with names like “jackhammer parents”?

If somebody doesn’t start exercising some foresight, I’m going to tell you what is going to happen with all of this, and I say it with as much confidence as I’ve ever said anything, the exodus from public schools will only increase. There is not a parent in the world who will leave their child in a school where they don’t feel welcome, the child safe, and without adequate teachers. When push comes to shove, ideologies may still be spouted but actions will head in a different direction – out the door.

Look at your current favorite public education advocates and where their children attend schools. You might be surprised. Homeschooling, along with private and charter schools has all grown in viability. Getting rid of those trolls who would seek to inflict their world views on children might seem attractive, but try doing public schooling without the public. It’s a losing gambit.

Broome sums it up better than I can,

I remember a time when it was considered normal and healthy to criticize the political team to which one belonged. We didn’t take the words of any leader, regardless of party, as gospel. And even if people in the other party had different values and cultures, it didn’t mean you had grounds for a violent showdown. Now, the purity tests are everywhere and something akin to a loyalty code makes it taboo to question your own side or call attention to its weaknesses and contradictions.

We are no longer a country of give-and-take. We are a country torn apart by something closer to religious strife, where both sides demand devotion to doctrine and rough punishments await those who step out of line.

When I was growing up, my hometown had more churches than you could count. You could go to any one of them you liked. As often or as little as you wanted.

But now, only two churches remain. You probably go to one or the other. But you must attend all day, every day. There’s no escape from services anymore; church is always in session. And if you don’t like the teachings, you can either go along without question or your church might decide you’re no longer fit for membership.

HILLSDALE CONFUSION

In the wake of all the Hillsdale crises, there seems to be a bit of confusion. Let’s explore.

At the time of Larry Arnn making his controversial and offensive statements, there were three Hillsdale Schools awaiting approval from local districts in Tennessee – Rutherford, Jackson-Madison, and Clarksville-Montgomery. All three applications were rejected for various reasons.

The rejection of these three applications evoked a response from local media that indicated the three schools were intent on forcing the issue and were doing so in a nefarious manner. Per News 5’s Phil William, who broke the initial story on Hillsdale,

A controversial charter school network embraced by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee will attempt an end-run around local school boards that overwhelmingly rejected their applications.

Hillsdale College’s American Classical Academy filed an appeal Monday with the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission, asking the board to overrule the denial by the Jackson-Madison County Board of Education. Similar appeals are expected to be filed for charter schools in Rutherford County and Clarksville-Montgomery County.

Commission members are appointed by the governor.

First of all, of course, they are filing an appeal, because that’s what the system allows. That’s what every charter school does when rejected by the local school boards. While I’m certainly no fan of the legislation that established the State Charter School Commission, it is important to recognize that it was created out of a reaction to the perception that local boards were not giving applicants a fair shake. An argument that is not completely devoid of merit.

To repeat, I am not a fan of any legislation that mitigates control by local boards, but this is the process and much like vilifying parents who choose to send their children to charter schools, I find it hard to find fault with those who exercise opportunities provided by the system.

Yes, the commission members are appointed by the governor, and as such, probably suffer from some undue influence. However, the commission itself is staffed by employees and an executive Director in Tess Stoval who strive for independent review. You may not agree philosophically with Stovall, but by all accounts, given the limitations, she’s done well in managing the state’s charter school growth, both at the state board of education and now at the  Public Charter School Commission. Stovall has always been one to put processes over politics.

It’s also worth mentioning that Wendy Tucker, is a commission member. Wendy and I rarely agree on policy, but if you think she is rubber stamping anything for anybody, you are sadly delusional.

The review process is a lengthy one that could take up to 75 days, and by its own admission usually takes about all of that. During that time period, both LEAs and potential operators must submit extensive documentation to support their argument. Midway through the process is a mandated opportunity for public commentary. After all of this review, the Executive Director will produce a recommendation. While it is not required that the commission adheres to the ED’s recommendation, it’s preferable.

During last week’s streamed meeting, the commission discussed the political ramifications of Arnn’s untimely comments and reiterated their commitment to their process. it’s worth noting that the commission has only rendered three decisions in its brief existence. In the case of MNPS and Rutherford County, they sided with the charter operator. In Fayette County’s case, they upheld the LEA’s decision.

The Rutherford County appeal is going to be the most interesting of the three Hillsdale appeals. Back in January, the commission approved the application of Rutherford Collegiate Prep despite most members recognizing that they did not meet all the criteria. They did so out of concern over the review process conducted by the LEA. Tucker went as far as accusing RCS of playing “adult games” that resulted in making the process more difficult. The desire was to send a message that LEAs must conduct a clear and fair process, something they felt Rutherford County Schools did not do,

Commissioner Eddie Smith bluntly said, “Rutherford County Schools was not transparent and honestly just manipulated the system to try and cause this application to fail.”

By all accounts, that message was received and this time around, RCS ran the process as prescribed. So the question becomes, will the LEA be overruled even when they adhere to the expectations of the commission? Close attention needs to be paid here because should this school be approved despite RCS meeting all requirements, faith in the process will be seriously hindered in the foreseeable future.

We’ll know the answer to that one come October when the Public Charter School Commission is scheduled to next meet.

There is a lot about Hillsdale College to find objectionable, and hopefully, the public will remain vigilant in the ensuing months, but we do need to refrain from the hyperbolic. We need to remind ourselves that elections matter, and putting people in office that reflect our personal morals is essential. I would challenge lawmakers to revisit the commissioning of the Public Charter School Commission and determine whether there truly needs to be a means to override local desires. It’s not consistent with traditional conservative values, but under Governor Lee adherence to those values has ceased to matter.

I’m going to say it again, though I’ve said it a thousand times, preserving public education is not going to happen by playing defense only.

We keep playing not to lose, and it’s high time we start playing to win.

That means that all of our public schools are fully staffed with quality teachers and that students attending feel safe and their families feel welcome.

QUICK HITS

While surrounding districts are already heading back to classrooms, MNPS students still have another week. Teachers, however, report starting August 2nd. Those at 16 schools will be greeted by new administrators. Per The Tennessean, here is the list,

  • Fall-Hamilton Elementary School — Karen Bacigalupo
  • Head Magnet School — Kenyae Reese
  • Napier Elementary School — Whitney Russell
  • Nashville School of the Arts — Justin Thomas
  • Robert Churchwell Elementary — Kenneth Bonner, Jr.
  • Ruby Major Elementary — Jenna Hagen
  • Stratton Elementary — Joi Mitchell
  • Westmeade Elementary — Mattie Crumbo
  • Cora Howe School — Jon Mahaffey
  • Stratford STEM Magnet High School — Michael Pratt
  • John B. Whitsitt Elementary School — Molly Rucker
  • Cane Ridge Elementary — Chris Plummer
  • East Nashville Magnet School — Myra Taylor
  • Haynes Middle School — Debra Messenger
  • Jones Paideia Elementary — Tesia Wilson
  • Paragon Mills Elementary — Andy Lyons

JC Bowman the Executive Director & CEO of Professional Educators of Tennessee, has an op-ed out in today’s Tennessee Lookout on school safety. In his words,

One of the highest priorities we can have in American society is the safety and protection of children – and the people who teach them. Real lives, those of children and adults, are at stake in our schools. Schools must be safe zones for all students and teachers. This must be a priority.

 
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. I haven’t been to DGW in a while. Glad to be back and always appreciate your thoughtful commentary. Especially this: “Even as we espouse dedication to creating new critical thinkers, we are busy purging the ranks of such.”

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