ELECTIONS MATTER, OR DO THEY?

“The important thing to know about an assassination or an attempted assassination is not who fired the shot, but who paid for the bullet.”
Eric Ambler, The Mask of Dimitrios

 

Yesterday was Election Day in Tennessee and today the sun rises on an MNPS School board with three new members…sort of.

In what’s being touted as a crushing and sweeping victory by the city’s Democrats, those with a “D” behind their name won all four races, by a large margin, I guess it’s perfectly within your rights to claim a significant victory when you sink $70K into the race with a week left in early voting, so kudos to them.  I would argue that it is more of a victory of the politically connected over the political novices.

All 4 races were won by candidates with significant political connections. Two of the four, Cheryl Mayes and Dr. Berthena Nabaa-McKinney previously served on the school board. Erin O’Hara Block worked extensively for the TNDOE and recently for Vanderbilt. Incumbent Rachael Anne Elrod handily defeated her opponent, an insurance salesman. Tip of the hat to Elrod, she actually increased her vote totals this year over her initial run in 2018, despite a prevailing perception of her as being vulnerable. In other words, don’t always believe the hype.

It’s worth considering when looking at vote totals, recognizing that this was Nashville’s first partisan school board election, that while overall numbers were down considerably, Democrat turnout in Davidson County ran approximately  2-1 over Republicans. Ballot distribution in the school race would seem to support those numbers, as winners won by nearly a 2-1 ratio in every race.  In other words, instead, of using an “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” miney moe strategy, voters went straight party. Draw district lines however you want, Nashville is still s Democrat stronghold.

The danger here remains in what happens after the election, and I would caution against too much political party chest-thumping. Losing candidates garnered nearly 11K votes. If you consider that even a quarter of those have kids enrolled in MNPS, it’s not an insubstantial number. What is their reaction to their candidate loss going to be? Will they still feel served by the city’s schools?

As with most campaigns, some extremely vitriolic language was directed at opponents and their supporters.  A vote for any of the losing candidates was advertised as a move to turn our schools over to Trump-loving religious zealots. A strategy that makes for great political hay, but doesn’t help in fostering cooperation.

NEWS Flash: There are a considerable number of parents of children who attend MNPS who love Trump, for various reasons. I don’t get it, but there is a lot about the general public I don’t get. But unless we are proposing a name change for our education system to “We hate Trump” schools, we are going to have to reach a point of acceptance.

There is also a number who don’t like Trump but aren’t comfortable with some of the current practices of MNPS. That category I understand.

When your party loses a national election, or local, odds are you ain’t moving because of it – though the number of exceptions to that rule has been growing over the last several years, so that reaction should not be completely disregarded, but it is still unlikely.  With schools, it’s a bit different. Change is getting easier every day.

Options have been growing exponentially over the last 2 decades. Home school numbers are at an all-time high, while charters and private schools continue to take a bigger bite out of the traditional public schools. MNPS enrollment is down 14% over the last decade. Now vouchers are looming on the horizon.

Even as enrollment declines, the cost for those enrolled is increasing. This year the MNPS budget cracked a billion dollars, an unprecedented number. While this year’s increased numbers were warranted due to failures to keep salaries competitive, how much higher can that number go before taxpayers start to balk? I would argue that MNPS can ill afford to lose any more students and initiatives to heal any rifts should commence immediately.

I’ve said it a thousand times and I’ll say it a thousand more, no parent in the history of parents is going to leave their child in a school where they don’t feel welcome and where the child is perceived as not being well served. Ain’t happening.

Now granted some parents have what might be described as unreasonable expectations, but I would counter, how do we define unreasonable? Furthermore, would anybody argue that MNPS is truly making every effort to consider those expectations before dismissing them?

Public schools are designed to bring us all under one umbrella. A place where families and students of all religions, ethnicity, and economic status can come together and learn to interact. Failing to adequately prepare kids to navigate society is every bit as much of a failure as not teaching them math and reading. For the 12 years of their schooling, we preach the value of diversity while preparing them to live in a homogenous bubble.

So what is Nashville getting when the new school board is seated come September? There has long been a voiced desire by some to have a board that all sing from the same hymn book, one that is never contentious, and serves primarily in a support role. Indications are that this board will meet that description.

Gone are the voices that will publicly challenge Dr. Battle. In private that may be a different story, but publicly it will be a polite body, though polite does not always translate into efficient or successful. I suspect that the lack of public challenge will allow Battle to act increasingly independent of board influence. Armed with a 4-year contract extension and devoid of any real oversight, why should she operate any differently?

The Meharry contract will likely be swept under the rug despite this recent comment from the TN Comptrollers office, ‘At a minimum, MNPS should evaluate its business decisions and contractual arrangements to ensure it is getting the lowest price possible for goods and services rendered.”

Don’t hold your breath for a true evaluation of Dr. Battle’s performance either. One has yet to be conducted, and I can’t see this board pushing the issue.

To be fair, a board free of any distractions may prove to be…I don’t know…optically better and thus giving staff and families a deeper sense of stability? I don’t know.

For now, congratulations to the winners and let’s see what happens. After the last Election Day, Denver public schools thought it was getting a kinder, gentler, less contentious school board. That’s not quite what has taken shape. Per Chalkbeaat,

This board was expected to be more unified than any in recent history because all members were backed by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and pledged a new approach after more than a decade of education reform policies. But over the past six months, board members have interrupted one another in meetings, raised their voices, and accused each other of gaslighting, misogyny, and playing the “oppression Olympics.”

Like the old saying says, “Man plans. God laughs.”

Before we move on, let’s take a quick look at some other election day outcomes and what they might mean.

Over in Williamson County, adjacent to Nashville, it was Republicans who swept the race. What that means is anybody’s guess. Governor Lee is a representative of Williamson County Republicans though he seldom governs as such.

I am sad to report that in Wilson County, long-time professional educator Dottie Critchlow lost her school board bid. Critchlow, a Democrat, faced fierce completion from the right, who succeeded in flipping the board to a 4-3 ultra-right advantage. Again, what does the victory and future hold for those whose candidates lost? The county’s close proximity to Nashville has helped it experience unprecedented growth over the last decade, I’m sure that some of those new residents fall to the left of the current board. Alternatives to the public system are currently scarce, I doubt that is a condition that will remain. As growth continues, so will options.

Two Representatives, Teri Lynn Weaver and Scott Cepicky were targeted by the governor due to their opposition to his education policies. For his part, Cepicky drew 4,732 votes, or 54.4%, while his opponent garnered 3,943 votes or 45.35% of the vote. Thus securing re-election and turning back the efforts of s a sitting governor. Weaver didn’t fare as well.

Weaver’s critics are celebrating her loss to Smithville businessman Michael Hale, but what they are slow to realize is that they’ve exchanged a representative they disliked, for one they are going to hate. Hale is a pro-choice guy, who stands in support of the governor’s voucher program. Weaver’s public opposition to vouchers contributed to her falling out of favor with Lee. That may become very important in the next legislative session.

Out in Memphis, there are considerable questions about Superintendent Joris Ray’s future. Currently serving a paid leave of absence while the board investigates questions around his allegedly having multiple affairs with district employees. Most consider him already on thin ice, but with the election of Keith Williams to the board, that ice got a whole lot thinner. Williams is purportedly not a fan of Ray or the teachers union. Things could get interesting in West Tennessee.

One last comment. my long-time friend Heidi Campbell is now the official Democrat candite for Congress in Tennessee’s 5th. She’ll be squaring off against Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles. Ogles had to survive a brutal primary race, while Campbell was unopposed in the primaries. Campbell and I don’t always see eye-to-eye but I know her to be a fair, honest, dedicated public servant, and I hope you’ll give her a good look come November. She’s a good egg.

TEACHER ATTRITION

Every year professional educator Peter Greene reprises a piece about the ever-growing teacher shortage. Greene argues that it’s wrong to view staffing problems as shortages,

You can’t solve a problem starting with the wrong diagnosis. If I can’t buy a Porsche for $1.98, that doesn’t mean there’s an automobile shortage. If I can’t get a fine dining meal for a buck, that doesn’t mean there’s a food shortage. And if appropriately skilled humans don’t want to work for me under the conditions I’ve set, that doesn’t mean there’s a human shortage.

He goes on to argue,

Calling the situation a “teacher shortage” suggests something like a crop failure or a hijacker grabbing truckloads before they can get to market. It suggests that there simply aren’t enough people out there who could do the job.

There is no reason to believe that is true. But pretending that it is true sets up justification for a variety of bad “solutions” to the shortage. “Since there aren’t enough teachers,” the reasoning goes, “then we might as well just let any warm body run a classroom.” So some states have adopted the idea of letting any person with any college degree take charge of a classroom. Computer-based learning systems are pitched in part as a way to “solve” the shortage of live humans to do the job. In some areas, charter schools have a particularly hard time filling positions with certified teachers, and so legislatures (like the one in New York), instead of saying, “Well, you’d better bend to free market forces and make a better offer,” offer to change the rules so that charters can hire folks who have no teaching credentials. Some folks have suggested that a single superteacher could handle an auditorium full of students or be piped into multiple distant classrooms via the internet without any loss of the quality that made them super. All of these choices are less than optimal.

in 2019, I agreed wholeheartedly. In 2022 things are starting to take on a different tint. If nobody is willing to invest in a Porsche for more than $1.98, eventually a company will stop producing Porsches. If people refuse to spend more than a dollar on a meal, eventually businesses will respond by producing meals that they can sell for a buck and make a profit. And if districts don’t want to change conditions in order to attract appropriately skilled humans, eventually those jobs will be filled by less skilled employees.

Nobody is going to stand around and wait a decade for pay and accompanying conditions to correct themselves, they are going to find a different profession. A different means to support their family. That whole concept of teachers only teaching because they are incapable of holding other jobs, doesn’t hold a lot of water. Furthermore, as exits grow, future generations are going to be less inclined to become appropriately skilled humans in order to pursue a teaching position. Why bother, when that training isn’t given much value by employers?

Per the Washington Post,

“I have never seen it this bad,” Dan Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association, said of the teacher shortage. “Right now it’s number one on the list of issues that are concerning school districts … necessity is the mother of invention, and hard-pressed districts are going to have to come up with some solutions.”

As conditions fail to change, like any other tree that doesn’t receive proper nourishment, the magic teacher tree will continue to bear less fruit, until it completely withers and dies. Anecdotal evidence, as well as declining numbers in teacher prep programs, serve as indicators that such whithering is already begun. As a result, we are moving into a place where there are not enough qualified humans interested in teaching as a career.

Per The Tennessean,

At the end of the 2019-20 school year, just about 3,034 future teachers graduated from one of these programs — down from 3,702 in 2016 (the first year the state board took over the report card).

Since 2011, the drop is even starker. In 2011, more than 5,000 future teachers graduated in Tennessee, despite fewer programs training future teachers a decade ago.

As those conditions fail to change, like any other tree that doesn’t receive proper nourishment, the magic teacher tree will continue to bear less fruit, until it completely withers and dies. Anecdotal evidence, as well as declining numbers in teacher prep programs, serve as indicators that such whithering is already begun. As a result, we are moving into a place where there are not enough qualified humans interested in teaching as a career.

Instead of addressing the issues around the diminished interest in teaching as a profession – discipline policies, autonomy, responsibilities, and time requirements, among others – districts like MNPS choose to play games with numbers. Principals are strongly encouraged to close posted positions that are unfilled in the week before school in an effort to paint a more positive picture.

Unfortunately, the challenge is continually growing and now encompasses substitutes, bus drivers, and other support staff. In a typical fashion, instead of addressing the existing crisis, the district just creates a new initiative – tutors. Nobody seems to question how MNPS will find 2K tutors when they can’t fill all of the existing current vacancies. Before we go searching for tutors shouldn’t we try and fill the 75 bus driver positions that are open? Or maybe the school nurses? It may be advertised that every school has a dedicated nurse, but closer inspection reveals a different story.

The point is, that all focus should be on recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers. To the exclusion of all else. At least in the near future.

I will continue to sound that clarion call that the number one issue facing schools is staffing. All else is immaterial if a child does not have a quality teacher in place. If data actually ever matches anecdotes, It’s going to take a decade to correct, or worse yet, we’ll be headed in an entirely different direction. To some that might sound attractive, but trust me, you won’t like the destination.

QUICK HITS

Has anybody seen or heard from Commissioner Schwinn? As turmoil swirls around charter schools and vouchers, and schools begin classes, she has been strangely absent from recent conversations. Much of her July was spent in D.C. touting her success with tutoring and the state’s new funding formula, although she was oddly absent from recently held public commentary sessions around rules for the new formula. It’s long been rumored that she would like to get out of Dodge due to a lack of interest in upcoming fights over charter schools and CRT. Most believe that her desired future is with the USDOE. Lee for his part has indicated that she remains firmly in the fold, but let’s see how heated the upcoming governor’s race gets.

One goes missing, while one resurfaces. Last year, Hamilton County Superintendent Bryan Johnson resigned his position with the district to take a job with a local trucking company. It was a bit of a head-scratcher, as most regarded Johnson’s star as being on the rise, and he was among a handful of education leaders in the state associated with Chiefs for Change, who has been the source for the last three state superintendents. Well, he may have resigned from the district but this week Johnson confirmed that he still maintains close ties with the Chiefs, releasing an op-ed piece touting the many successes of Commissioner Schwinn,

The progress is also a testament to the leadership of Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn and her team at the Department of Education. The department has taken a number of important steps that I believe contributed to the recent progress.

Hmmm…I’ll let you read it and draw your own conclusions.

Keep in mind when considering rising test scores from last year. Last year’s participation rates were lower than this year, in Nashville, there was a roughly 12% difference. Students were told prior to testing in 2021 that scores didn’t matter, so there was less incentive to take the test seriously. Most importantly students were back in class as opposed to the previous year, So the results serve as a source of optimism but let’s be slow to start crafting policy based on them.

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. with these elections nashville made its choice – hard left. out with independents in with dems.

    how will this play out as far as education quality? other examples say- not well.

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