“She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls. You must not complain, then, if she goes hunting.”
Alan Garner, The Owl Service


A great cry of joy arose across the land, Pitchforks were raised by town folks to the sky in celebration. The evil dragon had been defeated and chased deep into its lair. Peace and prosperity would not reign in perpetuity,

That’s the feeling one might get when reading the headlines that the three Hillsdale College-affiliated schools had withdrawn their applications of appeal to the state charter school commission. But is it really news worth celebrating? I’ll let you decide, but let me tell you a story.

Back in the early 80s, I was in high school living in the Poconos – the self-avowed Honeymoon Capitol of the World. While many of us saw pristine surroundings and were content with a robust economy fueled by the resort industry, outside forces saw an opportunity. An opportunity to bring even more money to their coffers by legalizing gambling. The locals did not share this vision, in fact, they hated the idea.

A referendum was introduced. It was a half-baked proposal – light on detail – to legalize gambling on a limited scale. The opposition reacted quickly and fiercely, mounting a campaign that eventually defeated the proposed legislation. Locals felt good about themselves, feeling like they’d scored a decisive victory against the evil empire. What they’d actually done was merely delay a foregone conclusion.

In hindsight, the early proposition performed exactly as expected by its proponents. I don’t think they ever expected the initial prop to pass, they just wanted to scare their opponents out of the bushes, so that they could be identified and courted over the next 4 years. That’s exactly what they did. A social program here, a modification of the law here, a church gymnasium there, all while appealing to elected officials behind the scene. Four years later they faced considerably less opposition, and today gambling in the Poconos operates at full-tilt boogie.

I was only 18 when I initially learned this lesson, but it is still applicable today, nearly 50 years later. Hillsdale College has tested the bathwater and found it to be a little hot. So now they add a little cold water and wait for it to cool down before they slide in and become fully immersed.

Unfortunately, the advantage here falls to Hillsdale, because of its ability to entertain a singular focus. The rest of us will become more occupied with personal matters, or slide on to other political battles, while their attention will remain affixed to the singular objective of establishing their brand in Tennessee. Whether that comes this year or in a decade is of little concern.

Props should go to Dolores Gresham – or whoever is writing her press releases. Gresham chairs American Classical Education’s board of directors. The former state senator is clearly seeing the big picture and is capable of long-range thinking. Per ChalkbeatTN,

“We believe, with complete conviction, that there will be many future opportunities in Tennessee as there are in most of America …,” Gresham said. “We look forward to applying for additional charter schools where local parents, teachers and students desire excellent education alternatives.”

It’s likely been realized that the possibility of overturning districts was likely, but that the cost of victory would have been exorbitant. The credibility of the newly formed charter commission would have been irreparably damaged and the introduction of legislation to decommission them would have become a legitimate threat,  The commission is in its infancy and thus has no capacity to withstand the scrutiny that would have accompanied any decision they rendered. Thus necessitating a retreat for the greater good.

House Education Chair, and parental choice advocate, Mark White recognized this fact when he told Chalkbeat, “I believe this to be a good decision by Hillsdale charters at this time due to the events this past summer,” Back in August he bemoaned, “It’s set us back years,”

Gresham, White, and others that share a vision of school choice, need a strong state charter commission if their dreams of charter school proliferation are to ever bear fruit. Withdrawing the American Classical applications turns off the spotlight, and allows the commission time to render decisions with less scrutiny.

For their part, you can bet that Hillsdale will spend the coming year addressing concerns and foes. They will identify school boards that are more sympathetic and court-elected officials that might be swayed to waiver in their opposition.

No disrespect intended, but Arnn and Gresham are both in the twilight of their careers, don’t be surprised to see a change in the public face of the organization. Maybe former US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos ascends to the role of spokesperson, and if he doesn’t get indicted, former Senator Kelsey takes over for Gresham.  Maybe not those two, but don’t expect it to be Arnn and Gresham.

We’ve already seen this strategy employed in Tennessee when Candice McQueen took over for embattled Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman. Both were members of Chiefs of Change and shared similar beliefs, but one was viewed as being a kinder and gentler version, and thus more palpable in the role.

Two things I can promise you, Hillsdale will be back, and when they return they won’t be as easily dispensed. What pro-public education supporters do in the meantime will be the difference between whether they succeed or not.


Last week I was engaged in a conversation with an education policy wonk over the merits of Grow Your Own projects. Their view of the subject was considerably more optimistic than mine, as I cling to the argument that without a wholesale reassessment of teacher responsibilities, we are just marching in place, or if you prefer my preferred description – pissing in the wind.

They conceded the point and added that everybody seems to recognize that teachers’ plates are overflowing, but nobody can seem to identify anything that can be readily taken off. In fact, they continually keep coming up with new things to add. It didn’t take but an hour after our conversation for a horse to walk into the barn and present an example of just what we were talking about.

This week MNPS superintendent Dr, Battle announced that the district’s annual School Choice Festival would be rebranded as a Celebration of Schools Festival. Same purpose, different name, more work. Each school will be provided a booth and an opportunity to sell its school in an effort to convince parents not to go private, charter, or home school.

This year the festival is scheduled for the Saturday before Thanksgiving. In the past it was just a principal and a couple staff members who would be required to attend, this year will require a  mix of 18 to include students and teachers. That’s the maximum number of folks, but we all know the unwritten message here, get 18, or risk falling out of favor.

Schools are provided the following guidance on representing their schools.

How do I highlight my school’s unique characteristics? BE CREATIVE
    •    ALL SCHOOLS – t-shirts, costumes, pom-poms, cheer teams, flag bearers, mascots, school clubs, signage, balloons, color guards, kings/queens, ROTC units demonstrate school spirit
    •    ELC/ elementary – wagons to pull students, tricycles w/ handles (ask families to provide), student-made signs… etc.
    •    Middle School – carry their House System flags
    •    High schools – every HS with a band is performing; in addition, participants can carry Academy flags… etc.
    •    High school bands -Transportation requests must be placed in Trip Tracker no later than October 20.
All indications are that this is going to be a pretty ambitious undertaking. In looking at the details, I can’t help but wonder…who’s going to do the work to effectively pull this off?
Some schools may be able to pass the work off to an active PTA, but not everybody has that luxury. My supposition is that the work will be done by an already overworked group of teachers. Ones that can ill afford the added responsibility. Ironically it’s a responsibility that does more to serve the interests of the support hub than it does of teachers. and focuses more on perception than it does performance.
I can hear the pushback now, “But this won’t be work, it’ll be fun.”
Maybe, but it won’t come without a cost and one that once again will be born by those already contributing the most.
It’ll also be offered up that not that much is required, and with just a little effort, they can make this happen. Let’s not kid ourselves here, the amount of work is always underestimated and we are dropping this responsibility into the laps of individuals incapable of half-assing it. By their very nature, they will go above and beyond what’s requested, not like they don’t exercise that idiom on a regular basis anyway.
District leadership regularly makes these kinds of requests, and then stands around scratching their heads, puzzled about why attrition is growing. Why are teachers tired? Better get some more scripted lesson plans to alleviate that exhaustion.
In addressing teacher attrition, it’s essential that leaders consider both intended and unintended consequences. Something that seldom happens. It’s not like this is an outlier.
If you’ll remember, Sito Narcisse served as former MNPS Superintendent Shawn Joseph’s righthand man until the latter was given his walking papers. In the aftermath, Joseph created an independent consulting firm, Joseph and Associates (Associates being his wife), that’s currently raising community ire in Philadelphia, and Narcisse has become the Superintendent of the East Baton Rouge School District in Louisiana. It’s in this role that Narcisse continues to demonstrate how fortunate Nashvillians are that he is plying his trade elsewhere.
Last week, while MNPS middle schools were fretting over 8th-grade field trips to see a production of the Diary of Anne Frank, EBR students were attending what they thought was a career fair, but more closely resembled a religious event. Per national online news magazine the Daily Beast,
After students arrived at the venue—a church called the Living Faith Christian Center—they say they found something much different than a career fair called the “Day of Hope.” While several colleges did have a presence at the event, students said the emphasis appeared to be on something else entirely.
The pupils were reportedly separated into two groups by gender, forced to register to vote in order to obtain the promoted free food, and listen to speakers share disturbing stories of rape, suicide, and abstinence. One teacher claimed in a Facebook post that some transgender students were bullied by their peers at the event.
I urge you to read the referenced article, if even a fraction of what the DailyBeast describes actually occurred, there is more than ample reason for concern,

When both student groups were called into the venue, a speaker named Donk “gave the most fantastical story one could imagine,” Budyach said.

“He started by saying at the age of 9 he was shot in the stomach and saw his intestines fall into his hands. Then, he was paralyzed and in a wheelchair from the ages of 11-13 (not sure what happened from 9-11). One day, according to him, he was with his grandma who was snoring very loudly and he started to wiggle his toes and wasn’t paralyzed anymore. Then, he started ‘messing with the wrong crowd’ and ended up in prison with a life sentence + 90 years on two counts of armed robbery and a murder. He said how he was sad in jail and tried to kill himself with a bedsheet (which he demonstrated with a prop sheet he had on stage), but somehow he changed his mindset and got out of jail,” Budyach wrote.

“At the end of everything, the host made the audience make a choice. He said, ‘If you want to eat, pizza is right outside those doors for you. If you choose change, if you want to get better, come towards the stage towards me.’ At this point we had not eaten and frankly, I was done being traumatized, so I left the building.”

You gotta think that Narcisse regrets his taped words promoting the event,
“I’m so excited about this partnership,” Narcisse says in the video. “We have great things coming between EBR and 29:11 Academy. It’s gonna be where all the seniors in all the high schools are going to participating. Just one of many partnerships that we have coming.”
You can’t make this stuff up.
Has anybody seen that letter yet from the USDOE to TNDOE informing Tennessee that it is out of compliance? Anybody? Helloooo…10 days and counting.
MNPS has seen an alarming number of instances involving guns in schools this year. While one a year is too many, the district has seen roughly a half dozen just in the last month, including this week at Pearl Cohn High School. Last week it was a 16 old at Maplewood. Each instance only increases the odds of an eventual tragedy. Yet, once again there is a lack of conversation around the subject on the school board floor. I guess we are too busy giving standing ovations and presenting bouquets for questionable state designations of success. Principals and teachers are doing everything they can, they just need the support hub to live up to its name.
Over at the Nashville Scene, writer Kelsey Beyeler is providing informative recaps of the city’s school board meetings bi-weekly. This week the director’s report focused on the district’s chronic absentee rate of 30%. That means roughly 20K of the district’s students have missed more than 10% of the school year. That’s an alarming number, and hopefully, we’ll be able to dive into it more next week.
As the country as a whole becomes more divided, I’m doubling down on my commitment to sharing all views and trusting readers to decide what’s legit, and what’s not. Recently I came across an article in the Pamphleteer – I’m unfamiliar with them but they are billed as Nashville’s Alt-Daily and I get a Right feeling tilt towards their reporting. This piece was primarily a defense of Hillsdale College and Larry Arnn’s comments, but it examed some of MNPS’s hiring practices that raise some questions if accurate,
In an effort to discredit initiatives similar to Hillsdale’s pioneering program, opponents continue to accuse charter schools of filling their classrooms with uncertified, inexperienced teachers who lack the training of their public-school counterparts, a thread that runs through all of the negative local press Arnn has amassed this summer. However, Nashville’s intrepid class of ink-stained scribes has utterly ignored the Metro Nashville Public School System’s routine hiring of undergraduates with no training in education. Working with a third-party headhunting agency, Metro targets recent graduates with degrees in fields facing teacher shortages like math, science, and foreign language a few weeks before the start of the fall semester, right when their postgrad anxieties are at a peak. They recruit through social media apps such as LinkedIn, offering an immediate job and covering costs for all required exams such as the PRAXIS. However, Metro requires its recruits to complete a Master’s or an authorized teacher training program on their own dime. Recruits who fail to stay in the system at a Title I school for two years must pay back test fees or other expenses related to their hiring.
I leave it to you to decide, but I suspect there is more than a grain of truth to this description.
Here’s one for your sense of irony. The former Superintendent’s downfall began when he fell out of favor with the school board member Jill Speering after discontinuing the district’s use of Reading Recovery. At his urging, Joseph’s termination agreement included language that attempted to prevent school board members from exercising their first amendment rights by speaking critically of him.
Board members brought suit to have that language stricken from the contract and won. Joseph appealed and lost. As a result of this loss, he was forced to pay attorney fees accrued by the board members. Their attorney had agreed to do the work pro-bono and thus inclined to donate the fee to a charity. After careful consideration, a non-profit was chosen…wait for it…Reading Recovery. Revenge is a dish best served cold.
Let me close with a positive. Several years ago MNPS committed to the creation of a parent portal where parents could view individualized data about their students. Initially, the execution fell short of the vision, but that’s not the case anymore. Data is regularly updated and presented in a manner that facilitates conversation between parents and students. A conversation that provides an opportunity for parental intervention before it is too late. Nice to see this initiative bearing fruit.
When Tennessee voters go to the polls in November they will have several opportunities to amend the state constitution. The November ballot is slated to have four amendments to the Tennessee Constitution, and Amendment 3 aims to replace language that has existed in the Tennessee Constitution for more than 150 years pertaining to slavery. Though the Constitution was amended in 1865 to prohibit nearly all forms of slavery, a single line lingered to allow slavery and involuntary servitude for people convicted of crimes. Hopefully, this amendment passes by a large margin.

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Categories: Education

1 reply

  1. Your analogy about gambling in the Poconos is spot on. We celebrated the defeat of Great Hearts Charter a decade ago. Yet, when almost no one was looking, Valor Charter was installed. I remember being the only person with energy to go to the microphone and say “please don’t”. By not serving many kids from lowest income public housing, Valor’s scores are “higher than average”. Just as Great Hearts is in Arizona. Just as Hillsdale will/might be.

    Perhaps the approval of the LGBTQ charter in Alabama is comparable from “the left”. Celebration of a “no” https://www.al.com/news/2020/01/birmingham-board-denies-states-first-lgbtq-charter-school-application.html

    followed by an approval when no one was really looking:


    We must remain vigilant against the madness of privatization.

    On guns, I am thankful MNPS has, and executes, a no tolerance policy. What more can be done, when so many voters press the lever for “more guns, with no responsibility for gun owners” at every election? Every incident, every expulsion, is in itself a completely avoidable tragedy. But in the current climate, with guns essentially handed out to kids like candy, I don’t see how “having a conversation at the School Board” can make things better. We must continue to expel these kids. Period.

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