I Know Nothing!

“Sometimes the best lie was just the truth left to ripen on the branch too long.”
Lou Berney, The Long and Faraway Gone


Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the so-called “War on Public Education.” Every day there is a volley in the never-ending debate over what the nation’s public schooling should look like. Strawmen are created on both sides, only to be dispensed with once their usefulness has faded. new ones erected in their place.

The skirmishes never seem to lead to a decisive victory for either side and thus the noise never lowers. Luckily students continue to move forward, acquiring the tools they need in order to become productive members of society. Student outcomes, as measured by standardized testing, remain mostly flat, with some upward growth. But nobody questions if we are truly measuring the right things, let alone teaching the right things. I’d argue that the jury is still out on that one.

I’ve had a front-row seat at the education policy circus for neigh on a decade. Married to a 15-year teaching vet, and with two kids firmly entrenched in the middle school years, there is little that I haven’t seen. What I’ve come to realize is that what I’m watching is a lost episode of the 60’s sitcom Hogan’s Heroes.

For those unfamiliar, Hogan’s Heroes centers around a group of POWs in a German prison camp during WW II. The camp is overseen by the clueless Colonel Klink, assisted by the hapless Sgt Schultz. The two think that they are controlling Hogan and his crafty colleagues but the reality is the opposite. Hogan and company continue to get things down under the nose of the nazis, despite the best effort of the captors.

None of the antics of Klink and Schultz are dissimilar from those of the education bureaucrats on the district and state levels. While Hogan is similar to teachers and principals, always smarter than those who think they are in charge, but at the end of the day…still stuck in a prison.

Burkhalter: “Amazing. You obviously worked hard on these plans, Klink.”
Klink:”Thank you General Burkhalter. I have given it many hours of intelligent thoughts.”
Burkhalter: “That’s what’s so amazing.”

How often have you felt like that when reading the latest missive from the support hub?

It’s an endless loop, be it reform groups, bureaucrats, or legislators, they all craft plans using their limited insight. Plans destined to fail.

Meanwhile, teachers and principals, like Hogan, are left to conduct business and create progress amidst the chaos. And it goes on and on without any end in sight.

Captured Underground Leader: “Didn’t you hear, Colonel? The war is over.” Hogan: “Yeah, the five of us ended it. And as soon as Klink and Hochstetter finds out they are going to start it back up again.”

A Question of Choice

Leave it to Metro Nashville Public Schools(MNPS) to create a celebration that does little more than anger people. The secret to winning an argument isn’t to silence your opponent, it’s by supplying a stronger argument. That’s a lesson that seems lost on MNPS’s Director of Schools Adrienne Battle and her leadership team.

The Saturday before Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the holiday season. MNPS is taking advantage of that festive mood to stage its own celebration at the home of the Tennessee Titans.

At 10 a.m. on Saturday, November 19, the inaugural MNPS Celebration of Schools Parade will kick off a day of festivities at Nissan Stadium with designs to serve the dual purposes of celebrating the success of MNPS, while educating parents about their options under the district umbrella.

Parents who attend the event might be in for a surprise. As not all MNPS schools will be represented. Inexplicably, despite the past precedent of charter school operators being given the option to participate, this year the district is choosing to focus on “district-run” schools. While historically not all charter schools participated, they’ve always been represented at what has previously been known as the School Choice Festival, an event that traditionally kicked off MNPS’s school choice enrollment process.

A spokesman for MNPS told Main Street Nashville in an email that the district’s vision for the event is to “celebrate the unique qualities and traits of are schools that are operated by the district.”

It is not unusual for the district to hold events that only include our district-run schools, which operate under the leadership structure of MNPS,” spokesman Michael Cass said.

Scratching my head to figure out what events Cass is referencing. Maybe it’s the recently crafted policy that excluded charter schools from continuing to participate in district sports leagues.

Dr. Sharon Gentry, who serves as the school board representative for the district that Nashville’s most impoverished families, is certainly not shy with her opinion.

“Charter schools are not MNPS schools. They’re public schools, but they’re not MNPS schools,” Metro Board of Education Member Dr. Sharon Gentry said during a charter debate last November. “It should be about the kids, but those are not MNPS kids … [I’m] someone who’s going to sit here and make decisions on behalf and for what’s best for MNPS schools.”

The district takes great pride in its ability to offer a multitude of options outside a student’s zoned school in order to meet their individual needs. Along with charter schools, the district offers magnet schools and the opportunity for a student to attend a district-run school that is designated for open enrollment.

Every January, families have traditionally applied to their choice of schools for the upcoming year by ranking their top three selections and submitting an application to the district. A lottery then determines student assignments for those participating in the school choice process. In previous years, this Saturday’s event was considered the start of the choice process and served to inform families of their options.

This year MNPS has decided to forego the education process in an effort to celebrate achievement. But who are we celebrating? And to what end.

Just because MNPS will not be educating families about their school options, that doesn’t mean families won’t be out gathering information. Similar to sex education, if you don’t learn it in the living room, or the classroom…you are learning it in the streets. Is really desirable for families to learn about student options provided by, and approved by MNPS, in the streets?

The desire to celebrate is legit. MNPS has good reasons to celebrate this year.

Based on results from the Spring 2021 state standardized test, TNReady, the district earned the designation as an “advancing” school district by the Tennessee Department of Education(TDOE). This is the second-highest rating a district can achieve in the state’s accountability model. Were it not for an exceedingly high chronic absentee rate, the district would have achieved the state’s highest honor.

In the wake of the COVID pandemic. the number of Reward Schools housed by MNPS rose to 48 achieving Tennessee’s top accountability status during the 2021-2022 school year. Of those schools, 14 were charter schools. The TDOE recognizes schools as “Reward Schools” when they demonstrate high levels of performance and/or improvement in performance by meeting their annual measurable objectives across performance indicators and student groups.

While MNPS has not officially provided an explanation of why charter schools are omitted from this year’s school choice festival, private conversations allude to a desire to allow  “district-run” schools an opportunity to showcase their offerings.

District enrollment(2022-2023 MNPS Enrollment) has been on a steady decline over the last decade, with the district now serving 14 percent fewer students than a decade ago. As Tennessee transitions to the TISA model for school funding, the lower attendance numbers could have a dramatic effect on MNPS schools.

Charter schools, by statute, are considered public schools and are funded by the state through local school districts in the same manner as traditional schools. Since their inception, they have been the subject of controversy. Critics charge that they are provided an unfair advantage, as they are allowed to pick and choose their students through a separate application process and the ability to not have to adhere to the same set of rules as district-run schools.

In 2002, the Tennessee Public Charter Schools Act provided Tennesseans with an “alternative means within the public school system for ensuring accomplishment of the necessary outcomes of education by allowing the establishment and maintenance of public charter schools that operate within a school district structure but are allowed maximum flexibility to achieve their goals.” At that time registration was limited to those students in low-performing schools or students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. Starting in 2009, legislators began easing restrictions, and today all district students are eligible for enrollment in respective charter schools.

Initially, the law allowed only local districts to authorize the establishment of a charter school, but in 2011 that authority was expanded to the Tennessee Achievement School District. Those powers were further expanded in 2014, and currently, the state has the power to charter a school in a district where its application has been rejected.

Nashville’s first charter school was Smithson-Craighead Academy, an elementary school. The middle school KIPP Academy Nashville opened in 2005. The LEAD Academy middle school opened in 2007 and added grades 9 through 12, one grade at a time, in the years 2010 through 2013. New Vision Academy opened in 2010 for students in grades 5 and 6. Valor Academy was established in 2014.

Currently, the district currently oversees 32 charter schools that serve roughly 13,000 students. That number continues to grow despite the MNPS school board’s failure to approve a new charter school operator in four years.

The battle over Nashville’s charter schools has been contentious since its inception but recently has become even more so, as MNPS has increasingly attempted to distance itself from its charter school offerings. Just in the past year, there have been efforts by the district to shut down those schools viewed as low-performing. In the spring of 2022, a policy was crafted limiting charter school students from participating in the district’s middle school sports leagues.

In an ironic twist, MNPS is excluding schools classified as district schools that serve primarily minority children, even as they double down on their commitment to creating equitable experiences for students. Eighty percent of Nashville public charter school students are students of color compared to 69 percent for MNPS overall. Additionally, 45 percent of students attending public charter schools are economically disadvantaged compared to 41 percent for MNPS overall.

Reportedly the decision by MNPS to exclude charter schools led to major sponsors of the Celebration of Schools pulling their support. those who remained did not do so without trepidation.

Parents of Charter School students are purportedly angered by the district’s decision to exclude their children from the celebration. In their eyes, and rightfully so, they feel that they have done nothing outside of the boundaries set by MNPS. The district offered options, they took advantage of those options, and now they are being punished. I don’t think that would sit right with anyone.

There is talk that some of those folks may show up to voice their displeasure. I say more power to them.

The Thanksgiving weekend is the kickoff to the holiday season, and for schools, marks the nearing of the finish line for teachers and principals. By this time of the year, most are exhausted and looking forward to an opportunity to recharge their batteries. The support hud instead chose to hoist even more responsibility on their shoulders. Evidence that despite an ability to “say the right thing”, they continue to act in a tone-deaf manner.

Temperatures tomorrow are expected to run in the low 30s and are sure to be a factor in attendance. Managing a school district is more than just asking for increased resources, it also involves prudently utilizing the ones you have at your disposal. Is this weekend festival truly a prudent use of district resources?

The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same. 

Some of you may remember the fiasco caused by MNPS’s willingness to award a no-bid contract to Meharry Medical College last year. The whole incident served as a huge embarrassment to district and city officials. The expectation would be that in the wake of the controversy, MNPS would learn from their misstep and be extra careful in avoiding a reoccurrence.

Well…not so fast.

This week, Mayor Cooper announced a $15 million partnership between MNPS and the Titans. The money was earmarked to improve football fields at district high schools. In reading the press releases, one might be inclined to believe that the Titans were cutting a check for the lump sum of $15 million.

Again…not so fast.

The contribution is divided up between 3 entities and spread out over 5 years. Mayor Cooper is proposing that $5 million come from the city’s Capitol Budget, which MNPS annually applies to for school improvements and never seems to be big enough to include all their needs.

The Titans themselves in the midst of a drive for a new stadium will contribute $5 million. It’s worth noting that the money is intended to replace the city school’s grass turf with artificial turf. The Titans play on grass.

The remaining third will be funded through private donors’ contributions to The Foundation for Athletics in Nashville Schools, Inc., a nonprofit also known as The Fans Inc. Here is where it gets interesting.

The Fans Inc is a non-profit with a website. Go to that website and you’ll see the following disclaimer:

The Foundation for Athletics in Nashville Schools (The FANS) was founded in 2011 by Nashville native and Madison High School graduate Mark North. Upon becoming Athletics Director for high schools in Metro Nashville Public Schools in October 2021, Mark resigned from The FANS.

North became the District’s athletic director in September of 2021. Tax records show that The Fans Inc. was incorporated in 2012. The latest records available, 2020, show the principal officer as Don Mark North. North, is a long-term MNPS employee, and former school board member. Prior to becoming athletic director, he served as the director of government relations for Metro Nashville Public Schools.

In addition to North, listed board members include:

  • David Fox
  • David Sturdivan
  • Scott Wallace
  • Howard Gentry
  • Chip Sullivan

I’m not saying anything unethical is happening here, just that…there are questions. The website clearly states that Mark North is longer affiliated with the organization he founded and worked on for a decade.

Back in 2020, Tony Majors, at the time serving as MNPS Human Resources Director was the subject of an audit based on questions about his role with an affiliated non-profit.

According to a disciplinary letter from Metro School to Majors, it has to do with Majors’s role as Director of Nashville RBI, a youth organization that provides softball and baseball to kids. Metro Schools said “there have been questions raised in recent weeks about an agreement between Belmont University and Metro Schools for a new batting facility at Rose Park Magnet Middle, as well as concerns about a potential conflict of interest in the involvement of Dr. Tony Majors in that agreement and his role as director of RBI Nashville.”

Major, subsequently left the district. The question that demands an answer here is, are we holding North to a different standard than Majors?

Former Director of Schools Jesse Register used to have a policy that if it appears to be an ethics violation, it is an ethics violation, Maybe we ought to think about reinstating that one.

Quick Hits

Oliver Middle School just concluded its football season by securing the number three ranking in the city championship. A debt of gratitude goes to Coach McGinnis and Coach Jones for their exceptional work with the boys. And yes, my son plays on this team.

Channel 17 News is reporting on a new study from the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office that finds a direct correlation between a child’s age and whether they’re ready to begin school. Shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.

Make sure you check in over at The Tennessee Star for more of my coverage on Tennessee Education issues. The politics might not be your cup of tea, but we are staying out of that and focusing on policy and how it affects teachers and students. Same mission but a different vehicle. And if you can’t do that, I’ll still be here at the same bat time, on the same bat channel.

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. Now more than ever your continued support is vital.

If you are interested, I’m sharing posts via email through Substack. This has proven to be an effective way to increase coverage. Readers have the option of either free or paid subscriptions. Paid subscriptions will potentially receive additional materials as they become available. Your support would be greatly appreciated.

If you wish to join the rank of donors but are not interested in Substack, 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. Not begging, just saying.

Categories: Education

2 replies

  1. Charter schools are MNPS schools when it’s time to take credit for positive academic growth. About 80 percent of Nashville charters achieved a level 5 TVAAS score which significantly contributed to mnps achieving “advancing” school district status.

    However they are not invited to the celebration event at titans stadium

    Their reporting of academic results INCLUDES charter results

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