Nashville is in the cross hairs of the “reform” (AKA privatization) movement.
Here is a good overview of the situation.
With a respected superintendent nearing the end of his contract, with a mayoral election in the offing, with the school board majority up for grabs in the next election, Nashville is looking like a tasty prize for the privatizers.
And there are so many of them! Start with State Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman, who spent two years in TFA but otherwise has no experience as a principal or a superintendent. His major passion seems to be turning public dollars over to charter schools and passing laws to reduce the security and status of teachers. Then there is Governor Haslam, a reactionary who seems to despise public education and has the support of a compliant legislature. And don’t forget Karl Dean, the mayor of Nashville, who is eager to see private interests take control of public education in his city.
Nashville has been ripped asunder by the aggressive demands of the charter school crowd. The district has only 23 charters but those charters have “sucked up almost all the air” out of all public discussion of education, as if they and they alone held the key to success.
Although the district has chartered some 23 privately run schools to operate using district money, the role these charter schools play has sucked up almost all the air at Metro’s Central Office on Bransford Avenue over the past year-and-a-half.
The topic of charter schools — which have the autonomy to operate without the strings normally attached to traditional schools, including issues like how teachers are hired and fired or what class schedules look like — has polarized the district.
The division has created camps of pro-charter advocates, who argue that many of their schools are outperforming the district and MNPS should be more welcoming to the innovation. That has galvanized an equally entrenched anti-charter camp, which warns of the private investors and interests behind such schools and the taxpayer dollars the district must siphon from traditional public schools to fund these new ones. There has been little discussion trying to find a meeting ground in the middle.
The conflicts between the two are seemingly endless, starting in earnest with the district’s school board refusing a charter school targeted to open on the more affluent west side of town; the state fining MNPS $3 million for said rejection; battles with Gov. Bill Haslam, state education commissioner Kevin Huffman and House Speaker Beth Harwell over approval and costs of charter schools; a fight over leaked data showing charter schools kick out students weeks before state test time; embarrassing spats on Twitter and Facebook between board members and charter school advocates; the school board threatening to sue the state for its charter school law; a noisy protest by charter school advocates on the district’s front lawn; holding charter schools’ growth responsible for the district’s money problems; blaming under-capacity schools on the charter-school boom; and most recently, redirecting new charter schools to South Nashville or to convert select failing schools.
Four seats on the school board will be up for grabs in an election in seven months. The school board elections will attract some of the nation’s most notorious corporate reformers, including Stand for Children, Democrats for Education Reform, and Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst (Rhee is the ex-wife of State Commissioner Huffman). The charter school advocates will spend heavily to gain control of the school board, in hopes of expanding the charters and transferring public funds to their own operations.
Make no mistake. This is a well-funded raid on the public treasury, intended to take money away from the public system and hand it over to the friends of those providing the money for the election:
“Democrats for Education Reform is excited to support candidates who will increase the capacity of our public school system to better serve Nashville’s children, whether those candidates are running for school board or in the upcoming mayoral race,” says Alex Little, chair of the Nashville steering committee for the pro-charter-school group, which has been quietly combing the city for board candidates.
Charter school and reform groups are no strangers to investing in politics, dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars into local and state races here in recent years.
At the state level, education-reform lightning rod Michelle Rhee’s Students First organization poured more than $200,000 into legislative races and some local ones, without being shy about throwing massive checks to key candidates.
Last cycle, Metro’s school board races attracted an unprecedented $400,000 among five races and funders of all stripes. Gathering sums more suitable for a bid for state representative than the local school board, Ingram Industries’ Margaret Dolan amassed more than $115,000 for the MNPS board seat she lost to underdog Amy Frogge from Bellevue. In the same cycle, former Teach for America executive Elissa Kim raised some $85,000, largely from fellow TFA types, to beat out the school board’s then-chairwoman, Gracie Porter, in East Nashville.
The biggest players last cycle included the pro-charter crowd, with Mayor Karl Dean and the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce bringing influence and some money, and locally organized Great Public Schools and StudentsFirst dishing out dollars. Democrats for Education Reform, working out of Nashville, plans on joining the effort this year. That group is led by Natasha Kamrani, wife of Tennessee Achievement School District head Chris Barbic, whose job duties include taking over or hiring charters to turn around the state’s weakest 5 percent of schools.