Will Pinkston is a member of the elected board of the Metro Nashville public schools. He has a long history of working in state and local government. He was there when Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen brought all the major education groups in the state together to apply for Race to the Top funding. He was there when optimism was high that Race to the Top would launch a new era of collaboration and progress. He was there when Bill and Melinda Gates came to congratulate the Volunteer State on winning $501 million to redesign its education system and when Arne Duncan hailed it as a state that was ready to move forward in a “dramatic and positive” direction. He heard Tennessee described as “Arne Duncan’s Show Horse.” Initially, he had high hopes.

He was there for every twist and turn in education policy in Tennessee for the past decade. He watched the meteoric rise and catastrophic fall of State Commissioner Kevin Huffman. He saw the war break out between Huffman and the state’s teachers, when Huffman ratcheted up his efforts to punish teachers when test scores didn’t go up. He was there for the disaster of the Achievement School District. He saw Michelle Rhee bring her pro-voucher crusade to Tennessee. He saw the state’s testing system turn into a fiasco. He witnessed a backlash from teachers and parents against everything associated with Race to the Top.

He saw Race to the Top turn into Race to the Bottom. The legacy of Race to the Top was divisiveness, rage, and chaos.

This is a long article, but well worth the time it takes to read.

Initially open to the promise of charter schools, he began to see that there were stripping the district of resources.

He writes:

When I ran for and got elected to the school board in 2012, I did it for what I thought were the right reasons. As a public-school parent and alumnus of Metro Nashville Public Schools, I saw an opportunity to represent the part of town where I grew up. After leaving state government, it seemed like a logical extension of public service — and a chance to see how the still-nascent Race to the Top reforms might help propel a large urban school system struggling with persistent achievement gaps. In retrospect, I was terribly naïve.

As it turned out, I ended up on the front line in the war over public education in America. In part because of Race to the Top, it would take years and countless political battles before we could begin focusing on large-scale school improvement in Nashville. The school system was, and still is, chronically underfunded. When I took office, the superintendent at that time was near the end of his career and had been operating for years with no strategic plan. Board members knew he was overwhelmed by the intensity of the reform movement.

Instead of being able to focus on academic standards, effective school turnaround strategies and other key tenets of Race to the Top, the school board faced a tidal wave of charter applications from national operators seeking to rapidly dismantle the school system. Our biggest problem: Haslam’s so-called “open-enrollment law” stripping away caps on charter schools, a rare legislative victory for the governor fueled by Race to the Top’s irrational exuberance.

As it turned out, I ended up on the front line in the war over public education in America.

Haslam’s 2011 law creating a wide-open spigot of charters came just two years after my former boss, Gov. Phil Bredesen, supported a loosening of charter caps in the run-up to Race to the Top. In a sign of Tennessee’s importance to the national reformers, then-Secretary Arne Duncan in 2009 personally lobbied Democrats in the state legislature for the loosening of caps. The eventual effect in Nashville was total chaos.

To put it in perspective: In 2009, Music City had just four charter schools. Following the loosening of state charter caps, the number quickly swelled to a dozen. By 2014, as a result of Haslam’s post-Race to the Top open-enrollment law, the number ballooned to 27 — a nearly seven-fold increase in just five years. During that time, cash outlays for charters by Metro Nashville Public Schools soared more than 700 percent — rising from about $9 million to more than $73 million. Within a few short years, annual cash outlays for charters would soar to more than $120 million.

As an aide to the previous governor who struggled to deal with runaway Medicaid costs a decade earlier, I knew it was impossible to grow any part of government at an unchecked rate without destabilizing the budget in other areas of government. And at a time when our existing schools were universally considered to be underfunded, I wasn’t going to feed charter growth at the expense of zoned schools.

Whistleblowers later told me that charter advocates were plotting to create what they called “New Orleans without the hurricane,” referring to the nearly wholesale charterization of the Crescent City’s school system following Hurricane Katrina. I found their plan to be reckless and shameful, not to mention fiscally and operationally unsustainable. By 2015, three years into my school board service, I stopped voting for new charter schools altogether.


Die-hard charter advocates pride themselves on using simplistic poll-tested messaging to push their agenda. I know because from 2010 to 2012 I served on the founding board of a so-called “high-performing” charter school in Nashville — an experience that led me to question the entire movement.

In the charter sector’s vernacular, the main objective is creating “high-quality seats.” Frequently, in Nashville and around the country, charter advocates accuse urban school board members of protecting “adult jobs” at the expense of kids — a swipe at teachers’ unions. They place a premium on charter schools that are “no excuses” by design and that emphasize “grit” as a top characteristic for students.

According to their world view, charters are the silver-bullet solution to improve K-12 education. What they don’t acknowledge is a growing body of evidence that proves charters, on the whole, aren’t doing better than traditional schools. They also don’t admit that charters cherry-pick in admissions in order to enroll students who are more likely to succeed, and then “counsel out” kids who aren’t making the grade. Each spring in Nashville, school board members are inundated with reports from principals complaining about charter schools sending kids back to zoned schools prior to testing season.

Even if you accept the false notion that charter schools are better than traditional schools, the financial math just doesn’t work. Because of Haslam’s ill-conceived policy, charter growth in Nashville by 2013 was consuming nearly every dime of available new revenue for the school system — leaving little new money for our underfunded traditional schools.

Each spring in Nashville, school board members are inundated with reports from principals complaining about charter schools sending kids back to zoned schools prior to testing season.

After working in and around state and local governments for nearly 20 years, I also was suspicious of the legality of charter laws relative to overall school funding. For example, in Tennessee our state constitution guarantees a “system of free public schools.” But in my view, charters were taxpayer-funded private schools.

Using my position on the Nashville School Board, I pushed for a legal analysis that found the state’s 2002 charter law imposes “increased costs on local governments with no off-setting subsidy from the State … in violation of the Tennessee Constitution.” Put differently: Charters were unconstitutional due to the negative fiscal impact on traditional schools. The legal theory hadn’t been tested in court, but I predicted it would be only a matter of time.

Rabid “charter zealots,” as I began calling them, had enough. Beginning in fall 2013, the national charter movement unleashed an army of paid political operatives and PR flacks to harass the local school board as payback for raising fiscal and legal questions. Nationally, charter advocates saw the situation in Nashville as an existential threat.

The Tennessee Charter School Center, the attack arm of charter schools in Memphis and Nashville, organized a bullhorn protest on the front lawn of Metro Nashville Public Schools’ central office to shout down school board members deemed hostile to charters. A blogger on the group’s payroll attacked the board under the blog handle “Lipstick on a Pig” — shamefully likening our majority-minority school system to a swine. Charter students, pawns in a carefully orchestrated smear campaign, earned extra-credit points by leafletting school board meetings with negative fliers attacking board members.

As a veteran of two statewide gubernatorial campaigns, I recognized the bare-knuckled political tactics. The goal of the charter zealots was to provoke school board members and other opponents into public fights in order to create distractions and draw attention to their cause. For a while, it worked. Skirmishes played out regularly in the boardroom, and spilled into the local news and social media.

When the “charter zealots” ran their own slate of candidates for the board, they targeted Pinkston, who barely squeaked through. But the other anti-charter, pro-public education candidates won, and the board was able to focus on the needs of the public schools, not just squabbles over how many charters to open.

This is an important story that deserves a wide audience.