Archives for category: Nashville

Amy Frogge is a member of the elected school board in Metro Nashville. She is a parent activist and a lawyer. She is also one of the heroes of my new book SLAYING GOLIATH: THE PASSIONATE RESISTANCE TO PRIVATIZATION AND THE FIGHT TO SAVE AMERICA’S PUBLIC SCHOOLS (Knopf), which will be published January 21.

When Amy ran for the school board, the Disruption movement funded her opponents. Groups like Democrats for Education Reform and Stand for Children poured money into the race to beat her, and she won. They outspent her, but she had troops, volunteers, parents as passionate as she was.

Amy recently spoke to the Nashville Chamber of Commerce about public education in Nashville.

This is what she told them:

Good morning. I would like to start out this morning with a confession, speaking only on my own behalf: Since I was first elected, I’ve bristled at the very idea of the business community grading the school system with a yearly report card. If I, as a school board member, decided to “grade” the Nashville Chamber for the dismal state of Metro’s finances and offered suggestions as to how you might better conduct your business dealings to avoid such poor outcomes, I’d wager that you would take offense. You would likely respond that I’m not qualified to make such an assessment, since I have no background in business, and you’d be right.


This is how our educators feel. Our teachers and public schools are continually scapegoated for the societal ills that impact student learning. Our schools and teachers are often labeled as “failing,” which destroys morale and is an entirely inaccurate statement. They are faced with a constant barrage of new policies, procedures, assessments, and ratings tools crafted by those with no real expertise in education- by politicians, by lawyers (like me), and by business leaders. The metrics used to assess our teachers and students are often deeply flawed and ever-changing. We must begin to respect our teachers, grant them the autonomy they need to succeed, and pay them handsomely. They are our true experts. Our school staff members best understand how to reach students and how to help them grow academically. They often give of their own limited resources to ensure that our children have what they need- food, clothing, shoes, supplies, etc., and even the love and care many do not receive at home.


That said, I want to commend you today for the general focus of this year’s Report Card: investment, equity and support. These are the true keys to success in public education. It’s become painfully obvious that Nashville schools and teachers are underfunded and that there exist vast inequities within our school system. As a city and larger community, we must ensure that every child in Nashville has access to an excellent, well-rounded education. ALL children- not just those in private schools or wealthy neighborhoods- should have access to the arts, to physical activity (recess, PE, athletics), to proper nutrition, to time in nature, to books and school libraries, to learning through play when they are young, to enrichment activities that spark their creativity and interests as they grow, and to healthy, evidence-based educational practices. So many of Nashville’s students come to school having experienced trauma and adverse childhood experiences, which impact their ability to focus on learning. That’s why the Chamber’s emphasis on social emotional learning has been so very important. We must also maintain focus on whole child education. We need more school counselors, social workers, and nurses. MNPS needs greater support and increased partnerships from our larger community.


But our current national fixation on ridiculous amounts of flawed standardized testing, which ultimately measures little, has impeded progress toward these goals. The number one factor impacting a child’s test scores is the socioeconomic status of the child’s family. This does not mean, of course, that children who come from impoverished backgrounds cannot succeed; it simply means that we as a community must provide the extra support to help these children thrive. School privatization efforts also impede progress toward these goals. Conversations about vouchers and charter schools are ultimately about equity- whether we want to fund the few at the expense of the many and whether we can continue to support a parallel, competing set of school systems when we cannot afford to support our existing schools. These conversations are also about accountability, the need for public regulation and transparency, the misuse of tax dollars intended for children, and school segregation- again issues of equity and fairness. Ultimately, though, these issues are a distraction from the hard work at hand- a band-aid on a much larger problem. It is a sad day when we all rally around the idea of “Adopting a Teacher” in a city as rich and thriving as Nashville. It’s embarrassing that we have come to this point.


I’ll close today by adding to this Report Card a few ways that you, sitting here in this room, can help MNPS succeed:


First, I invite each of you to tour your zoned schools before deciding where to enroll your own child. My husband and I opted to send our children to our zoned schools, and it has been an excellent choice for our family. We have utilized schools that our neighbors once warned us against, those with poor ratings on sites like and yet, my children are both thriving, academically and otherwise. Their test scores are just as high as those of their friends who have attended elite private schools, and my children have benefitted from diverse learning environments. It saddens me that we in Nashville have somehow come to view our public schools as charities meant to serve only those without means. Children in our public schools shouldn’t be viewed as future worker bees for businesses, and our city’s schools are not just for other people’s children. Public schools are the very hearts of our community, and if everyone in Nashville actually utilized our public schools, we would have very different outcomes. Socioeconomic diversity, as well as racial diversity, in schools are proven drivers of success.


And when we all get involved in public schools, small miracles happen. When I was PTO President at our local, Title I elementary school, I helped bring in community partnerships and local support for the school. As a result, test scores went up, the school’s culture improved, and a waiting list developed at that school. This could happen throughout the whole city with your support.


On a related note, please do not recruit businesses to Nashville with the promise that they can live in surrounding counties and send their children to school in places like Williamson County. This increases the divide between the haves and the have-nots and paints a misleading picture of our city.     


Second, in addition to the suggestions you’ve made in this year’s Report Card, I hope that you will consider a greater investment in MNPS’s Community School programs, which provide wrap-around services to children and families in need. Businesses could partner with local schools to meet student needs and provide community volunteers. This would absolutely change a school’s outcomes.


Third, please help us advocate at the state level for our needs- increased funding, greater teacher pay and autonomy, and local control of schools so that Nashville can make the best decisions for our community.


Finally, I hope that you, as leaders in our business community, will put effort into advocating for larger changes in our city that will have the greatest impact on our schools and children. We need more affordable housing. Last year, over 3,400 of the children in our school system qualified as homeless. And as you are aware, our teachers and support staff desperately need better pay. Many can no longer afford to live in the New Nashville. We must stop investing in shiny things at the expense of infrastructure and community needs. When our city becomes more equitable, this will be reflected in our schools.


Thank you for your time this morning and for your commitment to public education. I know that a lot of hard, thoughtful work goes into your Report Card each year. I will leave you with the encouragement that Dr. Battle, Mayor Cooper, and the board are already working on the issues that your Report Card Committee has identified. It’s a new day for Nashville, and I hope we can all work together in partnership to make a difference for Nashville’s children.

Jeff Bryant writes here about the billionaires who corrupted the school leadership pipeline. Chief among them, of course, is billionaire Eli Broad, who created an unaccredited training program as a fast track for urban superintendents.

Bryant has collected stories about how superintendents who passed through the Broad program hire other graduates of the program and do business with others who are part of their network. The ethical breaches are numerous. The self-dealing and the stench of corruption is powerful.

Bryant begins with the story of a phone call from Eli Broad to one of his graduates:

It’s rare when goings-on in Kansas City schools make national headlines, but in 2011 the New York Times reported on the sudden departure of the district’s superintendent John Covington, who resigned unexpectedly with only a 30-day notice. Covington, who had promised to “transform” the long-troubled district, “looked like a silver bullet” for all the district’s woes, according to the Los Angeles Times. He had, in a little more than two years, quickly set about remaking the district’s administrative staff, closing nearly half the schools, revamping curriculum, and firing teachers while hiring Teach for America recruits.

The story of Covington’s sudden departure caught the attention of coastal papers no doubt because it perpetuated a common media narrative about hard-charging school leaders becoming victims of school districts’ supposed resistance to change and the notoriously short tenures of superintendents.

Although there may be some truth to that narrative, the main reason Covington left Kansas City was not because he was pushed out by job stress or an obstinate resistance. He left because a rich man offered him a job.

Following the reporting by the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times about Covington’s unexpected resignation, news emerged from the Kansas City Star that days after he resigned, he took a position as the first chancellor of the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan, a new state agency that, according to Michigan Radio, sought “radical” leadership to oversee low-performing schools in Detroit.

But at the time of Covington’s departure, it seemed no outlet could have described the exact circumstances under which he was lured away. That would come out years later in the Kansas City Star where reporter Joe Robertson described a conversation with Covington in which he admitted that squabbles with board members “had nothing to do” with his departure. What caused Covington’s exit, Robertson reported, was “a phone call from Spain.”

That call, Covington told Robertson, was what led to Covington’s departure from Kansas City—because it brought a message from billionaire philanthropist and major charter school booster Eli Broad. “John,” Broad reportedly said, “I need you to go to Detroit.”

It wasn’t the first time Covington, who was a 2008 graduate of a prestigious training academy funded through Broad’s foundation (the Broad Center), had come into contact with the billionaire’s name and clout. Broad was also the most significant private funder of the new Michigan program he summoned Covington to oversee, providing more than $6 million in funding from 2011 to 2013, according to the Detroit Free Press.

But Covington’s story is more than a single instance of a school leader doing a billionaire’s bidding. It sheds light on how decades of a school reform movement, financed by Broad and other philanthropists and embraced by politicians and policymakers of all political stripes, have shaped school leadership nationwide.

Charter advocates and funders—such as Broad, Bill Gates, some members of the Walton Family Foundation, John Chubb, and others who fought strongly for schools to adopt the management practices of private businesses—helped put into place a school leadership network whose members are very accomplished in advancing their own careers and the interests of private businesses while they rankle school boards, parents, and teachers.

Covington’s tenure at the Education Achievement Authority in Michigan was a disaster, and the EAA itself was a disaster that has been closed down.

Bryant compares the Broad superintendents to a cartel.

The actions of these leaders are often disruptive to communities, as school board members chafe at having their work undermined, teachers feel increasingly removed from decision making, and local citizens grow anxious at seeing their taxpayer dollars increasingly redirected out of schools and classrooms and into businesses whose products and services are of questionable value.

In fact, Broad superintendents have a very poor track record. They excel at disruption and alienating parents and teachers by their autocratic style. Despite their boasts, they don’t know how to improve education. They are not even skilled at management.

What they do best is advance themselves and make lucrative connections with related businesses owned by Broadie cronies.


The Metro Nashville School Board took the bold, brave step of rejecting a proposed Rocketship charter school.

The Nashville school board denied charter school network Rocketship Education a new school — despite receiving its first recommendation to approve an application in years.

The Metro Nashville Public Schools board bucked the district’s charter school review recommendation for the resubmitted application with seven votes to deny it. Only Gini Pupo-Walker did not vote to deny. Board member Sharon Gentry was not present on Tuesday night.

James Robinson, Rocketship’s Tennessee director, said the charter school network will appeal the decision to the Tennessee State Board of Education, which hears all charter school appeals…

Newly-appointed Board Vice Chair Amy Frogge criticized the school for its computer-based learning model and the way it uses investors to pay for its property.

The model, she said, “creates fertile ground for investors to reap millions.” Frogge also cited news reports, saying the school follows an “extreme militaristic” behavioral model.

“Assuming Rocketship is producing higher test scores, I must ask at what cost,” Frogge says. She said the school is a “drill and kill” instruction model.

Board member Christiane Buggs said her reasons for denying the school were purely financial. 

“We don’t have the funding right now to outsource,” she said.

Amy Frogge is a parent activist and lawyer. She is featured as a leader of the Resistance in my new book Slaying Goliath. It will be published in January.


Amy Frogge was a two-term elected member of the Metro Nashville school board. She is a lawyer and a parent activist. She posted this fascinating account on her Facebook page.

Amy Frogge is one of the heroes of the Resistance who is featured in my forthcoming book Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance Against Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools (January 21, 2020).

She writes:
Nashville just got taken for a ride. Here’s how it happened:

Back in 2007, Superintendent Joseph Wise and his Chief of Staff, David Sundstrom, were fired from their jobs in Florida for “serious misconduct.” Wise is a graduate of LA billionaire Eli Broad’s “superintendents academy,” which trains business leaders as superintendents with the purpose of privatizing schools (closing existing schools and opening more charter schools). 

After losing their jobs, Wise and Sundstrom founded Atlantic Research Partners (ARP) and began making millions from Chicago schools. ARP then acquired parts of SUPES Academy, a superintendent training company, and merged with the recruiting firm, Jim Huge and Associates. SUPES Academy, however, was shut down after Chicago superintendent Barbara Byrd-Bennett pled guilty to federal corruption charges for steering no-bid contracts to SUPES Academy, her former firm, in exchange for financial kickbacks. Baltimore superintendent Dallas Dance was also involved in this scandal. 

Wise and Sundstrom also had their hands in other pots. They created a new entity called Education Research and Development Institute (ERDI), which charged education vendors to arrange meetings with school superintendents and simultaneously paid the same superintendents to “test out” the vendor products.

Now the story shifts to Nashville: In 2016, the Nashville Public Education Foundation pushed the school board to hire Jim Huge and Associates to perform our search for a new superintendent. The search brought us three “Broadies” (superintendents trained by or affiliated with the Broad academy), a Teach for America alum with no advanced degree and no degree in education whatsoever, and Shawn Joseph, who was planning to attend the Broad Superintendents Academy at the time he was hired. 

Jim Huge lied to the school board, telling us that the only highly qualified and experienced candidate, an African American female named Carol Johnson (who had served as superintendent of three major school systems, including Memphis and Boston), had withdrawn her name from the search. This was not true. Ultimately, the board hired Shawn Joseph.

When he arrived in Nashville, Joseph brought his friend, Dallas Dance, with him as an advisor- only about six months before Dance was sentenced to federal prison in connection with kick-backs for no-bid contracts in the SUPES Academy scandal. Joseph also brought in former Knoxville superintendent Jim McIntyre, another “Broadie” who had been ousted from his position in Knoxville amidst great acrimony, to serve as an advisor. Joseph began following a formula seen in other districts: He prohibited staff members from speaking to board members and immediately began discussion about closing schools. Like Byrd-Bennett and Dance, Joseph also began giving large, no-bid contracts to vendors and friends, some of which were never utilized. Some of the contracts were connected with ERDI, and Joseph’s Chief Academic Officer, Monique Felder, failed to disclose that she had been paid by ERDI (just like Dallas Dance, who committed perjury for failing to disclose part-time consulting work that benefitted him financially).

You can read the rest of the story- and much more- in the attached article. But the long and short of it is that the very same people who rigged our search to bring Shawn Joseph to Nashville are also the same people who stood to benefit from no-bid contracts with MNPS. These folks were also connected with illegal activities in other states. 

In the end, Nashville suffered. “Among [the] negative outcomes are increased community acrimony, wasted education funds, and career debacles for what could perhaps have been promising school leaders.

In the case of Joseph and Nashville, controversies with his leadership decisions strongly divided the city’s black community, and taxpayers were stuck with a $261,250 bill for buying out the rest of his contract. As a result of the fallout, Joseph lost his state teaching license, and he vowed never to work in the state again.”



Investigative journalist Jeff Bryant has published a bombshell article about entrepreneurs who operate superintendent searches, then call on their Superintendents to buy professional development, technology, training, and other services. The conflicts of interest and self-dealing are shocking. Districts lose millions of dollars and buy services they don’t need, while the search service continues to pay them.

Most of us are familiar with the case of Barbara Byrd-Bennett, former Superintendent of Chicago Public Schools, who is currently serving a jail sentence for taking kickbacks.  But the web of corruption has involved many superintendents and school districts.

Bryant writes:

In July 2013, the education world was rocked when a breaking story by Chicago independent journalist Sarah Karp reported that district CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett had pushed through a no-bid $20 million contract to provide professional development to administrators with a private, for-profit company called SUPES Academy, which she had worked for a year before the deal transpired. Byrd-Bennett was also listed as a senior associate for PROACT Search, a superintendent search firm run by the same individuals who led SUPES.

By 2015, federal investigators looked into the deal and found reason to charge Byrd-Bennett for accepting bribes and kickbacks from the company that ran SUPES and PROACT. A year-and-a-half later, the story made national headlines when Byrd-Bennett was convicted and sentenced to prison for those charges. But anyone who thought this story was an anomaly would be mistaken. Similar conflicts of interest among private superintendent search firms, their associated consulting companies, and their handpicked school leaders have plagued multiple school districts across the country.

In an extensive examination, Our Schools has discovered an intricate web of businesses that reap lucrative school contracts funded by public tax dollars. These businesses are often able to place their handpicked candidates in school leadership positions who then help make the purchasing decision for the same businesses’ other products and services, which often include professional development, strategic planning, computer-based services, or data analytics. The deals are often brokered in secrecy or presented to local school boards in ways that make insider schemes appear legitimate.

As in the Byrd-Bennett scandal, school officials who get caught in this web risk public humiliation, criminal investigation, and potential jail time, while the businesses that perpetuate this hidden arrangement continue to flourish and grow.

The results of these scandals are often disastrous. School policies and personnel are steered toward products that reward private companies rather than toward research-proven methods for supporting student learning and teacher performance. School governance becomes geared to the interests of well-connected individuals rather than the desires of teachers and voters. And when insider schemes become public, whole communities are thrown into chaos, sometimes for years, resulting in wasted education dollars and increased disillusionment with school systems and local governance.

Bryant lays out the evidence of collusion, corruption, and conflicts of interest. He reviews districts in Illinois, Maryland, and elsewhere. The evidence is devastating.

Nashville was victimized by entrepreneurs who manipulated the district and the process.

One of the first school districts to become entangled in the conglomeration of firms Wise and Sundstrom assembled was Nashville, which in 2016 chose Jim Huge and Associates to help with hiring a new superintendent. The following year the board hired Shawn Joseph, whom Huge had recommended.

Shortly after Joseph arrived in Nashville, according to local News Channel 5 investigative reporter Phil Williams, he began pushing the district to give $1.8 million in no-bid contracts to Performance Matters, a Utah-based technology company that sells “software solutions” to school districts.

Williams found Joseph had spoken at the company’s conference and he had touted the company’s software products in promotional materials while he was employed in his previous job in Maryland. Williams also unearthed emails showing Joseph began contract talks with Performance Matters two weeks before he formally took office in Nashville. What also struck Williams as odd was that despite the considerable cost of the contract, district employees were not required to use the software.

In addition to pushing Performance Matters, Williams reported, Joseph gave an “inside track” to Discovery Education, a textbook and digital curriculum provider and another company he and his team had ties to from their work in Maryland. With Joseph’s backing, Discovery Education received an $11.4 million contract to provide a new science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM) program even though a smaller company came in with a bid that was a fraction of what Discovery proposed.

By June 2018, Nashville school board member Amy Frogge was questioning Joseph about possible connections these vendors might have to ERDI. A district audit would confirm that ERDI’s affiliated companies—including Performance Matters, Discovery Education, and six other companies—had signed contracts totaling more than $17 million with the district since Joseph had been hired.

Frogge also came to realize that all these enterprises were connected to the firm who had been instrumental in hiring Joseph—Jim Huge and Associates.

“The search that brought Shawn Joseph to Nashville was clearly manipulated,” Frogge told Our Schools in an email, “and the school board was kept in the dark about Joseph’s previous tenure in Maryland and his relationships with vendor companies.”

Frogge said some of the manipulation occurred when the search firm told school board members that disputes among current board members—over charter schools, school finances, and other issues—indicated the district was “‘too dysfunctional’ to hire top-level superintendents and therefore needed to hire a less experienced candidate.”

But previous investigations of school leadership search firms conducted by Our Schools have found companies like these frequently forego background checks of prospective candidates they recommend, promote favored candidates regardless of their experience or track record, and push board members to keep the entire search process, including the final candidates, confidential from public scrutiny.

“Too often, national search firms are also driven by money-making motives and/or connections with those seeking profit,” Frogge contended. That conflict of interest is a concern not only in Nashville but also in other districts where school leaders with deep ties to education vendors and consultants have resulted in huge scandals that traumatized communities and cost taxpayers millions…

Frogge noted school boards have alternatives to using private search firms that promote tainted candidates willing to feed the search firms’ side businesses.

“School board members need to become better informed and more savvy about profit motives and organizations that seek to influence their selection,” she wrote. “School boards can instead opt to hire a local school boards association (for example, the Tennessee School Boards Association) or a local recruiter with a reputation for personal integrity to conduct a search. They can also choose to hire from within.”


Clifford Wallace and Leigh Wallace, a father-daughter team of professional educators, lambaste state officials for their relentless attacks on the state’s public school teachers. 

They begin:

Leadership matters. It has the potential to influence student outcomes. Clearly, there is a lack of leadership in Frankfort. Kentucky State Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis is taking pages from the flawed and unsuccessful playbooks of his neoliberal, pro-privatization counterparts in Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. From no longer requiring master’s degrees for teachers to maintain certification to promoting privatized for profit “charter schools” as the panacea to save the “failing public schools” – our “commissioner” is helping dismantle our public schools – and the teaching profession – in Kentucky.

Lewis continues to disparage professionally prepared – and experienced – educators through diminishing the significance of the complex work they do on a daily basis, insulting their commitment and expertise, threatening their pensions, and cutting programs and budgets. Recently, in addition to painting a negative narrative around our public schools and the professionals that work in them, he proposed a “pay for performance” incentive for Kentucky Public School teachers as a means to motivate them to “work harder” and ensure every student has access to a “quality public school.” While this may sound promising on the surface – especially if you have not read the numerous studies conducted by scholars on this practice over the past 30+ years – it is a failed solution.

Lewis’s proposal for merit pay or performance bonuses is absurd. It has been tried repeatedly and failed everywhere. It was tried in Nashville, with a bonus of $15,000 for middle school math teachers who raised test scores. It failed. It has been tried again and again over the past 100 years and has NEVER worked.
Lewis is no “Reformer.” He is being paid to demoralize professional educators and find excuses to privatize public schools. This is not “leadership.” This is Disruption.
The teachers and students of Kentucky deserve better leaders who are dedicated to improving conditionsof teaching and learning.


Nashville leaders were surprised to learn that its own lobbyists were working to push vouchers at a time when the votes in the legislature for vouchers were very close. 

The voucher bill targets only Nashville and Shelby County (Memphis).

Nashville’s lobbying firm is coming under fire from the Metro Council because it also advocates for school vouchers — an issue one councilman says puts the lobbyists at odds with the city’s interests.

According to state records, Adams & Reese managing partner Gif Thornton and three other firm employees are registered to represent both Nashville city government and a prominent pro-voucher group TennesseeCAN, once known as StudentsFirst Tennessee.

Councilman Dave Rosenberg said the city hamstrung itself by hiring lobbyists that can’t represent the city’s opposition to vouchers, particularly because the issue has dominated the legislative session this year.

“That’s something that they should be lobbying against on our behalf,” Rosenberg said. “At least they should not be lobbying in direct opposition to the city.”

TennesseeCAN is funded by the usual billionaires, but was launched by opioid king Jonathan Sackler. Michelle Rhee started StudentsFirst.

Nashville got taken to the cleaners with the help of its own lobbyists.



The New Vision Academy in Nashville is in trouble for violating the fire code andquestionable financial practices. 

“The Nashville charter school New Vision Academy has been violating city fire code by enrolling more students than the capacity allowed at the south Nashville church building where it rents space.

“Because of the overcrowding issue, Metro Nashville Public Schools is forced to remove at least 64 students from the school in the coming weeks, according to a letter from the district’s charter school chief.

“It’s the latest development for a school that has been embroiled in turmoil. New Vision Academy remains under federal and state investigations related to financial irregularities, special education requirements and compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

“In a letter to school board members on Friday, MNPS Executive Officer of Charter Schools Dennis Queen said the school has been cramming 18 to 20 students into classrooms that are only allowed to hold eight to 10 students….

”Last year, a group of teachers sent the district a whistleblower’s report detailing an array of concerns at the school, including students with disabilities and English-learning students not receiving the specialized classroom time required by federal law.

“The teachers also criticized the school for financial issues, complaining they sometimes were denied requests to buy books and other classroom supplies.

“New Vision CEO Tim Malone makes $312,971 annually, and his wife LaKesha Malone makes $250,000 per year, according to New Vision’s most recent public tax documents. For context, Tim Malone’s salary is $27,000 more than MNPS Director Shawn Joseph’s salary.

“The Malones said through an attorney last year that they both worked two jobs under a single nonprofit umbrella. In addition to the school, the Malones run a social work nonprofit.

“Several of the teachers who raised the concerns about New Vision were fired on the same day The Tennessean published an investigative story detailing issues at the school. The teachers subsequently were hired for this school year by other schools.”

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.


If you live anywhere near Nashville, please turn out to hear theeloquest Dr. Charles Foster Johnson talk about the danger of vouchers and how they threaten religious liberty.

Pastors for Tennessee Children has been expanding but needs your help to reach more ministers and faith leaders (laypeople) prior to the January session of the General Assembly. Come find out why and listen to the dynamic Rev. Charles Foster Johnson advocate for public education as part of our moral duty.

Thursday, October 4, 11:30 AM – 1 PM CT

Nashville Event Featuring Rev. Charles Foster Johnson

Belmont University, Curb Event Center, Vince Gill Room, 2000 Belmont Blvd

Building #26. Parking is available through the P7 entrance- visitors spaces are well marked. The Vince Gill Room is at the Belmont Blvd. side of the building, attached to the Arena. Signs will direct you there.
Lunch provided

To RSVP, contact

Rev. Johnson of Fort Worth is founder of Pastors for Texas Children and has inspired the Oklahoma, Kentucky and Tennessee groups He is also the promoter of similar groups in formation in ten other states. He has told us how his Texas group of more than 2,000 pastors and faith leaders has helped prevent the passage of private school vouchers in the Texas Legislature since its founding five years ago. Tennesseans hope to similarly convince our legislators to support our Tennessee schools and reject vouchers. We are starting by introducing pastors and faith leaders across the state with a speaking tour to present our positive public education message. You will hear how the voices of ministers, lay leaders, rabbis, imams, and their congregants are needed to support our public school children.

Also. please consider becoming a partner (member) of our network at (website).
Contact for more information about the other four stops on Rev. Johnson’s Tennessee speaking tour: Chattanooga (lunch, Oct. 2), Knoxville (lunch, Oct. 3), Pleasant Hill (evening of Oct. 3), and Memphis (lunch, Oct. 5),

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