Money Transforms School Board Race Into Thunderdome for Elites



Joey Garrison reports on the obscene amounts of cash coursing through the school board race over at The City Paper, and how that money reflects a growing interest in the public body by out-of-state hedge fund managers, local movers and shakers and pro-charter school political action committees — particularly the latter group, which aims to prop up candidates who are ostensibly amenable to their vision of publicly subsidized pseudo-private schools following the state's open enrollment law.

“For a number of years, people could not see a vision for how public education could be reformed,” said Lee Barfield, an attorney at Bass, Berry & Sims, who donated to [school board candidates Margaret] Dolan, [Elissa] Kim and [Will] Pinkston, along with chipping in $1,000 to a pro-charter school PAC dubbed Great Public Schools.

Attitudes have rapidly changed, he said, citing various education trends at the state level. Barfield also referred to Nashville’s boom in publicly financed, privately run charter schools. He said Metro’s central office has historically served as a “monopoly,” but the charter movement is quickly upending that perception. Dollars to pro-charter candidates have followed.

“If you feel like that public education is a hole, and there’s no way out of it, then you’re unlikely to give money,” Barfield said. “On the other hand, if you see that there is a vision, a way public education can be improved — and a part of that is to have quality people on the school board — then people are more willing to step up to the plate.”

... Dolan and Kim also benefited financially from the backing of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and a budding charter school crowd.

Each collected $7,100 checks from the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce’s SuccessPac, an equal amount from the pro-charter school PAC Great Public Schools, and $3,000 contributions from a PAC formed by StudentsFirst, a new education organization that former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee leads. The group, which supports charters and is wary of teachers unions, also gave money to Pinkston. ...

New on the scene this year, however, is Great Public Schools, the pro-charter PAC, which raised $34,300, and maxed out contributions to District 3’s DeLozier along with Kim and Dolan. Spearheading the group is a trio of affluent charter school backers: investor Bill DeLoache, a trustee of the Joe C. Davis Foundation who chairs the board of the Tennessee Charter Incubator; John Eason, a board member of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association; and Townes Duncan, managing partners of Solidus Company. [Full disclosure: Duncan heads the board of SouthComm, parent company of the Scene and The City Paper.]

Bankrolling Great Public Schools is an assortment of business heavyweights: Auto dealership mogul Lee Beaman contributed $2,000 to the PAC; Jim Flautt, senior vice president of Asurion, delivered $2,500; Howard McClure, CEO of Change Healthcare, donated $3,000; and William Wilson, president of Cherokee Equity Group, contributed $3,000.

And as Garrison notes earlier in the piece, the money raised by candidates Elissa Kim and Margaret Dolan "accounted for nearly half of the $377,703 raised by all 17 candidates vying for five school board seats." Most notably, Kim has the support of several hedge fund managers, including Eliza Kennedy, a consultant with Bain & Company (a progenitor of that other Bain), and has raised roughly 30 percent of her war chest from out-of-state donors.

Curiously, a heavily slanted East Nashvillian article details the apparent conflict of interest for Kim, alleging her status as vice president for recruitment of Teach for America would conflict with her membership on the board of charter school KIPP Nashville.

Elissa Kim, the darling of the pro-charter forces who has emerged as Porter’s most serious and well-funded challenger, is an executive with Teach For America, a nonprofit corporation that supplies teachers to the Metro school system. She is also on the board of KIPP Nashville, a nonprofit corporation operating local charter schools. Because both TFA and KIPP receive funding from the Metro school board, Kim’s affiliations would represent clear conflicts of interest if she is elected — a fact Kim was reluctant to acknowledge during a
lengthy interview with The East Nashvillian.

“I will not resign from Teach For America,” Kim said when asked if she would resign her posts to eliminate the conflicts of interest if elected. “I would recuse myself from any discussions or decisions regarding Teach For America.”

When it was noted Teach For America receives funding from the Metro taxpayers, Kim said, “I would recuse myself from any decision around that.” The TFA executive went on to say she would “roll off” the KIPP Nashville board.

So if Kim is elected, she would recuse herself from voting at times to avoid her conflict of interest with Teach For America; which means at times, District 5 residents would not be represented on important budgetary votes, as well as any votes involving teachers as a group, essentially being disenfranchised on those school board matters.

A compelling argument, to say the least. But what the East Nashvillian article fails to recognize is that the city, under the Dean administration, has exclusively turned to Teach for America to provide an influx of new teachers funded by Race to the Top dollars. That cozy relationship (and the increasing reliance of charters upon TFA for staffing) would illustrate that, if anything, Kim's ostensible dual alliances are a good illustration of the symbiosis between TFA and charter schools in Nashville and beyond.

A Dec. 25, 2011, critique of Teach for America by Education and the Cold War author Andrew Hartman, reprinted online by the Washington Post, article portrays the organization as a smokescreen for charter school proponents, allowing them to invoke the liberal trappings of the Peace Corps-style program even as it advances a conservative education agenda:

The liberals of the education reform movement, often more surreptitiously than Michelle Rhee, the overstated former Washington D.C. chancellor of schools during Democratic Mayor Adrian Fenty’s term in office, have for decades advanced negative assumptions about public school teachers that now power the attacks by Christie, Walker, Kasich and their ilk.

This is particularly true of Teach for America (TFA), the prototypical liberal education reform organization, where Rhee first made her mark. The history of TFA reveals the ironies of contemporary education reform. In its mission to deliver justice to underprivileged children, TFA and the liberal education reform movement have advanced an agenda that advances conservative attempts to undercut teacher’s unions. More broadly, TFA has been in the vanguard in forming a neoliberal consensus about the role of public education — and the role of public school teachers — in a deeply unequal society. ...

The original TFA mission was based on a set of four somewhat noble if paternalistic rationales. First, by bringing the elite into the teaching profession, even if temporarily, TFA would burnish it with a much-needed “aura of status and selectivity.” Second, by supplying its recruits to impoverished school districts, both urban and rural, TFA would compensate for the lack of quality teachers willing to work in such challenging settings. And third, although Kopp recognized that most corps members would not remain classroom teachers beyond their two-year commitments, she believed that TFA alums would form the nucleus of a new movement of educational leaders — that their transformative experiences teaching poor children would mold their ambitious career trajectories. Above these three foundational principles loomed a fourth: the mission to relegate educational inequality to the ash heap of history.

TFA goals derive, in theory, from laudable — if misguided — impulses. But each, in practice, has demonstrated to be deeply problematic.

TFA, suitably representative of the liberal education reform more generally, underwrites, intentionally or not, the conservative assumptions of the education reform movement: that teacher’s unions serve as barriers to quality education; that testing is the best way to assess quality education; that educating poor children is best done by institutionalizing them; that meritocracy is an end-in-itself; that social class is an unimportant variable in education reform; that education policy is best made by evading politics proper; and that faith in public school teachers is misplaced.

To this end, the question is, "Do we need another hero?"

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