Charter Advocates Protest Against 'Hostile' School Board

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"I need to feel your anger!" says Shree' Medlock to a crowd of charter school parents and "school choice" advocates. "Are you angry?"

Medlock, the National Advocacy Director for the Washington, D.C.-based Black Alliance for Education (BAEO), is standing in front of the Metro Nashville Public Schools office on Bransford Avenue. The response to her question is jumbled but clear enough: yes, they're angry.

They have gathered for a protest organized by the Tennessee Charter School Center (TCSC), and supported by BAEO, that is aimed at MNPS; more specifically, the Metro school board, which has been flirting with the idea of challenging the state's charter school law (here is an opinion from Metro attorney's suggesting they could) and raised concerns about whether the district can afford to continue adding charter schools. When the protest begins at high noon, the crowd numbers about 50 and it grows as time goes on, aided in part by a chartered bus that drops off a number of protesters with signs in hand. (Where the bus came from is unknown to Pith as of this writing*).

Rebecca Lieberman, of the TCSC, tells Pith why the group put out the call for a demonstration.

"The district has taken a really hostile stance towards charter schools that, in fact, are outperforming district schools, especially in middle schools," she says. "Four of five of the top middle schools for growth in Nashville are charter schools, and yet the district is making statements that they can't afford to balance the budget with their fixed costs and still add more high quality schools. And our argument is that one, quality is the focus. Funding should follow quality. And we need to have a board that's going to prioritize achievement and make the difficult choices with their budget that would allow every kid to have access to a high quality school."

She continues, "So what's happening is that parents were distressed at this idea that somehow it's unconstitutional or that teachers aren't going to get pay raises. These are fear tactics and scare tactics that the district is telling, which disguise budgetary priorities as constraints. But in fact, everything should be on the table before we limit options for kids."

The TCSC is handing out three different colored letters to be sent to school board members, who have been categorized according to their perceived support or charter schools. The members are grouped as follows:

Green (for supportive members):
Sharon Gentry
Jo Ann Brannon
Elissa Kim
Michael Hayes
Cheryl Mayes

Yellow (for members in the middle):
Jill Speering
Anna Shepherd

Red (for members perceived to be opposed to charter schools):
Will Pinkston
Amy Frogge
Jesse Register (Director of Schools)

And here's a sampling from each of the letters.

Green: "Your recent actions have shown me that you understand that we need more high quality schools in Nashville."

Yellow: "Your recent actions have shown that you remain unconvinced about the need for high-quality seats for all students in our public system of schools."

Red: "Your recent actions have shown me that you do not have the willingness or courage to fight for the future of our children outside maintaining control of a broken system — a system that is failing to provide a high-quality education to all of its students."

Back on the front lawn of the MNPS office, parents and activists are taking turns speaking in front of the crowd and assembled television camera crews. Some tell their stories of escaping to a high performing charter school, while others describe children stuck in struggling traditional public schools. After a parent or two, Ken Campbell, the president of BAEO who flew in this morning from similar efforts in Mississippi, steps up to the make-shift podium, and rails against inequity in the system. Well-off families who are able to move to the suburbs or work the system to get their kids in a better school effectively have choice, he says, while others are stuck in schools that don't work for their kids. But he rejects the notion that groups like these are opponents of the public school system.

"I don't' want anybody to be confused to think that somehow if you support charter schools that you're either against public education or you're against the school system," he says. "We are challenging people in this country and in this city. We can do more than one thing. We can give parents opportunity while we still try to fix schools. Nobody is anti-public schools. We want them to work for all kids, but you know what, sometimes you gotta do stuff different. We can't be afraid to go out and take that stance."

MNPS' Meredith Libbey, Special Assistant to the Director of Schools, is on hand to push back on behalf of the district. She is handing out flyers advertising MNPS' 1st Choice Festival, Sept. 23 from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. The event is aimed at helping parents understand the district's school choice selection process and "find the best educational fit for their children."

Libbey also provides MNPS' prepared response to the charges being levied on the lawn (almost as if this argument is not new).

"[MNPS] welcomes high-quality charter schools," the bullet-pointed statement begins. "Anyone who says otherwise is misinformed. Metro Schools wants every child to attend a quality school, whether a charter school or a district-run school."

The document goes on to cite the board's authorization of 23 charter schools for operation in the 2014-15 school year, noting that the number represents an increase from just four charter schools in 2009. Moreover, the district notes that the board approved five of six charter school applicants this year, "an approval rate that is well above the national approval rate."

TCSC's Lieberman acknowledges that there are a lot of charter schools in Nashville, but ...

"But there are not enough," she says. "So right now according to the board's internal data, there are approximately 80,000 seats, kids in the district. And according to their own benchmarks, only 19,000 of those are [at schools] considered high quality. While we have enough charter schools, we don't have enough high quality schools. From our perspective it's really about high quality schools. We don't want the board to move funds away from a high performing school or take money away from a program that is serving kids and getting results. Let's look at the data and make good decisions."

If you don't want to take funds away from good performing district schools, in order to fund new charter schools, does that mean we need to start shutting down the lower-performing district schools (as Bruce Dobie suggests in his column for the Tennessean today)?

"I wouldn't say let's shut down all low-performing schools immediately, but would I will say is that funding has to be a process of prioritization," Lieberman says. "And when you treat all schools equal and every seat as equal — and by equal, I mean equally deserving to be holding kids — you can't make investments in what's working and what's not. And from my perspective, I don't care what the ratio of charters to district schools are, but I want the ratio of high quality schools to students to be matched. So from our perspective, charters are a strategy that the board is not utilizing skillfully to enhance the educational options of kids and to build in more high quality seats for kids who desperately need them."

The district says the math doesn't support the call to continue expanding charter schools in Nashville. The MNPS packet from Libbey describes the situation thusly:

"Funding follows students, but fixed costs do not. The district must be fiscally responsible and ensure charter schools meet their responsibilities and district-run schools are adequately funded. This year, about 5 percent of our 82,000 plus students are enrolled in charter schools with a financial impact of more than $39 million."

Will Pinkston, the board's budget committee chairman, describes to Pith the budget projections that have the district worried, and motivated the board to take the unprecedented step of starting the '14-15 budget process this month. He says current projections have the district facing a $24 million budget shortfall. The board is going to look for cost savings and opportunities for increased efficiency, he says, but will have a difficult time continuing to fund "unchecked growth of schools of any kind."

"This is not about pro-charter or anti-charter," he says. "At this point, it's about basic math and how we get all these numbers to add up. It's not going to be easy."

And about the notion that the school board is hostile to charter schools?

"The board just approved six high quality charter applications within the last 60 days or so, going back to late June," he says. "The mere idea that the board is somehow hostile to charter schools is, frankly, absurd. They may want to look for another school district if they're really looking for people who are hostile to charters. This is the wrong place to look. History just doesn't agree with that."

Meanwhile, inside the building at the Bransford Ave. HQ, the person running the district's Twitter account was getting a little feisty.

UPDATE: *Rebecca Lieberman of the TCSC posts the following comment (as seen below) about where the supporters on the bus came:

"The Tennessee Charter School Center offered a shuttle service from East Nashville. All riders were charter school parents and supporters from Davidson County...The Tennessee Charter School Center provided shuttle service within Nashville to charter school parents and supporters. Not all families in Nashville have their own transportation."

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