Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The educational schism among Nashville "progressives"

TN Edu-Independent- I believe much of the debate over education reform and charter schools today in Nashville is actually more divisive among competing camps on the "left" side of the political spectrum than it is with the traditional right vs. left divide. I'll be honest in that I'm totally confused by this. If it helps clear up where I'm coming from (so that you can try to assume my biases), politically I'm an Independent and have voted for Democrat, Republican and Independent candidates in the past.

Traditionally, I've heard the Democratic party as the party that claims to be for the underdog and the under served in our society, often poor and minority families and individuals. The party claims to be about providing policies and avenues for poor and under served individuals to make it into the middle class, and to strengthen and grow the middle class that already exists (there are many middle class claims by both major parties).

I share that ethic, and I see many "progressive" Democrats doing this work every day in classrooms and schools (charter and traditional public) with that goal very much front and center in what they do -- to bring greater equality and justice to neighborhoods and communities in Nashville. I really have a lot of respect for this brand of "progressive."

BUT I've also seen many cases of other "progressive" Democrats who do things and say things that are very counter productive towards this supposedly stated platform of justice and equality, and being for the under served and marginalized of our society.

A question I've often heard posed when it comes to improving public education in Nashville, a historically urban Democratic center is:

"when it comes to education, what sort of Democrat are you, really?"

This debate is also playing out in other cities and on a national level.

One example I'll point to is New York City. Mayor de Blasio, a Democrat was elected in 2013 with more than 73% of the vote (that's not a close election).

During the campaign, and shortly after being elected, Mayor de Blasio struck a fairly loud anti-charter tone:

"In September 2013, de Blasio voiced his opposition to charter schools, maintaining that their funding saps resources from classes like art, physical education and afterschool programs. He outlined a plan to discontinue the policy of offering rent-free space to the city's 183 charter schools and to place a moratorium on the co-location of charters schools in public school buildings. He said, "I won't favor charters. Our central focus is traditional public schools."

Hmm....where have I heard that line before?  "[charter school] funding saps resources..."  (The argument is intellectually dishonest and has been proven false a number of times. Nashville charter schools are actually saving the district money by MNPS' own analysis, and are also providing a much higher quality level of education.)

There was significant push back to de Blasio for his heavy anti-charter tone that saw large protests from charter school parents and supporters in New York City and at the state capitol in Albany.

There are estimated to be 95,000 students attending charter schools in New York City, with 42,600 students on waiting lists. See also: Charter schools enroll record 95G students, forcing expansion to meet demand.

Maybe de Blasio recognized that it's harder and harder (and foolish politically) to be anti-charter and continue to oppose so many parents in the City who value what thhttp://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/05/upshot/demise-of-the-southern-democrat-is-now-nearly-compete.html?_r=0eir charter school is offering their child.

Flash forward to the beginning of the school year, and we see somewhat a different message, with de Blasio's Superintendent of schools touring some charter schools on the first day of school for the year: NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen FariƱa Praises Charter on Visit.

The loud anti-charter tone is understandable for election seasons. The teacher unions are a powerful lobby in New York City (much more powerful than Nashville or in Tennessee). Yet when it comes to governing, it seems that Mayor de Blasio has shifted to a more reasonable approach when it comes to the issue of charter schools.

If you relate New York City's example to the issue of education reform and charter schools (not one in the same), it's also worth noting for our context in Nashville that Southern Democrats have taken an absolute beating politically in recent years (this trend has also occurred in Tennessee, more at the state level).

The chart below shows the Percentage of governors’ mansions, senators’ seats and state legislative bodies held by Democrats in the South outside Florida and Virginia:


For Southern Democrats in general, given that they've largely been voted out of favor from the governing political class, former Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen has some good insight and wise words on this:

“I come out of the business world. If you have a product that’s not working, you don’t say, ‘Our customers are lazy’ or ‘Our customers don’t know what’s best for them.’ The ones that are successful say, ‘I need a better product.’”

“We’re just trotting out the same old nostrums: a little class warfare here and a nod to labor unions there and more money for X, Y and Z programs,” said Bredesen. “People are looking for a vision.”

Applying this to the issue of education and the pretty intense discord that I see among Democrats in Nashville, here are some thoughts:

  • Any objective look at the educational outcomes of students in this city clearly shows that K-12 education is not at the level of rigor where it should be, at all (somehow there's disagreement on this point among the differing "progressives"). 
  • When you drill down specifically to look at the educational outcomes of poor and minority students in this city, the outcomes are completely shameful. If the same outcomes were present in the K-12 public schools located in Green Hills or West Nashville, that would never be tolerated, and you'd see a complete overhaul of this city's elected leaders. 
  • For some of these Democrat "progressives" that are in the habit of being loud and telling the parents of now 8,000 students in Nashville who are enrolled in a charter school this year that "they're making the wrong choice by choosing a charter school," this seems completely naive at best, and likely going to be a very unsuccessful strategy. 
  • There is a reason that Nashville charter school enrollment has seen a near parabolic rise in enrollment in the last 7 years or so. There is NO WAY that the parents of 8,000 public school students are willfully ignorant or dumb enough to be duped to not know what they're choosing (or staying in) when it comes to enrolling their child in a Nashville charter school. 
 I think many voters are confused by Democrats in Nashville, at least on the issue of improving education, and that issue tends to touch nearly every voter. I identify with many self-proclaimed "progressives" on the what and how to improve public education, but then I'm so far away from this other camp of "progressives" in their what and how discussions on public education. For this second camp of Nashville "progressives," to claim that this many public school parents are being duped or shammed by some dark shadowy ulterior motive that supposedly lies beneath efforts to improve public education in this city (charter schools being one approach), this seems really far-fetched, and not anything close to the "vision setting" and execution of said vision that governor Bredesen references above.

There is warfare largely being waged between competing camps of "progressives" on the issue of education in Nashville.

Perhaps what's most confusing about this schism is that so many "progressives" from one camp, those that are likely to align politically on other issues with "progressives" in the other camp, are many of the ones that are heavily engaged in and doing the actual work to improve public education.

Some more reading on this topic can be found at the following:

Howard Dean's "Neoliberal corporate education reform"?: Howard Dean on Teach for America, teachers' unions and the politics of false choices.

Why liberals should learn to love charter schools.

The above was reposted with permission. To view the original blog post follow this link.  

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