Charter Schools Corporate Reformers Education Industry Nashville Privatization Stand for Children

Nashville Dad: Money Pouring in to Gain Control of School Board: Is It Really About the Kids?

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T.C. Weber, a Nashville public school parent who writes a blog called “Dad Gone Wild,” writes that Nashville is a much overlooked epicenter of the corporate reform movement.

Nashville has, for the last several years, been an under-the-radar playground for the education reform movement. People may be familiar with the stories of New Orleans, Newark, Los Angeles, and lately, Denver, but the battles have been just as fierce in Nashville. Things ratcheted up in 2008 when Karl Dean was elected mayor. Dean fancied himself as a bit of the next coming of Michael Bloomberg when he opened up the doors wide to the education reform movement and invited them in with open arms.

Those were the salad days for the reform movement in Nashville. Nobody could really predict the unintended consequences of many of the policies, and they all sounded so great, there was little opposition. Teach for America was invited to town with full mayoral support along with the New Teacher Project. Dean set up the Charter Incubator, which was designed to help grow more charters faster. Next thing you know, Ravi Gupta and Todd Dickson showed up in town to great fanfare with their charter school models. Life was good for the reformers. Then came the overreach.

In 2012, Great Hearts Academy was invited by a group of wealthy charter school advocates to open a charter school in Nashville. One that would be located in an affluent part of town but wouldn’t offer a transportation plan. The proposed school was also lacking a diversity plan. That’s when the battle lines began to be drawn. Previously, charter schools were something that happened to those “other people,” but now they were coming to middle class neighborhoods and people were starting to question why. Great Hearts’ application was denied after a fierce public battle, and despite a hefty fine imposed on Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) from the state, the days of easy expansion for charter schools came to an end. People had gotten a look behind the curtain and weren’t impressed.

Over the last four years, it has been one fight after another over charter schools. Fights that were often initiated by the charter community’s over-zealousness for expansion. Despite numerous studies showing the negative financial impact that charter expansion would have for MNPS, then-Mayor Dean and others continued to push for more expansion. Unfortunately for them, parents had begun to read the research and fight back. Over time, the efforts of charter operators to expand have been met with dwindling success until this year, when no new charter school applications were approved.

Now reformer money is rolling in to elect new school board members who will support charter expansion. Oregon-based Stand for Children is leading the way with corporate donations to school board candidates committed to privatization.

Back tracking just a bit, 2012 saw the first of the big dollar school board elections in Nashville. In District 5, Elissa Kim brought in just shy of $84K and ended up winning the election. Interestingly enough, District 9 candidate Margaret Dolan raised over $100k, but still lost to Amy Frogge, who raised only $17,864. The 2014 election saw a little less money invested and allowed the charter contingency to pick up two backers in Mary Pierce and Tyese Hunter. This year also saw a proliferation of negative mailers from outside groups. In all fairness, candidate Pierce did renounce negative mailers sent out by Michelle Rhee’s Students First organization during the campaign. Despite picking up these two seats, charter supporters were losing the fight for more charter growth and public sentiment was beginning to turn. This was largely due to board members Will Pinkston and Amy Frogge being far more effective at making the argument for temperance in charter growth than their opponents did for expanding.

That’s why, along with their opposition to vouchers and their insistence that the state properly fund public education, both Pinkston and Frogge have found themselves subject to a well-financed attack in their respective bids for re-election. Pinkston, specifically, is a prized target. His opponent, a small businessman with 5 children in MNPS, has somehow managed to raise $90K despite never having run for office before. That’s the kind of money you need for a statewide election, not a local school board position. It begs the questions why and how did the candidate become that skilled a fundraiser? With final disclosures still a week away, it’s not hard to envision the campaign beating the 2012 record of $113k raised. That’s just obscene. To make things worse, Pinkston and Frogge are not alone in facing abnormally well-funded opponents.

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