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Why I stopped being a public school parent

Metro Nashville Public Schools started classes 2 weeks ago, and for the first time in 4 years, our 9-year-old did not start classes with MNPS. For the first time ever, after raising two daughters, I am not a public school parent.

Our youngest attended a North Nashville magnet school–which was practically a neighborhood school for us–from Kindergarten until 3rd grade. It is an urban school, predominantly African American, with a high number of students in the reduced price lunch program. Having said that, we can also say that we were satisfied with our former school. We do not have horror stories about bad teachers and callous principals, stories that tend to be the emotional fodder of education reformers and parent triggers.

After four years, we have had generally great experiences with our daughter’s teachers, a supportive relationship with her principal, and meaningful friendships that we are sad to leave behind.

If it were not for the administration of MNPS, we would probably be staying for her final year at the magnet and beyond. But we look at the way MNPS is managing its school system, implementing education reform and trying to appease courthouse and business elites and we are left feeling concerned about facing the upcoming lottery for middle schools without a safety net.

Instead of a liberal education based on John Dewey’s ideas that public schools should prepare students to become empowered, participating citizens in a robust, inclusive democracy, MNPS’s values conform to the corporate elites at the Nashville Chamber of Commerce and the school reformers who are bent on privatizing public education.

Public schools administration here has always seemed bureaucratic, and arrogantly so. It is a reason other parents gave me in the past for pulling their kids out. That has not changed. We called MNPS last week to request a refund on our kid’s cafeteria balance. We had to go through three layers of bureaucracy to find out what the balance was. When we finally got someone in accounting to tell us, their tone audibly came across as rattled that we would request back our prepayments for unclaimed lunches. Getting a refund has been easier, though, than finding out our daughter’s TCAP scores from last spring. MNPS is tardy divulging those.

Add to the standard iron cage of bureaucracy the latest red-state pressure to destroy public education and replace it with a combination of market-based values of privatization and theologically conservative emphases on subsidizing parochial education, and parents like us who have been committed and loyal to public education face a real mess we did not cause. There is nothing remotely resembling a scuffle over the State of Tennessee’s red-state assault on public schools.

Republicans predictably see no harm in dismantling schools that are supposed to be common, open and free to all. But the biggest disappointment is on the left: Democrats have surrendered the line on public education. They no longer work to empower parents and teachers to fight for the shared goal of supporting teaching and making our schools stronger. Instead, the Democrats, led by the Obama administration, embrace charter schools, high-stakes testing and venture philanthropy. They make their beds with shock-doctrine, lobbying groups like Teach for America (essentially a temp worker program for teaching), Stand for Children (undermining teachers unions for years), Democrats for Education Reform (the party’s ideological whip for privatization). Democrats on education seem to prefer more social Darwinism, less participatory democracy. I have less confidence in them than in Metro Schools.

The evening before the first day that public schools were in session, we received a MNPS robocall with a recording of Jesse Register welcoming us back and thanking us for making Metro schools “our choice” for education. It was emblematic of exactly what is wrong with Register’s administration: education and socialization seem like afterthoughts and qualifiers to market-style choices.

First of all, Register’s mantra of choice is a myth. As public school parents we never had a choice not to have a choice as defined by the Director of Schools. MNPS remains a lumbering bureaucracy with a veneer of the “innovation” brand to please the suits at the Chamber of Commerce. That brand touts charter schools, which drain money and pry infrastructure from traditional schools while granting choices to a select number of students. If you cut through all of the gray propaganda about “innovation”, you will see like we have that charters are nothing more than public private schools. Reformers contrast “innovation” to “failing” public schools. But it is not clear that innovation is in fact succeeding:

what concerns me about this current ‘choice’ movement is that it is really just an illusion. From my research I’ve concluded that parents in poor community may have ‘choice,’ but those choices are about the same in quality as the schools they are escaping. Some schools, particularly some charter schools, have found ways to make themselves ‘seem’ like they are doing significantly better than the nearby ‘failing’ school, but when I’ve really looked deeply into the numbers I’ve found these schools to generally have a lot of student attrition and even with that, have pretty low standardized test scores.

To paraphrase the late George Carlin, we are deceived into thinking that deciding between paper or plastic qualifies as democratic choice.

In reality, the campaign to anti-brand public schools as “failing” is not above reproach:

We have been bamboozled by fast-talkers who manipulate scores, grading systems and terminology to portray public schools as failures, and their preferred alternatives – semi private and for-profit charter schools – as superior …. in the view of these reformers, “government” schools have a monopoly that must be disrupted in order for competitors to gain entry to the marketplace. This monopoly can be disrupted by the use of standardized tests, with high stakes consequences for failure. In order for this to work, failure MUST be identified in public schools, and they must be shut down, so as to release students and public funding to semi-private and private alternatives.

If this is not an outright coup d’etat of a community-based, democratic public education system, it is at the very least a rigging of the game to set public education up for failure instead of solving its problems on its own terms.

We have to make the best of the false choices in front of us in spite of their mythic proportion. We did not invent this system. We are proud of our service to public education during our daughter’s first four years. We did what we could to exercise community-based values as parents, including volunteering, participating in PTO (which met irregularly if ever during our last year) and supporting our teachers and principal. But it was a battle we could not win. Third grade was particularly gut-wrenching because of TCAP pressures coming from the top down. Our experience with high-stakes test preparation was awful and it took its toll on the quality of our home life. The teach-to-the-test demands have little to do with our vision of quality education to prepare our nine-year-old for becoming an autonomous, responsible adult suited for democratic citizenship.

After months of deliberation and discussion, we acquiesced to the “choice” Jesse Register offered us and pulled our child out of the public school system in order to enroll her in parochial school. The latter emphasizes social justice, which is more consistent with our worldview than the market-based strategies currently employed at MNPS. We believe that education has to reach beyond developing a docile workforce to take jobs that they are then supposed to feel obliged to have in a tough economy made worse by concentrated wealth. I realize that the decision is not without irony. However, it becomes difficult to continue the fight at the expense of our daughter’s well-being with the controversial prospect of Common Core testing replacing TCAPs in 2015.

Common Core looms like an agent of disaster capitalism ill-designed to educate. It has been called “massive fraud” perpetrated by financial interests that stand to gain “tremendous profits from chaotic change” engendered by the campaign to stigmatize public schools as “failing”. The Tennessean acknowledges that the standards focus on what business leaders want from applicants. Education must do more than represent a huge transfer of wealth from public coffers to private pockets. It must do more than provide businesses a docile work force of shelf stockers. Common Core appears to be nothing but shock doctrine, and our family got enough shock from TCAP to leverage us toward making the “choice” Jesse Register touts. At this point, I have no interest in facing the new brutalities of same-as-the-old-change in Common Core.

We are prepared to give parochial school a chance for at least a year, and it is our safety net for the time being. If Nashville had a strong opt-out movement, we would feel safer about staying with MNPS, but we cannot opt-out of testing without assuming undue risk. I’ve already received positive signs from our new school: like a teacher telling me that she does not teach to the test. If parochial education fits us we will stay. I have no doubt that we will miss the diversity of the last four years, but the district’s preoccupations with charters and testing have wiped out the benefits of attending a school in our urban neighborhood for a fifth year.

So much of public education policy now is hidden from parents. MNPS meets quietly with charter school operators (who get to pick and choose the students they want). Common Core standards are formulated by “work groups” that deliberately exclude affected students, parents, and teachers. Wealthy philanthropists have access to Common Core aligned test results, but parents do not. MNPS sponsors “collaborations” with North Nashville along the Jefferson Street corridor, but does not announce them to our PTOs and neighborhood associations. Having to bear the lack of transparency, to take a backseat to elites who do not have the investment we do–on top of the ridiculous pressures of TCAP and Common Core–is too much for common sense to brook.

We still support the idea of public education. In its highest form, public education is aligned more with social justice than with choices between commodities. Even though we are newly minted parochial school parents, we will gladly pay our taxes to support the public ideal itself. However, for the sake of our daughter, we are going to need to see more district alignment with our values before we give more than our money to Metro Nashville Public Schools.

Hands on Nashville charges volunteers to help Metro Schools

Posted in Disasters, Nashville, Tennessee, Uncategorized, Voluntarism by Mike Byrd on August 13, 2010

In the wake of the May 2010 Nashville floods the refrain bounces around that Nashville never waits on anybody else to volunteer to relieve and to restore. That comment seems like an underhanded swipe at government response, which is not exactly off base.

However, it is disingenuous, since Nashville often does wait on non-profit relief organizations that contract with local government to organize volunteers. Hands on Nashville (HON) is one of those organizations. It says that it mobilized thousands in response to the May floods. While I do not question the truth of the reportage, I believe it is perilous in general for Nashvillians to accept a government contractor’s numbers on faith without some form of independent verification. But I digress.

Even before the May floods Nashvillians who wanted to volunteer for projects on neighborhood public schools, for instance, were required to sign up with HON for teams that were limited to a certain number of people. (more…)

Political motives and tenderfooted consulting dog auditor’s investigation of Metro Nashville Police Department crime stat collection

Posted in Crime, Karl Dean, Law Enforcement, Metro Police, Nashville, TBI, Tennessee, Uncategorized by Mike Byrd on August 2, 2010

A story in the weekend paper confirms to me that the investigation into the Metro Police Department’s crime stat collection processes is serious in appearance only. The company hired to conduct the audit of MNPD is not exactly seasoned:

In response to Mayor Karl Dean’s request in May for an audit of police crime statistics, Metro auditors have hired a California-based company with no prior clients to help figure out if the department has been skewing local crime statistics.

The company, Elite Performance Auditing Consultants, has agreed to look at police policies and practices for free (aside from travel expenses) in return for a glowing letter of recommendation by Metro afterward.

Earlier this summer I offered the view that calls for this audit were more election year pretense for attention-seeking politicians and less an initiative of reform. Conservative Metro Council members have been the main advocates of this witch hunt, especially CM Jim Gotto, who is looking to make the leap this year from the Courthouse to the General Assembly. Aside from such opportunistic office-jumpers with an interest in keeping their names in front of voters in the news media, Mayor Karl Dean is logically also interested in channeling this investigation to his advantage for a second term. (more…)

Why did Nashville Mayor Karl Dean single out Ronal Serpas on stats when Murfreesboro PD had the same problems?

Posted in Law Enforcement, Murfreesboro, Nashville, News Media, Tennessee by Mike Byrd on July 12, 2010

Six or seven weeks ago a couple of Metro Council members, the Mayor’s Office, and the local media questioned the integrity of former police chief Ronal Serpas’s reporting of crime statistics after he left for the executive position in the New Orleans police department. After a conflict between TBI and Metro Police data collection came to light, Serpas did not get the benefit of the doubt.

At the time Metro Police insisted that tracking and classifying crime was a highly subjective exercise. Like the proverbial blind men who survey an elephant, various agencies divide and interpret the data based on their own limitations and angles.

News from the Rutherford County paper, a story that slipped past media attention here in Davidson County, seems to support the Metro Police department’s defense. In an opinion piece in the Daily News Journal, editors underscore discrepancies between Greater Murfreesboro police statistics and TBI stats. (more…)

Mayor Karl Dean’s police audit plan full of sound and fury, signifying nothing except election aspirations

Posted in Law Enforcement, Murfreesboro, Nashville, News Media, Tennessee by Mike Byrd on May 18, 2010

There have been questions raised in the public about the validity of Nashville’s crime statistics …. Public safety is a top priority, and it’s just as important that people feel they are safe.

– – Nashville Mayor Karl Dean last week

In Nashville, residents had an overwhelmingly positive view of the police, with surveys showing an 85 percent satisfaction rate …. “There are concerns of the crime reporting both inside and outside the department,” said Councilman [Jim] Gotto. “I don’t know whether the numbers are right or wrong. I just want someone to look at them closer.”

Gotto acknowledged that the numbers may not matter much. “Hey, the community really likes him,” he said. “They feel pretty safe.”

– – Sunday’s New Orleans Times-Picayune

Nashville just lost a police chief who by most accounts could go anywhere he wanted. Despite general recognition, even among opponents, that Ronal Serpas’s use of a Comstat statistics system made Nashvillians, Washingtonians, and New Orleanians feel safer, Mayor Karl Dean is directing that Metro resources be spent to conduct an audit based on a nebulous complaints that he says that hears from “the public.” 85% of the public was satisfied with the Serpas-lead police force, so why is the Mayor not producing more evidence of widespread dissatisfaction to support his fishing expedition?

Certainly, NewsChannel5 reporter Phil Williams failed to convey much local dissension about Serpas’s crime numbers beyond conservative Republican Gotto, who is running for state political office.  Hence, Gotto needs media attention and name recognition. However, Gotto concedes to the press outside of Nashville (which ironically got his name wrong) that the crunched anomalies are practically inconsequential.

So, why is Mayor Karl Dean bent on helping Mr. Gotto against the memory of a well-received former police chief when most of the Mayor’s constituents are not raising hell about Comstat, given their experience of crime? There is no doubt that Gotto is getting love and support from the powerful state GOP. However, Mayor Dean’s own recommendations of Mr. Serpas to New Orleans concede that Nashville was safer after his arrival than before. This about-face makes no sense until we let ourselves think as the politicos do. (more…)

A Tale of Two Cities

Posted in Disasters, Nashville, Tennessee, Voluntarism by Mike Byrd on May 10, 2010

In the wake of America’s inattention to last week’s catastrophic flooding, increasing numbers of outspoken Nashvillians–half with pride, half with complex about others–insist that what sets us apart from those others is that “we help ourselves” and that “we have no looting.” A garden variety example is this local blogger’s assessment:

So, now that something happens that deserves national attention, you’re leaving us alone. We’re OK with that. Because we’re helping ourselves. That’s how we roll here. The volunteer effort here has been amazing …. Nobody is bitching at FEMA. Nobody is looting. Nobody is getting raped at a shelter. We’re helping each other. We’re cleaning up and we will move on.

Implicit in this preoccupied reaction is a response to the old nemesis, New Orleans. It’s a slam against another American community by placing ours on a higher moral plane. Don’t get me wrong. I concede that the Big Easy has its corruption problems and it is one of the most crime-ridden cities in the country. Whenever I visit New Orleans I’m much more on guard than I am in Music City. Wayward is also something that Americans and tourists in general reward New Orleans for being.  We incentivize misbehavior in some places over others. But that’s a subject for another time.

What is most striking in the Nashville narrative is that at its base it is a disingenuous re-write of history. It is a judgment call based on a fabricated all-things-were-equal scale. (more…)