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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.