Nashville. The city of It. This summer Nashville overflowed with It, as we celebrated the arrival of wine in grocery stores, the largest firework display in America, and a never-ending stream of music, which, like the Cumberland River, courses through our hometown. Oh, yeah, we’re friendly as all get-out, too. Like, the friendliest.
A visitor might hardly believe there are deep civic divides in such a shining city. But this summer we saw painful polarization in our education community. If we don’t find a way to tamp down the vitriol of this summer’s school board elections, it will tarnish It City. Worse, we will slide farther from our goal of better educating our young people.
When the Friendliest City Gets Mean
Summer got off to a collaborative start, when the school board, mayor and a posse of politically plugged-in Nashvillians appointed Dr. Shawn Joseph, 41, director of schools, the first African American to hold the position in Nashville.
Leaving Maryland’s affluent Prince George’s County to tackle Metro’s socioeconomically diverse system, which is plagued more by a fractious school board than by actual district performance, Joseph wisely negotiated a clause in his contract to set the tone for communication going forward:
…the Board, individually and collectively, shall promptly refer to the Director, orally or in writing, for his study and recommendation any and all criticisms, complaints, suggestions, communications or other comments regarding the Director’s performance of his duties of the operation of the MNPS.
In other words, you got a problem, you bring it to me. The end.
But what looked like the beginning of our happily-ever-after came to a screeching halt as school board races revved up and Nashville, the friendliest town in America, got downright mean.
The issue? Charter schools. I won’t bore you with the sordid details, and, honestly, I’m not confident in my ability to provide an unbiased account due to my participation in some of the campaigns. However, there is no shortage of reporting on this subject in local and national media.
It was this podcast by national education blogger Citizen Stewart and national education writer Peter Cook, whose granular color commentary of our election forced me to look at our dysfunction from an outsider’s perspective. That’s when I realized that Nashville’s It-ness is like a beautifully manicured lawn. It tells only part of the story, while we work like hell to keep our guests from seeing our dirt.
The Dirtiest Part of the Election
Depending on which side of the charter argument you embrace, the dirt of this election cycle was either loads of “outside” money dumped into school board races or middle-class leaders working to kill educational opportunity known to benefit Black and poor children.
When the votes were cast and the slate of charter-friendly candidates was vanquished, the refrain “dark money loses and public schools win” littered my social media timelines. The language implied that the thousands of students in Nashville’s charter schools were not part of our public school community.
What does that headline say to the parents of students in charter schools? It says their voices and choices don’t matter.
In an election cycle that was infamously dirty, that message may be the dirtiest part of all.
After a long hot summer knocking on doors, making hundreds of phone calls, and speaking with parents in schools of all stripes, I’m more certain than ever that the voices of choice are missing from the conversation. If we are to make lasting and profound change in our schools—to meet the needs of all families—we must hear all their voices.
So we must ask what accounts for the silence. Is it because we’re not inviting these voices into the conversation? Is it because we are drowning out voices we don’t agree with? Is it because we are not welcoming enough? Is it because we are making half-hearted attempts to engage in meaningful ways? Or is it—gasp—because we really don’t believe these voices are valuable to the discussion?
Until we answer these questions, battle lines will remain in place and our children will lose.
Parent Voice Matters
To ensure success, we must bring all parents from the margin into the fold. We must believe in our hearts that their voices and experience matter.
A parent armed with information is an empowered parent, a ready-made partner in an educational process that leads to the success of students and schools. Furthermore, parents should absolutely seek out learning centers that best fit their children’s needs, and they should be celebrated for their efforts rather than criticized for their choice.
At Metro Schools, there is a school for EVERY family in our district, no matter what children want to learn, how they want to learn, where they want to learn or when. There is a choice for everyone, and with one application, the vast array of school choices are at your fingertips.
From this point forward, I pledge to do my part. Gone are the days of sitting on the sideline complaining while participating in meaningless Twitter battles that serve to boost egos rather than student achievement.
So, I’m looking for a few good voices. Voices of choice who will have the courage to promote a parent’s right to choose, encourage others to exercise this right, and serve as a support system.
If we truly believe in public schools, then we believe in the role parents play—no matter their choice.