Please Read the Letter

Zack wrote earlier about what he calls the “slippery slope” of the escalating issue with Nashville RISE and some MNPS school board candidates.

For the sake of clarity, here is the letter sent by Will Pinkston, Amy Frogge, and Jill Speering to David Plazas regarding the upcoming forum.

In the interest of transparency, and on the heels of yesterday’s reporting by WTVF-TV, we the undersigned members of the Nashville School Board are asking you to read aloud this letter to organizers and attendees at the upcoming Project Renaissance school board candidates’ forum.

As incumbent members of the local school board, and survivors of four years of attacks by the national charter school and voucher movement, we are skeptical of organizations that appear to promote vouchers or unabated charter school growth at the expense of students, parents, teachers, and taxpayers.

We understand from WTVF’s reporting that Project Renaissance is an organization largely funded in 2015 by the Scarlett Family Foundation, whose founder is one of Tennessee’s leading supporters of charter schools and vouchers to divert public funds to private schools. Other major contributors to Project Renaissance included the Vanguard Charitable Trust, a “donor-advised fund” whose donors apparently do not want their identities disclosed, and the Sunnyside Foundation, whose stated mission is to provide “financial assistance to practicing Christian Scientists who reside in the state of Texas.”

Additionally, we understand that Project Renaissance currently is funded by, or seeking funds from, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which is attempting to convert half of the public schools in Los Angeles, Calif., into charter schools. Project Renaissance has not, to our knowledge, publicly released its list of contributors, to date, in 2016.

We have repeatedly asked Project Renaissance to fully disclose its current sources of funding and organizational support – for expenditures including, but not limited to, a month-long television advertising campaign as well as political activities coordinated with Stand for Children, a national group that is inserting itself into local school board races through candidate endorsements, candidate campaign contributions, and negative attacks. Project Renaissance has not responded to requests for disclosure of its current funding sources and only shared its 2015 contributor list after receiving pressure from WTVF.

With this letter, we are not attempting to re-litigate the now universally-recognized fact that the unabated growth of charter schools has a negative fiscal impact on existing schools, or the fact that an overwhelming majority of Tennesseans are opposed to vouchers. Instead, we are simply objecting to the general lack of transparency by Project Renaissance — especially regarding donor contributions in 2016 that may be supporting its current activities, including the upcoming candidates’ forum.

Without full disclosure and transparency, we cannot achieve a trusting and productive dialogue. For these reasons, we will not participate in the June 23 forum hosted by Project Renaissance. If students, parents, teachers, and taxpayers need to reach us, we are easily accessible. Our contact information can be found on the school board’s web page at MNPS.org.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

The Slippery Slope of the Nashville Rise Pullout

This morning, School Board Member Amy Frogge released a statement about Project Renaissance/Nashville Rise on her Facebook page in response to a video that was released by Phil Williams that reveals the funding behind the organizations. Phil Williams reports the Scarlett Foundation as a major funder for Project Renaissance.

Amy Frogge states in her Facebook post, “… we do know that the group is funded in part by the Scarlett Foundation, a pro-charter/voucher group that is tied to the Beacon Center and the American Legislative Exchange Council.”

Additionally, Amy Frogge, without any evidence whatsoever, threw out another baseless allegation that her opponent, Thom Druffel, was recruited by Project Renaissance.

First, Project Renaissance/Nashville Rise is a 501 c3 organization. By definition, they cannot contribute money on any election activities. They are only focusing on parent engagement, including hosting forums to get parents engaged. As a matter of fact, it was the parents of Nashville Rise that voted to do the forum, not Project Renaissance.

Amy Frogge, Will Pinkston, and Jill Speering are not attending this event. Don’t let Amy Frogge’s post make you think it was this Phil Williams report that caused them to drop out. These decisions were already made before this piece was released.

The Investigation

In fact, we see that this “investigation” by Phil Williams came at the request of Will Pinkston, to whom Phil Williams only referred to as “an unnamed board member” in his piece. Emails obtained by Tennessee Education Report show Will Pinkston added 13 members of the press to his emails with Nashville Rise on June 9th.

Before Pinkston decided to attend the event, he wanted Nashville Rise to answer a variety of questions, including, “Of those parents who are part of the coalition, how many are residents of my School Board District 7 and what schools do their children attend?”

I find it strange that Will Pinkston wants to know the specific schools parents send their children to. He is a representative of all District 7, not just parents who send their children to schools he approves of. Does Will Pinkston treat parents differently if they send their students to JT Moore, Valor, or Harpeth Hall? If so, he does not deserve to be an elected official.

When reached by Tennessee Education Report, Nashville Rise released the following statement:

“On May 10th, we invited all school board candidates on the August 2016 ballot to participate in a city-wide, parent-led forum. Our hope was to have all candidates in attendance, so that parents could engage with them and make informed decisions about the race. We gave candidates a deadline for notifying us of participation. That deadline was June 13th at noon. Prior to the deadline, every candidate with the exception of Will Pinkston had responded. Jill Speering, who initially RSVPd that she planned to participate, notified us prior to the deadline that she would now be out of town. Amy Frogge declined our invitation. All other candidates, with the exception of Mr. Pinkston, plan to participate.”

Slippery Slope

If school board candidates start down the path of not attending events because of the organization’s funding, they will not be able to attend any events by the organizations listed below.

In the same 990 that shows that the Scarlett Foundation gave $250,000 to Project Renaissance, it also shows that they gave to many other organizations including Metro Nashville Public Schools, Conexion Americas, Communities in Schools, and United Way for the Read to Succeed program.

That means Will Pinkston couldn’t hold another campaign kickoff event at Conexion Americas, Amy Frogge couldn’t attend an event about wrap around services through Communities in Schools, and Jill Speering couldn’t attend a Read to Succeed event.

Are these school board members ready to go down this slippery slope? Should people boycott all of these nonprofits? Pinkston himself has touted the incredible work of Conexion Americas, and rightfully so. Frogge has been one of the largest advocates of Communities in Schools, and rightfully so.

Will Pinkston says that these organizations below should “return the dirty money.” Is that really what we want? I hope not because returning money will hurt the students of Nashville.

As someone who has put together a mayoral forum in the past, the goal is to get a moderator who is a member of the press in order to maintain impartiality. That’s what Nashville Rise has done. In good faith, they got David Plazas to moderate. Plazas has experience moderating many forums in Nashville, including a few mayoral forums last year.

Scarlett Foundation Funders

While the Scarlett Foundation gives to plenty of charter schools, they also give to a wide variety of nonprofits in Nashville that are making a huge difference in the lives of students in Nashville.

Here are some organizations that have received funding:

Almost 70 students have received tuition scholarships from the Scarlett Foundation
Metro Nashville Public Schools – $222,566 – Support program
Conexion Americas -$100,000 – Support of Parents as Partners Programs in MNPS
Oasis Center – $150,000 – Support for Nashville College Connection
Big Brothers Big Sisters – $50,000 – Support Programs
United Way of Middle Tennessee – $312,450 – Purchase Read to Succeed Program
United Way of Middle Tennessee – $35,000 – Books for Imagination Library
Book’em – $30,000 – Purchase new books for reading is fundamental programs
Backfield in Motion – $35,000 – Support for educational supplies for tutoring program for boys ages 10-18
Girl Scouts – $15,000 – Support of college access and college tutor program
Homework Hotline – $29,250 – Cost of middle school tutoring
Junior Achievement – $30,000 – Support “company program”
Martha O’Bryan Center – $80,000 – Thrive – Top Floor Zone
Nashville Adult Literacy Council – $50,000 – Support drop-in learning center to help adults learn to read
Pencil Foundation – $6,000 – Expansion of the reading partners program
Preston Taylor Ministries – $10,000 – Support afters chool program
Communities in Schools – $50,000 – Support for site directors at MNPS schools
Nashville Public Library Foundation – $53,043 – Support full time reading specialist
American Education Assistance Foundation – $125,000 – Support for Tennessee Promise Scholarship

There are other deserving organizations that do incredible work that are funded as well, but these are just a few. Like I said, charter schools in Nashville have been funded by this organization, but it’s not just an organization that gives only to charter schools. To me, it looks like an organization that cares about students. I love that we have a grant making organization that supports organizations in Middle Tennessee.

To discredit Nashville Rise because of their association with this generous foundation is unjustified from elected officials who say they are doing what’s best for students in Nashville.

Update (6/15): Will Pinkston has responded to the post by calling me a “nitwit” and stating my attacks on him are “kind of like powder puffs or a tickle fight. 😉

Frogge, North, Speering Challenge ASD Takeover in Madison

MNPS School Board member Amy Frogge is asking residents to speak out about a proposed takeover of either Madison Middle or Neelys Bend Middle by the Tennessee Achievement School District.

She’s posted on her Facebook page a request for community action regarding the takeover and published a letter on the issue from former Board member Mark North.

Board member Jill Speering, who currently represents the area where the schools are located, is also taking up the fight.

Here’s the post:

PLEASE HELP.  The ASD wants to take over Nashville schools that the ASD is underperforming!  Why? To improve its track record.  If we make noise, this will not happen!
Memphis is successfully fighting off ASD takeovers by charter groups. Three charter organizations have backed out of takeovers in the past 3 weeks because of community outcry!  (See links in comments.)  This is not inevitable.
The following is a Facebook post from fellow school board member, Jill Speering, who represents the schools marked for ASD takeover:
Mark North, a lifetime resident of Madison, a graduate of Madison High School, and a previous school board member wrote the following letter and sent it to elected officials about the possible takeover of Madison Middle or Neely’s Bend Elementary by the Achievement School District (ASD). We are asking the community to come together and support our Madison schools. If we work together and demonstrate our support for our Madison schools we could possibly avert a potential takeover of our neighborhood schools. We need community support! Please consider attending meetings that will be announced soon to show the ASD that the community is behind our Madison schools. If you would like to discuss this with me, please email me at jill.speering@mnps.org.
“Friends:
The Achievement School District (ASD) will announce on Friday which Metro school it is going to take over. The word on the street is that it will either be Madison Middle or Neely’s Bend Middle.
That would be outrageous. The ASD is failing, and these two schools are both outperforming the ASD. 40% of ASD students scored “Below Basic” in Math and that percentage of failure actually increased from the previous year. Also, 43% of ASD students scored Below Basic in Reading and a whopping 46.3% in Science.
In terms of students scoring proficient or advanced, each of these two Middle schools outperformed the ASD.
If the ASD takes over one of these schools and the school does not improve its scores at all next year, it will still improve the ASD’s overall score. Ironic? Yes, and tragic for the children of Madison.
Moreover, both of these two schools improved last year (as compared to 2012-13) in all three subjects and each school improved at a rate better than the ASD in 2 of the 3 subjects.
Attached is a chart showing how these two schools fared as compared to the ASD. Obviously, these schools need to improve, but their record shows that MNPS will be more successful making that improvement that the ASD.
Finally, if the ASD is allowed to continue to exist despite its dismal record, it should not be allowed to takeover schools unless its own scores are substantially better than the school it proposes to take over.
Mark North”
For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

What Can Nashville Learn from New Orleans?

That was the theme of an event last night sponsored by Tennesseans Reclaiming Education Excellence (TREE) and Gideon’s Army for Children and held at the East Park Community Center.

The event featured parent activist Karran Harper Royal of New Orleans and Dr. Kristen Buras, a professor at Georgia State University who has studied the Recovery School District in New Orleans.

Between 60 and 70 people were in attendance for the event, including MNPS School Board members Will Pinkston, Amy Frogge, Jill Speering, and Anna Shepherd.

The event coincides with a discussion happening in East Nashville regarding MNPS Director of Schools Jesse Register’s proposal to create an “all choice” zone for schools there. Parent advocacy group East Nashville United has been critical of the plan and continues to ask for more information. For their part, MNPS says it wants to continue dialogue on the issue.

Royal spoke first and outlined the systematic takeover of schools in New Orleans by the Recovery School District. The Recovery School District is the nation’s first charter-only district. The takeover began with a state law that allowed for the takeover of low-performing schools, similar to a Tennessee law that allows the Achievement School District to takeover low-performing schools.

As schools were taken over, they were handed over to charter operators or reconstituted with charter management. Entire staffs were fired and replaced and students were moved to different locations.

Royal said some of the successes claimed by the RSD are deceptive because the district would close schools, move out the students, and bus in new students. Then, the RSD would claim they had improved the school when achievement numbers were released even though those numbers were not from the students who had been attending when the school was taken over.

Royal also claimed that the choice of a neighborhood school was foreclosed for many families, but that in two majority-white ZIP codes, families are still able to choose a school close to their home.

Buras used her time to expand on an op-ed she wrote earlier this year about the parallels between New Orleans and Nashville. She pointed to data suggesting that the RSD has done no better than the previous district in terms of overall student achievement. This point is especially important because the RSD has had 9 years to show results. Tennessee’s ASD has also shown disappointing results, though it is only now in its third year of operation.

Among the statistics presented by Buras:

  • In 2011-12, 100% of the 15 state-run RSD schools assigned a letter grade for student achievement received a D or F
  • 79% of the 42 charter RSD schools assigned a letter grade recieved a D or F
  • RSD schools open less than three years are not assigned a letter grade
  • Studies of student achievement data have shown no impact on overall student achievement and some even show a widening of the achievement gap

Buras also noted that the RSD was used as a tool to bust the teachers’ union. The district fired some 7500 teachers and new teachers in the RSD report to charter operators. The resulting turnover means nearly 40% of the city’s teachers have been teaching for 3 years or less.

Both Royal (who was at one time on the RSD Advisory Board) and Buras noted that the RSD started with the mission of improving existing schools in New Orleans. However, like the ASD in Tennessee, the RSD began gradually acquiring new schools before data was available to indicate success.

The presentations served as a warning to parents in Nashville that while reform and innovation can be exciting, it is also important to closely monitor school takeovers and choice options to ensure they meet the community’s needs.

It’s also worth noting that the experiment in New Orleans and the ASD’s experience in Memphis on a smaller scale both indicate that just offering more choice does not solve education problems or improve student achievement. Any plan or innovation must take into account community input and feedback. Additionally, while choice plans are often sold on the perceived benefits, it is important to be mindful of potential drawbacks, including disruption and instability in communities that badlyneed stability and support.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

 

 

TREE to Host Testing Forum

Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence (TREE) will host a community forum on the use of testing in Tennessee schools this Saturday, March 1st at 2:00 PM at New Song Church in Nashville.

The forum will feature speakers Dr. Jim Horn and Dr. Denise Wilburn, scholars who have been critical of TVAAS and the overuse of testing in schools.

The forum comes at the end of a week that so far has seen the TEA call for a moratorium on the use of the PARCC tests for Common Core at the same time legislative committees put off key votes on legislation dealing with Common Core implementation.

Metro Nashville School Board members Amy Frogge and Jill Speering have also raised concerns about the amount of testing in schools and the cost of that testing to the school system.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

MNPS Talks Testing, Charters

Andrea Zelinski has the story in Tweets

You might remember that not long ago, Board members asked for a work session to learn more about how much time, money is spent on standardized testing.

Looks like they didn’t get much in the way of answers.  Though Paul Changas did indicate that as more regular assessment occurs, there is less need for standardized tests.

I’d suspect Frogge and Speering (who brought the issue up) will want more than that, so this issue may continue to get some attention.

MNPS to Study Testing

Andrea Zelinski had this story last week on MNPS Board Member Jill Speering and a possible resolution challenging the current climate of testing.  Instead of the resolution passing, MNPS Director of Schools recommended a study session where many of the questions raised by the resolution can be addressed.  Speering and fellow Board Member Amy Frogge (a frequent critic of the current testing emphasis) agreed and the Board will now examine in study session the number of hours students spend taking tests, test prep hours, cost of tests, etc.

Perhaps more interesting, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman has had this to say about testing:

“We at the state level feel like we need to measure results and we need to know how we’re doing. There’s no way to know what areas you need to improve in if you aren’t measuring something,” Huffman told reporters last month.

This is of note because it implies that without testing at every level and in every subject, it is impossible to tell if teachers are doing well or if schools are meeting the mark.

Huffman added:

“I think we can’t live in a world where we pretend that everybody is doing OK, so it’s necessary to measure and see whether we’re making progress, what are the things we do well, what are the things we have to do better. If you don’t measure, you don’t really have a sense of how you’re doing,” he said.

Huffman failed to indicate how he knows that Harpeth Hall, where one of his own children attended school, is doing OK.  There’s no state mandated standardized testing there, no TVAAS scheme.  How, exactly, did Huffman know his child’s teachers were doing ok? Because he paid money for it? Because other people say it’s good?  Or is it that good teaching and learning is about more than numbers on a spreadsheet.

Could it be that the music teacher gets a kid so excited about school that they soar in all their other subjects? Could the history teacher who is not the strongest in content be the one who serves as a mentor to children with no other adult role models?  Could it be that Huffman can observe (just as other parents do) that his child is excited about school, is improving from the first day to the last?  What about the kid who works hard and gets a C in Algebra just so he can keep playing football? How do you measure that? Was it the Algebra teacher’s inspiring lessons or the coach’s mandate to get good grades that “added value” to that kid’s education?

Is it worth the time and expense it takes to test in every single grade across multiple subjects — taking time away from instruction and growth?  Would a simpler, streamlined set of tests be both more cost effective AND better for kids?

As MNPS studies the issue further, parents and the community will at least gain a better understanding of how often and for what purposes their kids are tested.  And we’ll know more about the costs.  Perhaps the next step will be to move forward with an agenda that’s good for kids (and works at Harpeth Hall), even if all the policy-making adults in Nashville aren’t happy.