The Metro school administration—and specifically schools director Pedro Garcia—would have us believe that his massive bureaucracy, which accounts for a third of Nashville’s annual $1.3 billion budget, holds no bias against charter schools. Why, in fact it embraces such reform efforts for students who aren’t being well served by traditional means.
Yeah, and the collective Metro Council is a finalist for the Nobel Peace Prize. Has Garcia been smokin’ something with Constance Gee? Does he think we have been?
The facts don’t support the schools director’s too-little-too-late efforts to sweep up his mess from last week, when he was hell-bent on snatching three dozen students from two charter schools after six weeks of classes and forcing them to attend their zoned schools. Garcia’s reasoning? Those zoned schools came off the state’s list of failing schools Aug. 16, which he said disqualified the kids from choosing to attend a charter. Never mind that the schools in question were considered quantitatively woeful, at the time the students got off the bus in June for their first day of school. Never mind that the students had already spent a month-and-a-half immersing themselves in their studies.
Finally, after a week of failed efforts to reach Garcia to discuss this disruptive demand, the principal at the KIPP charter school in East Nashville had no choice last week but to plead with the director via letter—and, finally, to issue a not-so-veiled threat of legal action. Attorneys at the powerhouse law firm Bass, Berry & Sims were prepared to take on the administration and file an injunction against the school system, pro bono. The only pay would be righteous victory on behalf of mostly black, overwhelmingly poor fifth- and sixth-grade children whose parents are simply trying to maximize the available opportunities for their kids—in other words, to mitigate the failures of the school system to date.
KIPP Principal Randy Dowell, a diplomat not easily riled, also agreed to go on the record about the frustrating struggle, which for the previous week he had resisted, hoping to negotiate a reasonable outcome to an unreasonable mandate. The Scene wrote the story (“Pedro Garcia vs. A Few Good Kids”), as did Nashville Post. Funny how, that same afternoon, Garcia did an about-face. Turns out that until it was publicly shamed, the school administration hadn’t actually bothered to ask the state Department of Education whether its ultimatum was even lawful. It wasn’t.
So the kids got to stay put, the conflict was headed off at the 11th hour, and the story had a happy ending. But Garcia’s grudging acquiescence doesn’t fix the larger problem. At its core, this clash illustrates a frustrating reality: that the Metro school administration, and at least a few members of the school board—not to mention the reprehensible local teachers’ union—resent charter schools. There’s a kind of antagonism, rooted in territorial instinct, that pervades the relationship between public school educators and reform educators. There is a practical bias too. Each of the two charter schools—Smithson Craighead and KIPP—draws down state money per pupil that would otherwise go to the district schools. So there’s a financial incentive for the school system to keep as many kids as possible in traditional public schools.
But while Smithson Craighead has so far not yielded impressive results, there is no school in Nashville doing more to close the performance gap between black students and white, rich and poor, than KIPP. This rigorous academic bastion, which is transforming underperforming students into high-achieving, college-bound learners, struggles six long days a week (not counting the two hours every night that staff is available by cell phone) to accomplish some pretty heady goals. It shouldn’t have to wear body armor when it is arguably the best school in the Metro system, when its motivations are unimpeachable, and when it’s on the right side of the law to boot.
Magnet school parents, charter school parents and many others saw this debacle for what it was: another example of a school system that sometimes places its own petty agenda above the best interests of kids. We stand by for more shaming as needed.