Illustrations by Ben Lancaster
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It’s February 2019. I owe an apology to students, parents and teachers.
A decade ago, I helped sell the public on the Obama administration’s multi-billion-dollar Race to the Top competition. In my home state of Tennessee, Race to the Top delivered $501 million to benefit public schools — and along the way spawned some of the most-damaging education policies in modern American history.
These days, as an elected member of the Nashville School Board helping to oversee one of the nation’s largest urban school systems, I see in retrospect the mistake that I made while working on Race to the Top. I feel equal parts guilty and sad about it. In my view, the problem isn’t that Race to the Top’s fundamentals were flawed. No one can argue with the need for rigorous K-12 academic standards and aligned tests, effective school turnaround strategies and a focus on great teachers and school leaders.
But Race to the Top jumped the rails when a cast of radical reformers hijacked the agenda during political transitions. Bad actors began working overtime to dismantle public schools. Here in Tennessee, our largest school systems — in Memphis and Nashville — became part of ground zero in the country’s civil war over public education, joining embattled school systems in cities like Los Angeles, Milwaukee and New Orleans.
Post-Race to the Top, punitive policies are demoralizing teachers at a time when we need them more than ever to feel optimistic and enthusiastic about their chosen profession. A mass-proliferation of taxpayer-funded, privately run charter schools is destroying, not helping, our school systems. Making matters worse, more lawmakers are debating vouchers that would further divert finite resources from public to private schools.
Of course, the 2016 election of President Donald Trump exacerbated anxieties. Trump’s appointment of billionaire Betsy DeVos, the U.S. education secretary who’s an unabashed advocate for charters and vouchers, plunged the nation’s 13,800 school systems into fear and uncertainty.
All of this might eventually have happened, regardless of political circumstances. But unintentionally or not, Race to the Top laid the groundwork for the attempted destruction of America’s most important democratic institution — public education. What’s now happening to public schools in Tennessee is not what many of us envisioned at the dawn of Race to the Top.
This is the story of how well-intentioned education reforms go wrong when ideologues seize on political instability and voids of thoughtful leadership. And this is a confession: I feel stupid that I didn’t see it coming.
During the 1990s, I worked as a business reporter for The Tennessean newspaper and, later, for The Wall Street Journal. That was the era when then-Federal Reserve Board Chair Alan Greenspan famously coined the term “irrational exuberance” in describing unbridled shareholder confidence in the stock markets, which eventually tanked. In Race to the Top, the education-reform conversation exhibited much of the same irrational exuberance that Greenspan once observed in the markets. I’ll come back to that concept.
Also in the ’90s, healthcare entrepreneur Phil Bredesen took over as the mayor of Nashville. In a big Southern city with a school system struggling with persistent achievement gaps, Bredesen pushed to implement education theorist E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum — more than a decade before the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers dreamed up the derivative Common Core State Standards as a means to raise the bar in every classroom.
In Race to the Top, the education-reform conversation exhibited much of the same irrational exuberance that Greenspan once observed in the markets.
I got to know Bredesen, a moderate Democrat and Harvard-educated physicist, when I was a reporter. As a Nashville native and public school graduate, I admired his commitment to public education. So when he ran for Tennessee governor in 2002, I decided to bolt from the rapidly declining newspaper industry to help in his quest to lead the state.
Bredesen won, and he hired me to write speeches and assist with communications strategy. From Day One of the Bredesen administration, he focused on getting a handle on spiraling Medicaid costs and improving K-12 public schools in a state that always had been stuck at or near the bottom in national education rankings. Because he was so fixated on schools, all of his top aides had to be, too.
From 2003 to 2008, Gov. Bredesen sought and secured a raft-load of improvements and investments in public education. He took a small pre-K pilot program and expanded it to nearly 1,000 classrooms across the state. He raised teacher pay. He overhauled Tennessee’s education funding formula to deal with inequities and, along the way, tripled the state’s tobacco tax to raise more than $250 million for public schools.
Then, something notable happened that foreshadowed Race to the Top — and turned out to be a harbinger of the irrational reform exuberance that followed.
By 2007, Tennessee had become a poster child for disproportionately low K-12 academic standards — measures of what students need to know and when they need to know it. That year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a report giving the state an “F” for what it called “truth in advertising” for standards.
Basically, Tennessee had been telling students they were prepared in key subjects, like reading and math, even though most weren’t. For example, the state rated 87 percent of 8th-graders as proficient or advanced in math based on standardized test results at that time. But on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, only 21 percent of 8th-graders were proficient in math.
Bredesen, who as mayor had pushed for higher standards in Nashville’s classrooms, treated the Chamber report as a rallying cry for Tennessee. “We are telling our kids and our schools that they are doing well in cases where they simply are not,” he said in a May 2007 speech to the legislature in which he called for raising the bar. “If our kids were just going to be competing with other Tennessee kids, we could get away with this. But that’s not the world these kids are going to live in.”
Throughout that summer and into the fall, Bredesen barnstormed Tennessee’s major media markets meeting with business and community leaders to make the case for higher standards. I know because I managed the Tennessee Diploma Project, the statewide PR campaign that built political will for raising K-12 standards.
At the end of the Diploma Project, in January 2008, Bredesen presided over a meeting of the State Board of Education, which unanimously agreed to ratchet up academic standards in time for the 2009-10 school year. Tennessee, long considered a hopeless laggard in public education, soon would have some of the highest academic standards in the nation — second only to Massachusetts.
The process of solving Tennessee’s problem of low expectations in the classroom would ultimately trigger, through Race to the Top, a full-scale assault on public education.
Bredesen’s nine-month sprint to raise standards became somewhat of a fabled event in American education reform. Nearly six years later, Harvard University’s journal Education Next dubbed it “The Tennessee Miracle” with editor Paul Peterson and associate Peter Kaplan opining, “The remarkable transition in Tennessee shows that states are capable of dramatic reform when the political leadership is committed to focusing public attention on the problem.”
Peterson and Kaplan were right. But the process of solving Tennessee’s problem of low expectations in the classroom would ultimately trigger, through Race to the Top, a full-scale assault on public education.
When voters elected Barack Obama as president in November 2008, the nation’s school systems had been slogging through seven years of No Child Left Behind, the George W. Bush-era law that upped the ante on standards reform and standardized testing. With a Democrat in the White House, teachers’ unions hoped the president and Congress might rethink the law and its emphasis on high-stakes testing.
If anything, Washington only doubled-down on testing with a new idea — the Race to the Top Fund.
Race to the Top began as a $4.35 billion program funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, commonly referred to as “The Stimulus.” In rolling out Race to the Top, Obama issued a challenge to governors and local school systems: “If you set and enforce rigorous and challenging standards and assessments; if you put outstanding teachers at the front of the classroom; if you turn around failing schools — your state can win a Race to the Top grant that will not only help students outcompete workers around the world, but let them fulfill their God-given potential.”
Dozens of cash-strapped states still recovering from the Great Recession jumped at the chance to compete for billions in free money. Tennessee was no exception. Armed with consulting muscle and technical assistance paid for by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Bredesen set out to draft a proposal that would turn heads in the Beltway and put our state on a permanent path toward education improvement.
From the beginning, national observers saw Tennessee as stiff competition. The state had emerged unscathed from the often politically painful process of raising standards — a key tenet of Race to the Top. Moreover, the Tennessee Department of Education was sitting on nearly two decades of student-growth data that could serve as a predictor of student success and educator effectiveness. Compiling and using student-growth data was a major plank in the Race to the Top platform.
Tennessee’s biggest hurdle in the competition: A long-standing state law prohibiting the use of student-growth data in teacher evaluations. But that would get fixed in a special session of the legislature that began January 12, 2010 — just seven days before Race to the Top proposals were due in Washington.
By then, I had become a senior advisor to Bredesen, one of a half-dozen cabinet-level staffers helping craft state policies. In the weeks leading up to the legislative special session, I managed the PR campaign to build statewide support for the First to the Top Act, a sweeping rewrite of Tennessee’s education laws designed to power our Race to the Top proposal.
In a move foreshadowing GOP resistance to Obamacare, legislative Republicans derided Race to the Top and its reliance on federal funds. Some jokingly called it “Race to the Trough.” But pressured by the looming deadline in Washington, a broad-based coalition and the lure of tens of millions of dollars for their local school systems, state lawmakers within four days passed the bill by overwhelming margins — 29-3 in the Senate and 83-10 in the House of Representatives. Only a handful of liberal Democrats and Tea Party Republicans refused to go along.
Bredesen sent the message to the White House and the U.S. Department of Education. “With these new laws in place, we’ve got a landmark opportunity to move Tennessee public education forward in a dramatic and positive direction,” the governor said in a bill signing declaring the state ready for Race to the Top.
Dramatic direction? Yes. Positive direction? Ultimately, no. The next governor and his team would screw things up with profoundly negative consequences for public education.
Looking back, the First to the Top Act represented the most significant change in Tennessee education law since 1992 when state policymakers — under threat of court order — created the Basic Education Program to deal with pronounced funding inequities between rural, suburban and urban school systems.
In addition to unlocking student-growth data for use in teacher evaluations, the First to the Top Act established a new framework requiring that 50 percent of teacher evaluations be based on student-achievement measures. Of that amount, 35 percent would be based on student-growth data for teachers in grades and subjects covered by Tennessee’s standardized tests — specifically, teachers in grades 3 through 8 who were teaching reading, language arts, mathematics, science and social studies.
At that time in Tennessee, early elementary grades, high school grades and subjects such as music and physical education were not tested. For educators in so-called non-tested grades and subjects, we proposed developing separate but “comparable measures” for use in teacher evaluations. This part of the law would prove to be a major failing in the implementation of Tennessee’s Race to the Top plan, and eventually lead to contentious revolts by teachers.
The Tennessee Education Association (TEA), the state’s National Education Association affiliate, expressed deep reservations about basing such a large percentage of teacher evaluations on student-achievement measures. But in the end, TEA felt the political winds, pledged tepid support in a letter supporting the Race to the Top proposal and agreed to work with the state to try to develop an evaluation system that uses data “effectively and fairly.” To address the TEA’s concerns, the First to the Top Act created a 15-member Teacher Evaluation Advisory Committee to assist in the development of the new evaluation system. But the next governor would shutter the committee and dismiss its members.
Perhaps the least-debated provision of the new law: Creation of a state-run “Achievement School District” (ASD) to take over and turn around a dozen or so persistently failing schools. This seemingly innocuous move to address Race to the Top’s emphasis on school turnaround strategies later would prove to be one of Tennessee most-controversial reform elements.
In a shrewd political maneuver, Bredesen, set to be term-limited out of office in January 2011, persuaded all seven candidates in the 2010 governor’s race — four Republicans and three Democrats — to sign a joint letter pledging support for Tennessee’s Race to the Top plan. The idea: Send a clear signal to the Obama administration that the state’s progress would not be disrupted by a political transition.
As the staffer assigned to gather signatures, I knew full well that the letter was more PR spin than binding commitment by the gubernatorial candidates. The last candidate who agreed to sign on — then-Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam — only did so reluctantly. Advisors to Haslam, the Republican front-runner and eventual victor in the governor’s race, cautioned him against signing. In retrospect, this should have been a red flag. But Haslam acquiesced and we happily included his signature on the candidates’ letter, submitted along with 77 other letters of support in the appendix of Tennessee’s Race to the Top proposal.
Bredesen’s team believed that a fierce confidence-building campaign would be critical if Tennessee was going to succeed in Race to the Top. At our request and urging, effusive letters poured in from around the state — from the congressional delegation, heads of local school systems and institutions of higher learning, CEOs of major corporations and business groups, leaders of civil-rights organizations and philanthropists committing to local investments.
The campaign was designed to persuade Race to the Top decision-makers in Washington that Tennessee had the ironclad political support necessary to implement large-scale education reform. And it worked.
On March 29, 2010, Tennessee prevailed in Race to the Top, along with Delaware.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan heaped praise on the first two winners of the national competition — beginning with an acknowledgment of bipartisan coalitions and reform-minded legislation including the First to the Top Act. “Both states have statewide buy-in for comprehensive plans to reform their schools,” Duncan said. “They have written new laws to support their policies. And they have demonstrated the courage, capacity, and commitment to turn their ideas into practices that can improve outcomes for students.”
In the final analysis, Tennessee did not finish “first to the top” as we had hoped. Delaware edged us out slightly — scoring 455 points, 11 points higher, on a 500-point scale. Still, all eyes were on the Volunteer State. With 934,000 students in public schools, our K-12 system was larger than the state of Delaware’s entire population of 898,000. The U.S. Department of Education granted Tennessee’s full request of $501 million compared with Delaware’s $100 million. Later, I heard from a friend at the state department of education that Duncan privately likened Tennessee to General Motors in the automotive industry bailout, saying we were “too big to fail.”
Two months after the big win, at a dinner in Nashville hosted by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and attended by about 80 education leaders and policymakers from across Tennessee, something prophetic happened.
Sir Michael Barber, who served as a top advisor to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and later worked as chief education advisor to the global testing giant Pearson, politely warned Tennessee not to rest on its laurels. “It’s easy in politics to think that getting the policy right is 90 percent and implementation is the 10 percent that will be taken care of afterwards,” Barber told the dinner crowd at Vanderbilt University. Not so, he said. “The bigger challenge is the challenge that lies ahead. The part ahead is the harder part.”
Haslam and other Tennessee policymakers embarked on a path to discard the original collaborative vision of Race to the Top.
Truer words never were spoken. In my view, if Tennessee had done nothing more than fulfill the commitments it made in Race to the Top — including working with teachers and local school systems to perfect what everyone knew were imperfect policies — then we would have accomplished a great deal. Together.
Instead, the new Republican governor and his team, swayed by deep-pocketed special interests, plunged the Volunteer State into a state of chaos. Beginning in 2011, Haslam and other Tennessee policymakers embarked on a path to discard the original collaborative vision of Race to the Top and instead leverage the program’s federal largess to mount the assault on public education.
Thus began Tennessee’s race to the bottom.
With Obama’s popularity in the tank in 2010, Tennessee Democrats took a beating in that year’s mid-term elections — squandering their 5-4 edge in Tennessee’s congressional delegation, with one incumbent losing and two more stepping down.
In the state legislature — less than 10 months after the landmark special session that powered Race to the Top — Republicans trounced the opposition. The GOP picked up 14 seats in the House of Representatives, expanding a slim majority from 50-48 to 64-34, with one independent. Senate Republicans picked up a seat, widening their majority to 20-13. Special interests — especially those involved in education reform — flooded the elections with cash. Groups like Americans for Prosperity, funded by the billionaire industrialists Charles Koch and David Koch, and Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst filled the campaign coffers of conservative politicians friendly to the charter and voucher agenda on the heels of Race to the Top.
Republican Bill Haslam, the Knoxville mayor and heir to a family truck-stop fortune, cruised into office with 65 percent of the vote. While in the governor’s office, I worked with Haslam when he was mayor and I found him to be moderate and engaging, so I signed on to a list of about 100 so-called “Democrats for Haslam” — partly in hopes that I could help influence the tricky implementation of Race to the Top and lend some continuity to the process. I soon came to regret the decision.
Between Haslam’s win and the legislative majorities, Republicans gained control of both the executive and legislative branches of government for the first time since Reconstruction.
Two days after the November 2 election, two of Race to the Top’s biggest champions — Bill and Melinda Gates — made a surprise visit to Tennessee. In a private meeting at the governor’s mansion, the philanthropists thanked outgoing Gov. Bredesen for his work on education reform and encouraged Gov.-elect Haslam to stay the course. In a news conference after the meeting, Haslam pledged support. “One of the reasons I’m excited about being the next governor is the incredible momentum around education reform,” he said. “The discussion we had was incredibly energizing to me.”
Legislative Republicans emerged from their elections equally energized. With ironclad majorities, lawmakers set out to quickly pass a series of model policies pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative think tank with ties to the Koch brothers. First up: Stripping teachers of collective bargaining rights.
Irrational exuberance, by then mixed with partisan politics, was in full effect.
The 2011 legislative session came and went in the blink of an eye. Still reeling from mid-term losses, Democrats were unable to block the conservative assault on public education.
In April, Haslam signed into law a bill making it harder for teachers to obtain and retain tenure. In June, he signed into law the repeal of teachers’ collective bargaining rights. That same month, he signed into law a bill doing away with caps and eligibility limits on publicly financed, privately run charter schools, which many people oppose because they drain resources from existing public schools. The new charter law also converted the Achievement School District, created by the First to the Top Act to turn around persistently failing schools, into a statewide authorizer of charter schools. Changes in the ASD would have a negative fiscal impact on the state’s largest school systems in Memphis and Nashville, and rile parent-teacher organizations.
In just six months on the job, Haslam managed to alienate Tennessee’s teaching profession — or at least the state’s largest teachers’ union, the 52,000-member Tennessee Education Association. Along the way, he broke the grand bargain that had been struck during Race to the Top — that all the key players were in it together and would collaborate as a team. “In retrospect, I am confident that we never would have signed on to Race to the Top if we had known what would happen next,” said Jerry Winters, who was the TEA’s top lobbyist during that time. “It became the proverbial slippery slope that educators had feared, and it opened the door to some very damaging policies.”
Legislative Republicans derided the TEA on their way to declaring victory. “For years upon years, one union has thwarted the progress of education in Tennessee,” said Lt. Gov. and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey — ignoring the fact that the TEA had come to the table in Race to the Top, arguably the largest education-reform effort in the state’s history. The attack on teachers’ unions meant the fragile coalition built around Race to the Top would crumble. A revolt by parents waited just around the corner.
Supporters of Haslam, a political moderate, argue that much of what happened in the next few months and years was out of his control because he was hamstrung from Day 1 in office by Tea Party lawmakers running amok. Critics argue that a stronger governor, with a better understanding of public education and smarter people around him, might have been able to prevent the collapse of Tennessee’s bipartisan education-reform agenda.
What’s undisputed is: Tennessee’s bright, shiny reform image soon would be tarnished beyond recognition.
Haslam’s most important education-related decision during his first year in office had nothing to do with legislation, but rather the hiring of a new commissioner to oversee the Tennessee Department of Education.
The agency had long been a sleepy backwater of state government, usually led by career administrators or former school system superintendents. Haslam scrapped the old hiring model in March 2011 when he picked a top Teach for America (TFA) executive to lead the $3.9-billion department.
Kevin Huffman, ex-husband of controversial former D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, had done a brief stint in the classroom as a TFA corps member before practicing law and then returning to climb TFA’s internal ranks. While lacking serious classroom and school-level leadership experience, Huffman at least seemed to have a knack for communication and political judgment.
A year-and-a-half earlier, Huffman won the Washington Post’s “America’s Next Great Pundit” contest, earning a three-month contract to opine on issues of the day for the Beltway’s daily newspaper. Contest judges said he was intelligent and thoughtful. “Part of what makes Kevin a promising pundit,” the judges wrote, “is that beneath the humor he is fluent in politics, comfortable delving into a range of topics and has a knack for teasing out fresh insights and drawing interesting comparisons.”
Huffman’s initial foray into Tennessee seemed promising, too. He surrounded himself with a team of young, energetic and bright staffers who set about the business of fulfilling the state’s Race to the Top commitments, including implementing the Common Core State Standards and the new teacher evaluation system. He hired Chris Barbic, founder of Houston’s well-regarded YES Prep charter school chain, to lead the new Achievement School District. He signed on to Chiefs for Change, a national coalition of reform-minded state school superintendents founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Nelson Smith with the right-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute later wrote that the governor’s pick of Huffman “affirmed Haslam’s commitment to moving ahead with reform” and that Barbic’s arrival in Tennessee only “galvanized the process.”
Indeed, the arrival of Huffman and Barbic galvanized reformers in Tennessee and across the country. Teachers and parents soon galvanized, too, but for different reasons.
Huffman quickly got schooled on the buzzsaw of Tennessee’s education politics.
Without soliciting advance input, Haslam and Huffman in January 2012 unveiled a surprise plan to torpedo the state-mandated teacher salary scale and replace it with a performance-pay system. “We don’t think that every single person in our education system should be treated the same,” Huffman said dryly. One month later, Haslam scrapped the plan amid outcry from teachers, school system administrators and legislators taken off guard by the proposal.
Huffman quickly got schooled on the buzzsaw of Tennessee’s education politics.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan — who placed the $501-million bet on Tennessee through Race to the Top — remained bullish on the Volunteer State. When the state submitted a glowing report on the first year of implementation of its new teacher evaluation system, Duncan looked past the missteps to commend the effort. “It took extraordinary courage to comprehensively fix a longstanding system that was fundamentally broken,” Duncan said in a statement. “Thanks to Tennessee’s hard work, and the strong leadership of Gov. Haslam and Commissioner Huffman, the state is making unprecedented progress in producing statewide reform and boosting student achievement in a relatively short period of time.”
With the teacher-pay plan dead, charter schools came to dominate Tennessee’s education conversation in 2012. I know because I ended up right in the middle of what became an all-out war over a local issue with statewide and national implications.
Haslam and Huffman, joined by Nashville’s neoliberal Democrat Mayor Karl Dean, wanted to test the state’s new charter law — born out of Race to the Top’s irrational exuberance — that eliminated caps and eligibility limits on charter schools. Their plan: Force the Nashville School Board to approve as many as five charter schools for Great Hearts Academies, a Phoenix-based chain of “classical, liberal arts” charter schools seeking to set up shop in upper-income areas of the state capital.
In a school system that had only emerged 14 years earlier from a decades-old federal desegregation lawsuit, the Nashville School Board balked at the idea of dropping a multitude of charter schools in areas lacking diversity.
Open records later showed that Bill DeLoache, a wealthy businessman with family ties to Dean, tried to broker a deal in the stalemate. His idea: Ask Haslam to weigh in with Great Hearts CEO Dan Scoggin and encourage him to accept a potential deal by the school board’s charter review committee to approve just one school, versus the original five that Scoggin wanted. DeLoache’s idea triggered a few shorthand emails that provided insight into the Haslam administration’s inner workings.
“Assuming the committee recommends one school for GH, do you think it would be possible and worthwhile to get the Governor to call Dan to encourage him to move forward on that basis?” DeLoache asked Huffman in June, CC’ing several people including Barbic.
Huffman replied to Barbic: “My instinct is no.” To which Barbic asked: “Why do you think it’s a bad idea?”
“Puts the gov in an awkward position,” Huffman responded. “The gov’s office wasn’t thrilled with my previously intervening in local issues. The thing is, he wd [sic] do it if asked. But puts him in a funny spot.”
That summer, in the middle of the 2012 Nashville School Board elections, the Great Hearts debate ping-ponged back and forth between the local board and the Haslam-controlled State Board of Education. The local board rejected Great Hearts. The state board remanded the decision back to the local board with instructions to approve just one school for the charter chain. The local board again resisted, still raising concerns about diversity.
Relations grew more and more testy between Huffman, who badly wanted Great Hearts in order to prove the new charter law, and the recalcitrant local board, which refused to budge amid growing community resistance.
By then, I was running for the school board in Nashville, where I grew up and attended public school. In the middle of my campaign, I got ensnared in the feud over Great Hearts.
In early July, I visited Huffman to introduce him to a friend who wanted to partner with the state to create a new teacher fellowship. After the meeting, I asked Huffman for a quick pull-aside. I told him I’d heard a rumor that he thought I was involved in the anti-Great Hearts effort. I told him I thought Great Hearts was a terrible idea, but that I wasn’t working against it because I was busy with my own campaign.
Records released later showed that Huffman emailed Barbic about our visit. “I believed him,” Huffman wrote. “Hmmmm,” Barbic replied, saying his wife had been trolling social media and found evidence suggesting otherwise. “Natasha says if you read Facebook there have been people thanking Will Pinkston for killing Great Hearts and he has not written any replies to the contrary.”
After seeing those emails, I realized that the Tennessee Department of Education had quickly devolved into a gossip mill driven by social media, paranoia and bad policymaking. That was when I first began feeling guilty about the root cause: Race to the Top.
The Great Hearts saga continued into August 2012 when the local school board rejected the charter chain for the second time, going against the directive of the State Board of Education. Huffman issued a scathing statement: “The Metro Nashville Public Schools Board of Education is now operating in violation of state law. We will take appropriate action to ensure that the law is followed.”
On September 11, the local school board voted for the third and final time against Great Hearts — this time with four new members on the board, including me. Not wanting to get dragged into the previous board’s mess, I voted for the single Great Hearts charter. I figured there was a way to somehow deal with Huffman in the future. But there wasn’t. I came to regret the vote.
The following week, Huffman lashed out. Exercising a little-known provision in state law, he announced that he would withhold $3.4 million in state funding from Metro Nashville Public Schools as a punishment for the school board’s obstinance. Haslam defended the penalty. The situation later set the stage for an overreaching state law giving the State Board of Education the power to overrule local school boards’ charter decisions — even though the majority of public education in some communities, like Nashville, is funded locally.
National criticism came quickly. “So much for the local school control that state officials say they want,” wrote Valerie Strauss, editor of the Washington Post’s “Answer Sheet” education blog. Education historian and reform critic Diane Ravitch blistered the commissioner of education. “Clearly, Huffman does not believe in local control,” Ravitch wrote. “One begins to suspect that the reform movement is anti-democratic to its core.”
Inside Tennessee, Huffman’s handling of Great Hearts fueled a growing statewide resentment of the Haslam administration. A friend at the Tennessee Department of Education later acknowledged that the Great Hearts penalty was the beginning of the end for Huffman. But not before he launched more attacks on the teaching profession.
By 2013, the legislature had soured on Huffman and his agenda. So the commissioner took new policy proposals to a group that he and the governor largely controlled: the State Board of Education.
That summer, on a 6-3 vote, Huffman pushed through a controversial teacher salary scale that devalued classroom experience and collapsed multiple “steps” allowing teachers to earn regular pay increases as they progressed in their profession. Parent and teacher groups, resentful of the slight against career teachers, tilted into full revolt.
Grassroots anti-reform efforts began popping up, left and right. A group called Tennesseans for Reclaiming Educational Excellence set out to push for local control in charter decisions and full funding of the state’s underfunded Basic Education Program. An anonymous parent group called Momma Bears launched a Change.org petition to oust Huffman. A “Remove Kevin Huffman” Facebook page took off and eventually picked up nearly 6,000 likes.
Huffman shrugged off the opposition. A blogger covering a speech the commissioner gave to a group of CEOs reported that he chalked up the push-back to “faux parent groups that claim to represent parents but they don’t and they have ulterior motives and agenda.” Huffman’s implication: Teachers’ unions, not parents concerned about their kids and schools, were behind the criticism. His comment touched off a new social-media meme on Facebook and Twitter: “I am not a #fauxparent.”
The Washington Post’s former pundit had badly misread the public mood. His dismissive attitude and perceived arrogance set the stage for a new anti-reform coalition of Tea Party Republicans and liberal Democrats who proved to be the ultimate undoing of Tennessee’s Race to the Top plan.
Despite the political turmoil, Education Secretary Arne Duncan remained upbeat about the Volunteer State. In a June 2013 speech to the American Society of News Editors, Duncan recounted how “two Tennessee governors — one Democrat and one Republican, Phil Bredesen and Bill Haslam — decided to challenge the status quo and change everything.” Duncan didn’t mention how the original bipartisan coalition that powered Race to the Top had been torn asunder by Haslam and Huffman’s overreach. Nor did he acknowledge the civil war unfolding inside the state.
By then, Haslam had become one of the Obama administration’s favorite governors. The Wall Street Journal quoted Haslam about his chummy relationship with the education secretary. “How often does a Republican governor get this kind of cooperation from a Democratic administration?” Haslam told the Journal. “I talk to Arne every couple of weeks.”
Meanwhile, more than three years into Race to the Top, legislative Republicans still were leveraging it to their advantage. That summer, Lt. Gov. and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey — known for a campaign pledge to “give Washington the boot” — actually cited the federal initiative as the impetus for more policies punishing teachers and unions. “This ‘Race to the Top’ is not a sprint,” Ramsey said. “It is a marathon.”
Perhaps the low point for the Haslam administration, and Tennessee’s teachers, came in August 2013 when Huffman convened the State Board of Education on a chaotic conference call to tie teacher-license renewal to student academic-growth data. Embarrassing media reports noted technical problems on the call, and even a dog barking in the background, before the board approved the controversial measure on a 6-3 vote. Even a supporter voiced “heartburn” about the ill-fated policy.
As it turned out, hoping that school systems would use existing laws to fire so-called underperforming teachers from their current assignments wasn’t enough for Huffman. He was determined to strip them of their livelihoods altogether. But tying teacher-license renewal to student academic-growth data was a bridge too far. Huffman once again overreached, and the move eventually would be undone by the legislature.
‘We have begun to feel that the commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education considers schoolteachers, principals and superintendents impediments to school improvement rather than partners.’
Tennessee’s local school superintendents had enough. By early September, more than 60 superintendents — representing nearly half of the state — signed on to a no-confidence letter criticizing Huffman. Led by the universally respected Tullahoma City Schools Director Dan Lawson, they asked Haslam and state lawmakers to “consider carefully and prayerfully the future of free public education.”
“During the last year, the signees have developed a belief that the office of the Commissioner of Education in this administration has no interest in a dialogue with those of us providing leadership for school systems,” the superintendents said in their letter. “We have begun to feel that the commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education considers schoolteachers, principals and superintendents impediments to school improvement rather than partners.”
Haslam finally acknowledged the severity of the situation. In early October, he announced a new goodwill initiative to make Tennessee the fastest-improving state in teacher salaries. But soon afterward, he walked back from the plan when growth stalled in state tax collections. Teachers were madder than ever.
On November 7, 2013, the Haslam administration got a public reprieve of sorts. The U.S. Department of Education announced that Tennessee had become the fastest-improving state in the history the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card.
The results were impressive. Tennessee’s 4th-graders climbed from 46th to 37th in math, and 41st to 31st in reading. In terms of overall student growth, “we literally blew away the other states,” Haslam said during a celebratory news conference at West Wilson Middle School in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., outside of Nashville.
The governor failed to acknowledge that Tennessee’s Race to the Top plan, which he initially refused to endorse, actually predicted steep gains on the Nation’s Report Card following implementation of more rigorous academic standards in the 2009-10 school year. The 2010 Race to the Top plan expressly noted: “On the NAEP, we know from experience that results are harder to shift, and that we will not likely see real gains until 2013 when students have had several years under the new standards.” Someone had a crystal ball.
Regardless of the reason for the improvement, Arne Duncan seized on Tennessee as evidence of progress in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative — and heaped praise on Haslam and Huffman. “There are many, many smart governors around the country,” Duncan said, commending Haslam during a media conference call about the NAEP results. “But quite frankly few have his level of commitment and courage to take on the tough issues in education.”
Regarding the embattled education commissioner, Duncan added: “Kevin Huffman is doing a fantastic job.”
The Volunteer State’s strong showing on the Nation’s Report Card even earned a shout-out from President Obama during his January 2014 State of the Union address. “Teachers and principals in schools from Tennessee to Washington, D.C., are making big strides in preparing students with skills for the new economy,” Obama said. “Some of this change is hard … But it’s worth it — and it’s working.”
This was the moment when Tennessee’s education-reform debate actually became more polarized than ever. Pro-charter and pro-voucher group StudentsFirst, founded by Huffman’s ex-wife Michelle Rhee, used NAEP as a rallying cry to find “the right mix of policies to layer on top” of Tennessee’s existing laws. Parents and teachers worried the NAEP results would further fuel the state’s obsession with high-stakes testing.
Huffman acknowledged the divide two months later, as a speaker at Nashville’s annual TEDx event.
Tennessee’s historic gains on the Nation’s Report Card felt like “we had won the Super Bowl of education,” Huffman said, glossing over the nearly decade of classroom, policy and political work that preceded his arrival. “But then a really funny thing happened,” he said, taking a swipe at critics. “Instead of continuing this momentum and having people say uniformly, ‘You know what? This growth is great. We’ve got to do more of these things that helped us grow. How do we go faster?’ Actually, what happened is some of the detractors started to get a little louder.” He added: “The premise that I started with, that results trump all, it basically turned out not to be true.”
Huffman’s TED talk was widely interpreted as him giving Tennessee the middle finger and delivering a breakup message amounting to the functional equivalent of: “It’s not me, it’s you.”
The Haslam administration and its education policies remained in free-fall throughout 2014.
Huffman, once dubbed “America’s Next Great Pundit,” seemed more tone-deaf than ever. “It’s as if there’s an open discussion about whether we should go in one direction or another,” he said that spring, according to Nashville Public Radio. Parent and teacher groups seized on the statement as another rallying cry. The original collaborative spirit of Race to the Top was officially dead.
East Tennessee teachers, with support from the Tennessee Education Association, filed lawsuits challenging the state’s teacher evaluation system and its reliance on school-wide data for educators in so-called non-tested grades and subjects. Race to the Top’s promise to develop separate but “comparable measures” for those teachers had never materialized, and large numbers of teachers were being evaluated in part based on students and subjects they didn’t teach. It wasn’t just unfair; it was un-American. Teachers knew it. And state officials knew it.
In April, Haslam caved in to the legislature and signed into law a bill repealing Huffman’s plan to tie teacher-license renewal to student academic-growth data. By lopsided margins, the state Senate rejected the plan by a vote of 26-6 and the state House by a vote of 88-0. But Haslam and Huffman also got a bit of good news that month: The legislature approved a bill authorizing the State Board of Education to override local school boards in charter school decisions — payback to the Nashville School Board for the Great Hearts debacle.
In May, Haslam signed into law a measure effectively stripping a key plank in Tennessee’s Race to the Top platform — participation in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers (PARCC), a federally funded testing system aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Education Week’s headline writers noted the set-back for the state they described as “Arne Duncan’s Show Horse.”
The legislature’s vote against PARCC was as much a repudiation of Haslam and Huffman as it was a response to the growing anti-testing movement in Tennessee and across the country. In June, more than a dozen conservative lawmakers sent a letter to the governor demanding Huffman’s resignation for “misguided leadership” and “dereliction of duty.”
Despite all the education uproar, the year ended on a high note for Haslam. Facing only token opposition, he sailed to re-election in November 2014. Two months later, Forbes declared him to be the nation’s newest billionaire and the richest politician in America.
Nine days after the election, Huffman resigned.
‘Huffman’s resignation and Haslam’s waywardness on reform is another reminder that their efforts must be bipartisan.’
Predictably, anti-Huffman parent and teacher groups celebrated. Huffman’s defenders looked for lessons-learned in the slow-motion meltdown that had occurred in Tennessee. RiShawn Biddle, editor and publisher of the pro-reform online news outlet Dropout Nation, offered a theory. “For reformers,” Biddle wrote, “Huffman’s resignation and Haslam’s waywardness on reform is another reminder that their efforts must be bipartisan.”
Tennessee wasn’t alone. Nationally, the mood had soured. By spring 2015, only one of the original 10 members of Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change — Hanna Skandera of New Mexico — still was running a state education agency. Like Huffman, some resigned under fire. Two elected chiefs got voted out of office. Others quit to pursue different opportunities.
In 2015, Tennessee marked its fifth anniversary of Race to the Top. Irrational exuberance had given way to reform fatigue. The $501 million in federal funds had been largely spent. Arne Duncan was no longer making bold pronouncements about the Volunteer State. Haslam replaced Huffman with Candice McQueen, dean of a well-regarded Nashville teacher college. McQueen announced that her first priority as commissioner would be “listening.”
Across the state, a steady drumbeat of reform resentment persisted. More teachers sued over Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system. Joining the march to the courtroom: Seven local school systems in Southeast Tennessee, challenging inadequate state funding for public education. While not mentioned explicitly in the lawsuit filed in March, Race to the Top was practically a defendant in the case.
In their suit, the Southeast Tennessee school systems argued that the Common Core State Standards and related accountability measures pushed by Race to the Top “exacerbate the financial needs of an already strained system of public education.” Soon after, the state’s largest school system, in Memphis, went to court as the unabated growth of charter schools and the state-run Achievement School District chewed through local resources and destabilized traditional schools. The state’s second-largest school system, in Nashville, would not be far behind in the legal struggle.
The controversial Achievement School District, created by Race to the Top to take over and turn around persistently failing schools, saw its fortunes nosedive.
YES Prep, the Houston-based charter chain founded by ASD chief Chris Barbic, announced in March 2015 that it would not proceed with turnaround work in Memphis — based on a lack of community support for the ASD. At the same time, traditional schools in Memphis suddenly began to outperform ASD schools, calling into question the turnaround model.
The controversial Achievement School District, created by Race to the Top to take over and turn around persistently failing schools, saw its fortunes nosedive.
That summer, Barbic threw in the towel. The soft-spoken, congenial reformer — who a year earlier, under stress, had suffered a heart attack — wrote an open letter explaining the rationale behind his departure. Understandably, his reasons for leaving included health and family. On his way out, Barbic also offered a mea culpa of sorts that earned him a little goodwill among public-education advocates and derision among his fellow reformers.
“Let’s just be real,” Barbic said in his letter. “Achieving results in neighborhood schools is harder than in a choice environment.” He added: “As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results. I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.”
In 48 words, Barbic eviscerated a key argument by radical reformers. As it turned out, charter schools weren’t the silver-bullet solution. His simple but honest admission was a shot-heard-round-the-world in education circles. And it had the added benefit of being true.
Ironically, despite Barbic’s post-mortem pronouncement and the ASD’s struggles, lingering irrational exuberance still spawned lookalike proposals in other states. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law a plan to create an “Opportunity School District” based on Tennessee’s ASD. Similar measures were under consideration in Nevada, North Carolina and Texas. Tennessee’s radical-reform DNA was going viral.
By the end of the spring 2015 legislative session, Haslam had beaten back an attempt by lawmakers to repeal the Common Core standards. But in a bone-headed compromise, he agreed to give the legislature a role in the ongoing refinement of the standards. Put differently: Academic standards in Tennessee, long the province of professional educators, now would be subject to the political whims of a state legislature that voted the same month to allow guns inside parks used by public schools.
In a final insult to Tennessee’s original bipartisan reform coalition, Haslam threw his support behind a voucher program to divert funds from public to private schools. Most observers saw it as the first step toward a more expansive voucher initiative pushed by Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst, the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, and other groups that — on the heels of Race to the Top — began pumping millions in campaign cash and lobbying dollars into the state.
The latest results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed academic improvement in Tennessee had plateaued.
Five years into Race to the Top, state House Democratic leader Craig Fitzhugh barely recognized the education conversation in Tennessee. In 2010, “we had buy-in from teachers, parents, and other stakeholders setting us on a path for real improvements in public education,” he said. By 2015, he said, the debate had been hijacked by a “culture of hostility and mistrust.”
That fall brought more bad news. After celebrating historic gains on the Nation’s Report Card two years earlier, following nearly a decade of effort under the Bredesen administration, the latest results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed academic improvement in Tennessee had plateaued.
Haslam tried to spin the results, but most reporters didn’t buy it. As Chalkbeat’s Grace Tatter reported in late October, “Tennessee leaders and educators are ecstatic about the state’s 2015 scores on a set of national exams — even though the results were generally stagnant.” Students were, at best, treading water under the Haslam administration’s education policies.
Tennessee’s race to the bottom was nearly complete. But not before one more spectacular stumble.
After dumping the Common Core-aligned PARCC assessment in 2014, the Tennessee Department of Education contracted with a North Carolina company, Measurement Inc., to develop a new standardized test called TNReady that would be deployed online. In announcing the pick, then-Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said: “This is an important step forward for Tennessee. The [state Department of Education] will support teachers and school and district leaders throughout the state with regional trainings as they transition to the new test.”
The only problem: By the time TNReady rolled out in 2016, the online platform had failed repeated technology stress tests and Huffman was long gone. Local school boards and superintendents, who invested tens of millions of dollars in new devices and bandwidth to comply with what many viewed as an unfunded state mandate, were livid. Predictably, the failure triggered a new social media meme: #notTNReady.
The backup plan for TNReady: Default to pencil-and-paper bubble tests. But even that proved impossible, with Measurement Inc. missing multiple deadlines before testing season arrived in the spring. Candice McQueen, the new education commissioner who inherited the mess, formally declared a do-over — pulling the plug on Measurement Inc.’s contract and canceling state standardized testing for the year.
The collapse of Tennessee’s testing system was an embarrassing setback for the state that Arne Duncan once declared “too big to fail.” In fact, Tennessee failed in dramatic fashion by not delivering on one of the biggest promises in Race to the Top — a working online assessment system. For the first time in more than two decades, the state would not administer a standardized test. Nationally, education reformers disparaged the Volunteer State. Parents and public-education advocates cheered the Haslam administration’s failure and the reprieve from online tests that some said would be unnecessarily stressful for students and teachers. A local blogger jokingly referred to it as “Haslam’s Hindenburg.”
In scant more than five years, Haslam and his administration had partially surrendered responsibility for K-12 academic standards to legislators and torpedoed Tennessee’s testing system. The state-run Achievement School District, outhustled by traditional schools in Memphis, was sinking like a stone. Meanwhile, the controversial voucher program, endorsed by Haslam and pushed by Americans for Prosperity (and future U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos), stalled in the legislature despite special interests doling out millions of dollars in campaign contributions and lobbying fees.
Tennessee was a leading indicator of a bigger trend. Nationally, the reform movement appeared to be unraveling.
Education reform is a perennially divisive topic. But 2016 proved to be a high-water mark, with intense skirmishing in Tennessee and around the country — especially over the increasingly controversial taxpayer-funded but privately run charter schools.
That spring, HBO’s John Oliver delivered a brutal takedown of the charter movement in an 18-minute segment that drew millions views on YouTube. His biting charter diatribe followed a similar rant against standardized testing and Race to the Top. Around the same time, the NAACP began calling for a moratorium on new charter schools. The nation’s oldest civil-rights organization concluded that charters were draining funds from traditional schools and gradually resegregating urban school systems.
Charter advocates fought back. A ballot measure in Massachusetts sought to lift caps on charter schools in the state considered to be the cradle of American public education. Down in Georgia, another ballot measure sought to establish an Opportunity School District, modeled on Tennessee’s Achievement School District, to speed the proliferation of charters. Out West, even Supreme Court races in Washington State turned into a referendum on charter schools after justices declared the state’s charter law to be unconstitutional. Rapidly spreading political brushfires underscored the intensity of the charter debate, in particular, and the movement to privatize public education.
In Tennessee, radical reformers shifted their gaze from state politics and policies to a different prize: Control of the Nashville School Board. Securing a majority on the nine-member board — in the capital city of the state Education Week once called “Arne Duncan’s Show Horse” — would offer a high-profile urban laboratory in which to experiment, especially with efforts to expand charters. Four incumbents (including me) were up for re-election and a fifth seat was opening up.
While not a direct result of Race to the Top, the raid on the Nashville School Board unquestionably was born out of the same irrational exuberance. The summer of 2016 brought the most heated and costly races in Music City’s history, and arguably the most closely watched American school board elections that year. To understand what happened next means rewinding history a bit.
In his 2010 book “School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy,” former New York Times education reporter Gene Maeroff wrote, “There is perhaps no greater experience for which a man or woman can volunteer” than school board service. More than a century earlier, Mark Twain had a different take. “In the first place, God made idiots,” Twain said. “That was for practice. Then he made school boards.”
My view: The truth about school board service is somewhere in between. In some respects, this brand of public service is indeed a fool’s errand. In my case, I’m paid $14,000 a year on the Nashville School Board for what amounts to a full-time job helping oversee an historically impenetrable bureaucracy. On the other hand, as I tell friends and neighbors, serving our 86,000 students and 11,000 teachers and support staff is the most important thing I’m doing in life, other than being a husband and a father.
When I ran for and got elected to the school board in 2012, I did it for what I thought were the right reasons. As a public-school parent and alumnus of Metro Nashville Public Schools, I saw an opportunity to represent the part of town where I grew up. After leaving state government, it seemed like a logical extension of public service — and a chance to see how the still-nascent Race to the Top reforms might help propel a large urban school system struggling with persistent achievement gaps. In retrospect, I was terribly naïve.
As it turned out, I ended up on the front line in the war over public education in America. In part because of Race to the Top, it would take years and countless political battles before we could begin focusing on large-scale school improvement in Nashville. The school system was, and still is, chronically underfunded. When I took office, the superintendent at that time was near the end of his career and had been operating for years with no strategic plan. Board members knew he was overwhelmed by the intensity of the reform movement.
Instead of being able to focus on academic standards, effective school turnaround strategies and other key tenets of Race to the Top, the school board faced a tidal wave of charter applications from national operators seeking to rapidly dismantle the school system. Our biggest problem: Haslam’s so-called “open-enrollment law” stripping away caps on charter schools, a rare legislative victory for the governor fueled by Race to the Top’s irrational exuberance.
As it turned out, I ended up on the front line in the war over public education in America.
Haslam’s 2011 law creating a wide-open spigot of charters came just two years after my former boss, Gov. Phil Bredesen, supported a loosening of charter caps in the run-up to Race to the Top. In a sign of Tennessee’s importance to the national reformers, then-Secretary Arne Duncan in 2009 personally lobbied Democrats in the state legislature for the loosening of caps. The eventual effect in Nashville was total chaos.
To put it in perspective: In 2009, Music City had just four charter schools. Following the loosening of state charter caps, the number quickly swelled to a dozen. By 2014, as a result of Haslam’s post-Race to the Top open-enrollment law, the number ballooned to 27 — a nearly seven-fold increase in just five years. During that time, cash outlays for charters by Metro Nashville Public Schools soared more than 700 percent — rising from about $9 million to more than $73 million. Within a few short years, annual cash outlays for charters would soar to more than $120 million.
As an aide to the previous governor who struggled to deal with runaway Medicaid costs a decade earlier, I knew it was impossible to grow any part of government at an unchecked rate without destabilizing the budget in other areas of government. And at a time when our existing schools were universally considered to be underfunded, I wasn’t going to feed charter growth at the expense of zoned schools.
Whistleblowers later told me that charter advocates were plotting to create what they called “New Orleans without the hurricane,” referring to the nearly wholesale charterization of the Crescent City’s school system following Hurricane Katrina. I found their plan to be reckless and shameful, not to mention fiscally and operationally unsustainable. By 2015, three years into my school board service, I stopped voting for new charter schools altogether.
Die-hard charter advocates pride themselves on using simplistic poll-tested messaging to push their agenda. I know because from 2010 to 2012 I served on the founding board of a so-called “high-performing” charter school in Nashville — an experience that led me to question the entire movement.
In the charter sector’s vernacular, the main objective is creating “high-quality seats.” Frequently, in Nashville and around the country, charter advocates accuse urban school board members of protecting “adult jobs” at the expense of kids — a swipe at teachers’ unions. They place a premium on charter schools that are “no excuses” by design and that emphasize “grit” as a top characteristic for students.
According to their world view, charters are the silver-bullet solution to improve K-12 education. What they don’t acknowledge is a growing body of evidence that proves charters, on the whole, aren’t doing better than traditional schools. They also don’t admit that charters cherry-pick in admissions in order to enroll students who are more likely to succeed, and then “counsel out” kids who aren’t making the grade. Each spring in Nashville, school board members are inundated with reports from principals complaining about charter schools sending kids back to zoned schools prior to testing season.
Even if you accept the false notion that charter schools are better than traditional schools, the financial math just doesn’t work. Because of Haslam’s ill-conceived policy, charter growth in Nashville by 2013 was consuming nearly every dime of available new revenue for the school system — leaving little new money for our underfunded traditional schools.
Each spring in Nashville, school board members are inundated with reports from principals complaining about charter schools sending kids back to zoned schools prior to testing season.
After working in and around state and local governments for nearly 20 years, I also was suspicious of the legality of charter laws relative to overall school funding. For example, in Tennessee our state constitution guarantees a “system of free public schools.” But in my view, charters were taxpayer-funded private schools.
Using my position on the Nashville School Board, I pushed for a legal analysis that found the state’s 2002 charter law imposes “increased costs on local governments with no off-setting subsidy from the State ... in violation of the Tennessee Constitution.” Put differently: Charters were unconstitutional due to the negative fiscal impact on traditional schools. The legal theory hadn’t been tested in court, but I predicted it would be only a matter of time.
Rabid “charter zealots,” as I began calling them, had enough. Beginning in fall 2013, the national charter movement unleashed an army of paid political operatives and PR flacks to harass the local school board as payback for raising fiscal and legal questions. Nationally, charter advocates saw the situation in Nashville as an existential threat.
The Tennessee Charter School Center, the attack arm of charter schools in Memphis and Nashville, organized a bullhorn protest on the front lawn of Metro Nashville Public Schools’ central office to shout down school board members deemed hostile to charters. A blogger on the group’s payroll attacked the board under the blog handle “Lipstick on a Pig” — shamefully likening our majority-minority school system to a swine. Charter students, pawns in a carefully orchestrated smear campaign, earned extra-credit points by leafletting school board meetings with negative fliers attacking board members.
As a veteran of two statewide gubernatorial campaigns, I recognized the bare-knuckled political tactics. The goal of the charter zealots was to provoke school board members and other opponents into public fights in order to create distractions and draw attention to their cause. For a while, it worked. Skirmishes played out regularly in the boardroom, and spilled into the local news and social media.
Nationally, charter advocates saw the situation in Nashville as an existential threat.
Not long after I was elected, my former boss Gov. Bredesen suggested to a reporter that my biggest challenge on the school board might be managing my own temperament because I don’t “suffer fools gladly.” He was right. And in my estimation, the landscape was swarming with fools.
Fools who didn’t understand basic math when it came to the negative fiscal impact of unabated charter growth. Fools who didn’t comprehend that Tennessee only became the fastest-improving state in the history of the Nation’s Report Card by pursuing nearly a decade of systemic reforms and investments — not ripping apart the fabric of urban school systems. Fools who didn’t value what I considered to be our greatest democratic institution — public education.
Increasingly, the charter zealots found themselves on the losing end of debates and their only remaining play was to accuse school board members of bullying. Meanwhile, study after study validated our policy positions.
For example, an independent analysis commissioned by the school board found that “new charter schools will, with nearly 100% certainty, have a negative fiscal impact.” Mayor Karl Dean, a neoliberal Democrat and the city’s leading charter zealot, pushed for a competing audit to refute the findings, but it backfired. Dean’s auditors instead confirmed that when new charter schools open, they siphon funds from traditional schools where costs such as staffing, maintenance and technology cannot be easily adjusted. “For these costs to be reduced significantly,” Dean’s auditors noted, traditional schools “would need to close altogether.”
Put differently: If Nashville continued its trend of unabated charter growth, the school system would have to initiate mass-closings of traditional schools. School board members, along with a growing cohort of city council members who annually appropriate funds for the school system, began studying fiscal impacts and the effects of school closures amid charter proliferation in cities such as Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia. We wanted no part of it.
Nashville was at the leading edge of a new conversation about the negative fiscal impact of charter schools. Around the same time, a now-seminal report by Moody’s Investors Service noted that charter schools “pose growing risks for urban public school districts.” Later, the American Prospect’s Rachel Cohen zeroed in on fiscal impact after a researcher for the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute suggested that policymakers need a better understanding of the costs associated with running what amounts to competing school systems — “Public policy questions that are,” Cohen noted, “surprisingly ignored on a regular basis.”
I didn’t stop at fiscal and legal questions. Again, using my position on the school board, I launched my own investigation into school choice data.
Nashville was at the leading edge of a new conversation about the negative fiscal impact of charter schools.
Based on what I called the “charter pipeline” — the combination of charter schools that still were adding seats under existing contracts and charter schools that had been approved but not yet opened — I found that the school board had green-lighted so many charters that the size of the sector in Nashville conceivably could double in the coming years even if the board approved no new charters. At the same time, I concluded that a doubling of the sector might not happen after all because waiting lists in Metro Nashville Public Schools showed that student and family demand clearly was not with charters, but rather with magnet schools, specialty schools such as Montessori schools and pre-K programs.
Regardless, it was clear: We had enough charter schools in Nashville, Tennessee’s capital city. By the time I finished my homework and made it public, I had inadvertently helped articulate strategies for slowing down the American charter movement.
National, state and local charter zealots were madder than ever. By the time 2016 rolled around, they knew the only way they would achieve their dream of “New Orleans without the hurricane” in Nashville would be to hijack the school board by knocking off my colleagues and me at the polls.
Nashville’s 2016 school board campaigns kicked off in fairly typical form.
The Metro Nashville Education Association and SEIU Local 205, the unions representing teachers and support employees in the school system, endorsed the re-elections of incumbents deemed supportive of public education. That meant me and two colleagues — Amy Frogge, an activist PTO mom, and Jill Speering, a retired teacher. Christiane Buggs, a former teacher and critic of the state-run Achievement School District, ran in an open seat and also picked up labor support.
Meanwhile, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and local charter zealots lined up behind pro-charter candidates, including my opponent: Jackson Miller, a chamber leader and franchisee in Plato’s Closet, a chain of consignment clothing stores for teens. A self-acknowledged high-school dropout, Miller had recently moved into my neighborhood but, as it turned out, he had a checkered legal history resulting from a string of lawsuits and criminal contempt charges over failure to pay child support. The chamber ultimately turned its back on Miller, but the charter zealots stuck with him until the end. Their gambit almost worked.
For months, all sides ran garden-variety school board campaigns. Yard signs. Phone calls. Community meetings. Sniping in traditional and social media. But soon it became clear that these were no ordinary school board elections. Chris Barbic, former superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District, went out knocking doors for my opponent — payback for years of public criticism that I leveled against the ASD. Even the nation’s top charter zealot, Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, weighed in on my race, tweeting: “Excited to see Jackson Miller run for Nashville school board.”
Right before early voting commenced in mid-July, blistering attacks hit mailboxes and phones across the city — fueled by what the Nashville Scene, the local alternative newspaper, called “dark money.” My race, in particular, was inundated with negative direct mail and phone calls. The culprit behind it: Stand for Children, the national group led by radical reformer Jonah Edelman.
Late in the election cycle, Edelman’s group began dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into Tennessee in an effort to sway Nashville School Board races as well as a handful of GOP legislative primaries. The common denominator: Every candidate targeted by Stand for Children at some point opposed Gov. Haslam or some aspect of his policy agenda. As a seasoned political operative, I figured the governor’s office was directing the effort but I was never able to prove it.
Aside from being the son of civil-rights icon Marian Wright Edelman, Jonah Edelman is perhaps best known for a 2011 Aspen Institute video in which he displayed, according to the Chicago Tribune, a “boastful tone” about roughing up teachers’ unions in Illinois. The unions shot back, accusing him of “falsely claiming to have manipulated people engaged in honest negotiations” and overstating his group’s success.
Ironically, I had friendly dealings with Stand for Children over the years. During my time in the State Capitol, I personally directed private resources to Stand for Children to field a public-opinion poll that supported the reform concepts we articulated in Tennessee’s Race to the Top plan. In 2012, Stand endorsed my bid for the school board and even sent out mailers touting my longtime advocacy for early childhood education. While Edelman never told me as much, I assumed my hardline position on charters had soured Stand and its funders on me. Oh well.
The waning days of the school board campaigns proved especially nasty. Metro Nashville Public Schools received an exhaustive open-records request from a private investigation firm seeking years of my emails and other records. The Louisiana-based firm, HUB Enterprises Inc., billed itself as specializing in areas such as “surveillance” and “database investigations.” HUB didn’t disclose its client, but I assumed it was Stand for Children. At that point, I also had to assume I was under physical and electronic surveillance. A local TV station later reported that a top staffer in the District Attorney’s office ran my name through criminal databases, yielding nothing for the charter zealots. I felt like I had fallen down a radical-reform rabbit hole.
Entering the campaign homestretch, I earned a tepid endorsement from the Tennessean, the local newspaper and my former employer in the ’90s. The editorial page said I brought a “profound intellect and sharp political skills to the school board,” and lauded my “passion for prekindergarten, English language learners and greater funding for schools.” But I got dinged for my temperament, which was to be expected after years of squabbling with the charter zealots. Then — just four days before election day — the newspaper did an abrupt about-face by publishing a lengthy front-page story that the Nashville Scene said “could charitably be called a hit piece.”
At the behest of Stand for Children, the Tennessean dredged up bogus allegations that the newspaper had dismissed years earlier. Among critics quoted in the Sunday hit piece: The former superintendent of Metro Nashville Public Schools who I helped push out of the school system in 2015; one of his deputies who repeatedly tangled with board members over charter schools and who was spotted two days earlier by a local TV station coordinating with Stand for Children; and a former teacher who actually was on the payroll of my opponent. None of this political context was included in the story.
The thrust of the Tennessean hit piece: I was somehow hostile toward school system employees. Meanwhile, the newspaper ignored statements of support from employee groups.
Erick Huth, president of the Metro Nashville Education Association, emailed the Tennessean: “In my experience, Will Pinkston has been very open to talking with employees. I know that he has supported teachers, bus drivers, and other employees both in his votes on the Metro School Board and in his interactions with employees away from the board table.” Brad Rayson, president of SEIU Local 205 representing support workers, echoed Huth’s comments: “Will has been a consistent champion for school support employees. He understands their needs and concerns and appreciates their contributions. When he meets with our members, he listens attentively to what they have to say and always shows them the utmost courtesy and respect.”
For this project, I asked Tennessean reporter Jason Gonzales and editors Michael Anastasi and Maria De Varenne why they failed to include the employee groups’ statements, why they omitted the relevant political context and whether the newspaper had been lobbied by PR representatives for the charter sector. I even emailed them a draft of this section — a professional courtesy they didn’t extend to me in the run-up to their hit piece. They declined to comment, with Anastasi giving this non-response response: “We stand by our reporting, and it speaks for itself.”
On election day, August 4, 2016, my colleagues on the Nashville School Board — including PTO mom Amy Frogge and retired teacher Jill Speering — sailed to re-election by double-digit margins. Voters also overwhelmingly elected Christiane Buggs, the former teacher running for an open seat. My race was uncomfortably close. But by the time the final ballots were counted, I squeaked by with 50.1 percent — a 37-vote margin. The Tennessean’s election-week hit piece nearly did me in. Still, I eked out the win.
Across the city, public-education advocates celebrated our collective victories and the fact that the charter zealots had been deprived of a majority on the Nashville school board. The next day, the headline in the Tennessean — the newspaper that endorsed me before attacking me — read: “Stand for Children loses big in Nashville, state races.”
In addition to meddling in four Nashville school board races, Stand for Children waded into six GOP legislative primaries. Stand’s final scorecard: 1-for-10. The only race Stand won involved an embattled legislative incumbent who had suspended his re-election campaign amid a state attorney general investigation detailing allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct. Reportedly, Stand for Children spent more than $750,000 on the 10 races. I suspect the final number was closer to $1 million or more.
Jonah Edelman, who once bragged at the Aspen Institute about taking on teachers’ unions, got schooled in Tennessee politics. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall when Edelman explained to Stand’s funders how he wasted a small fortune in the Volunteer State. Even after election day, Edelman had to keep flushing away resources in Nashville. For most of the rest of the year, Stand for Children and its losing school board candidates paid a team of attorneys to beat back ethics complaints over alleged illegal campaign coordination. Ultimately, the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance, friendly to Haslam, tossed the complaints. But not before a public airing of Stand’s nearly across-the-board losses.
By the end of 2016, voters across the country also seemed to be awakening to the perils of the radical-reform agenda.
Looking back: Nashville’s school board races weren’t the first messy elections polluted by charter special interests like Stand for Children, and they certainly wouldn’t be the last. But the irrational exuberance born out of Race to the Top finally seemed to be wearing off.
By the end of 2016, voters across the country also seemed to be awakening to the perils of the radical-reform agenda.
On November 8, Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly rejected, by a margin of 62 percent, a ballot measure to lift caps on charter schools. The opponents’ top argument: Charters’ negative fiscal impact on traditional schools, which of course rang true to us in Nashville.
That same day in Georgia, 60 percent of voters shot down Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposed Opportunity School District to propagate charters, modeled on Tennessee’s failing Achievement School District. Three weeks before the vote, my school board colleague Christiane Buggs and I warned Peach State voters against the measure in an op-ed for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that yielded this headline: “If Opportunity School District follows Tennessee’s model, you’re in trouble.”
In Washington State, Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara Madsen — author of a controversial 2015 decision declaring charter schools unconstitutional — cruised to re-election with 64 percent of the vote even after Stand for Children spent $130,000 on her opponent, another political embarrassment for Edelman. My friend Chris Brady, a school board member in Louisville, Ky., one of the nation’s largest urban school systems, coasted to a second term despite charter supporters spending more than $350,000 trying to unseat him.
Election night seemed to be going gangbusters for public-education advocates. Then, the unthinkable happened: America elected Donald Trump president.
During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump didn’t say much about public education. He was too busy bashing immigrants, Muslims and Hillary Clinton. Trump’s biggest foray into education: Visiting a failing Ohio charter school in September 2016 to propose a new block-grant program that would redirect $20 billion in federal funds to charters and vouchers.
Then, of course, Trump won in November. And his nomination of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education touched off panic in the nation’s 13,800 school systems.
Even by Trump standards, DeVos is a train wreck. Her longstanding support of the school privatization movement, vis-à-vis charters and vouchers, is alarming enough. Her disastrous Senate confirmation hearing, in which she argued for guns in schools to defend against grizzly bear attacks, led to her being the first-ever U.S. education secretary lampooned on Saturday Night Live. Soon after the Senate narrowly confirmed DeVos with a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence, she set about rolling back the U.S. Department of Education’s civil-rights enforcement.
The Trump administration’s message was clear: Public schools, long considered safe spaces for the most vulnerable children in America, no longer would be policed by Washington. Or at least not as often.
By summer 2017, New York Times columnist Gail Collins declared DeVos to be the “Worst Trump Cabinet Member.” In conferring the dubious honor, Collins wrote: “DeVos really hates public schools — something you don’t find often in a secretary of education. Her goal seems to be replacing them with charter schools, none of which will need much oversight because, you know, the choice thing.”
Nationally, Democrats remain up in arms over DeVos. The only problem is: Secretary Betsy DeVos would not have been possible without Race to the Top.
The reality is: DeVos’ privatization agenda ended up being a primary beneficiary of Race to the Top and the ensuing irrational exuberance. Eight years of neoliberal education policies — exemplified by Arne Duncan’s unwavering support for Tennessee, even as the Haslam administration trashed bipartisan collaboration in favor of anti-public education fervor — led to a normalizing of the market-driven reforms pushed by DeVos and her ilk.
Diane Ravitch summed up the situation in a searing 1,500-word essay, channeling Al Gore’s climate-change documentary as a proxy for the Democrats’ conundrum. “The resistance to DeVos obscured an inconvenient truth,” Ravitch wrote in the New Republic. “Democrats have been promoting a conservative ‘school reform’ agenda for the past three decades. Some did it because they fell for the myths of ‘accountability’ and ‘choice’ as magic bullets for better schools. Some did it because ‘choice’ has centrist appeal. Others sold out public schools for campaign contributions from the charter industry and its Wall Street patrons.”
“Whatever the motivations,” Ravitch added, “the upshot is clear … In a very real sense, Democrats paved the way for DeVos and her plans to privatize the school system.”
Momentarily, the radical-reform movement appeared torn over Trump. Charter leaders struggled to reconcile their support of Trump and DeVos’ school privatization agenda with the president’s isolationist and xenophobic policies.
Hardliners ultimately carried the day, cementing the American charter movement’s coziness with Trump.
In March 2017, Arne Duncan privately urged a group of two dozen charter operators to resist Trump’s budget plan to strip funding from public schools and redirect dollars to charters. Duncan called it “blood money,” according to Chalkbeat’s Matt Barnum’s account of the meeting. Later that month, 19 charter operators, including four in Nashville, tried to distance themselves from Trump in a USA Today letter criticizing proposed draconian budget cuts to divert funds from afterschool programs and teacher training to charters and vouchers.
But hardliners ultimately carried the day, cementing the American charter movement’s coziness with Trump.
In U.S. News & World Report, Nina Rees, head of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, lauded the Trump administration, saying: “I look forward to seeing how DeVos leans into this great opportunity to keep building a movement that puts the needs of all students ahead of the artificial divisions created by adults.” Even as Duncan labeled Trump’s education budget cuts as blood money redirected to charters, Rees happily doubled-down on praise: “The charter school movement is grateful for the president’s support, and we applaud his commitment to providing critically needed funding” for charter schools.
Rees’ energetic support of Trump demonstrates everything that’s wrong about the charter movement. Simply put: The die-hard charter zealots are willing to sacrifice all that’s good in public education as long as charter schools win out. It’s a very dangerous world view and a shameful betrayal of our greatest democratic institution.
Back in Tennessee, it’s business as usual for now.
TNReady, the $30-million standardized testing system a blogger once dubbed “Haslam’s Hindenburg,” still isn’t ready for prime time. A new assessment vendor, Questar, managed to deploy tests in spring 2017, but mostly in paper form versus the comprehensive online platform promised in Race to the Top seven years earlier. In a ham-handed attempt to boost students’ spirits ahead of testing season, Gov. Haslam mailed out Number Two pencils to kids across the state. The blog Tennessee Education Report derided him in a headline — “Haslam to Kids: Be Ready Even Though TN Hasn’t Been.”
In 2018, TNReady actually fared worse. Hiccups included problems with students and teachers logging into the online test as well as a severed fiber cable delivering internet service to schools. Candice McQueen, the education commissioner, even brought in the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the state Office of Homeland Security to investigate a supposed cyber-attack. But she ended up with egg on her face again after state officials determined that Questar caused TNReady’s problems by making unauthorized changes in the testing system. Later, state auditors acknowledged that McQueen’s oversight of test administration “fell short of expectations.”
The legislature stepped in, chastising the Tennessee Department of Education for its repeated failures and absolving local school systems of adverse consequences stemming from TNReady’s tainted results. The third false start of TNReady proved to be the final humiliation for outgoing Gov. Haslam and his administration, which so badly botched education reform.
Here in Nashville, skirmishing continues over charter schools. In spring 2017, I penned a widely shared op-ed column that generated buzz, nationally, itemizing how a local charter school was in dire fiscal straits, another was breaking federal telecommunications law by text-spamming parents in a desperate move to fill empty seats, and yet another wasn’t providing legally required services to students with disabilities and English language learners. The headline — “Nashville’s charter school industry is unraveling” — enraged the local, state and national charter movement.
Predictably, the charter zealots didn’t take the opportunity to step up and acknowledge significant legal and financial problems. Instead, they ginned up a few hundred purported charter parents to sign on to a dueling op-ed demanding respect. I was tempted, just for a moment, to take a page from Kevin Huffman’s playbook and dismiss them as a “faux parent” group. But I thought better of it.
In 2019, the elected Nashville School Board appears poised to go its fifth consecutive year without approving a new charter. Now, recalcitrant charter operators are taking their arguments to the appointed State Board of Education to circumvent local control using one of Haslam’s ill-conceived laws. So far, the state board has overturned local boards in Memphis and Nashville three times, setting up a situation in which state board appointees — most of whom don’t even live in Memphis or Nashville — are on track to run their own mini-school system of charters.
According to Chalkbeat, Hawaii and Tennessee are the only places in the U.S. where state boards of education operate as school systems. The difference is: In Hawaii, the state government actually runs the Aloha State’s public schools and provides the funding. Meanwhile, in Nashville, we fund two-thirds of public education locally. Thanks to Haslam, state government — as a minority investor — is now big-footing the local elected school board by confiscating local tax dollars through the Achievement School District as well as the State Board of Education. Republicans in one of the most fiercely conservative states in America have tossed overboard the time-honored principle of local control.
If it looks insane, that’s because it is. Everything eventually will get decided in court.
Every year under Haslam, Tennessee received an ‘F’ in school funding on Education Week’s annual Quality Counts report.
These days, education litigation is the new normal in Tennessee — another byproduct of Race to the Top. In October 2017, the Nashville School Board voted to join Memphis’ Shelby County Schools in suing the state over inadequate funding. Litigation by the state’s two largest school systems, in Middle and West Tennessee, followed the lawsuit filed by seven school systems in Southeast Tennessee alleging that the state had “breached its duty under the Tennessee Constitution to provide a system of free public education for the children of this state.”
Every year under Haslam, Tennessee received an “F” in school funding on Education Week’s annual Quality Counts report. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that Tennessee’s per-pupil funding now is lower than it is in several contiguous states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Kentucky. By some estimates, Tennessee is short-shrifting local school systems $1 billion annually at the same time it has been force-feeding them unfunded mandates — including a demand to spend tens of millions of local dollars to accommodate the state’s thrice-failed testing system.
The day after the Nashville School Board voted to join Memphis in court, Haslam administered swift payback by suing us for refusing to surrender Metro Nashville Public Schools’ student and family contact information to the Achievement School District. As the ASD’s fortunes nosedived, its charter schools began struggling to fill seats — and empty seats translated to a loss of funding. As a solution, state officials wanted to stage a marketing raid on Nashville’s traditional schools, but they first needed our student and family contact information to enable student recruitment via direct mail and phones. The school board wanted no part of aiding and abetting the failing ASD, and Haslam’s retaliatory lawsuit made him look pettier than ever.
Nashville and other local school systems’ lawsuits with the state likely will be tied up in the courts for years — an enduring negative legacy for Haslam. After years of fighting in the halls of the State Capitol and the legislature, as well as at the ballot box and in the court of public opinion, many of us are at peace with using litigation as a strategy. It’s not the ideal way to make education policy or address inadequate school funding. But after the collateral damage of Race to the Top, made worse by eight years of oppressive ideas from a governor who fundamentally didn’t understand public education, most folks now are resigned to just playing out the debate in the judiciary.
The whole situation is a mess and certainly not what anyone predicted at the dawn of Race to the Top.
After presiding over eight years of turmoil in Tennessee’s K-12 education system, Gov. Bill Haslam was term-limited out of office in January 2019. Most observers predicted he’d return to the family truck-stop business or run for U.S. Senate. His public-education legacy is now written in stone. If Phil Bredesen left office as one of the best education governors in America, Bill Haslam departs as one of the worst.
A new governor, conservative Republican businessman Bill Lee, was elected in November 2018 by an overwhelming margin in a state that political pundits believe has become irretrievably red — which, on its face, bodes poorly for thoughtful education policy and adequate school funding.
Early on, Lee — who hadn’t previously served in public office — appeared to be a study in contrasts. On the campaign trail, he bucked Haslam in calling for a “reset” on TNReady and the hiring of a new testing vendor. But at the same time, he supports vouchers to drain money from public schools.
Lee’s policy team is populated by acolytes of Betsy DeVos, the Koch brothers and other radical-reform luminaries. His pick for education commissioner, Penny Schwinn, is another Teach for America alum who appears to be cut from the same cloth as former commissioner Kevin Huffman. Teachers and parents began organizing hours after her appointment. Lee may turn out to be the culmination of a destructive reform mindset amplified by Race to the Top. Hopefully not.
Meanwhile, Haslam’s education lieutenants found shelter in the nonprofit sector.
Huffman landed at the New America think tank, where he planned to write a book about “the challenge of building a first-rate public school system in the face of modern political dysfunction.” His bio notes that Tennessee registered “the largest academic gains in the country” on his watch, but doesn’t acknowledge the nearly decade of bipartisan collaboration that pre-powered those results before he arrived — or the stalled progress that happened after he incited large-scale revolts by parents, teachers and policymakers.
Haslam’s education lieutenants found shelter in the nonprofit sector.
Chris Barbic, the founding superintendent of Tennessee’s failed Achievement School District, bolted to the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, a Texas philanthropy that promotes school choice and squandered $20 million on Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst initiative. Publicly, Barbic still pushes dubious claims about the ASD even after admitting its failure in an open letter. After he left, state officials slashed the agency’s budget and staffing amid mounting concerns about poor performance and fiscal sustainability.
In 2018, Barbic and Huffman reunited for a new project, the City Fund, to browbeat urban school systems into adopting the so-called “portfolio model” designed to speed the proliferation of charters. In coverage of the City Fund’s plan, Chalkbeat described the portfolio model as “a controversial approach that has faced skepticism from both critics and supporters of charter schools.” If Huffman and Barbic bring the same un-Midas-like touch they used in Tennessee, expect the City Fund to go bust in short order.
Candice McQueen — Haslam’s second education commissioner who inherited Huffman and Barbic’s messes before creating a few of her own — is now CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET), a group that developed teaching standards which serve as the basis for classroom observations in Tennessee’s still-controversial teacher evaluation system. In announcing McQueen’s hiring, NIET didn’t mention her prominent role in the collapse of the state’s testing system.
A week before Christmas 2018, Huffman and McQueen appeared together at a state-sponsored PR event billed as “reflections on educational progress in Tennessee.” In a moderated webcast, the departed and soon-to-be-departed commissioners tried to put a happy face on their troubled tenures. But an event intended to be a celebration came across more like a wake when they were asked what advice they’d give to future state education commissioners. In characteristically tone-deaf fashion, Huffman recalled that he had once displayed a bumper sticker in his office that said “Ignore the Noise.” McQueen demurred a bit. “I probably wouldn’t say ‘ignore the noise,’” she mused. “Because the noise actually does have influence on the results … It may be deafening, but I do think that’s an important learning that I have had.”
The next day, Chalkbeat’s Laura Faith Kebede reported on public records detailing one of McQueen’s final acts as commissioner — pushing the hostile takeover of up to 19 schools in Memphis and Nashville. With just days remaining on the job, McQueen sought to use results from TNReady, the failed standardized test that no one trusts, as the basis for absorbing local schools and local tax dollars into the Achievement School District, the state-run charter turnaround model that’s a proven failure. Despite McQueen’s reasonable-sounding comments just 24 hours earlier, it was clear she had learned about as much as Huffman.
Perhaps the best parting observation came from Dan Lawson, the now-retired director of Tullahoma City Schools who five years earlier joined more than 60 local superintendents in signing the letter imploring Haslam to “consider carefully and prayerfully the future of free public education.” Lawson summed up McQueen like this: “She was a kinder, gentler Kevin Huffman. They shared the same political agenda and underpinning, but Candice was able to deliver it in a smoother, less abrasive fashion.”
At least for now, Tennessee appears to have survived Race to the Top’s irrational exuberance without the wholesale dismantling of public education.
February 2019 marks the 10th anniversary of the Obama administration’s signature schools initiative — and it’s now just a mirage in the rear-view mirror. Putting aside Tennessee’s experience, Race to the Top didn’t fare much better among the competition’s 18 other winners: Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Washington D.C. Even before Obama left office, the obituaries were being written. A study by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences noted: “In sum, it is not clear whether the [Race to the Top] grants influenced the policies and practices used by states or whether they improved student outcomes.”
For his part, former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is unapologetic about Race to the Top — owning up to minor missteps but glossing over the radical-reform overreach that caused Tennessee’s plan to come undone. “In the midst of such rapid change we proved terrible at explaining the Race’s goals and methods to teachers, and even worse at explaining them to parents,” Duncan wrote in his 2018 memoir.
If national reformers are smart, they’ll see the Tennessee story as a cautionary tale and consider the kinds of investments and systemic change that once made the state a leader in American public education. Unfortunately, many will interpret Tennessee as the exception — not the rule — because the reality of what happened here doesn’t comport with their world view or the goals of their funders. Looking ahead, it’s critical for those who care about the future of public education to stay vigilant.
After 16 years of slogging through education reform and political fights at the state and local levels, I’m not giving up. Hopefully, Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos’ tenures will be short-lived and they won’t have enough time to destroy public education. In Tennessee, perhaps the new governor, Bill Lee, will heed the lessons learned from Haslam’s botched handling of everything.
Meanwhile, I see silver linings out in the field.
Despite the havoc wrought by Race to the Top, some influencers still seem to understand the value of building up public education, not tearing it down. Not long ago, POLITICO CEO Patrick Steel interviewed California philanthropist Melanie Lundquist, whose Partnership for Los Angeles Schools eschews charter schools and instead partners with traditional schools to reduce suspensions, identify gifted students and engage parents. “You have to work inside the system if you’re going to change it,” Lundquist said, articulating the kind of common-sense perspective that somehow got lost in all the irrational exuberance of the past few years.
It’s critical for those who care about the future of public education to stay vigilant.
Lundquist’s comments seemed downright prescient after tens of thousands of teachers in Los Angeles — the nation’s second-largest school system — went on a weeklong strike in January 2019 to protest problems including low pay, high class sizes and unabated charter growth. The L.A. strike appeared to have a seismic effect, with teachers in Denver and other radical-reform laboratories threatening similar action to make their voices heard.
Reflecting on the past decade, I still subscribe to Tennessee’s original reform concepts: High academic standards, aligned assessments, effective turnaround strategies and a focus on great teachers and leaders. On the Nashville School Board, we’re gradually putting the charter wars behind us and finally getting around to intellectually honest conversations about large-scale priorities like improving teacher pay, expanding early childhood education and supporting English learners.
At my seat in the boardroom, I keep a quote from one of my favorite authors that sums up my beliefs. Amanda Ripley, who wrote the best-selling book “The Smartest Kids in the World,” opined in the New York Times: “Generally speaking, the smartest countries tend to be those that have acted to make teaching more prestigious and selective; directed more resources to their neediest children; enrolled most children in high-quality preschools; helped schools establish cultures of constant improvement; and applied rigorous, consistent standards across all classrooms.” Amen, I say to myself, when I read that quote before our twice-a-month board meetings.
Then, for comic relief, I sometimes glance at the Mark Twain quote about idiots and school boards. My view: If we’re going accomplish great things for students in American public education, we’ve at least got to have a sense of humor about it. I remain cautiously optimistic about the future. My kids and the voters of Nashville told me I have to be.