Why Is the Chamber (Probably) Paying for Focus Groups About MNPS?

There’s no way the school board will become appointed by the mayor.

This morning, the Axios Nashville newsletter reported that the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce might push for Metro Nashville school board members to be appointed by the mayor. I tweeted about this, because I felt the story lacked a lot of important context. (As tends to happen from Axios, where six-figure salaries apparently mean you can only write in bullet points, as if your readers are really that dumb.) Here’s the relevant part:

  • The chamber has had high-level talks on the topic with key education stakeholders, including the school board chair.

Why it matters: In Nashville education circles, the possibility that Gov. Bill Lee's administration would take over Metro Nashville Public Schools is a pervasive concern.

  • A chamber-led initiative to abolish the current system of voters selecting the school board could be an alternative to a Republican-led state intervention.

  • Stephanie Coleman, chief talent development officer for the chamber, tells Axios the idea of switching to a board with members appointed by the mayor and/or others is merely in the conversation phase. But she did not rule out the possibility of pursuing state legislation next year.

Not too long after my tweets, I got a DM.

“I was part of a focus group earlier this month on this exact same subject,” the sender wrote. “At the end, they framed things the exact same way. Basically asking, ‘If you had to choose between state or mayoral takeover of MNPS, which would you choose?’ My question of who was funding it is now answered.”

I asked if the person was willing to share more details. They were, with the agreement that I not use their name.

The focus group was one of at least two on the topic held on Oct. 4. It was organized by the Schlesinger Group in Nashville. In the session my source attended there were 12 to 15 people, evenly split by gender. A higher percentage of the group was white, but everyone had kids in MNPS or had kids who had gone through the school system.

“It began pretty broad with lots of the usual tropes about failing schools, bad test scores, etc,” my source writes. “Then [it] started homing in on this MNPS takeover idea; tried to boil it down to an either/or of Mayor or Gov taking over the district. … [It] started off asking everyone to state how they felt MNPS as a whole was doing. Got a wide variety of answers. Then started rattling off the test scores (w/zero context) and asked how everyone felt about those. … Then discussion was guided along under the framework of how to best turn around [the] ‘failing’ district. They wanted to know what/how much people knew about things; how the current Metro funding model works, who comes up with the budget, who approves, etc. They also wanted to know how familiar people were with the school board structure. (Only two of us knew who our reps were). Then since this structure ‘wasn’t working,’ they polled us on if we thought the state or Metro was more equipped to take it over. Once everyone realized they actually have a say in their school school board reps, it was a unanimous ‘neither of them.’ They then said if we HAD to choose one or the other, what would it be. It was a unanimous Metro control.”

I asked if the moderator brought up charter schools, vouchers or anything else, like “school choice.” The answer was no, but some of the participants did. 

“Once when the state control ‘option’ was being discussed, I brought up that this has been tried before via the ASD and was a failure,” my source said. “Another time we were asked to look at and comment on a bunch of quotes from anonymous officials talking about their thoughts on mayoral or state appointment of school board members. Someone said a particular set of quotes looked like it came directly from a voucher lobbyist. When the budget process was being discussed, some questioned the mechanisms of how charters were funded and if it was different from traditional schools. In each instance we were gently directed away from talking about charters/vouchers. Kind of felt to me like the moderator was being told to avoid those topics.”

The group was not asked about an appointed school board that could be selected by Metro Council. The only options were mayoral appointments or state/governor appointments/control. And while the focus group was not told who was paying for it, my source now feels certain the Chamber was behind it.

The Chamber confirmed they are holding focus groups, but declined to say whether this was one of them.

“We are frequently seeking feedback in the community about education and have recently undertaken research including focus groups. Several other organizations have been conducting education research as well, so we wouldn’t be able to confirm whether a particular individual participated in our efforts specifically,” said Stephanie Coleman, Chief Talent Development Officer for the Chamber.

The confusing thing about this whole push is that an appointed school board is not going to happen. (I don’t think a state takeover will either, but that’s never stopped the legislature from trying something dumb.) As the Axios piece mentioned in its very last sentence (which was not in the newsletter version of the story), Metro voters have to approve changes to the charter. And in my experience paying attention to Nashville politics for the past umpteen years, I don’t see: a) Council passing a resolution to amend the charter to have the mayor and only the mayor appoint school board members; b) enough people signing a petition to get this on the ballot; c) voters actually choosing to not elect people to represent them on the school board and instead hoping the mayor picks someone they like.

But that’s not even the dumbest thing about this. State law literally bans appointed school boards. “Notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, there shall be a board of education elected by the people,” begins Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-2-201. That’s pretty explicit. In fact, the entire law was written in the 1990s to eliminate appointed school boards across the state.

Obviously, I’m not a lawyer. But unless I’m missing something — and please tell me if I am, and I’ll correct this — the state legislature would have to amend Title 49 to once again allow for appointed school boards. Hypothetically, they could amend it to apply to just Nashville, but that raises a lot of constitutional problems. I also don’t see that being a very popular idea. Like, the legislature hates Nashville no matter who’s in charge — why would they want to let its mayor and only its mayor appoint school board members? (Because one thing is certain — Nashville won’t be electing a Republican mayor anytime soon.)

The legislature could also amend the law to allow any district in the state to vote to choose an appointed school board, but for the aforementioned reasons, it’s hard to see that vote passing in Nashville (or in most districts, for that matter). So why is the Chamber even talking about this? Why are they (or someone working in tandem with them) paying for focus groups on the topic?

District 9 school board member Abigail Tylor asked some great questions about an appointed board on Twitter. (I’m not embedding the entire thread, but this will take you to it.)

So when I learned about the focus group, I called Tylor and asked for her further thoughts.

“It sounds to me like they’re thinking about ways to drive wedges between the community and the schools,” Tylor said. “It sounds like another step towards, ‘How do we make the public think that the schools are so bad that they need somebody else to come in and save them?’ It’s just another step towards privatizing the schools.”

Of course, the state is already making big strides towards that privatization goal on its own. MNPS can’t even control what charter schools open in the district, and Gov. Bill Lee is about to push what sounds like a statewide voucher plan once again. If that’s what the Chamber wants in the long run, is floating the stick of an appointed school board a way to get the carrot of vouchers — something MNPS is currently suing over?

“Since Karl Dean, the Chamber has been talking about taking over Metro schools, and maybe they just feel like if it’s ever going to happen, it’s now, because of the way people are upset with the schools,” Tylor hypothesized. “Now they’ve got people on their side who they wouldn’t have had on their side because they’re parents mad that we kept our kids out of school.”

I have no idea if Tylor’s line of guessing is near the mark — and neither does she; she sounded as confused about this as everyone I’ve talked to today. But then, what in Tennessee politics does make sense currently?

If you’ve got more information about what’s really behind all this, send it my way. 

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