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VOL. 37 | NO. 9 | Friday, March 01, 2013

More work to be done in bettering Metro schools

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When Bill Purcell was mayor of Nashville, he had a favorite Realtor story, much to the chagrin of Nashville Realtors, I might add. One of the more painful aspects of the tale is that it is true.

Here’s how it goes. Mike Neal was hired to become the president of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. The term “area,” when used in this context, does not refer to Williamson County, Franklin or Brentwood, as each of them at that time had their own chambers of commerce.

Upon Neal’s arrival, he was assigned a Realtor who worked with a firm that had ties to the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.

When Neal informed the Realtor that he had school-age children, the Realtor suggested they narrow their search to Williamson County, according to Purcell and later verified by many.

The reason the Realtor suggested Williamson County was, in that person’s opinion, because the schools were better. Each time Mayor Purcell told the story, the Realtors in the audience winced and made every effort to pass themselves off as persons in respectable professions, say accountants.

Many of my colleagues vilified Neal’s Realtor, as did the former mayor. I, too, wish the exchange had never occurred, as Purcell is one of my heroes. This story stung more and more each time I heard it.

But, the truth is we were wrong in our assessments. The Realtor was doing her job. She provided her client, Neal, with his best options available for his children. The Williamson County schools were better with data and statistics to prove it.

Purcell took office with a pledge and determination to fix Metro public schools, and he dedicated resources, energy and oversight to do so.

He made a difference, an enormous difference. The state of Metro schools was much better when he left than when he took office. He did all he could, more than most.

While campaigning to succeed Purcell, Karl Dean was passionate about improving education in his early stumping, citing truancy as one of the main causes of failure in the system. He, too, was committed to improving the schools.

In 2009, Dean hired Jesse Register, who was working at Brown University as a senior advisor for district leadership for the Annenberg Institute of School Reform.

Register had performed remarkably in the Hamilton County School system and did not miss a beat when he grabbed the reins in Metro.

Register’s work in Metro is unparalleled as he was instrumental, along with another former mayor, Phil Bredesen, in the state’s application for Federal Race to the Top funding. The application proved successful, and the state was awarded $500 million with a large percentage going to Nashville Metro Schools.

While overlooked previously in this column, Bredesen spent his eight years in the office of mayor with concentrated efforts to improve the schools.

The grassroots movement among parents and friends to improve education in Metro is spectacular. People care, and things are changing for the better. The school board election was heated, and the candidates’ supporters put their money where their mouths were and their mouths where their money was.

Project Pencil and other private/public relationships are flourishing more now than ever. Some schools are performing off of the charts, including Ravi Gupta’s Nashville Prep, a new charter school.

So with all of the efforts and money and resources and stories and threats and hirings and firings, where are we today? What would the Realtor in Purcell’s story do today when presented with a new-to-town executive with school-age children?

If the agent is informed, that agent might know that only Mississippi ranks worse than Tennessee in quality of public education. That person might know that Nashville ranks below every county in Tennessee except Shelby County in many subjects.

Despite of all of the great work by some of the most intelligent leaders in our state – Bredesen, Purcell, Dean, Register, Orrin Ingram and countless parents and volunteers – we are failing our children.

If forced to find one school district that has schools that excel in preschool, elementary school, middle school and high school – magnet schools that depend on the lottery don’t count – the answer submitted by the Realtor might be Williamson County.

It is easy to look around, relish in the successes, marvel at the improvement and go forward. What is more difficult is to say that this is not good enough. It is not good enough to lure businesses that care about the children of their employees.

It is not good enough that many of our own citizens have no option but to achieve enough financial success to be able to send their children to private schools.

Charter schools seem to provide the solution. It has been noted that charter schools achieve better results in neighborhoods that usually don’t test as well. The argument is that parents who seek out charter schools and take the initiative to enroll their children in such schools are parents who are more involved and more likely to participate in the children’s academic life.

That, of course, is true. But what if there were no charter schools to chase? What if public schools were the only choice?

I have heard others suggest that charter schools should not be allowed in affluent areas, feeling that if the families can afford private schools they should spend their money with those institutions.

If ABC Inc. is moving here, and their executives are accustomed to public schools, then they should be able to enjoy that environment here or they will enjoy it in another area, perhaps an academic paradise about five miles down the road.

Rarely do elected officials break ranks with the party. There are many examples in which this has proven to be political suicide. Yet politics, especially today’s politics are divisive and destructive.

Nashville is fortunate to have had a long line of mayors devoted to education. We are once again in that situation. It is refreshing to hear Mayor Dean stand at odds with his party to fight, and it is a fight, for the children of Metro Nashville.

Richard Courtney is a partner with Christianson, Patterson, Courtney, and Associates and can be reached at richard@richardcourtney.com.

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