By Amy Frogge
Project Renaissance is folding. Let me take a moment to explain what this group is really all about.
Last summer, Project Renaissance injected itself into local school board races with a vengeance, trying to take down several board members and replace them with pro-charter school candidates. I believe Project Renaissance was founded in large part to focus on our local school board elections, but the organization failed in this mission, as those of us who were targeted last summer handily won back our seats.
However, there is a greater purpose for groups like this, which are funded by very wealthy individuals who advocate for charter schools and other such market-based, money-making “reforms” (standardized testing, vouchers, etc.) while sending their own children to private schools.
Charter schools need two things to survive: (1) Teachers willing to work for extremely low salaries and benefits who will churn and burn long hours; these are typically young teachers with no traditional teacher training or experience. Many come from TFA, which provides them only weeks of training before throwing them into classrooms. (In charter schools, the money goes to the top, not the classrooms.) (2) They also need parents who are trained to spread the message of “failing [traditional] schools” and “choice” in order to create greater parent demand for charter schools. (Charters die without enough parents choosing their schools, and for this reason, charters spend a lot of money on marketing.) Because parents are not clamoring for more charter schools (they usually have little to no wait lists), wealthy charter backers must resort to recruiting families by trying to build groups like “Nashville Rise.” The whole thing is astroturf, but the lovely people involved in organizations like “Nashville Rise” don’t understand this. I’ve heard many well-intentioned and thoughtful parents sent from “Nashville Rise” to speak at our board. They believe they are fighting for civil rights and the rights of poor children to receive a better education, but they don’t realize that the agenda set forth by Project Renaissance and “Nashville Rise” actually increases inequity and segregation in our school system.
Because public opinion has changed on charter schools and polling now shows that Nashvillians are predominantly against the idea at this point, Karl Dean has decided to take a different tack during his campaign for governorship. While mayor, Dean successfully fought to remove local control of schools in Nashville. He also wanted the board to open a segregated charter school for wealthier students, and he pushed the board to open as many charter schools as possible (even extremely low performing schools like Rocketship), despite evidence that the influx of charters was having a negative fiscal impact on other schools in the district. Now that he’s running for governor, though, he maintains he’s really not about privatization or charter school expansion.
So there you have it. If we actually responded to real parent demand (not demand for “choice” contrived by millionaires), we would have had a very different conversation in Nashville over the last five years. And if we truly wanted “high quality” teaching, we would demand well trained, experienced teachers and spend some of the money we must now direct at charter operators and testing to pay teachers accordingly.
I am grateful that this organization is closing in our city, but I hope public education advocates will remain wary in other locations. This is surely coming your way.
Amy Frogge is an elected member of the Metro Nashville Board of Public Education.