Live from Music Row, Monday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed education journalist for The Tennessee Star, TC Weber in studio to talk about why parents want charter schools and the problems associated with traditional public schools.

Leahy: It’s a delight to have in studio…

Weber: Thank you.

Leahy: Education reporter for The Tennessee Star, Mr. TC Weber.

TC, you’re talking about the school board here in Metro Nashville, and you’re saying, and I think it’s probably true, that the only thing they really have big discussions on is charter schools.

Weber: That’s it. Charter schools. Charter schools. Charter schools. Charter schools. Do you want to talk about charter schools? Enough about charter schools. Let’s talk about charter schools some more.

Leahy: Really. The process in Tennessee for charter school. A charter school is basically publicly funded but privately operated.

Weber: Correct.

Leahy: And the teachers’ unions hate them for the most part, although they do organize in certain charter schools. And charter schools, at least from what I’ve seen, are of a couple of different varieties. There are some that are sort of a classical education style.

Weber: Classical education is a newer wrinkle in the game. But charter schools are basically here’s the interesting thing for me with charter schools in Nashville per se, is they’re painted as being a conservative tool to undermine public education.

But the reality is every one of the charter schools that exist, from Valor to KIPP, all of them were founded by Democrats. Nashville Classical was founded by a guy who worked for the Obama campaign. And you’d be hard-pressed to find any Republicans in any charter school in.

Leahy: In the charter schools in metro Nashville.

Weber: Correct? Or in the state of Tennessee for that matter.

Leahy: That’s a very interesting point. And yet now when some others come in and want to set up a classical charter school, it becomes a flashpoint of political discussion.

Weber: And my argument has progressed over the years. I’ve been involved in this for about a decade now in looking at charter schools in Tennessee. I originally started, I was very anti-charter school because I believe in a public school system. I believe in a system of schools that brings us all together so we learn to interact with people from different backgrounds, and different thought patterns together, and it works best that way.

I’ve since moderated a little bit because we seem to want to attack this from the supply side instead of addressing demand. It’s just like the drug wars. You can’t put an end to drugs if you’re just trying to cut off the supply. You got to understand why people want them. Why is the demand there? Because if I’m a parent and I don’t feel that my child is getting what they need from their school, there is not a single parent.

I don’t care what your background is. Conservative, liberal, I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. You are not going to leave your child in a situation where you don’t feel they’re getting the best. If you effectively want to limit the growth to charter schools, you have to sit down and address and figure out, why are people wanting it?

And you can’t just write it off that they’re swayed or they’re disinformed or something like that. The point of the matter is people want them for a reason. If you want to effectively make the public school system better, you have to figure out why they want them.

Leahy: That’s the hanging chad question. Why TC, do parents want charter schools?

Weber: I think part of it is because they see that traditional public schools are not able to meet the needs of everybody. We seem to have instead of trying to figure out how to phrase this, we’ve seemed to have brought the roof down, brought the ceiling down instead of bringing the floor up. And that’s the way we’ve looked at it. We’re committed to outside things instead of student performance.

Leahy: Student performance, if I can just interject, has been abysmally bad, particularly Metro Nashville Public Schools for the past decade.

Weber: That’s a double edged sword, too, if you’re looking at it. If you’re just looking at test scores, it’s been fairly flat going up. Now, what do the tests tell us? I don’t know. That’s a whole little different story to get into because are we testing all the right things? Are we setting up kids for future success, or are we trying to justify what we’re doing? There’s an old adage that goes, he who controls the cut scores, controls the narrative. So that’s the thing.

You’ll find out when they need funding, and all of a sudden scores are abysmally low so we can get that money and get them up. But if we go, well, then the cut scores are doing great, we’re doing wonderful, you need to keep funding. So all of that needs to be taken with a grain of salt. But the bottom line is, parents don’t always feel like they’re being heard in traditional schools.

They don’t feel like they’re being responded to, and they don’t feel at times whether right or wrong, that their children are safe. And that contributes to them wanting to go for other options.

Leahy: Yes. If you look at the performance of the charter schools here in Nashville, and as you said in Metro Nashville, the charter schools mostly have been run and organized by progressives or Democrats. What’s the performance of those charter schools in Nashville?

Weber: It’s a mixed bag. It’s just like anything. What you find out once you get into schooling children, is that children are not these widgets that you unscrew their brains, dump in a bunch of knowledge and shove down the assembly line.

They come with their own agenda. Amazingly, unless you’ve been around 7th graders, you find out they’re not always interested in hitting your performance marks.

Leahy: They’re not.

Weber: Sometimes they’re more interested in making the football team or the girl in the other corner. (Chuckles)

Leahy: At least that part of life is of very little difference when we were in 7th grade.

Weber: Some of it is very much the same.

Leahy: Looking back at my contemporaries in 7th grade, is what you described. I was interested in doing well academically, but my other interests were football, making the football team, and the girl next door. Interested in that as well?

Weber: Yes. And that’s the whole thing. And there are so many other things going on. Some of the charter schools do an exceptional job. Some of them could use improvement. It’s much like traditional schools. So the problem isn’t about shutting one down or the other. The problem should be or the challenge, I should say, should be finding how we get what the most amount of students need.

And I’ve slowly evolved my position where I still believe in a strong public school system. But you got to have the public. We used to have a saying in the restaurant business that this would be a great place to work if it wasn’t for the public. (Leahy laughs) And that’s the way that schools work.

Leahy: My general feeling on a public school system is I don’t think it’s salvageable. I don’t think it’s salvageable. But the dilemma is 50 million kids go to a publicly run and publicly operated, publicly funded public school at a couple of million go to charter schools, a couple of million more go to private schools. It seems to me that the institution of K-12 public schools are failing badly and I don’t see any opportunity for improvement. But you seem to be a little bit more optimistic.

Weber: I don’t know, I cling to that optimism. I believe that that system can work.

Leahy: You’re a clinger but not a bitter clinger, right?

Weber: Not a bitter clinger. There are parts of me that I think at times the whole thing needs to be blown up and we need to figure out what we’re doing. And at times I often find that adults bring their agenda.

Listen to today’s show highlights, including this interview:

– – –

Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to The Tennessee Star Reporwith Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Photo “TC Weber” by Thomas “TC” Weber for MNPS District 2 School Board.