In terms of dramatically changing the way kids learn, the powers of Metro’s nine school board members are constrained. Though they are the city’s lone elected school officials, their main function is to hire and monitor a superintendent, in this case Director of Schools Jesse Register, a man they’ve contracted through 2015.
But one of the areas the board does control is the school calendar — its authority on display at last week’s meeting when members unanimously approved a new so-called balanced calendar for the 2012-13 school year. That calendar will increase school days from 173 to 176, lengthen fall and spring breaks, and shorten the summer recess by having classes start on Aug. 1.
It’s a major move indeed, but a more audacious option would have marked July 25 as the new start date, a proposal that called for an additional $20 million in education funding. By a narrow 5-4 vote, the board defeated that plan, which would have added 10 days of professional development for teachers, carved out longer intersession periods aimed at student enrichment and hiked the number of school days to 180.
In the end — and after spirited debate — the board bypassed the chance to pilot what could have been one of the boldest moves during Register’s tenure in Nashville, opting for a safer choice instead. The board couldn’t come to grips with the idea of holding class in the heat of July — or the prospect of making what one member called an “unfunded mandate.”
“I was a little disappointed,” said board member Ed Kindall, who made an impassioned plea marked by the words, “We’ve got to do something,” before making the later-rejected motion to adopt the July 25 calendar. “I was hoping we would at least ask — that if the economy got better, therefore tax revenues increased, we would be able to fund some parts of it. From what I understand, some of it could have been funded.”
Nonetheless, Kindall, a 27-year veteran of the district who represents constituents who feed into some of Nashville’s most impoverished and struggling schools, said he’s pleased the board approved the alternative balanced calendar. After all, he joined his eight colleagues in making what turned into a unanimous decision.
“It is more time on task,” he said of the new calendar. “I know you’re talking about just a few days, but you would be surprised. If a kid is having trouble with fractions or having a problem with a particular area in math, you can do a whole lot in a fairly short period of time.”
As Register noted prior to the board’s vote, research on whether more classroom time leads to better student achievement is split. How additional time is used is the key. But moving toward the July 25 start date might have accomplished a couple of things, say some education observers who witnessed the proposal go down in defeat.
One, it would have been a clear signal that the district is serious about doing all it can to erase the achievement gap experienced by economically disadvantaged and English Language Learner students, the two groups that suffer the most academically from long summer breaks. No doubt, the calendar the board adopted is an undeniable gesture toward this end, but it lacks the same gusto as the alternative.
Perhaps more significantly, adopting a calendar contingent on $20 million in unidentified funding could have upped the ante on the Metro Council and Mayor Karl Dean’s budgetary commitment to steadfastly prioritize public education. During his modestly challenged campaign for a second term, Dean routinely said his administration had “fully funded” schools. But how much would he be willing to dedicate? Dean no longer has to answer this question.
Along similar lines, the council and Dean — rather than simply voting up or down on next year’s budget — would have been forced to actually weigh in on a specific education measure, the calendar, perhaps spurring a fruitful conversation.
Leading up to last week’s vote, Register had openly discussed a scenario whereby he would recommend the board adopt the $20 million balanced calendar, and approve the Aug. 1 calendar as a “fallback” if funding weren’t made available next spring. Oddly, he did nothing of the sort Tuesday, and only asked the board to recommend either balanced calendar — that, board members did.
The following day, Register told The City Paper his main goal was to transition to a balanced calendar, regardless of its scope: “I just struggled a little bit with, ‘How do you make it less awkward?’ ”he said, referring to the financial element.
Register, who said he’s “proud” of the board’s decision, called the district’s new calendar “a big first step.” As such, he didn’t rule out proposing the more ambitious July 25 start at some point in the future, a plan he said originated from the question, “What is everything we would like to see?”
“I could see that coming back as a recommendation,” Register said. “But I also feel like we have plenty to deal with this year.
“I don’t see this as a one-time yes or no,” he said. “I see this as part of a process to try to move ahead in the future. Now, it’s much easier for us to plan a calendar based on an existing budget without having to anticipate whether we were going to get the additional funds or not.”
Michael Hayes, the board member who represents the affluent Green Hills area, said he received more than 400 emails from constituents who opposed the July 25 start. The tally of emails that supported the plan peaked at 13. Concerns over funding, lost summer vacations and heat were just a few of the parents’ anxieties.
Hayes said he simply couldn’t vote for something that didn’t seem to have community-wide consensus, adding that he wished the Metro Nashville Public Schools communication staff could have ramped up its efforts to solicit more parental and faculty feedback.
Coupled with the likelihood of a gloomy Metro government budget forecast next year, Hayes said he “didn’t feel it would be prudent” to ask for the massive financial increase, which he believes would have assured a property tax increase. Still, he seems to recognize the merits of adding more days.
“I think everyone at the board believes that we need more time, that we need to move at a minimum towards 180 days, perhaps more, of education,” Hayes said. “We recognize that we are considerably behind other states and other cities, and the only way to catch up is to spend more time studying and more time in the classroom.
“Globally, a 180-day school year is right about in the middle of what other counties are doing,” he added. “When you look at Finland, China, England — in a globally competitive workplace — by the time they’ve graduated high school, they have about a year and half to two more years of education in the classroom.”
Board chair Gracie Porter, who voted for the defeated July 25 option, summed up the board’s overall sense of optimism about the calendar that it did approve: “More time on task is what we’re gaining.”
“I’m not disappointed,” Porter said. “What we try to do is listen to all sides. There’s no such thing as a perfect calendar, because you’re going to please some constituents, and some you won’t please.
“Obviously, at some point in time, as a resident of this community, taxes are going to have to be increased,” Porter said. “We always say that we want the best of our schools, and if that’s what we want, we’re going to have to be willing to pay for it.”