When Mayor Karl Dean leaves office at the end of September, his successor will help to shape Tennessee’s second-largest school district at a time when the Nashville community is demanding higher academic results, is split over whether to unleash the city’s growing charter sector, and is acknowledging that school segregation is as significant an issue as ever.
Addressing those challenges will be either Megan Barry or David Fox, who will face each other in a runoff election on Sept. 10.
Barry, 51, has served on Nashville’s Metro Council since 2007 and previously worked as an ethics and compliance officer. Fox, 53, is a former hedge-fund manager, served on the Metro school board from 2006 to 2010, and once worked as a business reporter.
Chalkbeat asked the candidates how they would work with the city’s new schools director and its school board to lead Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (MNPS), which serves nearly 90,000 students. Here are their answers:
What is the mayor’s role related to K-12 education?
Megan Barry: My first goal as Nashville’s next mayor will be to work with the school board to find and recruit a highly qualified director of schools who has experience turning around lower-performing schools in an urban school district similar to Nashville. One of my top priorities will be to ensure that all children come to school ready to learn by making pre-kindergarten available to every child in Nashville. I’ll use my office to raise the profile of the district’s many successful programs, while engaging with teachers and parents to improve those schools where we still have issues. My goal is for every community, in every corner of this city, to have a quality public school.
David Fox: To be a collaborative partner and critical friend of the school board while ensuring all Nashville children receive a high-quality education.
Who are some of your mayoral role models when it comes to schools?
Barry: Mayor Dean and I came into office together, so obviously I’m most familiar with his efforts. I’m proud to have supported eight consecutive budgets that fully funded our schools under this administration. Gov. (Phil) Bredesen, while he was mayor, also had a strong focus on improving our public schools. He really got the ball rolling by building 32 new schools, renovating 42 others, and adding more than 200 new teachers to our system. Both mayors focused on investing in our public schools while promoting innovation.
Fox: Karl Dean has demonstrated what an informed and engaged mayor can accomplish when it comes to improving educational opportunities for all children. He was ready and willing to spend any amount of political capital to advance public education, and so will I.
What education initiatives of Mayor Dean’s would you continue, expand or curtail?
Barry: In 2010, the mayor launched the Nashville Afterschool Zone Alliance in response to the recommendations from the Project for Student Success task force created in 2007. NAZA has done some amazing things to give students access to afterschool programs that are improving student results and increasing graduation rates. As mayor, I will put resources into the NAZA program to ensure continued success.
Fox: Mayor Dean initiated Teach for America, something I will be eager to continue to support if elected. He understood how critical it is to engage teaching talent to go into our most vulnerable schools so that every student has high-quality instruction.
Would you support the growth of high-quality charter schools and, if so, how?
Barry: Charter schools, zoned schools, magnet schools are all part of the fabric of MNPS. Whether we need to grow high-quality charters is not something we can predict. It’s a judgment the board will make on a case-by-case basis depending on the quality of the application and the needs of the community. What our next mayor needs to focus on is the expansion of quality schools in every single neighborhood.
Fox: The adults of our community have a compact to provide high-quality education to all children and for too long we have not fulfilled it — though we are making progress toward that goal.
How would you address concerns that the growth of charters siphons off funding, focus and other resources from existing public schools?
Barry: We focus too much on this us-verses-them mentality. We all want a quality public school for our children. The challenge of the next mayor is to get everyone — charter, magnet, zoned — to the table to do what is best for our students, our teachers and our communities and to do that in a fiscally responsible way.
Fox: How can we morally defend not doing everything possible to provide high-quality education to all students, even if that means utilizing non-profit organizations to manage some schools?
Nashville has a high rate of school segregation. What are your ideas for addressing this issue?
Barry: Studies have consistently shown that the achievement gap among students nationally was lowest in the late 1980s when schools were at their most integrated. Working with MNPS, the Metro Human Relations Commission, and our chief diversity officer which I have committed to hiring, I would like to review our district’s policies to ensure we are doing what we can to ensure that we are giving all children equal access to a high-quality public education.
Fox: Transportation is a key factor here. By profoundly improving our transportation options, we can give parents more options, and the racial isolation we see in some of our MNPS schools should decline.
How will you work with the school board? How might your relationship with the board differ from that of past Nashville mayors?
Barry: Throughout my time on Metro Council, I have always tried to unite people behind consensus and that’s how I view my role as mayor. I want to support our elected board where I can, because I believe that an elected board is an important part of our system. I believe that my experience as a strong proponent of public schools, with support from leaders on both sides of the charter-vs-traditional public school debate, I am the person best equipped to calm the waters and get everyone rowing in the same direction.
Fox: I think it’s critical that the mayor and the school board have a constructive relationship. I learned when I was chairman of the school board that having personal relationships of trust go a long way in helping the school board perform at a high level. I am eager to work together as a team with the school board to continue to improve MNPS schools. Having served on the school board has informed my understanding of how to build the relationships that can lead to higher performance by our school board and the public education system.
What do you believe to be the most important challenges facing MNPS?
Barry: Two of the most important issues involve early childhood education and wraparound services. Right now, there are still children being left on a waitlist for a high-quality pre-K seat. Our challenge is to connect these kids with quality programs through universal pre-K, so they start school ready to learn. We also know that kids who are sick or who don’t have enough to eat have a harder time learning, so expanding our community schools with health and hunger and other wraparound services is of paramount importance.
Fox: One of the most critical decisions facing our city is the recruitment of an A-plus director of schools. I will do anything the school board would like me to do to help identify and recruit a leader who can build on the successful foundation created by (recently retired director) Dr. Jesse Register.
Are there any school-related non-profit organizations that you would be interested in attracting or expanding? If so, which ones?
Barry: I believe part of that success can be attributed to the fact that the mayor’s office, the chamber, nonprofit organizations, and businesses decided to work collectively to support our schools. Nashville is fortunate to have a vast non-profit and business network invested in supporting our schools. Alignment Nashville has provided a way to leverage these public-private partnerships to improve outcomes for all of our students. I will continue to find ways to utilize organizations like Alignment Nashville to move the needle on education.
Fox: Nashville is blessed with a very engaged educational non-profit sector. Given the challenges ahead, we must harness the capacity of our non-profit partners to achieve what’s necessary on behalf of children. Some of the non-profit organizations I will look to include The Nashville Public Education Foundation, Pencil and Alignment Nashville — but there are many, many others who must have a vital role in making our system of local schools more robust.
Some school districts in Tennessee have filed lawsuits charging that the state is chronically underfunding public education under the Basic Education Plan (BEP). MNPS also has considered litigation over this matter. Do you believe schools are underfunded by the state? How would you encourage MNPS to address this issue?
Barry: On council, I did sign the good-faith dialogue letter and that seems to have at least moved the conversation forward. I will continue working with MNPS to press the state to address our legitimate concerns about a fair and equitable funding formula that allows us to appropriately fund our schools.
Fox: While Nashville already shoulders the highest percentage of local funding for any system in the state, I expect that our future funding capacity will continue to be mostly local. I support vigorous representation of Nashville and other large urban systems in discussions on how to allocate state BEP funds.
How might you work to supplement MNPS’s funding?
Barry: It’s a question of priorities. I’ve said all along public education is the most important thing our city government does, and my budget priorities will reflect that. We’ll have to look at the budget year-by-year to see where our investments are working, where they aren’t, and how we can spend taxpayer dollars efficiently and effectively to achieve the greatest results for our students.
Fox: Karl Dean set a terrific example of funding public education as generously as possible, and I will follow his lead.
How would you work with state leaders to shape education in Nashville? What kinds of things might you push for from the state legislature?
Barry: I’m fortunate to have the endorsement of the vast majority of the Davidson County legislative delegation. I have a good working relationship with those individuals, and I intend to have a good working relationship with the governor to make sure that we are all working together to meet the unique needs of an urban school district like Nashville.
Fox: A close relationship between the mayor’s office and the Nashville delegation in the General Assembly is vital to all facets of Metro government, especially education. I intend to foster close and informed relationships with our legislators to ensure they share our priority in delivering high quality public education for all children.