Williams: The Disjointed, and Increasingly Dishonest, Attacks on Charter Operators
Revised on September 28th
I have been contemplating whether or not to address the controversy surrounding the curriculum at Nashville Prep, which, to be honest, is quite strange. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say about it, but rather I’m uncertain if my perspective is worth sharing.
You see, everything about this supposed controversy is incredibly disheartening. It confirms all my worst suspicions about those who oppose educational reform, and I question the value of expressing the cynicism it fuels.
Nevertheless, here I am.
First, let me provide an overview of the controversy. Nashville Prep assigned the book "City of Thieves", a highly regarded piece of literature, to its seventh-grade students as part of their literacy curriculum.
Now, this is not your typical children’s book. It contains mature language and explores themes of sex and violence. A member of the Nashville school board, who has a history of criticizing charter schools, took offense to the book’s content and suggested that the school should be shut down. She lodged a complaint with the district, discovering that Nashville Prep teachers had made alterations to the text to tone down the language and make it more appropriate for seventh-graders.
Is the case closed? Far from it! Instead, the critics raised a new concern: had Nashville Prep violated copyright by removing explicit language? The school’s founder, Ravi Gupta, responded in frustration:
"Our legal team believes we are in the right, and I wonder if the district wants to set a precedent where any teacher adapting a book for classroom use could be targeted. I highly doubt the district wants to be seen as the antagonist here. I suspect that if we asked David Benioff (the author) for his opinion, he would be more outraged by a school district attempting to ban one of his books than by a school trying to make his work accessible for younger readers. It’s ironic, considering that the father of the main character in ‘City of Thieves’ was killed due to literary censorship."
On its own, this incident may not warrant a deep analysis. It’s a minor battle over a small part of one school’s curriculum. However, the underlying rhetoric reflects a larger issue in the education discourse.
Nashville Prep is one of the highest-performing schools in Tennessee and enjoys great popularity among its families. The school’s supporters filled the room at a recent meeting of Nashville’s school board. It’s absurd that these dedicated educators are facing the threat of closure due to their curriculum choices. Even more ridiculous is the fact that when their critics’ attacks on the book failed, they resorted to baseless copyright accusations.
And that’s why I believe it’s crucial to focus on what is happening at Nashville Prep. How does one handle such relentless opposition? Critics of charter schools have abandoned any semblance of consistency – any argument will suffice.
We hear claims that charter schools are too traditional in their teaching methods. Yet, Nashville Prep is now being complained about for exposing children to literature that is too unconventional, too bold, and too far beyond the norms of traditional society.
We also hear demands that charter school enrollments should align with local neighborhoods. However, when charter schools do cater to local (often segregated) communities, critics cry foul, accusing these schools of promoting segregation. Some charters are criticized for not serving enough "at-risk" students, while others are criticized for exclusively targeting "at-risk" students.
At what point can we genuinely conclude that opponents like this simply do not care about the well-being of children? Are they driven by a different agenda – one that aims not for compromise, but for complete surrender by the educators working in these schools? When opponents are this ruthless and desperate to find a pretext for their vindictiveness, it becomes difficult to maintain any interest in continuing the conversation.
There is a connection here to another significant charter school story currently making headlines. The Washington State Supreme Court recently declared the state’s voter-approved charter school law unconstitutional. The majority of the justices (who are appointed) argued that the law fell short because the boards overseeing the state’s nine charter schools were not democratic enough. In other words, they were not like the local school boards, such as those in Nashville.
The effectiveness of democratic debate relies solely on using persuasive language rather than engaging in persecution and marginalization. When the conversation deviates into unfounded attacks like those experienced by the RePublic schools, it strays away from the principles of democracy and enters the realm of authoritarianism.
If this continuous assault is what we currently consider as "democratic" governance, it’s not surprising that our public discussions about education have become so unpleasant, punitive, and unproductive. It is also understandable why we are facing difficulties in making significant advancements in improving our schools.