Register changes tenor of school debate

“Dialogue is action,” civil rights leader Dorothy Height told us, and Register is right to remind us of that.


Dorothy Height, the great heroine of the civil rights movement, observed, “The only way to move ourselves forward is by working together.”

Last week, Metro Schools Director Jesse Register called for a cease-fire in the escalating “wordfare” between educational reform camps in Nashville.

In a speech to the Metro Council Education Committee, he said that the attacks “have created distrust and hard feelings where understanding and common purpose once ruled the day. In the very near past when we disagreed, we did so respectfully. Not so today. It has at times become mean and personal.

Text of Jesse Register’s speech

“We have lost civility in our dialogue on education reform in general, and regrettably, particularly as it concerns our public charter schools. This loss of civility has caused good people and quality institutions that have the same basic goals — the quality education of future generations of Nashvillians — to take sides and develop an unhealthy ‘us vs. them’ mentality.”

Biggest losers

He added, “When we take a step back and really think about it, the biggest losers in this kind of scorched-earth campaign-style approach to our discussion about schools of choice are our children.”

Nashville’s business community responded quickly with support to Register’s call for a new dialogue on Metro’s schools “where this community, and our school system, can find stability and reinstate a collaborative and transparent environment where innovation and true partnership can flourish.”

Register asked for a regular, monthly meeting with leaders from Metro schools and the charter schools for a “no holds barred” discussion about what is working and what is not.

“We will have 25 charter schools in the district next year,” Register said. “It is wrongheaded to do battle over how important charter schools are. Our system is very much a choice system, with more than a quarter of our students” attending a school they choose vs. one they are assigned to attend.

“We have to find the areas where we agree, so that we can have constructive conversations that deal with the concerns we all know that we have.”

Fresh air

We appreciate the fresh breeze that Register’s speech and his follow-up conversations have brought to what had become an embittered battle where each side seemed to have determined that their opponents “just weren’t listening.”

District 7 representative Will Pinkston, an outspoken critic of how the fiscal impact of charter schools is managed and perhaps one of the divisive voices Register was talking about in his speech, was quick to respond to the director’s plea, and offered his thorny version of an olive branch in a letter to Register.

“Based on the totality of your previous comments about charter schools, many people understandably are skeptical. Nevertheless, I’m glad that you’re calling for collaborative conversations between the district and charters. Frankly, it’s overdue.”

Poking stick in hand, Pinkston pushed Register to add his agenda items to the discussion — the fiscal impact of charter schools on Metro funding; how to address charter school capital needs; student attrition; and how many charter schools is the right number?

Check weapons at door

Register articulates the right question: Can we put aside our prejudices and agendas to have an honest discussion about the choices we have to provide a more effective education experience for our children?

“I want to renew a sincere spirit of civility, cooperation, and optimism when we agree, and lead a respectful, meaningful and constructive dialogue when we don’t,” he told the council.

“We have the chance to have great public schools,” Register said, “but it can go either way if we don’t have a common vision and common goals.”

Height knew that “dialogue is action”; we could use some action!