My wife and I were about to meet Elissa for coffee and have our first real conversation with her. Before the meeting, I secretly hoped that Elissa would, in some way, demonstrate that she wouldn't be a great school board member. Then I would have an excuse to not get involved in her campaign. After all, John Haubenreich is a friend and I deeply respect Gracie Porter's experience. I don't know Erica Lanier, but she seems like a model for how we want parents to be involved in our schools.
However, Elissa made her case and I knew that not only did I need to vote for her, but I should also tell others why. What follows is my explanation, but if you want the upshot, here it is:
Elissa is one of the finest people I know in education, period.
The Case for Elissa
Elissa would a be thoughtful and relentless advocate for our public schools, our tax dollars, and our kids' right to a great education. Her leadership style is understated. She listens more than she talks, asks questions more than she makes declarations, and seeks pragmatic solutions rather than engage in ideological quests.
Elissa's calculus is quite simple: Is (fill the blank) going to be best for kids, especially those who haven't been served well by our system? If yes, then she will support it and fight for it.
Elissa more than meets the qualifications I have for school board members. She is relentlessly dedicated to student achievement and she has the ability to work within a group to get things done. She is fluent in data-driven decision-making, is both realistic and optimistic about how to improve our schools, and has a fine-tuned bullshit detector. Finally, while I haven't personally seen her stare down a grizzly bear or disarm a bomb, I believe she has the courage to make the tough decisions required of a board member.
Her professional life bears this out. She started out teaching in New Orleans public schools and stayed past than her two-year commitment because she was that dedicated to her students. Keep in mind that this was pre-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, and it's public schools were routinely ranked among the worst in the country. Though I don't think teaching alone is a qualification for school board, it's telling that early in her career, she did something hard without expecting any recognition beyond the feeling one gets when you do right by kids.
Her next role, though it took her out of the classroom, has positively impacted thousands of children across the country.
She has become the most successful recruiter of teachers in the country and is a national expert in what makes teachers successful. (She's not quoted in the linked article, but has been a driver for implementing the research discussed therein.) She also has served on the senior leadership team for Teach for America for a dozen years. Having met a few people on this team, I can testify that it isn't for the faint of heart. You won't last unless you're smart, capable, and produce results. There's no better preparation for serving on the school board.
She also has an eye for talent, which will be critical when choosing a new superintendent (assuming Dr. Register retires at the end of his contract in 2015). She built a 200-person team at TFA. Separately, she's familiar with dozens of school districts across the country and has a clear picture of the best practices in governing a district. Moreover, she's played a role in how TFA has learned to better support teachers, keeping them in the classroom and growing their skill set. (A personal example: My wife joined TFA four years after me. The strides the organization made in supporting teachers in just that time were phenomenal.)
In sum, having Elissa serve on our school board is like getting LeBron James to play on your basketball team. When you can get the best, get the best.
The critiques I've heard from some -- zealously pro-charter, irreconcilable conflict of interest, tool of special interests, anti-teacher -- are so off-base as to be comical.
First, Elissa does not favor charter schools as a solution for everything. She has said we absolutely have to increase the quality of all our district schools. Charters are a piece of the puzzle. Magnets, enhanced option, Big Picture, and Middle College are, too. Nashville parents deserve more and better choices. This means that all schools should offer an opportunity for an excellent education.
The ironic thing is that I think Elissa will be harder on charter schools than the average board member. As noted, she's spent the past dozen years traveling around to schools across the country. No one who is a candidate or currently on the board can match her experience as far as knowing what a successful school looks like. I almost pity the poor charter school operator who tries to give her excuses as to why his or her school isn't getting the job done. Given her years as a senior executive in a high-pressure, rapidly growing organization, she is tough enough to vote to close failing charter schools, no matter the political consequences.
Second, the Teach for America contract with the district is not an irreconcilable conflict of interest. Each year the district hires more than 500 new teachers. About 100 or so come from Teach for America. No teacher has ever been fired from the district to make way for a TFA corps member. (See response to @AlexLittleTN) The district's contract with TFA has been renewed several times unanimously, without controversy. As far as I know, every single person running for school board supports continuing the contract with Teach for America. Furthermore, Elissa's job deals solely with recruitment and admissions. She has nothing to do with the Nashville contract. (FYI, TFA's senior leadership team is spread out across the country*.) Finally, she has stated she will recuse herself from votes dealing with TFA's contract. This would be essentially one vote every year, so the contract renewal would be 8-0, rather than 9-0.
As a point of comparison, Vanderbilt has a contract with MNPS to staff its employee health clinics which results in millions of dollars of payment to Vanderbilt. Would we prohibit one of the 21,500 Vandy (14,000 at VUMC) employees (or an employee of one of its rivals for the contract) from running for school board because Vanderbilt is an MNPS contractor? No -- this is why all sorts of part-time politicians recuse themselves from the occasional vote. It's hard to find large organizations in Nashville that don't have some sort of contract or partnership with MNPS.
I understand raising the question and voters should know Elissa's answer, but let's keep an eye on the big picture: This is a $700 million district. Teach for America's contract deals with maybe 20 percent of new teachers. It's been in effect for years and is uncontroversial. Principals around the district seem to like the TFA corps members and alumni in their schools, as they keep hiring them. The school board has bigger issues to deal with.
Third, Elissa isn't a puppet of "special interests." This, frankly, is offensive to even have to address. Talk to her for about 5 minutes and you'll realize that she's her own person with well thought-out policy positions driven by her 15 years in education. Most of her campaign's donations are local, garnering more support from East Nashville than any other candidate. As I've argued before, the money in this race reflects its seriousness and the fact that Elissa's candidacy has inspired people. She's also had tons of volunteers and convinced a whole bunch of people in District 5 to display signs in their yards. Campaign volunteers have knocked on thousands of doors. Special interests don't do that -- that's grassroots support.
This election cycle has seen big sums by previous school board election standards, but wouldn't be considered unusual even in a state representative race (and an MNPS school board member wields more influence in some ways, given the size of its budget and the fact that the board is nonpartisan).
This isn't some Citizens United or Koch brothers conspiracy. The financial disclosures are public. If something concerns you, go meet or e-mail Elissa and ask her about it.
Finally, Elissa supports teachers. I've observed Elissa in a couple of different settings during this campaign and there's one thing that consistently makes her face light up: talking about teaching. She's positively nerdy on the subject of educating kids. Elissa would welcome conversations with teachers about what is and isn't working in a school. She has said over and over again that teachers will the be catalyst in making MNPS the model urban school system. The district employs about 6,500 teachers, most of whom are doing great work. Elissa has said that a huge part of being on the board is figuring out effective ways to share best practices and give our educators the autonomy needed to have great schools.
I've been involved with politics long enough to know that you vote for a person, not a set of issues. The things that will truly matter during the next four years are hard to predict. What I look for above all is a certain level of judgment and values centered around what is best for kids.
I'm not against any candidate. I'm for Elissa Kim because she's demonstrated through word and deed over 15 years that she has the judgment and values that will allow her to best represent District 5 as we accomplish our community's most important task: educating our children.
* I hear this makes for some truly epic conference calls.
Disclaimer: All views expressed are solely my own and don't represent any organization with which I'm associated.