In Nashville, the election of a new city mayor and the selection of city school superintendent converged to create a growing maelstrom resulting from change – City Hall’s call for change and the educational community’s tendency to fight anything resembling change.

While the tension created by a dynamic, visionary new mayor and the resistance inherent in most urban school districts is instructive from a political perspective, it should be even more fascinating for us because of the chance that the same forces will converge here in 2011.

In our capital city, new Mayor Karl Dean cuts an impressive political figure, creating even more energy in a city already doing an awfully lot right in today’s economy. But with his push for broad green strategies, new parks, school reform and a new vision for his city, he has the kind of opportunity that can be historic for his hometown.

Preaching From The Pulpit

In particular, he is clearly comfortable being labeled as the education mayor, and from his bully pulpit, he has challenged conventional thinking and the old guard to suggest that more national resources and private financial support are needed to transform the 75,000-student, countywide Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools into a magnet for young families and the middle class.

It’s interesting to watch these dynamics play out in Nashville. There’s David Fox, school board chairman, clinging by his fingernails to his turf, and then there is Mayor Dean, who sensibly interprets his mandate as mayor as a demand from the public to “fix” public schools.

To that end, he is aggressively asserting several programs that have been in Memphis for a couple of years – New Leaders for New Schools, The New Teacher Project and Teach for America – and he is enthusiastically calling for more charter schools. While the mayor and the business community in Nashville are pursuing these programs with the same commitment that they have shown to prospective businesses, the same programs here generally receive lukewarm from new Superintendent Kriner Cash on their best days and the cold shoulder on their worst.

Fresh Eyes

To give you an idea of the breath of fresh air that Mayor Dean is bringing to all things public in Nashville, a couple of weeks ago he proposed that the city library system take over the operations of the school district’s library. Of course, some people in the school district immediately started talking about how impossible it is.

Meanwhile, the Nashville mayor’s continued push for a mayor-led district – similar to Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Providence and 10 more cities – where the mayors are responsible for the operations of the city’s schools and accountable for their success or failure.

After an initial flirtation with the idea, the school board predictably seems to be doing nothing to give the idea the fair hearing that it deserves, but the potential of a mayor-led district gained a major push this morning when respected Brown University scholar and expert on school governance Ken Wong advocated a mayor-led district to a well-attended breakfast meeting of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, which has taken the lead in facilitating the discussion about a change in school governance.

An Issue Whose Time Has Come

Dr. Wong chairs the Education Department at Brown University, where he holds the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Chair in Education Policy and directs the graduate program in Urban Education Policy, and is one of the most enlightened speakers on issues shaping today’s urban school districts.

In Nashville, he presented his research on the strides being made by districts where mayors appoint the superintendent and are ultimately responsible for operations of their public schools. It was an idea advanced earlier this year by Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton, but collapsed under its own weight as the Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners moved ahead with selection of a new superintendent.

Clearly, it was not a scenario relished by Supt. Cash since it’s a condition that would release him from his contract with Memphis City Schools, but the issue of a mayor-led district should be a major subject for the next city mayor’s race because it is an idea whose time has come.

Death Penalty

Unlike Memphis – which needed Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen to flex his legal muscle to start the clock on a mayor-led district here – Nashville in a year is likely to give the governor the option within the normal context of the state educational accountability law.

That’s because this year, after five years of failing to meet state standards, the Nashville school district was placed on the high-priority list and the Tennessee Department of Education took partial control. Next fall, if the Nashville district has not improved, the system could get the death sentence. At that point, Governor Bredesen can throw the switch and appoint someone like Mayor Dean or Vanderbilt University to run the district.

While there is broad business and City Hall consensus behind bold action, it’s still uncertain that Governor Bredesen will be willing, as he prepares to re-enter private life, to put his legacy on the line for Nashville schools and invest his political capital to give Mayor Dean this level of control. That’s not even mentioning that he knows that if he does anything to help Nashville, there will be a large delegation from Memphis standing in his front office waiting to ask for the same thing here.

Center Of The Universe

It will be fascinating to watch all of this play out. Already, we’ve learned one thing that we’ve always suspected: there is no longer any question that Nashville receives preferential treatment. It was answered conclusively by the actions of the DOE in Nashville and its inaction in Memphis. When Memphis City Schools found itself in similar straits, there was the unmistakable feeling that DOE couldn’t wait to get out of here.

After all, the deep suspicion lingers that DOE is keeping two sets of books – one for Nashville and one for Memphis. It’s worth remembering that even though the Nashville district is on the state list, the schools there still outperform our own.

Back to DOE’s preferential treatment of the Nashville school district, it hasn’t been that long that the Department of Education, given a chance to force transformative change in our district, accepted the so-called and aptly named Proposal for Expenditures of Additional State Revenues,” largely a list of everybody’s favorite ideas with no thread of academic philosophy underpinning them.

If Only It Was Us

Compare that to Nashville. There, the DOE mobilized into action and focused its considerable influence and resources on turning things around, taking unprecedented action to change the organizational structure of the Nashville district. State officials have appointed three associate superintendents to oversee instruction, along with new leaders for the district’s federal, gifted and special ed programs.

The state has replaced 60 principles and assistant principals who were considered ineffective and the curriculum was changed to emphasize literacy and numeracy. Small learning academies were opened at some high schools along with more career and technical programs.

A Vanderbilt University education expert said that these drastic measures are generally reserved for districts in the worse conditions (which suspiciously sounds like the definition of our district). DOE’s action in Nashville has been called the single largest school district reform effort ever undertaken in Tennessee, begging the question of what it would take to get that much assertive action out of state government to help here.

Squeaky Wheels

At a time when DOE has treated a “state take over” of even a few schools in our district as a petrifying idea, there has been no such reticence when it came to Nashville. Perhaps, it’s the political equivalent of “out of sight, out of mind.”

Then again, maybe with Nashville media daily and loudly trumpeting the serious problems in their schools, state officials were being reminded constantly that something had to be done and Nashville reporters regularly called DOE to ask what its officials were going to do to fix things.

Obviously, it’s easier for DOE to ignore problems 210 miles away in a city that too often accepts poor schools as a simple fact of life. It’s true that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, but that’s certainly true when it’s the squeaky wheel that you have to hear all day long every day.

Tomorrow: Dr. Wong’s Hypothesis