Monday, August 6, 2012

Stand for Children Stands for . . . What?

Posted By on Mon, Aug 6, 2012 at 3:53 PM

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A group called Stand for Children held a press conference last Friday to, well, pat itself on the back. Nothing wrong with that. Politics is not for the shy. Four candidates it backed for Unified School Board were elected, but three others lost and one of the winners was unopposed. Still, a decent batting average.

Jane Roberts of the Commercial Appeal, Les Smith of Fox 13, and I were the only ones who showed up at the office on McLemore across from Soulsville and Stax Academy. That's a small showing compared to, say, a mayoral press conference. I think it shows some uncertainty about exactly where Stand for Children stands, who they are, and how much clout the group has. We wound up having more of an informal conversation with Tennessee director Kenya Bradshaw and three of the candidates than a press conference.

The uncertainty was reflected in our choice of adjectives. I like "upstart" group. Les went with "education advocacy organization" and The CA has gone with "education reform group." One thing we agreed on is that Stand For Children is unusually well funded and spent more than $150,000 on the school board races, which is a huge amount. It doled out some $90,000 to campaign workers who were paid $10 an hour.

Money matters in Memphis politics, as school board member Rev. Kenneth Whalum Jr. pointed out after he lost by a whisker to Stand-endorsed Kevin Woods, who was appointed to the school board last year with Republican support on the Shelby County Commission.

Whalum got more than 83,000 votes when he ran for school board in 2006 and there was a much longer ballot. Fellow school board member Sara Lewis, on the other hand, got 900 votes when she won a special runoff election in 2010. Of the nine members on the Memphis City Schools Board of Education in 2010 when the charter was surrendered, six of them ran unopposed in their most recent races.

In politics, it obviously pays to pick your spots. The Memphis school board is both the most boring and worst-paid public service job in town and one of the most powerful because members oversee the lion's share of a budget of over $1 billion from various sources.

The seven members of the Unified Shelby County School Board are special, or at least they will be for a while. In September 2013 the holdovers from the city and county boards get their walking papers, and the magnificent seven become the new board — unless the county commission decides to add six more members.

Anyway, Stand For Children picked its spot and played (and spent) to win. The group thereby established some credibility and, if you will, some standing as a political power broker. In my 30 years in Memphis, that title has previously been bestowed on Harold Ford Sr., black preachers, AFSCME and other public-sector unions, the Tea Party, and a lot of wannabes that put out money-making election "ballots" with their endorsements. There was a time in the 1980s and 1990s when the Memphis City Council was known as "preachers and teachers," a somewhat exaggerated description of its membership's backgrounds, but one with some truth in it, too.

I first came across Stand For Children in 2010 in the run-up to the charter surrender. Members, including a sprinkling of Teach For America alumni, wore matching t-shirts at board meetings. I called them "pro-surrender" in a column, but was corrected by members who said they were neutral on surrender but against Shelby County Schools getting special school district status.

The web page wasn't much help. Stand For Children is a Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit with a chapter in Memphis that organized in 2009. Its mission is "to teach everyday people how to join together in an effective grassroots voice in order to win concrete, long-lasting improvements for children at both state and local levels." It believes "that the quality of a students education should not be determined by the wealth of his or her community. All children should receive a high quality education."

Who can argue with that? And who stands AGAINST children? It reminded me of a "Seinfeld" episode where George Costanza started "The Human Fund", or the insufferably peppy Seventies organization "Up With People."

Kenya Bradshaw is the state director of Stand For Children. She came to Memphis from Miami and graduated from Whitehaven High School. She is a member of the Transition Planning Commission. Stand For Children favors implementing the transition plan with no changes. Yes, school closings and all, she said. She is a no-nonsense proponent of higher standards for city schools, and an outspoken critic of graduation for the sake of graduation. Stand's members, she says, are "community organizers," a term used to disparage Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential campaign. But Stand has Republican ties, too.

She sees a fertile field of future candidates and leaders in the scores of people who offered themselves as school board appointees last year to the county commission, the hundreds of young college graduates that came to Memphis with Teach For America, the charter school movement, and the opportunities presented in the 2014 and 2015 city and county elections.

"Hold us as an organization accountable," she said.

The time has come to stand for something more than platitudes. For the parts of the transition plan that sting to have any chance, someone is going to have to champion them. That's something for Stand and the board members it helped elect to stand for, but it may be a long time coming, if ever, because the 23-member board and its old guard have a another year.

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