By Jason Langberg
On Tuesday, the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) Board of Education (BOE) fired Superintendent Anthony Tata, a Broad Superintendents Academy graduate. The firing of a local school superintendent wouldn’t usually be major national news, but in this instance, it is. It proves that at least some school systems will still resist significant influence by big money and market-based deformers when it is in the best interests of families, teachers and the community.
Here is a timeline of key events leading up to the hiring of Tata:
- In December 2009, a newly elected, ultra-conservative majority seized control of the majority of seats on the BOE.
- In February 2010, the superintendent at the time, Del Burns, announced he would resign effective June 30th. He was pushed out after criticizing the BOE’s “partisan political gamesmanship” and decision to end the school system’s nationally renowned diversity policy.
- In June 2010, after accepting bids, the BOE hired the Illinois-based search firm of Heidrick & Struggles (the highest bidder at $82,500), rather than the North Carolina School Boards Association (cost: $21,000).
- In August 2010, the BOE gave final approval to eliminate two requirements to be superintendent in WCPSS: 1) “possess an earned doctorate or equivalent;” and 2) “have had three years’ experience in school work in the past 10 years.”
- On December 23, 2010, the BOE, hired Tata to run the 18th largest school system in the country–a school system where he had never set foot. BOE and Tea Party member, John Tedesco, said that Tata would “be the CEO of a $1.2 billion business.”
After 28 years in the U.S. military, Tata authored military thriller novels (“Hidden Threat,” “Rogue Threat” and “Sudden Threat”) and was a Fox News commentator. Tata famously called President Obama “an aloof Ivy League intellectual” and declared that Sarah Palin was “far more qualified to be president of the United States than the current occupant.”
Tata doesn’t have a degree in education and was never a school teacher or principal. In fact, he has never worked in a public school. Instead, he spent only 10 months being trained at the Broad Superintendents Academy. Before coming to WCPSS, his only experience working in a school system was as Chief Operating Officer under Michelle Rhee in the District of Columbia Public Schools for 18 months.
Tata made his debut in Raleigh in January when he spoke to the Wake County Taxpayer’s Association, an extremely conservative organization that has fought funding for public schools. Shortly thereafter, Tata began as Superintendent on January 31, 2011. His salary was $250,000 per year, plus a plethora of benefits and perks.
During Tata’s 20-month stint as superintendent, WCPSS:
- Lost many, well-respected central office staff members, including David Ansbacher (Senior Director of the Magnet Program), Michael Evans (Chief Communications Officer), Donna Hargens (Interim Superintendent and Chief Academic Officer) and Don Haydon (Chief Facilities and Operations Officer);
- Implemented a “choice” plan that created widespread confusion, exceedingly long waits for families enrolling and being assigned, more high-poverty schools, and increased instability for families;
- Hosted student cyber-security competitions sponsored by defense contractors, including Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin;
- Started two expensive, single-sex academies, where Tata attempted to make J-ROTC military training mandatory;
- Initiated merit pay, which encourages counterproductive competition among teachers and incentivizes pushing out lower performing students, at some high-poverty schools;
- Has been under investigation by the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education (for discriminating against Spanish-speaking parents with limited English proficiency) and by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, Exceptional Children Division (for denying an appropriate education to students with disabilities); and
- Started the 2011-12 school year with major busing problems, including overcrowded, unpredictable, and missing buses. Some children were stranded on the roadside and waited hours to be picked up from bus stops and schools.
- Hired Judith Peppler, a telecommunications executive and fellow Broad Superintendents Academy graduate who had no experience working in a school system, to be the System’s Chief Transformation Officer with a salary of $140,000 per year (Peppler resigned on Thursday);
- Demanded that two school board members “sever their ties” with a nonprofit organization that advocates for improved public education, and then publicly accused them of “serious code of ethics violations” (Tata has constantly clashed with the BOE since Democrats regained control in November 2011); and
- Alienated Wake County voters by telling them to “cowboy up” to pass a school construction bond.
Also, Tata at times refused to act transparently and to provide Board members and the public with information in a timely manner, therefore minimizing accountability and undermining public trust. Finally, rumors of Tata’s disrespectful bullying and berating of staff persistently swirled.
It is telling that the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, Wake County Tax Payer’s Association, Wake County Republican Party, and Tea Party members of the BOE are supporting Tata. They are calling the firing a partisan distraction. Nonsense. First, a vote along party lines isn’t necessarily a partisan vote, and not all partisan decisions are necessarily bad decisions. Second, how is it a “distraction” to ensure WCPSS has a qualified, effective superintendent? Even Henry Ford noted, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”
Usually someone losing his job would not be occasion to celebrate, and typically I wouldn’t find happiness in another’s misfortune. However, as an education justice attorney, the partner of a public school teacher, and soon-to-be father of a future public school student, I can’t help it. The Broad Foundation and market-based deforms are bad for public education. Segregation, wasteful spending, and ongoing conflict are bad for public education. Ultimately, Tata was bad for public education. WCPSS desperately needed a fresh start. (Plus, I suspect Tata will land on his feet with a lucrative position in a more conservative school system, with a think tank, or like, Peter Gorman, a fellow Broadie and former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent, with a corporation that profits from dismantling public education.)
Now the BOE can and hopefully will, after soliciting meaningful input from students, parents, teachers and principals, hire a new superintendent who has extensive experience as a teacher and principal, a demonstrated commitment to equity and fairness, and a personality that lends itself to achieving unity, healing, and a renewed focus on children.
Jason Langberg is a public interest lawyer and education justice activist in Wake County, North Carolina.