Stand for Something

The school merger will require more than just platitudes to be successful

Politics is not for the shy. Four Unified School Board candidates backed by a group called Stand For Children were elected in August, so the next day “Stand” held a press conference to pat itself and its endorsees on the back. 

It was clearly a bid for attention and a bit cheeky. Who can say exactly what factors result in an election victory? One of the winners was unopposed, and three other candidates backed by the organization were defeated. 

Only three reporters showed up for the media event at the office on McLemore across from Soulsville and Stax Academy. That’s a small showing compared to, say, a mayoral press conference. It shows some uncertainty about exactly where Stand for Children stands, who they are, and how much clout the group has. 

The uncertainty was reflected in the media’s choice of adjectives. I like “upstart” group. Fox 13 went with “education advocacy organization” and The Commercial Appeal 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 making his first political race. 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. 

Stand for Children is unusually well funded and spent more than $150,000 on the school board races, which is a huge amount.

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. With or without municipal school systems, the unified board will oversee a budget of over $1 billion.

Stand For Children played and spent to win. The group established some standing as a political power broker, a title previously bestowed on Harold Ford Sr., black preachers, AFSCME and other public-sector unions, the Tea Party, and a lot of wannabes that put out election “ballots” with their endorsements. Stand For Children is a Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit with a chapter in Memphis. I first came across it in the run-up to the charter surrender. Members wore matching T-shirts at board meetings. I called them “pro-surrender” but was corrected by members who said they were neutral on surrender but against Shelby County Schools getting special school district status. 

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 “all children should receive a high quality education.”

Who can argue with that? And who stands AGAINST children? 

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, school closings and all. 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.”

She sees a fertile field of future candidates and leaders in the scores of people who offered themselves as school board appointees and plenty of opportunities presented in the 2014 and 2015 city and county elections. 

“Hold us as an organization accountable,” she says. 

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.  

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