If the devil is in the details, then Will Pinkston is Satan’s right-hand man.
After a decade working behind the curtain of state government, Pinkston is now one of the Metro school board’s newest members, a title that moves the political operative from backstage into the limelight.
It’s a spot he never wanted to be in before. But it’s one he is uniquely qualified for as the school board considers whether to wage a legal war with the Tennessee Department of Education over a controversial charter school while weathering the onslaught of education reforms the state legislature continues to fire out from Capitol Hill.
“I never thought I would run for public office. If I had, I probably would have behaved a lot differently over the years,” Pinkston said, chuckling over a cup of coffee not far from his home office in the 12South neighborhood.
Pinkston was known for pushing the policy envelope in his days working for state government, explained his former boss, then-Gov. Phil Bredesen. Pinkston was known as a person of great intelligence who didn’t “suffer fools gladly,” Bredesen said.
In the Democratic governor’s administration, Pinkston served in various capacities, ranging from getting the governor elected and re-elected to establishing the Tennessee lottery and crafting education reform policies that helped the state win half a billion dollars in Race to the Top funds. He was one of the governor’s senior advisers, specializing in the nuances of both political and education policy, Bredesen said.
“It sort of was like he is a well-respected professor at a business school who is suddenly told to go run a McDonald’s for a couple years,” Bredesen said of Pinkston’s election to the school board.
“I don’t mean it as an offensive thing; I mean it as a very healthy thing, to really round out your understanding of the subject, to actually get in the kitchen on some of this stuff and not just be a pontificator from the outside,” he said.
With support from Bredesen and his other political fans, Pinkston raised more than $60,000 for his election campaign, which would be considered a large sum of money in a typical school board race. But this year’s politically charged elections saw totals of more than $110,000 to a single candidate, as more business groups and pro-charter school players entered the arena.
He enjoyed the backing of the Nashville Chamber of Commerce and financial support from government types, including Bredesen, Attorney General Robert Cooper, Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan, leading attorneys fighting the state’s voter ID law and the Metro Nashville Education Association. He won his election with more than double the votes of his opponent, taking over the seat for District 7 in southeast Davidson County, which includes the Glencliff cluster of schools and part of the Overton cluster, where he himself attended school.
Pinkston admits to having the reputation of somebody “who likes to tangle,” but said that strategy will have to change on the school board.
“I’ve got to recognize at the end of the day that what’s best for 81,000 kids in the system is not necessarily for me to run out ahead of the rest of the group. It’s for me to find ways to work with people,” he said. “This has been a personal journey for me so far, and it will continue to be.”
Pinkston is one of nine members of the board. But he is one of four newly elected members, including Elissa Kim, a Teach for America executive; Jill Speering, a retired teacher of 35 years; and Amy Frogge, a lawyer who won her race in an upset after she was outspent by her opponent 5-to-1.
“I think him having a broader perspective, a state’s perspective, can be helpful,” said Frogge after last week’s special school board meeting about whether to consider suing the state over $3.4 million the state withheld from Metro Nashville Public Schools after the board rejected orders from the state.
The issue has sapped the school board’s energy for months. The board twice rejected an order from the Tennessee Board of Education to approve a Great Hearts Academies charter school in West Nashville, largely due to the board’s concerns about diversity. In response, state Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said the state would withhold a portion of the district’s “administrative” dollars allocated through the state’s Basic Education Funding formula, amounting to a $3.4 million fine.
Pinkston so far has avoided being boxed in as a pro- or anti-charter school board member. He did not receive any money from the pro-charter Great Public Schools political action committee during his campaign, even though he himself sat on the founding board of Nashville Prep charter school and was once director of advocacy for the charter-friendly State Collaborative on Reforming Education.
While he voted to authorize Great Hearts and ultimately fell on the losing side of the final 5-4 vote that sidelined the school, Pinkston contends charter schools are not the magic bullet proponents make them out to be.
Pinkston asserts the district should cut its losses now and approve Great Hearts before it’s too late to repair the political damage, although other members, like Frogge, want to explore the district’s legal options.
“What the state giveth, the state can taketh away, if not in funding, then certainly in statute,” Pinkston warned the members last week, highlighting the political reality that the district and state still have to work together.
The Great Hearts debate is the first and most demanding issue on the board’s plate right now, which is stacked with issues like implementing a new Common Core curriculum, increasing graduation rates and academic performance, and adjusting to new teacher evaluation systems.
Meanwhile, the state legislature is poised to take up other education reforms next year that could rattle the district. Bills that would give the state power to approve charter applications independent of the local school district, or create a pathway for parents and students to leave the public school system — and use those tax dollars to pay for the private school of their choice through vouchers — are on the table.
But before the board can tackle the new issues, it will have to decide whether to move forward with suing the state in an effort to get its money back. The board expects to vote Nov. 13 whether to meet with independent counsel to discuss whether to pursue legal action.
“I do think that we as a board have to focus locally,” said Frogge. “I feel we have a really good board that can work well if we can get past Great Hearts.”