Op-Ed: RPS Students Deserve Better Than Jason Kamras

by | Jan 21, 2021 | OPINION

City Council candidate and Mayor’s Education Compact member Willie Hilliard says Richmond’s School Board should offer a two-year contract for continuity amidst the pandemic, but should not commit to the four-year contract Superintendent Jason Kamras wants.

RPS students deserve an excellent education, and building a welcoming, rigorous public school system involves all of us. But superintendent Jason Kamras has brought a top-down approach to our community, caring more about corporate interests than including all of Richmond’s students, families and teachers in the future of their schools. RPS students do benefit from stability during a pandemic, and therefore, Mr. Kamras’s contract should be renewed for two years. However, we should expect more of our public servants than using a pandemic to leverage for more, especially as Richmonders have, for the past three years, used our public dollars to pay him over five times the median Richmond salary. 

Mr. Kamras initially pushed for school reopening, but brave RPS families and teachers organized and spoke in no uncertain terms that reopening schools was not acceptable. It was the power of the people that forced Jason Kamras to acknowledge that a majority of his schools would be empty and unstaffed if he pushed to reopen schools.

We can give him credit for listening. We can give him credit for working hard. However, ultimately we need to pursue the course of action best for RPS students and honor the school board that was just democratically elected by Richmond. That school board came to power as an expression of community will, and they should not tie their own hands by signing a four-year deal. 

The dreams of our students, not to mention our economy and our democracy, are built on a foundation of strong public schools. Now more than ever, we need to engage our entire community to put the needs of Richmond’s students first. But instead of bringing the community together, Jason Kamras has caused division and conflict, making decisions behind closed doors and bringing many highly-paid C-suite officers from Washington, DC. Even more divisive is his demand to receive a four-year contract or he will leave. 

Richmond Public Schools need change. By so many measures we can see that our children deserve better, but we know that a top-down, closed-door change won’t work. The people of Richmond are proud of their community, their teachers, their families and their young people. We want to be fully engaged in envisioning a new future. The only path to lasting school improvement is real partnership — not a series of backroom deals led by corporate interests that seek to reduce the public’s voice in our schools. In districts across the country, we have seen that divisive turnaround strategies can temporarily boost test scores while sowing the seeds of division. When superintendents move on to their next job, they leave communities with less ownership of their schools and no sustainable, shared, lasting commitment — the commitment that research shows leads to the deep change that our students and teachers deserve. And at this point, due to the pandemic and the cancellations of SOLs, we lack even the barest of abilities to judge the Superintendent’s performance while he fights for a four-year contract. 

Black and Latinx communities are the most likely to have change done to them instead of with them. More than 80 percent of the students in Richmond’s public schools are not white. We reject approaches that are not led with the people most impacted, especially when we see alarming evidence of declining graduation rates in certain RPS cohorts. Every parent in Richmond wants a quality education for their child. And a great education is only possible if we create a long-term, shared vision for the Richmond Public Schools. We have to be sure that we are listening to all of the RPS communities and not simply the loudest or the most active on social media. 

Our children can’t afford to wait. Their future is now. We call on the School Board to renew the Superintendent’s contract for two years. We call for the Richmond Public Schools to be guided by the collective expertise of our educators, students and families. 

Jason Kamras has not been transparent or accountable to the public about the management of our schools. 

Time and time again, Jason Kamras has managed our public schools from behind closed doors. Instead of building strong public support for education through transparency and shared responsibility, the Kamras administration has made decisions in secret in violation of open meeting laws, hidden information that should be publicly available, and even restricted people’s ability to openly criticize the district. The Kamras administration fought against reporting teacher retention data as part of the Dreams4RPS Strategic plan; has consistently failed to make school board documents public; and has failed to complete the 2018 Promise of Equity Audit, a much-needed examination of the district’s racial inequalities. Advocates including the Virginia Coalition for Open Government have spoken out about the blatant disregard for the law and transparency by the Kamras administration. 

Transparency is a core element of good government and effective public school districts. Parents and teachers cannot build trust with an administration that refuses to manage public schools with the help and cooperation of the public. Leaders who are committed to transparency and accountability don’t hide information from the public; effective public leaders have nothing to hide. 

To be clear, the job of the Superintendent is to execute and administer the governance of our schools fairly and democratically: it is not to be a communications or PR manager for the district. Jason Kamras’ daily newsletter, his social media presence, his discussion of social and political issues, and 30 minute math lessons during the spring are very effective at creating a sense of unity, connectedness, and progress in the district. But a fully effective Superintendent should be judged by how they made the least connected members of the RPS family feel. 

Kamras is working for corporations and his personal networks, not our kids. 

He got his start in education with Teach for America, and worked under Michelle Rhee in Washington D.C., both part of a national movement to undermine the role of teachers in favor of increasing corporate presence in schools. He trained at the Broad Academy from 2015 to 2016.

The Broad Academy is a leadership training program of the Broad Center, whose “graduates” have been associated “with corporate management techniques to consolidate power, weaken teachers’ job protections, cut parents out of decision making, and introduce unproven reform measures.” 

In Richmond Kamras has granted lucrative contracts to the Great Minds, an organization whose founder and CEO is linked to the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. He has hired associates from D.C. and charter networks for leadership positions in the Richmond Public Schools, giving them all significant raises. He’s also shown that he’s prepared to support the corporate interests over the public interest, backing the failed Navy Hill Coliseum deal proposed by Thomas F. Farrell, CEO of Dominion Energy, a lead advocate for hiring Kamras. Jason Kamras has consistently put the interests of corporations and his personal rolodex ahead of the children of Richmond. 

We want everyone to support our public schools, including our local business community — but corporations and personal associates shouldn’t have a seat at the table when teachers and parents are left out. When corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes then we have full public coffers, and all of us can democratically decide how to allocate funding – that’s the way to ensure students and families aren’t left behind. We can’t turn our schools over to interests driven by profit and efficiency, not equity. The values of all of the people of Richmond should drive the leadership of our schools, not corporate interests.

Jason Kamras’s ties to corporations mean he won’t stand up to demand that they contribute to funding our schools through a higher corporate tax rate. The residents of Richmond should not be asked to bear the cost of schools alone when the corporate tax rate hasn’t been raised for 40 years, but Jason Kamras will not fight for fair funding. 

Kamras has not supported teachers or effective instruction, and we all know that the most important factor in a child’s education is the quality of their teachers. 

Jason Kamras has brought the failed practices of Washington DC to Richmond, emphasizing standardization and testing over the development of a high quality, professional teaching community. Across the nation, in places where administrators blame teachers for the heavy burdens placed on schools by poverty, districts have turned to more rules and regulations over what and how teachers teach — all driven toward increasing scores on standardized tests, not building a healthy and vibrant school community. The Kamras administration has favored a “scripted” approach to curriculum, relying on rote scripts delivered by teachers with little room for creativity. These programs are often referred to as “teacher proof” and do not attract high quality, committed teachers to classrooms. Many talented teachers, faced with scripted curricula, choose to leave for another district that will treat them as professionals.

Research has clearly shown the power of excellent teachers in every classroom. Is Jason Kamras helping Richmond recruit and retain excellent teachers? Is Jason Kamras making Richmond a place where the most committed and talented teachers want to work? If one looks at his leadership, from his failed effort to implement a teacher comprehensive performance-measurement system in Washington, DC to his failing to provide contemporaneous teacher retention data, we should be worried that RPS is losing its long-serving, high-quality teachers, especially in light of the demands of them by the pandemic. 

Kamras has not built a shared agenda for our public schools. Our children deserve a uniter, not a divider. 

The families of Richmond are the people most invested in our children, their education and their future. Our families hold the highest expectations for their children, they pay the taxes that support the district, and they are the people, rooted here for generations, who make our community strong. 

We know, across the nation, that most superintendents stay in urban districts for less than 5 years. It is essential that all of Richmond’s families have a voice in choosing the leadership of their children’s schools because they will be the people advocating for their child from the time they set foot in a classroom for the first time to the day they cross a graduation stage. Superintendents and politicians will come and go, but we know that deep change takes time. Without a strong partnership, long-term change just isn’t possible. 

Black and Latinx communities in Richmond are disproportionately enrolled in our public schools and disproportionately underrepresented in the governance or leadership of the district. We don’t need paternalistic ideas of reform from Washington, DC. We need true collaboration to surface the best possible ideas from around the world and bring them to our classrooms. 

Jason Kamras has opposed the right of teachers to organize and advocate for better schools. Jason Kamras has fought public access to information. In the two years he has led the Richomnd public schools, Jason Kamras has not brought the community together to push for excellence. His hollow proclamations about equity and justice are not backed up by support for public access, teacher excellence, or elevating the voices of the black and brown families who the Richmond Public Schools seek to serve. 

Jason Kamras has been ineffective in bringing our community together to make the urgent, substantive change that our children deserve. 

We cannot wait four more years. Our children deserve an excellent education now, in spite of the burdens of this pandemic.

We can’t allow Jason Kamras to limit our community’s future with closed-door deals, corporate influence, and nepotism. There is a logic to maintaining continuity of leadership during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, but allowing a four-year renewal will allow the Superintendent’s lack of transparency and failure to build coalitions to continue harmfully for far too long. Our children deserve a leader who will bring the community together over the long term, and lead with transparency to build a shared vision of public education that honors the voices of our community, demands excellence, and puts racial justice at the center of transformation. 

For too long Black and Latinx communities in Richmond have been left behind. The racist defunding of the school system leaves it unable to deliver on the promise of opportunity. For equity and justice to move beyond lip service, the parents, teachers, and students of Richmond must be included in guiding the system that seeks to serve them. The demand of a four-year contract or nothing is very disturbing. It doesn’t say that he’s truly committed to this school system by using a take it or leave it approach. We’re not saying NO to Kamras, we’re saying two years is more than sufficient enough to prove that you’re worthy of further lucrative commitments from a cash-strapped school division.

Note: Op-Eds are contributions from guest writers and do not reflect RVA Mag editorial policy.

Top Photo: G.W. Carver Elementary School in Richmond. Photo by Noah Daboul. Research by Kath Connolly, Nat Hardy, Gary Broderick, Quinton Robbins.

RVA Staff

RVA Staff

Since 2005, the dedicated team at RVA Magazine, known as RVA Staff, has been delivering the cultural news that matters in Richmond, VA. This talented group of professionals is committed to keeping you informed about the events and happenings in the city.

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