An Outsider on the Inside: Tony Tata’s Rise from Ruining Schools in NC to a Top Position in the Trump Admin

A former NC school system administrator, Tony Tata is now the acting undersecretary for policy in the Trump administration's Department of Defense.

By Kim Mackey

November 13, 2020

Tata couldn’t manage buses in North Carolina. How can he lead in Trump’s Department of Defense, asks a NC teacher?

Despite being fired as Superintendent by the Wake County Public School System’s school board in 2012 and deemed too controversial for a defense position by the US Senate this summer, Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata (Ret.) has been placed in the undersecretary for defense policy role after President Trump’s recent Department of Defense shakeup.

It’s alarming for many reasons, but for me it’s personal too.

I taught in Wake County during Tony Tata’s short time as superintendent.  The Wake County Public School System was a model for integration but the model was disrupted by the Koch brothers-backed school board at the helm who hired Tata.  When he was named the new leader of our district, it was discouraging to see how little our school board at the time valued experience in the field as a prerequisite to leading the charge.

Tata was named superintendent after serving a long career in the military, yet his experience in education consisted of a ten-month crash course with Broad Superintendents Academy and a brief stint working with Michelle Rhee overseeing supply logistics among other things in Washington, DC public schools.

I was in my sixth year of teaching when Tata was brought on as superintendent.  In no way did I think six years of classroom experience would qualify me to lead one of the nation’s largest school districts, yet another non-educator joined the ranks of policymakers telling educators with more credentials how to do their jobs.

This was the sunrise of the era where folks from the outside were promoted to high level positions in school districts to “shake things up,” but more often they just broke stuff.  Including my district.

My son was not yet school age in 2012, but if he was I would have been waiting in line for hours to register my child for school. Superintendent Tata applied his logistics experience to reduce kindergarten and new student registration locations down to only one in a rapidly-growing large school district instead of continuing to host registration at neighborhood schools.

That same year, parents waited hours for the school bus to bring their children home, assuming the bus had picked them up in the morning in the first place.  Tata’s logistics experience told him it was a waste of money to have so many buses on the road even though the new “choice” plan—which did away with the system’s diversity-minded assignment plan—required 52 more than the year before. 

Instead Tata and his staff began the year with 58 fewer buses than the previous year.  He wasted students’ and parents’ time in long, unpredictable transit but briefly saved money until returning more buses to the rounds.

Operational supply chain management was supposed to be a transferable skill Tata brought with him to lead the school system, but perhaps his penchant for prejudice was also part of the appeal.

We thought that perhaps Tata would respect the chain of command given his military background. Instead he tripped on that chain when he inaccurately and publicly accused two school board members of ethics violations for associating with a pro-public schools group.  

When commenting on his firing, one member said: “On more than one occasion the Superintendent or a staff member he personally directed purposefully acted in opposition to the directions of this board.”  

He forgot he worked for them, not the other way around.

Tedesco and his allies who hired Tata are no longer sitting on the Wake school board, but folks who share their mindset unsuccessfully tried to topple the current majority this past election.

All of this to say, our votes don’t just affect directly elected positions. Their effects cascade into unelected positions as well.  

Wake County’s voters brought on an inexperienced school board disinterested in overcoming, much less acknowledging, a learning curve in governing a school district. And that inexperienced board brought on an inexperienced superintendent in Tata.  

The writing was on the wall. Devaluating educator input was the crux of the problem in Wake County and it remains a shadow on education policy in our state.

Just as public school supporters in Wake County rebounded in 2011 to restore school board seats to folks who value public schools, folks who quickly replaced Tata as superintendent, educators statewide continue to work with community members to ensure folks who value public schools are on the ballot.  

The most recent election results prove there’s still work to do to inform more of our neighbors about the gulf between state and local candidates in terms of their sincere support for public schools.  Over the next two years, practice recognizing the Tony Tatas of the world, then vote accordingly.


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