Haslam: Not Yet Time to Give State Sole Charter-School Approval Authority

A battle is brewing in Nashville over who should have the final say in opening a local charter school. But Tennessee’s governor says it’s premature to consider taking local politics entirely out of the charter-school approval process.

Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters he believes the process of allowing the state to override local boards’ charter school rejections is working, and that more time is needed to know whether changes to the system are warranted.

“I think for now, I’m comfortable with the way we have it,” the governor said at Tennessee Technology Center Tuesday. “If there’s still a whole lot of school districts that have never approved a charter school, even though there have been great applications, then I think maybe you reevaluate” in the next two to three years, he added.

Just a few hours after Haslam’s comments to reporters, Metro Nashville’s school board refused to give the green light to Phoenix-based Great Hearts Academies to open a school on the city’s affluent west side. Instead, MNPS put the issue on hold indefinitely over board-member’s worries that the school wouldn’t have a diverse enough racial makeup.

The charter refusal flies in the face of the Tennessee Board of Education which last month directed the school board to approve the charter school at its next meeting.

Metro Nashville school board members acknowledged their move defies state law. Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman issued a statement saying, “we will take appropriate action to ensure that the law is followed.” Attempts to reach department officials to determine whether the state would withhold funds from the school system were unsuccessful as of this posting.

The State Board of Education was none too pleased with the local school board’s decision, issuing a statement that the board is “disappointed” with MNPS.

“Needless delays, the unnecessary expenditure of MNPS resources, and posturing relative to this charter school approval do not benefit the students of Nashville,” the board said in a statement.

Charter schools are paid for with tax dollars but are run by private groups. The schools have more flexibility than traditional public schools, such as in setting hiring policies, defining curriculum and establishing transportation. In addition, the schools can be shut down more easily than a traditional public school if they fail to meet academic standards or mismanage their finances.

The political wrangling within the MNPS battle with Great Hearts points to a need to give charter schools more options on which agency would “authorize” their application, said Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association.

“We don’t want every application becoming a political football,” he said. “Maybe it’s not a full blow statewide authorizer, but we do need to have authorizer reform.”

While the governor was cool to the idea of letting charter schools skip over local school boards to apply with a state panel, he defended the notion that the current system that allows the state to trump local board decisions still allows for local control.

“You have a unique situation here because you have both state and local money funding schools,” he said. “I think, because of that, you might have a school board who just looks at it from their point of view. Obviously the state, we have a bigger role.”