Posts

Bypassing Locals on Charters Looking More Likely: Harwell

If the Tennessee legislature approves a statewide authorizer for charter schools, House Speaker Beth Harwell said that charter students’ test scores — and the per-student money to educate those children — would flow away from local school districts into the state system.

“Those children’s test scores would come out from the local school system and be counted in the state system — not the local,” Harwell told TNReport in an interview at her office Thursday. “In addition, the money would (follow the students) as well.”

As it stands now, charter school students’ scores are counted with the government-run district schools. And although public money follows the student even if he attends a charter school, it is common for the government-run public school to take a slice of that money for administrative overhead.

A statewide authorizer for charter schools may change that scenario, based on Harwell’s comments.

Momentum appears to be building for the legislature to create such an authorizer, which would serve as a place where the non-profit charters could go to get approval to start teaching.

Triggering this momentum was the Metro Nashville schools’ decision last month to ignore state orders to usher the charter school Great Hearts Academies into the district. The board of the Metro Nashville Public Schools contends that the first of five proposed schools, run by a Phoenix-based charter school operator, would lack diversity and pander to an affluent Nashville neighborhood.

Officials for Great Hearts have told TNReport that, despite the denials, they are in Nashville for the long haul and are still hoping they can open five schools in the metro area.

Harwell indicated that there may be a scenario in which local school boards retain control over authorizing charter schools.

“We want to work with our local school boards,” Harwell said. “We are willing to do that and want to do that, but not at the detriment of our children.”

Trent Seibert can be reached trent@TNReport.com, at Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.

Great Hearts Gearing Up for Legislative Fight

Great Hearts Academies, whose application for a charter school was denied by the Metro Nashville Public Schools board, is in Nashville for the long haul, a spokesman told TNReport this week.

And lobbyists for the Arizona-based nonprofit will by no means be playing hookey from the Tennessee Legislature during the 2013 legislative session.

“The Nashville board’s disregard of the truth and repeated defiance of state law illustrates why an impartial Tennessee charter school authority is needed,” Great Hearts attorney Ross Booher said. “Since the governor and legislature gave all children the freedom to attend public charter schools, the board apparently now fears that many more parents and children will choose public schools that the board does not completely control.”

Booher: “If Tennessee puts in place an impartial state charter authority, Great Hearts would re-apply to that authority.”

The idea of creating a statewide authority that would give the OK to charter schools likely to become the next hot-button education reform issue at the Capitol.

Great Hearts is still hoping to ultimately open five schools in the Metro Nashville area, Booher said.

Booher also weighed in on the Metro school board’s decision to boot the Great Hearts charter application.

“The board has a major conflict of interest. It is desperately trying to stem the tide of public charter schools that it sees as its direct competition when it should be embracing innovation and partnerships that provide children with additional school options,” Booher said. “Allowing parents to freely choose the public school that is best for their individual child is the ultimate in local control.”

The company, headquartered in Phoenix, was mired in controversy during its long-running battle with the Nashville school board as it tried to open a West Nashville charter school.

Critics said that the Great Hearts school would lack diversity and would not provide adequate transportation for students.

“Any suggestion of that is just completely baseless,” Booher said. “It’s not borne out by the facts at all. When you look at the plan that Great Hearts had for Nashville … it exceeded what Metro does for its own students at schools of choice.

Trent Seibert can be reached at Trent@TNReport.com on Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.

Dems Say GOP Rejecting Local Gov’t Control In Charter Moves

Democrats on Capitol Hill Tuesday accused Republicans of abandoning their mantra of local government control in their handling of a proposed charter school for Nashville.

Fired up over the Haslam administration’s fining Metro schools because its school board rejected the charter school application, Democrats said GOP leaders had adopted for the “big government” mindset they purport to detest. Still, Democrats say they, too, are no stranger to falling back on government oversight.

“I’m not saying there’s not some times when the federal government should step in or the state government should not step in and overrule local government, but they’re doing it on a pretty consistent level up here now when one time that was something they were really opposed to,” said House Democratic Caucus Leader Mike Turner, of Old Hickory, following a press conference with four other local Democratic legislators and candidates.

The state Department of Education last week slapped Metro Nashville Public Schools with what amounts to a $3.4 million fine for ignoring the state Board of Education’s order to approve a charter school application from Arizona-based Great Hearts Academies. The Metro schools board voted twice against the state board’s order to OK the proposal, saying that the school planned for the affluent West End neighborhood lacked a diversity plan.

Members of the minority party — which has little pull on Capitol Hill — said they’d like to see the state continue to meet and work with the school district in hopes of dodging the fine. Joining the press conference were Rep. Sherry Jones, Rep. Brenda Gilmore, Rep. Mike Stewart and Phillip North, a Democratic candidate for state Senate.

Stewart, of Nashville, said he takes issue with how the administration has carried out the charter school law. He said the Legislature never meant to give the state the power to ultimately approve charter schools against a local school district’s will.

But the section in law giving the state such authority predates Haslam and was passed in 2002 when Democrats still had control of the House of Representatives.

According to the Tennessee Charter School Act:

“If the state board finds that the local board’s decision was contrary to the best interests of the pupils, school district, or community, the state board shall remand such decision to the local board of education with written instructions for approval of the charter. The decision of the state board shall be final and not subject to appeal. The (local school district), however, shall be the chartering authority.”

Turner asserts that the Metro school board followed the state law to a “t,” and says the charter school operators never produced a satisfactory diversity plan, as outlined by the state Board of Education.

The state Board seems to disagree. The board sent out a statement backing up the Haslam administration’s decision after news broke of the state fine.

Dems Decry Administration for Withholding $3.4M from MNPS

Press release from  the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus; Sept. 19, 2012: 

NASHVILLE – Senate Democrats on Wednesday condemned the state sanctions doled out against Metro Nashville Public Schools over its denial of a single charter school’s application.

Gov. Bill Haslam, along with Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman, announced Tuesday their decision to withhold $3.4 million from Metro Nashville schools. Huffman has gone to great lengths to recruit Great Hearts Academies to an affluent Nashville neighborhood, and now kids all over Davidson County will have to pay.

But Senate Democrats added that they would oppose any bill next session that gives the state sole authority to approve charter schools over local objections.

“I can’t believe they would punish our teachers and students because a political debate didn’t go their way,” Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle said. “We teach our kids not to be bullies, and our state leaders need to heed that lesson.”

This move by state Republicans shows a tendency to put state power over cities and counties. It could have statewide implications. Now Republicans are hinting at a change in state law so that the state can authorize charter schools over local objections.

“It’s a disturbing message Republicans have sent to cities countless times: we know better,” Democratic Caucus Chairman Sen. Lowe Finney said. “I’m saddened to see students in Nashville shortchanged like this.”

“Republicans are always so outraged at Congress over federal mandates, but when it comes to cities in Tennessee, they won’t hesitate to impose their will,” Kyle added.

Tennessee has some experience with charter schools and out-of-state companies. Existing charters have shown mixed results. K12 Inc., a for-profit company operating a statewide virtual academy, is in the bottom 11 percent of schools.

“We need to slow down, take stock of the changes we’ve made to education in Tennessee over the past couple of years, and stop pushing for charters just for the sake of charters,” Finney said. “At some point we need to support the public schools we have.”

Governor Considers Letting State OK Charter Schools

Gov. Bill Haslam is warming to the idea of establishing a process whereby state education officials bypass local school districts when considering approval of new charter schools.

The governor has for months indicated little interest in the idea, which is a departure from the current system wherein local elected officials determine whether to allow a taxpayer-funded charter school to operate in their district.

But while at the same time cautioning that he hasn’t yet finalized his 2013 legislative agenda, the governor told reporters Tuesday that the idea of state approval has become more palatable to him in wake of Nashville school board officials refusing to permit a charter school that’s already been deemed good-to-go by the state.

After the Metro Nashville Public Schools refused to allow Great Hearts Academies to open a school in the district, the state this week fined Metro schools more than $3 million.

“Prior to this, I don’t think there was a lot of political momentum around it,” Haslam said about assigning a state panel to consider charter school applications. “We’ll have to see what the General Assembly, how they react to that this year. But prior to this, that was not something that was on our agenda at all.”

Haslam said as recently as last month he was not interested in entertaining discussions about letting charter schools apply directly to the state unless he saw widespread rejections of charter schools.

The Department of Education announced Tuesday it would withhold $3.4 million in state funds from Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools in October as a consequence for refusing to approve Great Hearts Academies.

The decision comes as a surprise after Haslam told reporters last month that “threatening to withhold money, that’s not the business we’re in in the state. We’re in the business of educating children.”

He and Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman both said they were in on the decision to punish the school district. The fine is permitted under a state law that gives the commissioner “discretion” to withhold some or all state education funding if the district violates state education law.

Huffman says the local school district “brazenly” violated state law when it twice refused recommendations from the Tennessee Board of Education to usher the Arizona-based Great Hearts charter school into the district. Metro schools had rejected the application, citing concerns that the school wouldn’t conform to racial diversity mandates.

But state law appears to give Tennessee’s education board veto power:

“If the state board finds that the local board’s decision was contrary to the best interests of the pupils, school district or community, the state board shall remand the decision to the local board of education with written instructions for approval of the charter. The grounds upon which the state board of education based a decision to remand the application shall be stated in writing, specifying objective reasons for the decision. The decision of the state board shall be final and not subject to appeal. The LEA, however, shall be the chartering authority.”

Over the last year, Haslam and the Republican-led Legislature stripped away a handful of caps and restrictions on charter schools, paving the way for expansion of the school-choice movement.

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham, R-Sommerville, said in a statement the fine was the “correct course to take to demonstrate to the errant members of the school board that you cannot deliberately break the law without consequences.”

Democrats say the move sets an unsettling precedent for local school boards, which they say should have complete control over which charter schools to embrace. However, Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, stopped short of encouraging school boards across Tennessee to start deciding for themselves which state laws they want to follow or violate.

“I do not endorse anybody breaking the law, but I think this was really an uncalled-for punishment,” Jones said.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, D-Nashville, said if the state wants Great Hearts Academies to open so badly, then it should foot the full bill.

“If the state decides to step in and overrule a local school board’s decision, then the state should be prepared to pick up the cost of funding that local school,” Turner said.

Pressure Builds Over State-Local Control of Charter Schools

Republicans who laud government that stays close to the people are finding themselves in a pickle now that a local school board has bucked state law.

Metro Nashville Public Schools’ Board of Education ignored orders by the Tennessee Board of Education to usher the charter school Great Hearts Academies into the district last week — the second such rebuff in a month. The Metro schools board contends that the first of five schools, run by a Phoenix-based charter school operator, would lack diversity and pander to an affluent Nashville neighborhood.

The Great Hearts dispute has exposed Republican leaders to criticism that they espouse local control only when it suits their aims.

“This whole thing just flies in the face of Republican philosophy when you have the big bad state coming down telling the local school board they have to comply with the law,” said Jerry Winters, a lobbyist with the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, which has been resistant to the emergence of school choice.

Charter schools have enjoyed favorable treatment at the hands of GOP Gov. Bill Haslam and his education department. The administration’s agenda for reform has included tougher standards for teacher tenure, tying teacher evaluations to test scores and an expansion of charter schools.

Metro schools’ refusal to grant Great Hearts permission to open a school has sparked statewide debate over whether local approval is best. Great Hearts announced that it would not challenge the Metro schools’ decision.

“It’s really been kind of shocking to watch a government openly acknowledge and violate the law,” said Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association.

Disgusted by the ongoing feud, Throckmorton and other charter school advocates are pushing for the state to assemble an outside agency to review and approve charter school applications, allowing charter operators to leap-frog over the local school district.

Details on how that system would operate are still in the works.

Throckmorton says local school districts should still be involved with discussions about pending charter schools. But politics are getting in the way of opening quality schools that could find more effective ways to teach children, he said.

Opponents of the idea say locally elected school board members — rather than a handful of appointed officials in Nashville — should decide whether a charter school is the right fit for the district and the community.

“I think people are wanting to make this an example to justify their intent to make a statewide authorizer,” said Lee Harrell, a lobbyist for the Tennessee School Boards Association which is opposed to charter schools skipping over local officials. “Often you hear the best decisions are made on the ground. (State approval) would totally fly in the face of that mentality.”

Several top state officials are staying quiet on the matter, including Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, who in August said the state would take “appropriate action” to see to it that Metro schools approved the charter school.

He declined to comment on the latest denial for Great Hearts, although emails obtained by the City Paper indicate he was keenly interested in getting the application approved and has engaged in discussions about the need for a statewide authorizer.

The governor’s office has also been silent on the issue, although officials say they were waiting for Haslam to return from his economic development trip in Japan last week. Prior to Metro schools’ first rejection of the Great Hearts application, Haslam said he saw no need to develop a state panel to approve charter schools.

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham has also declined to comment.

But Republican legislative leaders who have repeatedly offered messages about the importance of local control hint that they’d be open to a plan giving the state more power.

“I am extremely dismayed that the Nashville School Board is focused on limiting parental choice and educational opportunity for children,” Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey told TNReport in an email. “It is unfortunate that the board seems mired in the old education politics while the rest of the state is moving forward.”

House Speaker Beth Harwell agreed, calling the decision by MNPS “simply a mistake for our children” and saying the Legislature “will revisit this issue” when they come back in January.

“We believe in local government and local school boards. But when they don’t give opportunities for our children, then that’s a problem,” she said.

Charter schools are privately-owned but publicly-funded. Supporters say they offer more flexibility to innovate and create choice and competition, while detractors say they drain public money and students, leaving traditional public schools with the students hardest to educate.

Charter school performance is generally mixed. Last school year, two charter schools ranked among the best performing institutions in the state, while five other charter schools reflected some of the worst student academic records statewide.

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.”