Funding Package for 40 New Charter Schools Unveiled

With the announcement that a public-private partnership will invest nearly $40 million in new charter schools in the state, Gov. Bill Haslam got a major boost to a key element of his education reform initiative Tuesday.

The money will include about $14 million in state funds, emanating from the First to the Top program, the state’s education reform plan that landed $501 million in federal dollars in the Race to the Top national competition last year. It includes $20 million in private funding and $5.8 million through the federal Investing in Innovation program.

The goal is to create 40 new charter schools over the next five years.

The financial arrangement announced Tuesday is said to be the first of its kind in the nation.

It’s a partnership with the Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit venture capital fund based in Broomfield, Colo., which invests in charter school networks, the Center for Charter School Excellence in Tennessee and other public and private investments, Haslam said.

Haslam met with charter school advocates at the LEAD Academy charter school in Nashville, and Kevin Hall, president and CEO of the Charter School Growth Fund, was among the participants

The charter school event preceded demonstrations and protests on Capitol Hill later in the day where the battle over the role of the state teachers union has reached a fever pitch. There was virtually no dissent aired at the charter school event.

“Obviously it is very significant news,” Haslam said of the charter plan. “It’s part of a lot of work by a lot of people. But I think as we look at expanding the horizons of what we want to do in education in Tennessee and really changing the game, this $40 million we’re talking about today is a critical step in having that happen.”

Hall called Tennessee a “place on the move” in charter schools and a state where “things can happen in a big way for students.”

The initiative enhances Haslam’s overall education reform package. Haslam wants to lift the current cap on charter schools in the state, to open enrollment in charter schools and to allow achievement school districts, themselves a part of education reform in the state, to start charter schools.

The charter schools plan, SB1589, is part of Haslam’s overall education agenda that includes changing the system for teacher tenure, SB1528. Haslam has not publicly signed on to the most controversial education reform measure in the Legislature, however, HB130, which would end collective bargaining rights for teachers.

“There is a great opportunity to bring more top-notch charter schools to Tennessee if we can make the changes we’ve outlined,” Haslam said. “And there is always the issue of dollars. Every great idea ultimately runs into how we are going to fund that.”

Haslam drew upon the comments of incoming state Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman, who said upon his arrival in Nashville that Tennessee is the epicenter of education reform. Hall echoed that line Tuesday. The program was the latest where state officials have found reason to portray Tennessee as a national leader in education reform.

Huffman, who is still officially not on duty, participated in the event Tuesday, as did interim Commissioner of Education Patrick Smith. Huffman is expected to take the reins April 4, and Smith will stay on during a transition period.

“The reforms in the Race to the Top grant application were strong reforms in trying to boost the growth of charter schools in the state, and that led to interest across the country and ultimately to the announcement we had here today,” Smith said.

One of the issues the charter school advocates discussed was the need for buildings and space to locate the schools.

Haslam, who made a pitch in his State of the State speech Monday night to the Legislature that Nashville should not become a point of partisan gridlock like Washington, attempted to put the charter initiative in the bipartisan category on Tuesday.

“The whole Republican/Democrat partisanship divide is getting worse everywhere, but education reform is the one place where that’s not true,” Haslam said. “I bet we would have an interesting mix of politics at this table. I know we would.

“This is an area of change where you really have incredible leadership coming from Republicans and Democrats. A lot of the education reforms are being led by people of very different political persuasions. This particular problem has brought a lot of people to the same conclusions.”

Nevertheless the legislators who attended Tuesday’s event at the LEAD Academy were mostly Republicans.

The event drew several key state legislators, including House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville; Sen. Jamie Woodson, R-Knoxville, speaker pro tem of the Senate; Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, chair of the House Education Committee; Sen. Dolores Greshman, R-Somerville, chair of the Senate Education Committee; and Rep. Mary Pruitt, D-Nashville.

Education reform has dominated much of the discussion on Capitol Hill this year, and the state teachers union, the Tennessee Education Association, has been vocal on some of those issues. But it has generally been quiet about Haslam’s tenure reform proposal and has said it does not plan much opposition to Haslam’s charter school efforts.

Haslam was asked Tuesday morning about the ongoing squabbles over the teachers union and said he did not like the partisanship.

“That really disturbs me, because I do think this issue is so much bigger than that,” Haslam said. “If you look at the education reform leaders in the country, there are just as many Democrats as Republicans.

“The things that we’re talking about and pushing, they’re not Republican ideas. If you look across the country there are Republicans and Democrats that are pushing this. I think it’s really important that we get past the politics.”

Haslam was asked directly if it is his role to lead Republicans in the Legislature.

“I think it’s my role to lead the way a governor should, and I think that should be always talking about ‘What are the things that really matter?'” Haslam said. “At the end of the day, I think a governor defines reality and then helps push toward that, and I think the way we define reality is to say, ‘What are those things in education that will really impact the classroom?’

“We’ll be talking about that, whether the issue is collective bargaining, whatever it is. What are those things that really impact the classroom?”

Haslam said there should be high accountability standards for charter schools.

“If we start a lot of charter schools throughout this state, and yet they don’t have the high standards that we want, it will be more damaging to the cause than anything,” Haslam said.

Jeremy Kane, founder of LEAD Academy, said it was exciting to see the investment, but he issued the same warning Haslam mentioned about maintaining standards.

“We’ve been doing this work here locally, and now to have the outside investment and outside support and support of the governor and the commissioner, it’s a new dawn and a new day,” Kane said.

“I’m actually probably one of the people who hopes we still maintain pretty tight guardrails on this. I think what the governor is proposing is the right limits.”

Kane sees how things can get out of hand.

“As a charter operator, the biggest danger we have is bad charter schools. It gives it a bad name, sends the wrong message. I would love to expand the current limit but not take them so wide open it becomes a free-for-all.”

Huffman said there is strong accountability in charter schools.

“If charter schools fail, if they’re several years in and not getting the job done, we can close them down, in a way you can’t with traditional schools,” Huffman said. “That’s part of the deal.”