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State Reviewing Local Charter School Refusal

The state Board of Education will decide later this month whether to overturn a decision by the Metro Nashville Public Schools blocking a new charter school in the district. Charter school advocates say the state should also approve new charter schools to avoid charters and local school districts starting off “on the wrong foot.”

Education choice supporters say Metro Nashville’s refusal to approve a charter school application in an affluent part of town begs the question: Are locals officials best positioned to make such decisions?

Arizona-based Great Hearts Academies is appealing the Metro Nashville Public Schools Board of Education decision to reject its application to open five K-12 charter schools in 2014, testing a law giving the state the power to veto the local board’s decision.

The situation is something of a case study to charter school advocates who want the option to circumvent the local political process by sending their charter school applications straight to a state agency, panel or board.

“What this ultimately creates is an adversarial relationship,” Tennessee Charter Schools Association Director Matt Throckmorton said of the arrangement whereby local politicians are given power to protect public schools from competition for government dollars.

Throckmorton said his organization wants the state to assign a government body to evaluate, approve and deny applications instead of pitting educational institutions against each other.

“They really start off on the wrong foot,” he said. Throckmorton believes a state-level clearinghouse charged with formally evaluating potential charter schools beforehand would improve relationships between the schools and their districts.

The Metro schools’ case is a matter of statewide import. At issue is whether there are legal grounds to deny the application in light of charter school laws passed in 2011.

At the behest of Gov. Bill Haslam, the GOP-run Legislature lifted the caps on charter schools and opened up enrollment to any student who wants to attend. Previously, attendance was limited to students who qualified for free or reduced lunch and struggled academically.

But school districts throughout the state have found reasons to reject charter school applications that would otherwise qualify, including 14 denials in Memphis overturned by the state Board of Education.

Among the reasons Metro schools officials and critics gave for the denial of the Great Hearts application was their belief that the initial school would lack diversity, thus attracting high-performing students because it was opening in an affluent neighborhood. The school board also said needy students outside the neighborhood would not be able to attend because they lack transportation.

The charter school’s application was voted down 7-2 last month by the Metro school board. The state BOE is expected to announce its decision July 27, said Gary Nixon, the state board’s executive director.

Education reform advocates say Metro’s decision is another good example of the preconceived hostility charters face at the local level, and is precisely why the state should take on the role of authorizing charter school applications.

Haslam last year said he prefers that local school boards vet and approve charter schools that move into their district. His office said Tuesday the administration is still monitoring the effect of the changes approved last year, although his administration includes several charter school fans.

Tennessee will be home to 48 charter schools this school year, a number that will jump to 70 by the 2013-14 school year, said Throckmorton. That number includes schools approved in a process separate from that of the state and local school boards. A program within the Department of Education called the Achievement School District can independently enlist charters to turn around some of the state’s worst-performing schools.

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