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Education Featured NewsTracker

TN’s Charter School Act Constitutional: AG Cooper

State Attorney General Robert Cooper this week issued an opinion declaring that Tennessee’s charter school law is consistent with the state constitution.

The opinion was delivered in response to requests made by House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, and state Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, asking that the state’s top lawyer weigh in on whether the Tennessee Public Charter Schools Act of 2002 imposes unconstitutional financial burdens on local school districts.

Cooper’s response, delivered Sept. 9, said the law does not unduly encumber local school boards.

“On its face, the Charter Schools Act does not directly or expressly require the expenditure of extra funds beyond what an LEA is already spending on education. Rather, it simply requires that all education funds follow the student for whom they were appropriated,” Cooper’s opinion, issued Sept. 9, stated.

“Furthermore, even if the Charter Schools Act were to increase spending by local school districts, the State share of these shared expenditures would remain significant and thus (the Tennessee Constitution) would not be violated,” the opinion continued.

Cooper’s views sought to addresses questions raised in a memo from an attorney hired by Metro Nashville Public Schools suggesting the state’s system for approving and funding charter school may be constitutionally suspect on the grounds that it might “impose increased costs on local governments with no offsetting subsidy from the state.”

The Metro Nashville school board has been mulling ways to challenge or head off a legislative proposal to grant the state power to override local districts that deny charter schools permission to operate.  The so-called “charter authorizer” bill, which died on the final day of the 2013 session, is expected to see a return next year in some form.

Article II, Section 24 of the Tennessee Constitution, which is the portion of the state’s governing document cited by the school board’s attorney, says that no state law should be passed that mandates an increase in “expenditure requirements on cities or counties” unless the state shares in the overall cost.

“The charter school receives all of the state and local per-pupil expenses, while the [local school districts] still must cover existing fixed costs,” wrote John Borkowski, the Washington, D.C.-based attorney hired by MNPS to assess the Act.

Borkowski added, “There does not appear to be any state subsidy to share in these increased costs.”

Cooper rejected that analysis. He wrote that even if the 2002 Charter Schools Act did increase the amount of education spending for local districts, the state shares the financial weight.

“Through the BEP, the State provides the majority of funds expended on education by LEAs,”  wrote the attorney general. “Consequently, in the event there are increased financial burdens to local school districts in connection with the creation and the funding of charter schools under the Charter Schools Act, the State share of educational funding of the BEP pursuant to Tenn. Code… is clearly more than sufficient to meet the level required by Article II, Section 24, as interpreted by Tennessee courts.”

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Education Featured

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.

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Press Releases

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.”

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Education Featured News

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.

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Education Featured News Tax and Budget

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.”

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Press Releases

State BOE Urges MNPS Board to Stop ‘Posturing’ On Charter Application

Statement from the Tennessee State Board of Education; August 15, 2012: 

NASHVILLE, August 15 — The State Board of Education is disappointed by the recent action regarding the indefinite deferral of the approval of the Great Hearts Charter School application. Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) had an opportunity to quickly bring closure to the process by approving the application as directed by the State Board of Education. The State Board of Education urges the MNPS Board to take the actions necessary to comply with the requirements of state law. Needless delays, the unnecessary expenditure of MNPS resources, and posturing relative to this charter school approval do not benefit the students of Nashville.

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Education NewsTracker

Financial Disclosure Info Lacking on State Board of Education Members

Two state Board of Education members never filled out conflict-of-interest forms during their tenure, a review by the state comptroller’s office found, despite a board policy that requires disclosure to help guard against ethics lapses and ensure transparency.

In a review of disclosures submitted from 2006 through August 2009, auditors found that two members had not completed forms at all. One served for nine years without ever filling out a disclosure form.

The ethics forms are aimed at revealing whether board members or their families have financial stakes in companies licensed by the board or department.

The findings were detailed in a wide-ranging state audit of the state Board and Department of Education by the comptroller’s office. The audit criticized inspections of pre-K and other child care providers, poor handling of students’ identifying information that allowed some of it to be made public, and the process for verifying information submitted by local school districts.

In reviewing the board’s ethics forms, auditors found one form that was rendered useless because the signature was illegible, and there was no line on the form to print the filer’s name.

Auditors recommended the board require members and staff to complete the ethics forms on an annual basis and keep the forms on file for at least three years. In its response, the board agreed.

Other highlights:

  • In late 2008, a state contractor, Public Consulting Group, posted student data including dates of birth and Social Security numbers to a website that could be accessed via a Google search; in some cases, parents’ information was also made public. The data was removed about three months later, after a Metro Nashville Public Schools employee stumbled on the information. The audit says Public Consulting Group provided identity theft and credit monitoring services to the students and their parents, communicated the issue to the national credit bureaus, and implemented new policies to keep the problem from recurring. When news of the security breach broke in April 2009, a principal for the company expressed regret, telling WSMV Channel 4, “We take full responsibility for this incident, and we formally express our sincere apology to the students and parents of Metro Nashville Public Schools.”
  • Department staff were also faulted for poor control of personal information. Student names and Social Security numbers were included in two PowerPoint presentations available on the department website for about two years. Though one was removed immediately after auditors raised the issue, the second presentation was still available six months later. According to the audit, the department paid for credit monitoring services for the affected students and their families.
  • The department’s process for inspecting child care programs was weak, and recordkeeping was inconsistent, the audit found. Auditors became concerned after spot-checking files for three facilities kept at the central office in Nashville and finding that some inspection reports were missing in all three. They moved on to district offices, where they reviewed files for 110 programs and found inconsistencies in the forms and in the way they were filled out. Also puzzling were 10 annual inspection forms that were dated as completed on a weekend. According to the audit:

“The auditors questioned whether the inspections were as thorough as intended by the legislature. We also questioned certain activities in one field office. We referred our concerns to the appropriate staff at the Department of Education and submitted our work to the State Attorney General’s Office for further review.”

In its response, the department said it had developed new training and switched to an electronic system of inspections.

  • Auditors said the department should create a centralized system for verifying compliance information submitted by local school districts.
  • The board did not submit notices of vacancies to the Secretary of State for any of the seven board vacancies that occurred from 2006 to 2009, hindering the state from announcing open appointments, auditors found.
  • Auditors said the department should develop a formal plan to address teacher shortages. Even though the department responded to the criticism by producing a plan, staff later said that little had been done with it because of lack of funding. The plan apparently became obsolete before it could be used or implemented.