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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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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.”


Charter Schools Under Pressure to Perform

Hopes are high within the Haslam administration that charter schools will play an increasingly key and productive role in helping improve state education outcomes.

“We need people who are actually going to be fueling the fire. If it’s not you, I don’t know who it’s going to be,” state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said Friday before a gathering of educators for the Tennessee Charter School Association conference on Capitol Hill.

Both Huffman and Gov. Bill Haslam, who made charter-school expansion a key facet of his education reform agenda last legislative session, laid out what they’re expecting of the publicly funded alternative learning centers going forward as they take on more responsibility for improving student performances — and are awarded greater shares of taxpayer-support education funding.

“Charter schools are not the answer to our education challenges in Tennessee, but they’re part of the solution,” Haslam later told reporters. “Just like every other school, we’re going to expect high quality out of them, but we welcome what they bring to the game and what they bring for a lot of families who may not have any alternative.”

The growing group of independently run charter schools — currently there are 41 in Tennessee — won big this past session of the General Assembly, when the GOP majority swept aside statutory roadblocks to their expansion. The state eliminated caps on the total number of charter schools and opened up enrollment to any student who wants to attend. Previously, enrollment was restricted based on students’ achievement and poverty level.

The state is also giving charter schools the go-ahead to try and turn around some of the state’s lowest performing schools. The state’s “Achievement School District” will decide in November which of 13 chronically substandard Tennessee public schools it’ll allow to be run by charter school educators.

ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic founded a charter school network in Texas called YES Prep Public Schools. But Barbic said he won’t rely on charter schools to do all the heavy lifting in reforming struggling schools.

“This is less about traditional schools and charter schools. It’s more about how do we create more high-performance schools and how we do make sure that the below-performing schools, whether charter or traditional, that we’re doing something to turn them around,” he told TNReport earlier this month.

Huffman, who kicked off the conference, challenged the charter schools to pave the way for educational success.

“I really believe that charters, particularly in low-income communities, need to be the ones that bust through and set up the exemplars we can point to so when people say it can’t be done, we can say, ‘Get in the car with me, and I’m going to take you someplace and show you that it can be done.”

The expectations are fair, said Matt Throckmorton, the executive director of the TCSA.

“You see this in other states: You get a good charter school movement, and everybody begins to rest on their laurels and just coast,” he said. “We need to continue to push innovation, aggressive reform. And for those schools, there’s no let down. We need to continue to demonstrate student gains.”

Huffman is no stranger to alternative styles of education. He is a graduate and former vice president of public affairs of Teach For America, an alternative teacher licensing program. He was also married to nationally-known charter school advocate Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of D.C. public schools.

“Thanks,” Huffman said to the charter school crowd. “Thanks for taking risks, for being entrepreneurs, for supporting change, for pushing the envelope, for busting the bureaucracy, for holding our feet to the fire, for showing people what local control actually looks like, for demonstrating that the money can follow the child and the world doesn’t come to an end, for providing choice for parents and providing opportunities for kids.”