What began as a quarrel between a local school district and a charter school is pumping life into plans to change who has the power to approve publicly funded but privately run schools.
The issue is expected to take off on Capitol Hill as soon as education officials and lawmakers tidy up details on how to outsource the local school boards’ responsibility to vet and approve charter schools to an outside agency.
While lawmakers say there is political momentum for giving charter schools a new path to win approval, the state Board of Education is against the idea, according to board Chairman B. Fielding Rolston.
Over the last decade, the nine-member BOE has heard officials from 46 charter schools complain about rejections from local school boards. In over three out of four cases, the BOE sided with the local school district, according to a review of state records.
“We’re generally seeing that the local systems are doing a good job with reviewing these (applications),” said Rolston. “Most of them with the appeals, we’re seeing the local school system making the right decision.”
Since 2003, the BOE has agreed with 35 of 45 charter rejections by local school boards. It wasn’t until last year that the BOE began more regularly disagreeing with school districts, ordering school boards to reverse course on seven of 13 charter school denials.
As more charter schools take root in the public education landscape, proponents of finding another avenue for their entrance say the state needs to provide fertile ground for a fair process without fear that school boards will treat charters as competition.
“When we see politics climbing into it, academics will come second and politics will come first and that does not make for a good charter school,” said Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association, which is driving the legislation.
Tennessee is now home to 44 charter schools, with eight more opening and one closing by next school year. Most reside in Nashville and Memphis, with a few in Chattanooga.
Charter advocates had quietly pushed the idea for years, saying they could foresee a bitter fight where school districts deny otherwise quality charter applications and butt heads over a denial.
That’s what happened last fall when Metro Nashville Public Schools loudly rejected the application from Phoenix-based Great Hearts Academies. On an appeal, the Board of Education directed school board members to approve the charter, but MNPS refused mainly on the grounds the school’s plan failed to answer diversity concerns.
“Stating that school boards fear competition is a way to oversimplify a complex debate and to marginalize the voices of local elected representatives and parents in the discussion of education,” said Amy Frogge, a MNPS board member. “We need collaboration, not finger-pointing.”
State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman was cheering for Great Hearts to win approval, as was Mayor Karl Dean and other officials, according to emails obtained by The City Paper. When MNPS ignored the BOE’s orders, Huffman withheld $3.4 million from the district.
He said he’s interested in giving charters options on who to apply to.
“I would say, broadly speaking, relationships between charters and districts are pretty decent, but there are certainly enough flare-ups that lead us to believe that we should probably look at some structural changes,” Huffman said. “Not all of their perspectives are upheld by the state board and they don’t always treat high-performing charter schools the way one would want them to.”
Lawmakers who before had little interest in entertaining a statewide authorizer began warming to it following the MNPS “flare-up,” including Nashvillian House Speaker Beth Harwell and Gov. Bill Haslam, who a year before said he had no desire in taking this path. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, from East Tennessee, said he’ll go along with whatever Harwell and Haslam want.
But while there’s support among lawmakers to react to last year’s tiff between the charter school and MNPS, there’s no consensus how. Ideas range from allowing a chancery court to reverse denials, having charters apply directly to an outside panel or allow rejected charter school applicants to apply a second time with a statewide authorizer.
Creating a go-around for charter schools would “absolutely abandon” the good-faith partnerships school boards have been trying to make with charter schools, said Lee Harrell, a lobbyist for the Tennessee School Boards Association, which opposes taking power away from local districts.
Another plan wouldn’t create a statewide authorizer at all, but gives the Board of Education binding power to reverse charter school rejections instead of ordering local school boards to change their minds.
The Board of Education can get behind that plan, said Rolston, although advocates for charter schools say that change falls short for a system that needs more significant change.
“There seems to be a general consensus that the authorization process needs to be fixed,” said Throckmorton, who hopes to unveil the charter school association’s preferred proposal in the next week. “It’s becoming more and more political, and that’s not good for anybody.”