As the charter school movement gains steam in Nashville, local school board members are worried there’s not enough room in the budget to afford a windfall of the novel schools in years to come.
Too many charter schools too fast could force the district “off the fiscal cliff” unless there are proper “guardrails” in place, school officials say. Otherwise, the city may need to consider a property tax increase to offset the costs, some warn.
Buzzwords about the financial impact of too many charter schools are piling up. But the school district is using them in reaction to growing tension between MNPS and the state over who should have the final say in approving charter schools.
Charter schools are privately run, publicly funded institutions meant to give parents choice about where to educate their children. They operate without the strings typically attached to public schools, allowing them flexibility for decisions like policies on teacher pay and retention, running longer school days and hiring their own transportation. In exchange for the added freedom, the schools can easily be closed for failing to meet academic benchmarks or for mismanaging their finances.
Charter schools were originally written into law to focus on low-income students, but charter schools now accept children from any income level.
Since the state began to allow charter schools in 2002, Nashville has become home to 13 such schools, with five in line to open next year and one to close at the school year’s end. Another 10 charter school groups are expected to turn in applications by April 1 to open schools their own.
Next year’s proposed school district budget spends $40 million to fund charter schools next school year, a $15 million increase over last year and a number giving school officials sticker shock.
“There is a lot of pressure on us because everyone wants to come here and open a charter school. How many schools the community can afford to go to scale is a real question,” said Jesse Register, MNPS director of schools who said he doesn’t know where the tipping point is.
Although the total district budget proposal adds up to some $764 million, the 5 percent dedicated to charter schools is scaring district officials who are already reticent to fully embrace the charter school movement.
But their biggest worry is about a proposal on Capitol Hill by House Speaker Beth Harwell and Nashville Mayor Karl Dean to let a state-level group approve charter schools that local districts like MNPS have already passed on.
The legislative move is an outgrowth of MNPS’ high-profile rejection of Great Hearts Academies’ charter school application, which had been strongly favored by Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman and Dean. The decision is one the board is forced to constantly relive, said member Will Pinkston, an MNPS board member chairman of its Budget Committee.
“I’ve been on the school board for seven months now, and it has felt like the movie Groundhog Day. Every day we wake up hearing the same song over and over and over again, and it is time to move on to other issues,” said Pinkston.
While details of how the state panel would work are still being hammered out in the General Assembly, the latest version doesn’t include any limit on how many charter schools the state could approve in the local school district, although funding for the schools would come out of the district’s budget.
Whether any type of “guardrails” will make it into the bill is unknown as Gov. Bill Haslam took the opportunity his first year to erase the cap on charter schools throughout the state. He is unlikely to support anything that resembles putting a cap back in.
While the point behind the push is to make sure charters like Great Hearts have a second chance of making Nashville their home, Tennessee is already an attractive place for charter schools, said Kevin Hall, CEO of the Charter School Growth Fund, a Colorado-based nonprofit investing millions in promising charter schools, including LEAD Public Schools. But he said a statewide authorizer would make charter operators applying here more comfortable.
“This is often a new world for districts,” said Hall. “In Nashville, four or five years ago, there were only two or three charter schools. So it’s a new world for the districts for itself to be a partner with others running great schools. It’s definitely a shift in mentality. They could ignore it when it was less than 1,000 students.”
MNPS officials fear the result of the state group Harwell is trying to create could foist rejected charter schools on Davidson County, leaving a “destabilizing effect” on the budget, said Pinkston.
“If a child leaves a traditional school, then that’s $9,000 that follows that child into another school, and that’s good for that family,” said Pinkston. “But we’re not necessarily able then to reduce by $9,000 the budget in that school. If a large group of students leave, then you can look at start changing staffing patterns, start reducing bus routes and doing other things. But in the short term, the costs remain pretty much fixed, and that’s the issue.”
According to state law, charter schools must be given the full per-student allotment of education funds rationed out for each student, which means the district can’t take any of the state, local or federal money off the top to help cover the district’s overhead costs.
For example, Intrepid College Preparatory School is opening this fall with 120 fifth-graders. That will mean $1.09 million — which before helped fund district costs like transportation, salaries and central office staff — will move to the charter school.
Area charter schools next year expect to take on 4,400 students for $40.04 million, plus another $1.9 million to fund parts of Brick Church College Prep, which has 220 students taught by a state-approved charter.
“Metro would be spending those dollars on these students regardless,” said Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter School Association. “I totally respect their concern. I don’t share it. The number one guardrail, if you will, really should be quality authorizing.”
Not only have several of Nashville’s charter schools outperformed most traditional schools in the district, but charters have also helped to absorb the 15 percent student population growth over the last decade, advocates say.
Ten years ago, the district was home to almost 70,700 students. Since then, the district has grown to some 81,000 students. The district is now beginning to brainstorm where to find more classroom space and answers on how to adjust.
Both Pinkston and Register said they’re looking at charters to be a factor to help fill those needs, but insist those decisions be made by the district and not an outside body that can sprinkle a limitless number of charter schools in MNPS’ backyard.
How to achieve better schools is where the rubber meets the road. Harwell and others say that means an investment in charter schools to create competition and give parents choices. Voices from the district insist making better schools means turning around struggling traditional ones.
“It’s a philosophical difference, in that the money is not the school board’s money,” said Harwell “It belongs to the taxpayers of this state.”