It was not a surprise when legislation creating a way for charter schools to circumvent local school boards showed up at the state legislature last week. The proposal, which came by way of an amendment to a previously un-noteworthy bill, is aimed only at Nashville and Memphis, and would allow charter schools to apply straight to the State Board of Education if the local school board has twice been asked to reverse a rejection.
Similarly unsurprising was a statement from Mayor Karl Dean’s office effectively supporting the idea. Last year, Dean supported Great Hearts Academies in its fight with the Metro school board — even writing a letter to the state board requesting that they approve the school’s application, overturning the Metro board’s decision — and the new state legislation would seem to be tailored to fit just such a case.
“Mayor Dean’s focus will always be on student achievement and providing opportunities for children to go to great schools,” said Dean spokeswoman Bonna Johnson. “While achievement in our schools is improving, the reality is that the rate of progress is too slow, and our students do not have the luxury of time. The status quo is not our friend. Quality charter schools have proven to accelerate achievement. Mayor Dean supports measures that help to provide more high-performing options for our students. Mayor Dean believes the city’s top priority is to increase student achievement, and he supports whatever will help accomplish that goal as soon as possible.”
But the mayor’s tacit support for transferring some of the locally elected school board’s authority to the appointed state board did raise some eyebrows, especially when compared to his past statements about local autonomy.
In 2011, Dean signed into law an anti-discrimination ordinance even as state legislators were mounting an attempt to nullify it with a law of their own. They would eventually succeed. But on the day he signed the local ordinance, Dean spoke out against attempts by the state to usurp the authority of local government.
“As for pending legislation at the state level related to this, I believe the decisions of locally elected government bodies should be respected by the legislature,” he said in a statement at the time. “The passage of this legislation is consistent with actions taken by a number of cities in all parts of the United States. This is not the time to abandon our belief in local government.”
Less than a year later, Dean was at odds with state lawmakers again, this time over state legislation that would have affected — or “gutted” according to the strongest critics — Metro’s ability to enforce zoning regulations. At that time, a statement from Johnson said the mayor could not “support anything that limits the power of local governments to protect neighborhoods and the quality of life of our residents.”
When it comes to charter schools, though, Dean has not toed the same line — an irksome development to some other local officials.
“Last year, the state proposed doing some planning and zoning codes, and his office fought that and said, ‘No, no, no. We are the local government.’ Now we can’t have it both ways,” said Metro Councilman Steve Glover.
“I absolutely say it’s a contradiction,” he continued. “We either want the state running it, or we want to have our local government running it.”
Johnson told The City Paper that the difference between the state charter authorizer and past instances when the state-vs.-local debate has arisen is that “this proposal expands choice, where the other proposals you cite were intended to eliminate opportunities.” While the mayor does not support legislation that “limits the power of local governments to protect neighborhoods and the quality of life of our residents,” she said, this legislation “aims to enhance the quality of life by giving families more options.”
“When it comes to schools, Mayor Dean believes the most important “local control” is the power every parent should have to choose a high-quality school for their child, regardless of income or zip code,” Johnson said in an emailed statement.
Dean’s belief that “the most important ‘local control is the power of every parent” would seem to spring from the same set of talking points House Speaker Beth Harwell was working off of, in an interview the same day Johnson gave her statement to The City Paper. Harwell told the Nashville Scene that “we have a responsibility in this state to allow the most local person to have an option here, and the local person here is the parent.”
Glover, a former Metro school board member, sponsored a council resolution in December insisting that the state grant extra funds to local school districts if it decided to create a voucher program or a state charter authorizer.
“I just feel like the state needs to let the local board of education do its job,” he said. “If they’re going to insist on giving us unfunded mandates, they need to fund it fully. Don’t take the money out of our pocket. If they feel so certain that it’s what is needed, then they need to fund it.”
As a Metro Council member and freshman state representative, Darren Jernigan has seat in both levels of government, after he defeated Republican Rep. Jim Gotto in the fall. Gotto was himself a multitasking councilman and state representative who had been part of the state push to nullify Metro’s anti-discrimination ordinance, and was the sponsor of the zoning bills Dean opposed. Jernigan declined to characterize the mayor’s differentiation between this debate over state and local authority, and others, but he does disagree with it.
“The closer our government is to the people, the better,” he said. “From local, state, even to federal. An example, even in the Great Hearts matter: You have a [school board] that spent two or three meetings of hours and hours of debate, and when it got to the state? It took them 14 minutes. Bam. Overturned
it. There’s no skin in the game for them.”
Glover’s nonbinding, memorializing resolution has no real legislative weight. But it did pass the council without opposition, and he said the state should have more respect for that.
“The Metro Council voted unanimously,” he said. “Unanimously. And the last time I checked, we represent the people, and we voted unanimously to say, ‘State, if you’re going to make us take something that our local authorities don’t feel like it’s within the foundation that will actually make the overall district better, then you pay for it.’ If it’s so great, you pay for it.”