Mayor Karl Dean made a rare appearance at the state legislature in April 2009 to deliver a message: Nashville had fallen behind in the area of school innovation. This was the result of the state’s strict laws governing charter schools.
At the time, state law limited access to charter schools — publicly funded, privately run schools — to only those students who were failing or whose schools were failing under the federal No Child Left Behind statute. Moreover, regulations capped the number of charters that could exist within a school district and the state overall.
Handcuffed by restrictions, Dean maintained, reputable charter organizations wanted no part of Metro Nashville Public Schools. Asked by one legislator how many charter schools Nashville could use, he said between 20 and 25.
Dean’s plea came at the height of partisan wrangling over sweeping new charter legislation that would open eligibility to charter school enrollment to any student who qualifies for free and reduced lunches — 70 percent of all public-school students — while increasing the number of charter schools allowed in Tennessee.
The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, initially stalled in committee but passed near the end of the legislative session, after reluctant House Democrats jumped on board. Gov. Phil Bredesen signed the new regulations into law a year ago this month, granting access to charter schools to twice as many Metro students as before and raising the number of permitted charters in Davidson County to 20.
If the future of charter schools in Nashville seemed uncertain — perhaps even grim — a year ago, the outlook today is just the opposite. Whether the change represents a direct result of the new law or just a correlation remains debatable. Either way, the momentum is hard to ignore.
In the fall, Dean helped launch a new charter incubator, an organization operating out of Cummins Station that seeks to train educators hoping to launch new charter schools in Nashville. Last summer, Director of Schools Jesse Register carved out a brand-new office of charter schools to work out of the central office, tapping school board member Alan Coverstone to oversee the department.
Both were important structural steps to foster charter growth in Nashville. Neither would have happened if not for the new state law.
But perhaps the greatest sign of the charter shift lies in the numbers. Seventeen groups have applied to open charter schools in Metro over the past year, with four schools approved since December.
There’s New Vision Academy, a charter middle school set to operate out of Draughons Junior College in Antioch. East End Preparatory School, an charter elementary school to be operated by the nonprofit Martha O’Bryan Center, received school board approval last month, as did STEM Preparatory Academy, a new science-based charter school. And in April, the board even agreed to turn the reins of struggling Cameron Middle School, a traditional public school, over to LEAD Academy, a Nashville charter school led by educator Jeremy Kane.
Put it all together and there are nine charter schools in Nashville either operating or authorized to open — and more could be on the way. Three applicants are trying now, including University Prep, a charter school that would have an affiliation with Tennessee State University. Though approval is certainly not a given, some school board members have already expressed support for University Prep.
Three more applications from national organizations — two from Boston-based Building Excellent Schools and another from Washington, D.C.’s William E. Doar Jr. Foundation — are up for school board review in the fall.
Meanwhile, as part of his State of Metro address in April, Dean announced two educators — Linda Mendez, a dean of students at a charter school in Chicago; and Ravi Gupta, a special assistant to Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations — have been selected as the first two fellows to be trained at the new charter incubator.
“A year from now, these two individuals will be fully prepared to become founders of high-performing public charter schools in our city,” Dean said.
To push the limit?
On the surface, it seems the collection of charter schools in Nashville is steadily moving toward the 20-school limit. But Coverstone, the district’s charter czar, doesn’t see it that way.
“I think there is a concern about going too fast in anything,” he said. “But I don’t think we’re at that pace at all. Our pace has been deliberate. Our pace has been really focused on the students and meeting the needs of students.
“We have the luxury of being selective,” Coverstone continued. “That’s what this is all about. So we’re under no timeline, implicit or explicit, to get to a certain number [of charter schools] by a certain time.”
Nonetheless, Nashville is now fertile ground for charter schools, which has also given rise to the long-standing debate on the effectiveness of the charter concept.
On the one hand, charter school advocates like Coverstone insist that performance is proving their worth.
“Just on last year’s data, charter students as a whole had a 4 percent higher pass rate on the TCAP [tests] than the district average, and a 6 percent higher reading pass rate than the district average,” Coverstone said. “It’s working.”
But Erick Huth, president of Metro’s teachers’ union, a longtime skeptic of charter schools, said there’s no empirical evidence to suggest charter schools are any more effective than traditional public schools.
“Some of our recent experiences at some of the start-up charter schools is that they’re having troubles finding themselves and finding ways to be successful,” Huth said. “Certainly there is a segment of the political community that views charter schools as the silver bullet, but they’re not really a silver bullet. I don’t know if getting up to the number 20 would be a good goal, but I’m sure there’s political pressure to do that.”
With charter effectiveness always doubted by some, oversight — and the willingness of the school board to dissolve a charter school that isn’t performing — is something critics are watching.
Shortly after Nashville Global Academy opened last school year, the district cited the Whites Creek-area charter school for a variety of violations. Presumably, the school is still under the watch of MNPS administrators.
“Obviously, you don’t want to close down a school for no reason,” Coverstone said. “You want to differentiate between first-year start-up trouble and things that are long-term and sustained troubles. But you have to be vigilant.”
For now, Huth said he believes that oversight is there. “I feel like Alan Coverstone is doing a very good job of overseeing what happens inside charter schools,” he said.
Then there’s the issue of financing.
To complement public funds, charter schools have boards of directors that constantly raise money. At a recent board meeting, school board member Kay Simmons, a charter school supporter, posed the question: How many can Nashville sustain before private funds are tapped out?
“We’ve just passed number [nine], and it possibly could go up to 20,” Simmons said. “Nashville is one of those communities that’s very, very generous, but I’m not sure it can adequately support 20 new schools that need to supplement their annual budgets.
“If you look at charter schools, it’s not an insignificant amount of money that they need to supplement their budgets,” Simmons said. “I think that the city has a lot of demands on its philanthropic community. ”