[Ed. note: The following is an extended version of the Q&A that appeared in Monday's print edition.]
The political legwork behind Tennessee’s existing charter laws can be traced back to one man above all: Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association, a lobbying group that works the Hill each session. And so when the Phoenix-based group Great Hearts Academies announced last week it would be abandoning its charter proposal for Nashville — after yet another Metro school board rejection — Throckmorton was watching. Despite a state order to approve, Metro continually resisted Great Hearts out of concerns about its diversity plan. At its core, Metro struggled with the state’s new open enrollment law — a measure Throckmorton’s group help pass a few years ago.
The City Paper caught up with Throckmorton last week to learn how the Great Hearts dispute might trigger a new state legislative charter movement.
What’s your take on Great Hearts’ retreat?
I’m really disappointed by it. The big concern that I’ve had all along, and this goes back a couple of years, is that we’re seeing more and more politics entering the application process. This has taken place in other states. Whenever it happens, quality of applications — all of those things, the operation itself — end up clearly being second place to the political arena. I just think that’s a really bad environment for the charter school movement to be in.
Great Hearts has said it is hopeful the state will take action so it can reapply to a “different, impartial charter authorizer.” Will your group be supporting a statewide charter authorizer during the next legislative session in 2013? Will you be lobbying for that?
Yes. Right now, I’m actually in Memphis meeting with most of our school leaders, and we’re going to be talking about this very thing. In creating a statewide authorizer, there’s actually two parts to it. One is the application process. The other is the operating environment. One of the statements made by Great Hearts is they’re concerned by the hostility under the current environment ... so finding a solution for both aspects of those is really important to us.
So you’ll be drafting the bill and finding sponsors?
Yeah. Right now, we’re doing the research on it, trying to come up with the most thoughtful way of approaching this.
What would serve as the statewide authorizer? Would it be the state board of education or a new entity?
In other states what they’ve done is they’ve created an independent statewide authorizer. And so it would have a board that’s appointed by various entities that are engaged in education throughout the state. And then there would be conditions in which it would be [graded], so it wouldn’t be automatic.
You mention the politics that surrounded Great Hearts. Some say that came from Great Hearts itself. After all, they had the backing of Mayor Karl Dean, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, etc.
An application shouldn’t require all of these different individuals being engaged either for the applicant or opposed to the applicant. I suppose it could be a little bit of a “he said, she said” because I do recall comments being made when Great Hearts was just in Nashville doing their initial visits. There were some folks in the district who didn’t want them from the first time they heard about them. So, “Who’s to blame here?” I don’t think is very productive. Clearly, there’s politics on both sides, and we need to create a process where it’s based entirely on the merits of the application.