A charter school operator first approved by the state school district charged with turning around Tennessee’s worst schools instead intends to seek the blessing of the Metro Nashville Public Schools board.
California-based Rocketship Education announced Thursday it had state approval to open eight charter schools in five years in the Nashville area near schools falling in the bottom 5 percent in the state. However, an official with the charter group said its plan is to apply with MNPS to have more flexibility over where to open.
“It’s not like the 6th through 50th percentile of students are in good schools. There are plenty of neighborhoods that have a need,” Kristoffer Haines, vice president of national development for Rocketship Education, told The City Paper.
The group is seeking to “close the achievement gap that exists for low-income and minority children,” according to a statement.
The eight charter schools were approved by the Achievement School District, a statewide branch of the Tennessee Department of Education focused on finding ways to improve the bottom 5 percent of schools, five of which are a part of MNPS with most others in Memphis.
The ASD launched in 2011, and is now monitoring, helping manage, running or hiring charters to take over 83 schools with the lowest test scores throughout the state.
According to ASD spokesman Jeremy Jones, the ASD also has the power to approve charter schools to open in the neighborhoods of failing schools. The move gives parents a choice on whether to keep their student in a school being turned around or to transfer out to a nearby charter.
The Rocketship Education elementary schools were approved under that plan last year, according to Jones. But the three area elementary schools are already under close supervision by MNPS, said Haines, leaving the charter group to consider how else to enter the market without duplicating efforts, he said.
“I fully anticipate our schools would be in neighborhoods that maybe aren’t in the bottom 5 percent, but maybe the bottom 10 percent,” he said. “We could put a school a couple blocks away from those (failing 5 percent of) schools and recruit students … . It’s not a competition between us and MNPS. We want to be a part of the solution.”
MNPS school board member Will Pinkston said word Thursday that the state planned to drop eight schools in Nashville in five years came as a surprise.
As a member of former Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration and an architect of the state’s 2010 Race to the Top application that created the ASD, Pinkston said he was unaware the state gave the turnaround district the power to OK charters to neighbor failing schools.
“We’ve got existing schools and teachers and students that need help now and that’s what our focus is,” said Pinkston, who chairs the district’s budget committee. “We need to be talking more about partnership, not how we can overrule or out-maneuver each other.”
News about additional charter schools approved by the state comes as the local school board is contesting legislation on Capitol Hill that would give the state power to approve charter schools that districts have already rejected.
One of the arguments against the practice is the price tag for new charters, a cost MNPS officials said amounts to $14.8 million in new dollars for charter schools in the next school year. Members fear funding robust charter expansions could stretch the district’s dollars too thin.
Pinkston said, “Whether we’re talking about proposed charter legislation or ASD decisions, the ultimate question may be, what’s most effective for students and cost-efficient for state and local taxpayers: partnering to turn around existing schools or creating a lot of new schools, some of which may or may not succeed?”
Haines said Rocketship Education is in the final throes of finishing its charter school application, which is due to the school district by April 1. The charter group is one of 10 that indicated to the district it would apply this spring to open charter schools.