Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, in a statement Wednesday, said Metro is violating state law by not authorizing Great Hearts Academies’ charter, and state officials would “take appropriate action to ensure that the law is followed.”
One of the actions the state could take if Great Hearts isn’t approved locally: withhold funds from Metro Nashville Public Schools.
Huffman issued the statement the morning after the school board Tuesday night voted to indefinitely defer the charter proposal of Great Hearts Academies, an application the state board of education on July 27 ordered Metro to approve. Huffman didn’t elaborate what “appropriate action” the department might take.
The nine-member state board itself no longer has a role in the charter authorization process, the state board’s attorney Dannelle Walker told The City Paper.
But Walker said the state education department could “do a number of things,” including withholding funds or resources from Metro schools.
“They have several dollars that flow through to Metro schools from the state,” Walker said. “They could withhold funds. There’s just a variety of options.”
Walker confirmed discussions about withholding funds from Metro have taken place, but said, “Nothing is set in stone.”
Tennessee Education Department spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier reiterated Huffman’s point that the Metro school board “violated the law” by not authorizing Great Hearts on Tuesday.
“Typically that’s something we’re able to do in a lot of situations where the district is not in compliance with the law,” Gauthier said when asked about withholding dollars.
“All of us would hope that it would not get to that point,” she added.
Mayor Karl Dean, who urged the state board to overturn Metro’s two prior denials of Phoenix-based Great Hearts during its appeals process, said, “It would be regrettable for any action to result in state education funds being jeopardized.”
“I hope that the [Metro] board quickly remedies this situation,” he said.
Dean, one of Nashville’s foremost charter school supporters, said Metro had overcome a reputation as an “unwelcoming" place for charters, "but the board’s action here is an unfortunate step backwards.”
The Metro school board’s 7-2 decision to defer voting on Great Hearts’ application has opened itself up to a potential legal challenge if the Phoenix-based charter organization so chooses. The Metro school board’s own attorney Tuesday warned against potential legal action, yet the board defied the state’s order nonetheless, citing lingering concerns over Great Hearts’ diversity plan.
By current state law, a local board has to be the charter authorizer during an appeals process with the state.
But moving forward, Walker said the Great Hearts matter could prompt a discussion on changing state law on charter appeals to allow the state board’s decision to be final — instead of it being remanded back to the local board.
“We’re throwing around some different things for the future,” Walker said.
In a statement, the governor-appointed state board of education said it is “disappointed” by Metro’s action Tuesday.
“Metro Nashville Public Schools had an opportunity to quickly bring closure to the process by approving the process as directed by the state board of education,” the statement reads, adding that it urges Metro to take the necessary action to comply with the law.
“Needless delays, the unnecessary expenditure of MNPS resources, and posturing relative to this charter approval do not benefit the students of Nashville.”
Asked whether Great Hearts would pursue legal action for authorization, the charter group's attorney Ross Booher said, "At this point, we remain hopeful that the Nashville public school board will comply with state law."
In a statement, a spokesman for the charter operator said, "Lawlessness is not leadership, and the Nashville school board has taught the wrong lesson. These actions by the board not only harm Great Hearts but the children of Nashville and the loving parents who simply long to provide an educational opportunity to their children. Great Hearts and all those who labor to elevate American education await the day when the love for children and a shared commitment to their happiness and success transcend the political grievances and conflicts of our day."