Updated: 3:30 p.m.
The Tennessee State Board of Education authorized the controversial charter proposal of Great Hearts Academies Friday morning, overturning Metro’s previous denial and opening the door for Davidson County’s first charter designed explicitly to capitalize on the state’s new open enrollment law.
After 18 minutes of discussion, the nine-member state board settled a debate on racial diversity and school choice that has raged in Nashville for months. State board members voted unanimously to clear the way for Great Hearts’ first school on West Nashville’s White Bridge Road –– and shared none of the fears of “segregation” that the Metro school board cited when rejecting its proposal twice before.
“We’re very happy with the decision,” said Dan Scoggin, CEO of Phoenix-based Great Hearts, which is planning to open the new Nashville charter during the 2014-15 school year. It will be the group’s first charter outside Arizona where it has 15.
“We hope we can get beyond that type of polarizing debate as soon as possible,” he added when asked about the contentious nature of his school’s proposal. “We want to be a part of the district. We want to be a part of the public education landscape in Nashville.”
The state board’s action –– the second time it has overturned a charter rejection by Metro in two years –– redirects Great Hearts’ proposal back to the Metro board whereby the higher board has ordered the local body to hand Great Hearts final authorization. The Metro board’s final vote will come at its next meeting in August.
Alan Coverstone, executive director of Metro’s Office of Innovation, said MNPS is “disappointed” by the outcome, adding that he felt the board seemed to largely agree with Metro’s reasoning “yet still forced us to take action at our next meeting to approve the school in spite of those reasons.”
The state board’s approval is contingent on Great Hearts meeting three criteria that are already spelled out in state and local law: Great Hearts adopt a diversity plan that “mirrors” the district’s diversity plan for choice schools (which doesn’t have to include busing for transportation, state officials say, though Scoggin insists it will); the charter group hire licensed teachers; and the Metro board authorize just one Great Hearts school instead of its original plans for five.
“Essentially, this is an open-enrollment school, a choice school,” said the state board’s Executive Director Gary Nixon, who recommended overturning Metro’s rejection. “It’s not very different, or different at all, from the choice-schools Metro operates.”
Tennessee Education Commission Kevin Huffman advised Metro officials Friday to adopt an “expedited” process for the eventual approval of Great Hearts’ entire portfolio of five locations, which it has planned for different communities within Davidson County. He didn’t define the parameters of that process.
Officials from Great Hearts arrived in Nashville last winter following a push from parents in affluent parts of West Nashville searching for more options in place of struggling zoned schools, expensive private schools and academic magnet schools with long waiting lists.
It was met with criticism from opponents who suggested Great Hearts would establish a racially homogenous, white upper class school. Historically, Nashville’s charter schools have served economically disadvantage students. A new state law, however, has opened eligibility to all students regardless of income.
From the outset, the Great Hearts proposal became politically charged. Huffman on multiple occasions informed Metro officials of his desire for local school-board approval of Great Hearts’ plan. Mayor Karl Dean later expressed his support for Great Hearts, urging the state board to upend Metro’s rejection in a letter last week.
On hand for Friday’s vote was investor Bill DeLoache, a charter backer who served on the original “West Nashville Charter Steering Committee” that originated the Great Hearts push. Wendy Tucker, the mayor’s chief education advisor, was also present. Both declined comment.
In a letter Director of Schools Jesse Register fired off to the state board Thursday, Metro’s superintendent took exception with Nixon’s analysis for approving Great Hearts. Among other points, Register argued Great Hearts is applying one year early for a 2014 opening, and that Great Hearts’ diversity plans at its Arizona schools have resulted in “segregation.” He included a graph that shows the majority of Great Hearts schools are 70 percent white.
But a state attorney said charter applicants are permitted a one-year delay, thus authorizing Great Hearts to open in 2014. State board members did not directly speak to the racial composition of Great Hearts’ existing schools –– or the school’s track record at all.
“They did not seem to address the issues,” Coverstone concluded.
One state board member mistakenly referred to “Great Schools” in discussing Great Hearts’ plan. None of the nine members alluded to specific diversity concerns that Metro officials have raised. Instead, state members argued that Great Hearts is nothing more than another “choice school.”
State board member Lonnie Roberts pointed out that Metro’s Charter Review Committee recommended approval of Great Hearts, but Coverstone’s office nonetheless reached a different conclusion. “That’s what I don’t understand,” Roberts said.
Nixon had echoed those same sentiments in his recommendation: “If MNPS is going to utilize a committee to evaluate an application, go to great lengths to train the committee, and hold its process up as the ‘Gold Standard’ of processes, it should trust the committee’s recommendation and process 100 percent.”
Coverstone said Nixon does a “great job” in his role, but raised objections nevertheless: “It’s just very difficult in one hour to evaluate the complexities of a three-month process. We just think he got it wrong on the committee issues.”
The Great Hearts’ decision could set a precedent, and perhaps encourage others to apply for charter schools in Nashville that could feed demand from middle and upper class parents.
Coverstone suggested the state’s Great Hearts decision could set an example in a different way. “Local districts are losing the ability to use charter schools collaboratively and positively to increase student outcomes,” he said. “That’s what we’ve been doing.
“We’re not a district that has been standing in the way of charters. And the notion that we should not be given the benefit of the doubt in making those decisions is weakening our ability to guide that process.”