Could charters break MNPS bank?

Sunday, March 31, 2013 at 10:05pm
032913 Charters topper.jpg


As the charter school movement gains steam in Nashville, local school board members are worried there’s not enough room in the budget to afford a windfall of the novel schools in years to come.

Too many charter schools too fast could force the district “off the fiscal cliff” unless there are proper “guardrails” in place, school officials say. Otherwise, the city may need to consider a property tax increase to offset the costs, some warn.  

Buzzwords about the financial impact of too many charter schools are piling up. But the school district is using them in reaction to growing tension between MNPS and the state over who should have the final say in approving charter schools.

Charter schools are privately run, publicly funded institutions meant to give parents choice about where to educate their children. They operate without the strings typically attached to public schools, allowing them flexibility for decisions like policies on teacher pay and retention, running longer school days and hiring their own transportation. In exchange for the added freedom, the schools can easily be closed for failing to meet academic benchmarks or for mismanaging their finances.

Charter schools were originally written into law to focus on low-income students, but charter schools now accept children from any income level.

Since the state began to allow charter schools in 2002, Nashville has become home to 13 such schools, with five in line to open next year and one to close at the school year’s end. Another 10 charter school groups are expected to turn in applications by April 1 to open schools their own.

Next year’s proposed school district budget spends $40 million to fund charter schools next school year, a $15 million increase over last year and a number giving school officials sticker shock.

“There is a lot of pressure on us because everyone wants to come here and open a charter school. How many schools the community can afford to go to scale is a real question,” said Jesse Register, MNPS director of schools who said he doesn’t know where the tipping point is.  

Although the total district budget proposal adds up to some $764 million, the 5 percent dedicated to charter schools is scaring district officials who are already reticent to fully embrace the charter school movement.

But their biggest worry is about a proposal on Capitol Hill by House Speaker Beth Harwell and Nashville Mayor Karl Dean to let a state-level group approve charter schools that local districts like MNPS have already passed on.

The legislative move is an outgrowth of MNPS’ high-profile rejection of Great Hearts Academies’ charter school application, which had been strongly favored by Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman and Dean. The decision is one the board is forced to constantly relive, said member Will Pinkston, an MNPS board member chairman of its Budget Committee.

“I’ve been on the school board for seven months now, and it has felt like the movie Groundhog Day. Every day we wake up hearing the same song over and over and over again, and it is time to move on to other issues,” said Pinkston.

While details of how the state panel would work are still being hammered out in the General Assembly, the latest version doesn’t include any limit on how many charter schools the state could approve in the local school district, although funding for the schools would come out of the district’s budget.

Whether any type of “guardrails” will make it into the bill is unknown as Gov. Bill Haslam took the opportunity his first year to erase the cap on charter schools throughout the state. He is unlikely to support anything that resembles putting a cap back in.

While the point behind the push is to make sure charters like Great Hearts have a second chance of making Nashville their home, Tennessee is already an attractive place for charter schools, said Kevin Hall, CEO of the Charter School Growth Fund, a Colorado-based nonprofit investing millions in promising charter schools, including LEAD Public Schools. But he said a statewide authorizer would make charter operators applying here more comfortable.

“This is often a new world for districts,” said Hall. “In Nashville, four or five years ago, there were only two or three charter schools. So it’s a new world for the districts for itself to be a partner with others running great schools. It’s definitely a shift in mentality. They could ignore it when it was less than 1,000 students.”

MNPS officials fear the result of the state group Harwell is trying to create could foist rejected charter schools on Davidson County, leaving a “destabilizing effect” on the budget, said Pinkston.

“If a child leaves a traditional school, then that’s $9,000 that follows that child into another school, and that’s good for that family,” said Pinkston. “But we’re not necessarily able then to reduce by $9,000 the budget in that school. If a large group of students leave, then you can look at start changing staffing patterns, start reducing bus routes and doing other things. But in the short term, the costs remain pretty much fixed, and that’s the issue.”

According to state law, charter schools must be given the full per-student allotment of education funds rationed out for each student, which means the district can’t take any of the state, local or federal money off the top to help cover the district’s overhead costs.

For example, Intrepid College Preparatory School is opening this fall with 120 fifth-graders. That will mean $1.09 million — which before helped fund district costs like transportation, salaries and central office staff — will move to the charter school.

Area charter schools next year expect to take on 4,400 students for $40.04 million, plus another $1.9 million to fund parts of Brick Church College Prep, which has 220 students taught by a state-approved charter.

“Metro would be spending those dollars on these students regardless,” said Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter School Association. “I totally respect their concern. I don’t share it. The number one guardrail, if you will, really should be quality authorizing.”

Not only have several of Nashville’s charter schools outperformed most traditional schools in the district, but charters have also helped to absorb the 15 percent student population growth over the last decade, advocates say.  

Ten years ago, the district was home to almost 70,700 students. Since then, the district has grown to some 81,000 students. The district is now beginning to brainstorm where to find more classroom space and answers on how to adjust.

Both Pinkston and Register said they’re looking at charters to be a factor to help fill those needs, but insist those decisions be made by the district and not an outside body that can sprinkle a limitless number of charter schools in MNPS’ backyard.

How to achieve better schools is where the rubber meets the road. Harwell and others say that means an investment in charter schools to create competition and give parents choices. Voices from the district insist making better schools means turning around struggling traditional ones.

“It’s a philosophical difference, in that the money is not the school board’s money,” said Harwell “It belongs to the taxpayers of this state.”

22 Comments on this post:

By: Rasputin72 on 3/31/13 at 10:19

The underclass who attend public schools do not care as long as the free lunch and free breakfast program remains in place. The taxpayers who are sending their children to peivate school do not care. The families who have moved out of Davidson county to get away from the horrible public school situation in Davidson county do not care.

Is it possible that no one cares?

By: ancienthighway on 4/1/13 at 4:42

Spoken like a true non-taxpayer. Charter schools come at a price, and the residents of Davidson County will have to pay that price. Not all of the public schools are horrible. Not all are failing to teach. But it's so easy for conservatives to lump everything together into the lowest ranking and complain that everything is failing.

Recently MNPS started a program to improve the bottom 5% of the schools. It hadn't even completed the first year, but with the progress made, the state had to jump in and approve a charter school to duplicate the local effort. The state doesn't want to see public schools improve.

The well-to-do conservatives certainly don't want to see anyone "beneath their station" improve, because that would remove the slave labor from the workforce. If, that is, the business owners ever decide to employ them.

Stop the push for charter schools and vouchers before they destroy one of the founding beliefs of this country, that all men are created equal.

By: Ask01 on 4/1/13 at 5:40

Well said, ancienthighway.

Just to put in my own two cents worth, I believe we have no need for charter schools.

What is required, however, is parents taking an interest in, and encouraging their children's education.

Students, for their part, need to apply themselves and actively participate in the process.

For those students and parents who don't care, trade and vocational schools need to be established where they learn a productive, marketable skill along with the barest minimum math and other subjects to function in society. Those who cannot function in this environment can be used as cannon fodder for the military.

By: Rasputin72 on 4/1/13 at 7:09

The biggest lie in the annals of human history has to be "All men are created equal"

By: pswindle on 4/1/13 at 7:41

The GOP has never wanted to educate the mass. It looks as if they will have accomplished their goal, and also, with Mayor Dean pushing for Charters because of a family member involved in Charters. When you want to kill something, you start telling all the bad things and not mention the good. That has what has happened in Metro. The problems with Metro could be fixed, but the state wants Charters. I can not remember when the state has come in and taken over local schools like Haslam and Hauffman have done. Why are we sitting back and letting this happen?

By: Vuenbelvue on 4/1/13 at 7:52

What could possibly go wrong? Take funding away from A and give it to B that is not funded means A will ask for more funding. The Golden Fleece Award of Davidson County has a new contender, the "Educators".

By: JeffF on 4/1/13 at 7:58

I find it interesting that ancienthighway fails to see the irony in the use of the word "recently" connected to the efforts to improve the bottom 5% of the schools.the Democratically controlled state legislature turned a blind eye to the kids imprisoned in those bottom 5% schools so Metro did not have an improvement program. The advancement in leadership skills in the state and their desire to break the chains of the urban districts have suddenly made Metro aware that other people are aiming to make them do right by everyone.

The haughty line of "if you want better in Nashville then go to private school" is dying the death it so richly deserves.

By: on 4/1/13 at 9:39

This is obvious. Where did people think the money was going to come from in order to pay for Charter Schools?

The more charter schools we have, the more money that will drain from the public schools.

Charter schools that are designed to make a profit are not in the best interest of the public, the students or the Metro School system.

The only benefit will be to the investors and to the few higher income families who no longer have to pay for private schools. The poor children will have barriers to attending charter schools, and you can bet on that.

By: PigLipstick on 4/1/13 at 10:22

So if current charters are 5% of the MNPS budget, even if that were to double, MNPS leaders are saying they can't cost adjust 5% of the whole near $1 billion budget? (the $764 million is operating budget only, MNPS also gets other revenue streams that total to nearly $1 billion in a year)


The scare tactic rhetoric doesn't match up with how hard it is to start a charter school. It is really difficult for 10 or 15 charter schools to suddenly pop out of thin air and start all in the same year.

To start a charter school, it is incredibly hard work and extremely time consuming. Not many people are willing to devote the time it takes. And you need a high-quality person and a well written application to get approved, either through MNPS or through a potential state authorizer. It's also really hard to find affordable buildings and get the startup capital to cover startup expenses.

In short, the barriers to entry for charter schools are extremely high. If a state authorizer approved 4 or 5 in a year for Nashville, I would bet good money that only 2 to 3 would actually open.

10 in a year or whatever statistical outlier they are basing their financial drain argument on is a highly unlikely event.

By: muk69 on 4/1/13 at 10:51

We can only hope so. The public school system is a disaster. It's inherent PC character has done so a disservice to minorities for the past 30 years. A level playing field is giving those who are in failing schools a chance to gain a quality education. The public school system has been infected with a liberal-union cancer that cares nothing about the minorities getting a solid unindoctrinated education. Competition is a good thing. Perhaps charter schools and vouchers will force the public schools to get with the program or fade into oblivion.

By: Rocket99 on 4/1/13 at 11:35

If the State is going to force any school system to accept a charter school then the State needs to find the funding without costing any tax payer in Tennessee not even a penny more. Otherwise back the hell off and let the local systems manage it themselves.

If the teachers could actually teach instead of just babysit, then things would get better. How is sending a child to a charter school going to change that?

By: amoobrasil on 4/1/13 at 11:57

Let us clarify: corporations setting up charter schools choose the neighborhoods for those schools. Thus, unlike public schools, they effectively choose their students.

Charter schools are not required to furnish transportation meeting the requirements imposed on public schools. In practice, transportation is minimal.

Competition requires a level playing field. Charter schools must therefore be operated under the same restrictions and according to the same requirements as are public schools.

As things now stand, they can cherry-pick their neighborhoods and their students--and take from public schools the money that the latter require.

This is not competition; it is favoritism. It is government choosing as winners the for-profit corporations (which will leave the more expensive, more at-risk neighborhoods and students to be the responsibilities of the taxpayer).

Charter schools appeal to mostly white, upper middle-class parents because their schools are effectively segregated.

By: JeffF on 4/1/13 at 12:18

seriously, there are still people who who think there are for-profit companies opening charter schools here in Nashville? I would ask where you people went to school but it is looking pretty obvious.

Name one for-profit charter school in Nashville that is cherry-picking. My God there are some dense people who will believe anything their union rep tells them.

By: JeffF on 4/1/13 at 12:25

...and please try to remember that the first charter schools were started primarily by folks in the African American community to help their own kids in those fantastically sucky bottom 5% schools. The "charter schools appeal to mostly white, upper middle-class parents" thing is completely opposite of the truth. Those people you hate and envy so much already are segregating themselves with private and parochial schools.

By: KENW on 4/1/13 at 12:49

Well put JeffF. How ironic that only "recently" MNPS has put in place a program to improve the bottom 5% of schools. That's similar to what happened after the board denied Great Hearts because they didn't have an acceptable diversity plan. MNPS "recently" started developing one of their own. Isn't competition a wonderful thing?

The cliches abound by the indoctrinated left on this site. "The state doesn't want to see public schools improve." Really? This and ideas like conservatives don't want to see "anyone beneath their station improve", or that somehow bringing in charter schools is some right wing idea to "keep slave labor" in the workforce are simply absurd.

As far as picking and choosing students, most of the current charters are in at-risk neighborhoods. Many of those are outperforming the traditional schools, and the one that isn't performing is being closed. Why is having this option wrong?

Mr. Pinkston, it isn't time for this to die. You've done some good things, and I'm sorry to hear your frustration that you feel like you're in Groundhog Day. But, when the board denied Great Hearts they brought it on themselves. It became painfully apparent that the denials weren't about ensuring quality education for our kids, but about power and control. The people are fighting because we want our kids to have quality education opportunities without having to move to Williamson County or pay outrageous fees to a private school. MNPS has been in decline for decades and parents are tired of putting up with it. All we want is quality education.

By: Vuenbelvue on 4/1/13 at 2:19

I remember reading someone say last year that Charter schools work great for the CEO. He would be limited to what his annual salary would be if he made it to Head of Board of Education somewhere. Somewhere around $125,000 depending on the prosperity imagined in the community and of course the number of students in the system. But get 4 or 5 charter schools going and he can easily hit $500,000 annually plus expenses. I also read where Mr. Register is paid per pupil in the system and the per student amount is the same as many places in California that have a higher standard of living. I'm more inclined to think it is all about the money. Some of Nashville's sucky schools you depicted may be because of high ratios of foreign born students who have to be taught a lot more than pre-1995 neighborhood kids since Nashville evolved into a open city the last 4 years.

By: pswindle on 4/1/13 at 3:59

Between Hauffman and the Charter Schools, they are slowly killing MNPS. The GOP hates to educates the masses.

By: Novel_Concepts on 4/1/13 at 6:36

This is not a Left-Right issue, or even a money issue, this is a what is absolutely best for our children issue. Think about the fact that PARENTS would actually have a choice of where their tax dolars are being spent instead of having to send their child(ren) to the school in their district. Look at it this way, the free market will dictate which schools succeed and which schools fail based on the childrens performance. The free market is a good thing because it gives consumers choices; if a charter school is a poor school, parents will remove their kids and chose another school - that charter school will likely fail. Failing public schools do not close but rather continue to provide piss-poor education to our children. Currently the poor are at a disadvantage due to children having no option but to attend whatever MNPS school they are assigned to...there are NO CHOICES, that is unless you have money to send your kids to private school - but, you are still paying taxes to send your kid to public school, even if they do not attend. Think about where you spend your money, if Target has something on sale that is of the same quality as the Walmart product, most people will take the Target product - now if the price is lower but the quality is poor, people will realize it and the free market will correct itself. The same will prove true with public schools vs charter schools. I have the same, if not more, distrust of the government than most people but we as the people need to ensure that our tax money is spent correctly and demand accountability from those in charge. I personally believe that competition drives innovation and something that challenges the burocracy of the public school system cannot hurt, if anything, competition will drive improvement in our public schools. Lets face it, we all want the best for our kids and if competition will improve our currently failing public school system (tests scores nationally have been stagnent for the past 30 years), I am all for it. Please see Stupid in America by John Stossel (Youtube it) for a view into charter schools, it will open your closed minds. PEACE 'MERICA!!!

By: Rasputin72 on 4/1/13 at 7:52

Novel Concepts........A blatant piece of bullshit you have posted.

By: Novel_Concepts on 4/2/13 at 8:23

Rasputin your argument is so compelling and full of facts that I have no other choice but to 100% agree with you. Come on, think critically and respond with well-thought and logical response. That is all I am really trying to do, to get people to think critically and argue with fact rather than emotion. Public schools need improvement - Fact. Nationally we are failing to educate our kids to the levels of other nations in math and science - Fact (See PISA report).

By: Rasputin72 on 4/2/13 at 5:35

Novel_Concepts........It is very difficult to arque this subject without emotion. There are so many holes in the dike that in Davidson county we are running out of fingers.

Education in general starts with the premise that those in the class room want to learn. I can see easily that this premise is under challenge.

The next premise is that a curriculum must contain an inordinate amount of math and science. I would argue that this is a false premise. Being able to prepare a household budget might be all the Math that some need or can justify.

The public school system in Davidson county has lost the support of the community and the parents. There is NO school community or PTA to speak of.

The public school system in Davidson county has become a central part of the welfare system. Politicians pay lip service but in actuality no gives public education of what appears to be the uneducable a chance.

If you look at public education in Williamson county you will see public education flourishing.

If you look at diversity in the Davidson county you will see that Hume Fogg and Julia Green are the only public schools that can compete with the learning process of truly private schools.

I give you a solid divorce of public school support by the productive movers and shakersin Davidson county.

MBA, University School,Ensworth,Nashviile Christian,Harpeth Hall, Overbrook,St.Cecilia,Father Ryan Ezell Harding, Donelson Christian,Davidson Academy,Goodpasture,FranklinRoad Academy are all Davidson County high schools that eac year send their graduates to some of the finest colleges in the country.

It appears without emotion that the public school problem lies with the majority students who are in the class room. Those that are cheated the most are the minority who want to learn but are overwhelmed by a class of students that represent the conclusion of most people looking at public schools in Davidson County.

No longer can politicians and high visibily citizens overcome political correctness.

The free lunch and breakfast programs will continue to grow. Teachers will continue to be either a high turnover prpfession or a nice niche for a bad teacher.

The answer from my perspective is very simple. Move out of Davidspn county, send ypur kids to a good private school or have the luck and genetic power to have a child accepted at Hume Fogg.

Charter schools with Academic names are nothing more than a way for the welfare system to get a fancy name for its ill equipped uneducable. It will take the pressure off of the people who know in their hearts that you cannot make chicken salad out of chicken dodo.

By: FAMUAce on 4/3/13 at 9:31

Novel_concepts, please miss us with the parental choice argument. Anyone with a knowledge of history understands that it is coded language. The last exodus of this type from public schools occurred from the last 60s to the early to mid-70s. Most of us know my destination with this. Instead of charter schools, what we really need is a truth and reconciliation commission in this town so we can finally get past the racial and class battles. Put it all out on the table so that we stop using children as pawns in our games. Public schools were fine for the vast majority of parents living in this city now. Why shouldn't it be for our children? WE run the school system. WE duly elect school board members. WE should voice our concerns in a proper and enlightened manner in order to effect the changes we desire. Allowing private companies to take public money to line their pockets without actually producing better results is nothing more than exacerbating the problem.