Fight for charter authorizer went down to the wire

Monday, April 22, 2013 at 12:11am
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House Speaker Beth Harwell (Andrea Zelinski/SouthComm)


As the legislative session drew to a close, lawmakers spent some of their final hours on Capitol Hill debating whether it’s worth creating a state law largely in reaction to one school district defying the state.

Speaker Beth Harwell, the most powerful Republican in the House of Representatives and one of the most influential in the state, made assigning a state panel to review applications of rejected charter schools a priority this year after watching from the sidelines as Metro’s elected school board repeatedly turned down a favored charter school.

The debate continued a long-running discussion about the role of charter schools — privately run, publicly funded institutions that play a key part in the education reform movement sweeping the nation.

But it also brings to light a running feud largely between key state officials and Metro Nashville Public Schools that gets the State Board of Education and the state legislature involved.

“I can’t remember a time when an issue has been this badly botched by everybody involved in it,” said Will Pinkston, MNPS school board member and former political operative for then-Gov. Phil Bredesen.

“Regardless of party, regardless of chamber, it seems like nobody’s on the same page, nobody’s in agreement. It’s troubling seeing this kind of sausage being made when it affects as many school districts and children,” he said.

Harwell wants a state body to review charter school applications turned down by their local school board and approve those the panel finds qualified to open.

The idea is largely an outgrowth of last year’s flare-up when the Metro school board repeatedly, and sometimes narrowly, denied a charter to Great Hearts Academies, a Phoenix-based charter school operator that wished to open its first Tennessee school in more affluent West Nashville. Board members cited diversity and transportation among their chief concerns.

High-ranking government officials were steamed that MNPS rejected the charter school. Emails obtained by The City Paper revealed both Mayor Karl Dean and Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman working behind the scenes to help Great Hearts win approval.

But after the school board issued its final rejection of the charter, Huffman and Gov. Bill Haslam slapped the school district with a $3.4 million fine — by withholding state education funding for administrative spending — and Dean sided with Harwell, who began leading the charge to encourage an alternative route for approving charter schools.

But how to meet those ends proved difficult for the speaker.

She sought the idea through several reincarnations of the bill. At times, she zeroed in on Nashville and Memphis, then all 95 counties, and at last ended up focusing on the five counties with schools sitting in the bottom 5 percent in the state, including Nashville.

The plan won easy approval while maneuvering through the House of Representatives, home to Harwell’s 69 fellow Republicans — although several admit off the record that their support for the bill is to back their speaker despite doubts the policy change is necessary.

But the Senate, with less loyalty to the House speaker, was more resistant.

After a series of delays to hear the bill, high-ranking Senate Republican Bo Watson of Hixon questioned in a key committee whether there was a problem that needs to be solved. He and other members, including those in Harwell’s own party, pushed back the bill, putting it on shaky ground.

“I’m not sure I’ve seen in the testimony where that problem exists unless there’s one isolated incident and this relates to the Davidson County situation,” Watson told reporters after taking the bill to task in a key legislative committee meeting.

“This is a basic business question. Do you change your entire process because you have one random variation? Most businesses would tell you no,” he said.

Lawmakers have been careful to avoid mentioning the Great Hearts drama, but instead debated why the new panel is necessary and where the idea came from.

Haslam, meanwhile, is all for it.

“I think charter schools, the well-run ones, are a benefit for the state. I think the ability to have another board who would approve it to give the final say so is a good thing,” he said.

“To me, it’s always been about, there should be somebody that says this application meets the state requirements and it’s not just the LEA [local education agency] who makes the final decision so we don’t get back in a Great Hearts situation,” said Haslam.

His office backed the bill, and he worked with Harwell’s office to help sell the idea to legislators.

“I don’t think it’s all about Great Hearts and Metro,” Haslam said. “We, the state, we don’t want to be back there where we’re saying, ‘OK we don’t think you followed state law, here’s the penalty.’ We don’t want to be back there in that position.”

After weeks of delays and a handful of rewrites, Republicans appeared to come together on the idea of an outside authorizer for rejected charter schools as of Thursday. By Friday it had all fallen apart.

The latest version of the bill refined the current appeal process, giving the State Board of Education power to approve snubbed charter schools in counties with low-performing schools. It also gave the local school district a 30-day window to broker a deal over whether the school district or the state board would take on oversight of the charter school to be planted in the district’s backyard.

While the state board has spent the past decade reviewing a total of 46 charter school denials, ordering school districts to approve 11 of them, the board would be new to authorizing charter schools.

But no matter the revisions, the bill became caught in a crossfire between the House and Senate. When the larger body rejected a judicial redistricting bill by a wide margin — the one which was a favored project of Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey — it died, a pocket-veto by the Senate which never scheduled it before the close of business.

"It's not fun to fight with friends or to have disagreements with friends," Ramsey told reporters after the adjournment. "But in the end, we're all here together in the state of Tennessee. We have another session to come back to and we'll all be friends ... soon." 

MNPS school officials — who tried to negotiate terms into the bill with little luck this session — generally oppose the idea of an outside authorizer that could open schools in their district and drain their budget.

The latest version was a step in the right direction, said Pinkston, the Metro school board’s Budget Committee chair. But he said he’s wondering if it ultimately will run afoul of the state constitution by focusing on counties with poor-performing schools. He said he’s also concerned that the legislation singles out areas with struggling schools but falls short of requiring charters approved by the State Board of Education to serve students in those communities.

MNPS this month agreed to let the director of schools shop around for outside legal counsel in preparation of broaching a legal battle on new laws they fear may go too far, such as the outside authorizer. At a time when changes to how the state addresses public education bustle around Capitol Hill, he said, “legal maneuvering is as paramount as legislative maneuvering.”

But the education reform movement is in full swing, said Senate Education Chairwoman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) who adds that the more important focus needs to be redirecting the conversation on students, not the personalities or the politics.

“We’re not here to preserve a system that serves adults. What we have to do is a preserve a system that serves children,” she said.


9 Comments on this post:

By: dogmrb on 4/22/13 at 7:31

“We’re not here to preserve a system that serves adults. What we have to do is a preserve a system that serves children,” Chairman Gresham said. She should have continued: We're here to create a new system that serves different adults - investors and Wall Street!

By: pswindle on 4/22/13 at 8:08

We must not forget that Hauffman has a personal interest in Charter Schools. His ex-wife has a large stake in Charters. The local school boards know what is best for their counties. The state only wanted control over a few of the larger counties where they could get Charters in where the big money was located.

By: ChrisMoth on 4/22/13 at 8:18

At the end of the day, everyone on all sides of this discussion wants what is best for our children. The only "issue"is that we cannot agree on what "best" and "quality" mean, at the end of the day.

When we focus 98% of our intellectual energy on schools that serve 4% of Nashville's children, under fear of State-level retribution if we step out of line, that cannot be good for our kids.

At Will Pinkson's community meeting on Saturday, Matt Throckmorton stated that Great Hearts was not at the center of the push for the state-level charter authorizer, and that this was overplayed in the press. He stated, somewhat to my surprise, that Nashville was doing many good things -and that his main concern at the TN Charter Schools Association was dubious practice in Memphis, where 10 charters are being allocated to the same vendor, all at once - with another 10 coming soon.

I can't speak to any of that - but I can hope that this spirit can be developed, on both sides, as we move forward to January. I hope our friends at the TN Charter Association, and the incubator, can echo Mr. Throckmorton's confidence in our local board, and tell our Legislature that Nashville is indeed setting the national standard for charter governance. I appreciate, for example, when Mr. Throckmorton has stood up for our local board on the closing of Smithson-Craighead. I will hope that he can also join in the calls for Nashville's $3.4 millioln to be returned to us.

From my little vantage as citizen/parent, I will continue to challenge our Board to recreate the successes of our 4% of schools run by charters, throughout the other 96%. If there is anything else we parents can do to help improve all our schools, I hope our elected leaders, as well as leaders in the Charter community, will keep sharing those ideas, in spirit of collaboration together.

MNPS fell from 90K to 50K students after court-ordered racial integration in the 70s. Today, we are back to 81K and growing fast. Let's keep the train well-oiled as we all work to accelerate it.

Chris Moth, 2020 Overhill Dr

By: KENW on 4/22/13 at 8:43

Those that argue against charters would be better served if they used the truth, rather than continue reciting myths. Repeat after me, the charter schools aren't "for profit", it's not about Wall Street or investors. It's about quality education for students.

And this whole idea of someone (Huffman) fighting for this position just because their "ex-wife" has a stake in charter schools is simply ridiculous. He obviously believes in the value of charter schools and the choice and competition they bring. He's probably tired of Tennessee being ranked so low on the national scale.

Those of you that are fighting so hard to stay in the bottom 5%, why? What self interest are you serving? Why are you fighting against quality education for students? The metro Nashville school board has had years to do something about it and they are chronically at the bottom, both on the state and national levels.

It's time to change and try some new things.

By: ohplease on 4/22/13 at 8:46

Now that the legislature has gone home, it would be great if the next months could be spent in productive dialogue about what's really best for the children. I can't think that it's spending weeks and weeks drilling for the TCAPS, which start tomorrow in Metro. It would also be helpful if we could see some real investigative analysis of the great push for any and all charters and for vouchers. A great deal of money has been spent lobbying for school board candidates, voucher programs, and charters. Is it that there are people who really want to dismantle the public education system for philosophical reasons? Who want to use charters to indoctrinate in political ideology? Or should we be following the advice of Deep Throat to Bob Woodward: "Follow the money." Billions and billions of dollars are spent on education in this country. Is the motive to use privatization to tap into those billions for profit?

By: David_S on 4/22/13 at 11:47

At the end of the day, it's about what gets the best results in terms of education. I have yet to see anyone actually defend the job most public schools in Memphis and Nashville have been doing the past few decades. They just want to complain about "we don't have enough money", and ignore the fact that increasing the money they've received hasn't changed the result.

So now we have a new solution, charter schools. And there is some evidence that they will work. But some people still want to argue against it. Why? Because it will hurt the teacher's union? Because someone you don't particularly like might make some sort of profit? Because some politicians you don't like are for it, or might have self-interested reasons for promoting it?

Ask yourself, what does ANY OF THAT have to do with providing a quality education to these kids?

By: ancienthighway on 4/22/13 at 1:53

KenW, you seem go be confused a bit.

I am against charter schools for one simple reason. Public monies funding private institutions. Personally I don't care if it's a for profit or not for profit private institution. It should not receive public money.

As far as your insistent pointing out that charter school are not for profit, two things: 1. Big money goes into running the charter schools, and most of that big money is salary to a few at the top. Profit or not for profit. 2. A bill was introduced this session to allow for profit charter schools. It died on the vine, but Tennessee political SOP means it will be back next year and the year after, no matter how long it takes.

And finally, your claims that Huffman and Rhee have no stake in the issue? That's like saying the leadership of the NRA doesn't care about gun manufacturing, selling, and buying, but the NRA is about 2nd Amendment RIghts only.

By: pswindle on 4/22/13 at 5:02

Why do you think that the Charters fight so hard to get their foot in the door? They only go to the counties that have money. Do you hear of Charters going to DeKalb County, Smith County and other small and broke counties? Of course you don't, they follow the money. These small counties have the same type of students and problems that larger counties have. Don't say it's not about money. A Commissioner that would take money from a school system because he did not get his way is about as low as they come. It is all about money, and if not, they would come in and open a Charter and just be part of Metro, and let Metro run it financially. But no, they want the money in their greedy hands. There is no accountability and they answer to no one. Most stay about three years and leave before they are closed because they have not produced the right results. We have some closing in Metro this year. This has nothing to do with Unions, it would be better if someone was looking over their shoulder.

By: govskeptic on 4/24/13 at 8:32

The writer is naive in thinking these measures were just for Nashville, since
Memphis is involved as well and the most troubled system in the state. As
to anti-charter arguments, I'd suggest "pswindle" be appointed as the voice
of reason and clarity for his steadfast non-partisan debate on the issue.