As newly minted Metro school board chair Cheryl Mayes tallied the votes of her eight colleagues on the night of Sept. 11, it became apparent a split show-of-hands had emerged on Great Hearts Academies.
The next vote — which belonged to her — would swing things one way or the other: a reluctant go-ahead for the Phoenix-based charter organization that rode confidently into West Nashville but faced repeated resistance over student diversity concerns, or yet another rejection, which would defy a state board of education order to authorize.
Mayes, who had voted down Great Hearts’ charter school proposal multiple times before, tipped the scale that way one more time. “My hand is up as opposed.”
Events weren’t supposed to go down this way, according to onlookers inside the boardroom that night. In fact, sources involved in the Great Hearts battle tell The City Paper that Director of Schools Jesse Register hoped and believed the votes were in hand for approval. The Great Hearts mess — an epic clash that has produced no winners — would end. The school district would shake off defeat but move on.
That evening, not one board member asked Register to publicly offer his recommendation.
Register, however, confirmed to The City Paper last week that he had indeed privately advised each board member to approve Great Hearts’ proposal, but rejected the notion of making a forecast: “I gave advice, but I don’t count votes.”
“My recommendation to the board members, individually, was to approve the charter because of the directive from the state board,” Register said. “However, I also — as do many of the board members who voted both ways — have had concerns about the charter application, and whether or not that was the best thing for the district.”
Register’s advice to bow to the state order apparently wasn’t persuasive enough. Not helping Great Hearts’ prospects for victory, observers say, were emails from state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, published by The City Paper days before the vote, which showed the state’s top education leader had plotted ways around the Metro school board early on to try to ensure the authorization of Great Hearts’ charter application.
Local officials, it turns out, don’t appreciate meddling from above.
“Over the weekend, we discovered that not only was the state board of education encouraging Great Hearts to appeal, they were driving the bus,” board member Anna Shepherd fired off before voting to deny the West Nashville charter school that a throng of affluent parents have pushed as a remedy for their wariness of public schools.
Reasons for disapproval are now secondary, of course. The school board that night voted 5-4 to reject Great Hearts — marking the fourth time it had balked at signing off on the charter. Great Hearts officials confirmed the next day that they would be abandoning this particular charter proposal for Nashville.
One week later, Gov. Bill Haslam and his education commissioner, Huffman, announced Sept. 18 the state had opted to withhold $3.4 million in “non-classroom” funding from Metro that is outlined in the state’s Basic Education Program funding formula. Huffman delivered the message not with a phone call to Register, but in a straight-to-the-point notice that referenced state statue that affords the education department this authority.
“It is extremely unfortunate that MNPS has chosen to go down this path ...” Huffman wrote to Metro’s superintendent.
The Great Hearts quarrel had blown completely open. And moving forward, the effects are far-reaching.
The state department of education’s relationship with Metro Nashville Public Schools — Tennessee’s second-largest school district — is in its worst shape in years following the dispute. Meanwhile, the Metro school board’s relationship with its own mayor, Karl Dean, is equally rocky. Dean, a Great Hearts backer who calls public education his No. 1 priority, has admonished the board for its “refusal to follow the law.” He called the state’s withholding of funds a “predictable result” of the board’s action and did not criticize the move.
The mayor is in a curious situation. Often hailed as Tennessee Democrats’ best hope as a competitive candidate for statewide office one day, Dean is oddly aligned with Haslam and tea party favorite Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey on the Great Hearts matter.
Indeed, what first arrived as a local fight over “school choice” and diversity has now spilled over to Capitol Hill where a Republican-dominated legislature and GOP governor could be the ultimate arbiters at a time when cities like Nashville grapple with the growth of publicly financed, privately led charters. Legislation for a new statewide authorizer — which would effectively negate local boards’ authority to approve charters — is already in the works by pro-charter lobbyists.
A partisan war is brewing in a statehouse where Republicans virtually always win. While Ramsey and Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell have supported Huffman’s decision to withhold money from Metro, members of Nashville’s state Democratic delegation have blasted the move.
Events have spiraled a multitude of directions nine months after Great Hearts arrived to offer their brand of liberal arts and classics-centered curriculum. Its first Nashville community meeting in January — a packed house at the Cohn school building near Sylvan Park — seems so long ago.
Last week, the Republican leadership trio of Haslam, Harwell and Ramsey, along with Huffman, presented a unified front as they defended the move to withhold funds at a press conference inside the Adventure Science Center. State leaders were there for an unrelated press announcement, but Great Hearts took the spotlight.
The governor, flanked by his allies, told reporters that the state took no pleasure in keeping funds from Metro, making the case that the state was simply enforcing the law. When Metro — against the legal counsel of its own attorneys — rejected Great Hearts, the board defied a state order to approve.
“We don’t do this with any sense of trying to use the state’s power in any way,” Haslam insisted. “But like another state law that the General Assembly passes, we’re responsible for enforcing that law, and that’s why we took this action.”
Despite this position, it appears other options besides monetary punishment may have been discussed. Asked whether this was the case, Haslam told reporters that his administration “talked about certain things” and then pivoted to Huffman to see whether the commissioner wished to elaborate. Huffman declined.
Huffman, a former Teach for America executive tapped by Haslam as commissioner in early 2011, pointed to a meeting he had with Register the day after a prior Great Hearts rejection on Aug. 14. Withholding funds had already been discussed before, and Huffman suggested he presented it is as viable option at this gathering.
“We were quite clear about what the possible outcomes would be if the law was violated again,” Huffman said last week.
Register, however, recollected the meeting but said he couldn’t recall exactly what was said about sanctions at that time.
“It was a surprise to us when we got the notification this week,” he said.
Emails The City Paper publicized the previous week revealed Huffman had kept constant tabs on Great Hearts for months and had made it part of his agenda to see it approved. Asked last week about his keen interest in this single charter proposal, he suggested it’s all part of his position. “Part of my job is to make sure that we have good, high-quality schools in Tennessee — period.”
The impact of lost dollars — and whether school employee positions could be lost — is still unclear. Haslam said the state aimed “as much as possible” at ensuring the loss of funds wouldn’t affect students. The $3.4 million sum is equal to Metro’s October portion of “administrative costs” that come from BEP funds.
But Metro school officials have suggested the state is mischaracterizing the portion of funds, arguing that there are no BEP dollars earmarked for administrative purposes. The BEP formula for “non-classroom expenses” includes utilities, maintenance and student transportation and other things that “directly affect” students, MNPS said in a statement.
“We haven’t had any discussions about any reductions that we would make yet,” said Chris Henson, the district’s chief financial officer, later confirming one option could be to dip into the district’s rainy-day funds. “As we always are, we’ll be thoughtful about it, purposeful about it and methodical and not rush to make a quick decision. It’s especially difficult because it’s a reduction in the middle year.”
Register said the district is “concerned” about the loss of funds. “I hope the commissioner reconsiders and reinstates the money.”
Huffman and board chair Mayes were to meet last Friday to discuss the decision to keep funds from Metro. Yet Mayes, in a letter to Huffman that prompted the meeting, showed no signs of relenting on the board’s concerns over Great Hearts and its commitment to diversity.
“For us ‘diversity’ is not a political term,” Mayes wrote, as she reminded the commissioner Nashville only emerged from federal-mandated desegregation in 1998 and serves a student population that is three-fourths low-income. “Diversity is a real concern in our community, and we take seriously our obligation to promote it.”
In denying Great Hearts its application to launch a Nashville school in 2014, board members have said the charter school failed to deliver on three state-mandated contingences — namely, the one that required Great Hearts to produce a diversity plan that “mirrors” Metro’s plan for choice schools. But Mayes, in her letter, suggested Great Hearts failed to uphold much larger mandates as well.
“While you assert the local school board broke the law, we were acting as responsible, duly-elected and duly-sworn public officials upholding the U.S. Constitution and its Equal Protection Clause,” Mayes wrote.
Great Hearts officials have not abandoned hopes to one day expand to Nashville — just this particular charter proposal. They’ve expressed optimism that the state would “take action” to ensure that Great Hearts in the future can reapply to a “different, impartial charter authorizer.”
This hope comes from a charter organization that has maintained steady communication with Huffman, among other state officials, from the moment its proposal first went before the Metro board.
Matt Throckmorton, CEO of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association, the primary charter lobbying group in the state, told The City Paper he’s already in the process of drafting legislation for a statewide charter authorizer, which would allow charter applicants to bypass local boards for approval.
“Right now, we’re doing the research on it to try to come up with the most thoughtful way of approaching this,” Throckmorton said, adding that he would be finding sponsors for legislation that would address both the application process and “operating environment” once the school is approved.
“In other states, what they’ve done is they’ve created an independent statewide authorizer, and so it would have a board that would be appointed by various entities that are engaged in education throughout the state,” he said.
A statewide authorizer would presumably face stiff resistance from local boards across Tennessee, but the idea is now on the radar of lawmakers.
Haslam didn’t rule out backing such a proposal during the next legislative session. “Prior to this, I don’t think there was a lot of political momentum around it, but we’ll have to see how the General Assembly reacts to that this year,” he told reporters. “At this point in time, we haven’t finalized the legislative agenda for next year.”
Months ago, the Great Hearts dispute began showing signs of a fight between a faction on the left and one on the right. But partisan lines have hardened following Metro’s most recent denial, Great Hearts’ retreat and the subsequent withholding of funds.
Harwell, whose district includes some of the affluent neighborhoods that would benefit from Great Hearts, said she’s “very disappointed” in the Metro school board’s actions.
“Largely, I’m hearing from the public that they want choice for their schools,” Harwell said. “This was one avenue of choice that they would like to have seen in West Nashville.”
Her Democratic opponents have taken a different tone.
“What a terrible precedent it is for the commissioner of education to now reach into Nashville and take tax dollars from Nashville citizens because he personally doesn’t agree with the elected representatives of the people,” Nashville Democratic Rep. Mike Stewart said.
Stewart also targeted Huffman himself and the type of education reforms he’s backed.
“Commissioner Huffman has shown that he is not really interested in being an administrator but is a radical zealot of often-controversial education ideas and has consistently shown a complete indifference to the actual desires of the taxpayers who pay for the schools,” Stewart said.
Ironically, it was former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen who signed into law “First to the Top” legislation that catapulted Tennessee into the spotlight for pro-charter education reformers. The law paved the way for a new state Achievement School District, a governance body composed of low-performing schools that can now be turned over to charter groups. Controversial data-driven teacher evaluations have also resulted.
Diane Ravitch, a national education analyst and charter critic, has in recent weeks picked up on Nashville’s Great Hearts saga. “This is a power grab, and Democrats better wake up or lose public education,” she wrote on her blog last week. In the education world, Ravitch is seen as the counter to former Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, an aggressive reformer despised by union groups and a favorite of charter enthusiasts. (Rhee, who recently launched the lobbying group StudentsFirst, is the ex-wife of education commissioner Huffman)
In many ways, the Great Hearts saga is emblematic of a Ravitch-Rhee debate on education that is happening nationally — one vision of working within the traditional public education system versus a “data-driven” model that frequently leans toward charters.
Perhaps the most sharply worded response to Huffman’s decision to withhold funds came from former school board member Mark North, whose term ended last month.
In a three-page statement, North characterized Huffman’s move as a “heavy-handed, iron-fisted power play” aimed at punishing Metro schools because the board “had the audacity to question and resist Commissioner Huffman’s backroom deals with wealthy power brokers and charter school operators.”
North cited a City Paper story that revealed Dean, Huffman and other charter backers from the business community had coordinated to assist Great Hearts’ effort in Nashville. He called it “compelling proof of a backroom, conniving conspiracy. ... ”
But despite worries over the behind-the-scenes politics, one fact remains for Register to contend with. Great Hearts arrived in Nashville for a reason: A large group of middle- and upper-class parents are dissatisfied with the options available through Metro Nashville Public Schools.
The stories are familiar ones: The family that moves to Williamson County to attend what they perceive as better performing public schools; parents who enroll in private schools for the same reason; and the discouraged students who strike out in the district’s lottery system after hoping to attend one of Metro’s few academic magnet schools.
Some parents saw Great Hearts as a solution. For now, it is out of the picture. And the dilemma continues.
“They talk a lot about looking out for all the kids in the district, and that’s all they talk about,” said Haley Dale, a parent of students at Julia Green Elementary School, in the affluent Green Hills neighborhood, and a Great Hearts supporter. “But what about our kids?
“You have such a small shot of getting into these three great schools,” she said, referring to Metro’s academic magnet options. “That is what everybody was wanting Great Hearts to fill — just be another option, another avenue.”