Great Hearts Academies, a Phoenix-based charter organization rejected twice by the Metro school board, took its case to the state Tuesday, arguing its fate in Nashville should ultimately come down to a simple interpretation of state statute.
“The crux of everything goes back to what state law is,” Great Hearts’ attorney Ross Booher told the Tennessee State Board of Education’s executive staff at an appeals hearing on the prior denials at the local level. He added Tennessee law, for example, prohibits “scoring down” a charter application for not focusing on particular groups of students.
“Charter schools are now truly open to all students,” reads a 47-page outline of Great Hearts’ appeal.
The state’s new Republican-spearheaded open enrollment law — which provides all students an entrance to publicly financed, privately led charters regardless of economic background — is what opened the door for Great Hearts’ controversial proposal in the first place. The school has applied to open five charter schools across Davidson County, beginning with the first school to be located off White Bridge Road in 2014.
Parents, including some with children in private schools, have rallied behind Great Hearts, arguing the placement of the liberal arts-based charter in West Nashville could ease the overcrowding of schools like Julia Green Elementary School and offer alternatives to waiting lists at academic magnet schools.
But the Metro school board voted 7-2 last month to deny Great Hearts’ charter application, with some saying Great Hearts model of “locational diversity” — achieving racial diversity by placing schools in various parts of the county — would lead to the segregation of Metro schools.
Appealing the local decision, Great Hearts Tuesday went before the board’s Executive Director Gary Nixon, whose staff will make a recommendation to the nine-member, Gov. Bill Haslam-appointed state board next week.
In a letter dated Monday, July 16, and addressed to the State Board of Education, Mayor Karl Dean urged board members to overturn the Metro school board application denial.
Dean wrote, “While the District Board’s denial of Great Hearts’ application seems to be centered on diversity concerns, Great Hearts has shown a clear commitment to diversity by offering to open five schools in all different areas of Nashville.”
The state board is expected to make a final decision on Great Hearts’ appeal Friday, July 27, at its next meeting.
Booher called Metro’s diversity claims “arbitrary.”
He stated that 27 existing Metro schools have a student enrollment that is at least 80 percent one race, including four that are 80 percent white. Two of those schools — Percy Priest Elementary and Glendale Spanish Immersion — are situated in the Hillsboro High School Cluster, which includes neighborhoods where demand for Great Hearts is highest.
Booher claimed neither Percy Priest nor Glendale meets Metro’s socioeconomic diversity criteria. “Metro’s own schools fail to meet the standards they’re applying to Great Hearts,” he said.
Alan Coverstone, executive director of Metro’s Office of Innovation whose recommendation led to the Metro school board’s rejection of Great Hearts, told state officials Tuesday that Great Hearts “will not deliver its promised results in Nashville.”
“First, their results are based on de facto selectivity and admissions that is contrary to Tennessee charter law, to the district vision and to the claims of their own application” Coverstone said. “We’ve clearly documented that they will either not produce the diverse school they claim to want or they will not enjoy the results they promise.”
Coverstone called Great Hearts’ transportation plan — offering one bus to each of the two largest clusters that are home to students who live 15 minutes or more from its first school — “cosmetic and unacceptable.” He said, “Its callousness is also a reflection of the degree to which the organization’s commitment to diversity is real.
“Segregated schools are clearly counter to the best interest of students, the district and our community,” Coverstone said. “The application repeatedly embraces a diverse portfolio of schools in place of diverse schools.”
But Great Hearts’ team cited testimony both Coverstone and Director of Schools Jesse Register recently made in the federal segregation suit, Spurlock v Fox, in attempts to use their words against Metro’s argument.
Booher quoted Coverstone as saying in court on May 2, “ ‘We communicate to everyone in the district what the charter schools options are, just like we do all the magnet school option.’ ”
Booher added, “So, it’s not like some kids won’t know [about the options], contrary to what some have suggested.”
In response, a Metro schools attorney said, “Taking testimony out of context is not advisable.”