With Nashville securely aboard the charter bandwagon, the political pressure to approve –– and in one recent case, sustain –– some publicly financed, privately led charter schools has intensified in Metro. And now even the state’s education commissioner has entered the fray.
Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, multiple sources have told The City Paper, has on more than one occasion conveyed to Metro school officials his desire for school-board approval of one of Nashville’s newly proposed charter hopefuls: Great Hearts Academies, an Arizona-based charter organization, which has proposed an initial K-12 liberal arts charter school in Nashville, along with a long-term plan for a network of five countywide.
Backed by political heavyweights and the source of considerable buzz, Great Hearts would fill a new niche here. The school, as its application states, would take advantage of the state’s new open enrollment law –– thus it wouldn’t just welcome economically disadvantaged students, whom Nashville charters have historically served, but those from affluent families as well. There’s a clear audience: parents of students who struck out in the district’s magnet lottery, are unenthused about traditional public schools, and are thus teetering on the edge of opting for private schooling.
Huffman’s push for Great Hearts in Nashville may seem like a stretch from his role as the head of the state education department. But in a prepared statement, he said part of his job is to recruit talent to Tennessee, adding that he spends a “fair amount of time talking to great leaders in other states including those of the top-performing charter schools.”
“Obviously, local districts make local decisions, but I am going to continue to try to recruit the best talent when I can,” Huffman said.
The commissioner’s involvement is emblematic of a larger theme as the Metro Nashville Board of Education prepares to weigh in on a Metro-record 11 charter school hopefuls at the end of May following an ongoing charter review process. Observers fear politics has crept into that review process in ways that are counterproductive to a system that is designed to objectively sift through school plans.
Anna Shepherd, a member of the nine-person school board tasked with voting up or down on the charter proposals, said she doesn’t believe this rise in political activity is healthy for the charter process. “For me, it boils down to what’s best for the child in the class.”
Included in the Great Hearts’ application are letters of support from Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, businessman Thomas Frist III and Metro Councilman Carter Todd, who represents parts of Forest Hills and Green Hills. Each letter concludes with virtually the same sentence urging MNPS to approve Great Hearts’ charter. Letters from Republican Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell and Councilman Lonnell Matthews Jr. are forthcoming, Great Hearts officials say.
“Personally, they can submit them without names attached, because I really don’t look at who supports a particular initiative or a charter school application, or who’s funding it,” Shepherd said. “To me, that’s the politics of it, and the politics needs to be taken out of the process.”
Political power plays were predictable in a state that has now removed legal barriers that once served as impediments to charter growth. It turns out that as charters have taken off in Nashville, lots of folks want a say.
Yet the way the approval process is structured, authorizing a charter is not supposed to be about who supports one school and which big-name backer trumpets another. Before charter school proposals go before the school board, a trained Metro charter school review committee is tasked with dissecting the applications and recommending either approval or disapproval later this month to the board. The committee analyzes criteria like “vision and mission,” “curriculum,” and “plan for evaluating student performance” — not a who’s who list of supporters.
“Everyone needs to recognize that the worst possible situation we could ever find ourselves in is making decisions about school quality that are political,” Alan Coverstone, the district’s director of charter and magnet schools, told The City Paper.
“That’s on all sides,” he added. “Whether that’s low-performing schools that we keep around because we like the people involved and think a lot of them –– or applicants, who may or may not fit the mission and vision of what we’re trying to do for students, getting support and approved because of their political connections.”
When Coverstone discussesretaining low-performing schools he’s likely referring to Nashville’s Drexel Academy. Coverstone’s staff in December recommended the board revoke the first-year school’s charter after finding what seemed like damning violations: The school failed to hire properly licensed teachers, thus failing to meet federal guidelines regarding English Language Learners and special-needs education.
But when the school’s future went before the school board, the vote came down 5-3 to place Drexel on probation, not close its doors. The decision came after a crowd of hundreds of that reflected the African-American community that Drexel serves packed the boardroom to call for the school’s survival.
With several state and local lawmakers present to heighten the pleas, politics was on full display. Some wonder whether a precedent is now set that could hinder the district’s ability to shutter troubled charters in the future.
During this charter review cycle, there figures to be political pressure to approve other schools besides Great Hearts. By April 23, the review committee is to recommend which applicants to invite for interviews.
Tennessee State University, led by the school’s interim President Portia Shields, has submitted a proposal for University Bound Academy, a K-8 school that would be governed by a board that includes TSU deans and administrators. TSU, which carries considerable influence in Davidson County, particularly in North Nashville, also has a heavy presence on the school board. Four board members have degrees from the university.
Meanwhile, three charter hopefuls are fellows at the Tennessee Charter School Incubator: Purpose Preparatory Academy, Intrepid College Prep and Nashville Classical. Supported by Boston-based Building Excellent Schools, the incubator originated from the efforts of Mayor Karl Dean in 2009, and has since enjoyed mayor’s office assistance.
“My job, as I see it, is to try to keep us out of all of that stuff,” Carol Swann, the district’s coordinator of charter schools, said of outside influence. “Our job is to evaluate each application as it comes. It really isn’t to evaluate anything else that’s going on in the community.”
This year, Swann has helped engineer changes to the review process. Because of the high volume of applicants, the review committee will divide into groups of four, each assigned to a handful of applications. The rubric is no longer based on applying numerical grades but on whether criteria are met. Through a grant with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, reviewers now have training in charter financing, operations and curriculum, among other areas.
As for Great Hearts, which has 12 schools in Arizona, there’s no guarantee the group will come to Nashville even if its charter were approved. The group is also exploring San Antonio as its first city of expansion beyond Arizona. “But our hearts are in Nashville,” c, chief academic officer of Great Hearts, told The City Paper.
Great Hearts officials first came to Tennessee in January following a push from parents for a charter school on the city’s affluent west side. As Todd, the councilman, points out in his letter to the school district, Green Hills’ Julia Green Elementary School has increased in population, and the area is searching for “much-needed relief.”
“The friends I have here feel trapped between the public education system and the private tuition,” an anonymous parent wrote in one of numerous testimonials included in the Great Hearts application.
The charter group initially held two community meetings on the west side of town, before holding subsequent open houses in east, north and south Nashville. The organization’s application says it intends to put a school in North Nashville at some point. “Some of our meetings have been better attended than others, but in all cases, everybody was really excited,” Bezanson said.
As a sign of a looming political fight, Great Hearts recently hired political public relations pro Darden Copeland, who works out of the Calvert Street Group. Copeland has a history of behind-the-scenes consulting in several contentious Nashville political battles: While employed with Saint Consulting Group, he helped generate support for the failed May Town Center. He later worked for Nashville Priorities, which sought to defeat financing for Music City Center. Most recently, Copeland worked on behalf of Tennessee State Fairgrounds preservationists to defeat the mayor’s fairgrounds redevelopment plans.
Bezanson said the Copeland hire was made to increase connections to the “broad community of Nashville.”
“So that it wasn’t when you called Great Hearts, you were calling this parent group in West Nashville that was originally the ones to approach us,” Bezanson explained. “We wanted to set ourselves up legitimately on our own.”