State Ed. board director recommends overturning Metro board's Great Hearts denial

Wednesday, July 25, 2012 at 7:06pm

Tennessee State Board of Education Executive Director Gary Nixon has recommended overturning the Nashville school board’s prior charter application denial of Great Hearts Academies.

Nixon, however, says state statute allows the authorization of only one charter school at a time — four fewer than the five the Phoenix-based charter group is hoping to open in Nashville.

The recommendation, made public Wednesday, is nonetheless a major boost for Great Hearts’ appeal with the state board to open a school off unidentified property on White Bridge Road in West Nashville.

After raising concerns over Great Hearts’ student diversity plan, the Metro school board twice rejected the charter group’s proposal, prompting Great Hearts to take its fight to the state.

Though Nixon has recommended approval of Great Hearts’ application, the ultimate decision is in the hands of the nine-member Gov. Bill Haslam-appointed state board, which is scheduled to vote on the matter Friday, July 27.

Nixon’s recommendation to overturn Metro is contingent on three criteria: Great Hearts show a diversity plan that is consistent to Metro’s diversity plan for choice schools; the school hires licensed teachers; and the state authorizes one school as opposed to five.

In his findings and recommendation, Nixon noted that Metro’s Office of Innovation — which recommended rejecting Great Hearts — reached the opposite conclusion of Metro’s charter review committee, which recommended approval.

“If MNPS is going to utilize a committee to evaluate an application, go to great lengths to train the committee, and hold its process up as the ‘Gold Standard’ of processes, it should trust the committee’s recommendation and process 100 percent,” Nixon wrote.

“Failure to do so suggests an arbitrary decision was made, which would be contrary to the best interests of the students, school district and community,” he added.

Nixon wrote that he is “sensitive to the concerns of MNPS in maintaining diversity.” But he also pointed to arguments from Great Hearts officials who have said the 1.5-mile circumference surrounding its proposed White Bridge Road school is racially and socio-economically diverse.

“I tend to agree,” Nixon wrote. “Because Great Hearts will essentially be an open enrollment school, any parent can apply for their children to attend. State statute requires a charter to utilize a lottery process that is certified by an independent accounting firm or one approved by the Tennessee Department of Education.”

Addressing Great Hearts’ transportation plan, Nixon has recommended Great Hearts –– in light of the state’s new open enrollment law –– be held to the same standard as all “choice” schools within Metro.

“MNPS does not provide transportation to parents who chose to send their children to schools other than their zoned school, yet those schools are presumably diverse,” Nixon wrote. “For MNPS to ask Great Hearts to do something greater than what it does for its own students is unbalanced. This is not to say Great Hearts should not provide transportation, especially when they have indicated in their application that limited transportation will be provided.”

Mayor Karl Dean is among those who have urged the state board of education to approve Great Hearts, arguing the charter organization has answered diversity questions.

7 Comments on this post:

By: pswindle on 7/25/12 at 5:37

So the state is showing its ignorance by overturning a decision of a county school board. As I said before, why have county school boards if they have no authority. This is what happens when the GOP gets total control. They want their freedom, but you don't get yours. Gov. Haslam this is a time for you to come forward and say no, Metro/Nashville has spoken.

By: CitizensWin on 7/26/12 at 6:17

Nixon's argument falls flat on it's face

“If MNPS is going to utilize a committee to evaluate an application, go to great lengths to train the committee, and hold its process up as the ‘Gold Standard’ of processes, it should trust the committee’s recommendation and process 100 percent,” Nixon wrote

Stated similarly this could easily be:

“If Nashville is going to utilize an elected school board to evaluate an application, go to great lengths to train the committee, and hold its process up as the ‘Gold Standard’ of processes, it should trust the elected school board and process 100 percent,”

Folks, we are dealing with a much larger issue than a publicly financed private school in West Nashville. We are engaged in the very heartbeat of democracy. Allowing an Arizona company to go over the heads of our elected officials is beyond the pale. And to think that a hand-picked group of pro-charter proponents on the TN board of Education has any say whatsoever over the will of the people is an astonishing development that goes beyond privatizing public education. This battle is not over. Indeed, this has only just begun, now that we see the rot on full display.

After all we are dealing with a Nixon. And as they say on music row, 'That's just one man's opinion.'

Deny Great Hearts Nashville Charter

By: ChrisMoth on 7/26/12 at 9:19

Chris Moth, 2020 Overhill Dr

I respect the expertise of the State Board. However, I'm confused as to why we must send our tax dollars to Arizona to create schools with high ACT averages. Creating such schools is no more difficult than excluding lower performing students. MNPS could immediately create two more "Hume Fogg"s by eliminating transportation to Hillsboro and Hillwood high schools.

Before the State Board approves Great Hearts, we need to hear why excluding more students by curriculum, transportation, and academic performance is best for the entire community - and why Arizona firms are uniquely qualified to bring us that segregation.

Until we get that understanding, Nashville's anxiety is justified. Indeed, all the data I can find suggests that segregation is not working as well in Phoenix as our State leaders seem to expect: it will work in Nashville

By: townes on 7/26/12 at 2:44

A brief civics lesson seems to be in order before Citizens Win hypervenilates to an unhealthy degree. The state charter law provides a process for an appeal to the State Board of Education as a remedy for , among other things, arbitrary decisions at the local level. Dr. Nixon's opinion recommending that the State Board overturn the MNPS board's decision on Great Hearts application is a part of that appeals process-- which was established by the popularly elected legislature of Tennessee. The State Board's decision whether or not to accept that recommendation is the next step. The right to appeal decisions to a higher authority is a fundamental part of our democratic system, not antithetical to it. Judicial review of lower court decisions is the best known example. Indeed, before tossing around words like "rot" and "engaged in the very heartbeat of democracy', Citizens Win might want to reflect on the fact the Supreme Court decisions in cases such as Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade, as well as Justice Roberts recent decision in the Obamacare case, all reversed lower court decisions. I for one am glad that there was an appeals process in place to limit the decisions of democratically elected legislatures in, for example, Mississippi and Alabama on the subject of Jim Crow schools, hotels and restaurants. Indeed -- if I were to change the subject I could make Citizen Win's comment read like some of the most objectionable products of the Mississippi Citizens Council in 1956.

Chris Moth's comments sound to me like a variation on the tired old "demography is destiny" excuse that has done yeoman service in defense of an indefensible status quo in public education for 50 years or more, as generations of students were processed through the mill. The phrase "the subtle bigotry of low expectations" comes to mind.
Schools like Nashville Prep LEAD Academy and KIPP (three of the top 10 performing middle schools in Nashville in terms of student growth--- all with FRL populations in excess of 75%) have demonstrated what's possible--- and demonstrated that demography is not destiny. At the same time, the performance of US schools generally has steadily dropped over the last 50 years relative to those in other developed countries. MNPS zoned schools, with ACT scores sharply lower than Mississippi's (and an almost identical FRL percentage) are not helping the USA's averages in that regard. Several of Great Hearts' schools in Phoenix are among a very limited list of US schools rated as competitive with the best in the world. If we know that demography doesn't have to be destiny, and we know how to alter that calculus, and we are aware of an opportunity to give Nashville students an internationally competitive educational opportunity, then, in my opinion, we have a moral responsibility not to let those opportunities pass us by. Maybe that's an overly idealistic view-- if so, so be it.

Townes Duncan

By: ericfloyd21 on 7/26/12 at 5:02

Mr. Duncan,

If your family and its peers invested the same time, resources and energy into your zoned schools (including sending your kids there, wives volunteering in the classroom, etc ...) as you have into the Charter School movement, do you think MNPS would be viewed differently?

By: ChrisMoth on 7/26/12 at 9:12

Mr. Duncan:

Thanks for your steadfast support for innovation in Nashville's public schools. Thanks also for bringing this great newspaper to Nashville. Your support for our city is an inspiration.

Your work on Charter School Boards is a powerful exemplar of the national movement that is demonstrating that "demography need not be destiny." Indeed, the exhaustive 2010 Report by the Department of Education
compared the outcomes for Charter-lottery winners and losers. This report supports your position that schools like LEAD and KIPP can demonstrate meaningfully improved results for impoverished student populations.

However, the current conversation is about Great Hearts (GHA). This same report noted... ".... charter schools serving more advantaged students—those with higher income and prior achievement—had significant negative effects on math test scores." To my ear, the theme that Charter schools do little nor nothing for middle and upper income families pervades the 259 pages of the report. If you are aware of deficiencies in the DOE report, please share your expertise.

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of a breakfast meeting with Great Hearts Chief Academic Officer Peter Bezanson, along with other parents. I admired Mr. Bezanson’s zeal for the instructional methods in use at Great Hearts. I heard his earnest assurances that it is the Great Hearts methods, and not the segregation of student populations, that leads to GHA’s stratospheric scores. I was thus surprised when GHA objected to the suggestion that they amend their Charter Application to serve a student population to mirror that of the Hillsboro cluster, which includes at least 40% Free and Reduced Lunch children. After all, if GHA’s methods are so fundamentally effective, why would they hesitate to commit their application to the student populations you yourself have identified as being most in need?

I could not agree more with you that Nashville students deserve an internationally competitive educational opportunity. The International Baccalaureate program at some of our high schools might be part of that goal, as the standards for those programs come from abroad. If you don't believe the IB Diploma Program contributes to our shared vision, I welcome the opportunity to learn more. As aside, I find it possible that the compass for America’s next century of economic development might tilt somewhat away from Europe, and more towards Asia. The IB Program approach might be more open to world culture than the strictly Western-European focus of GHA.

I again agree with you that "... we have a moral responsibility… to not let... opportunities pass this by." In slide 14 of 47 in their appeal to the State, GHA ranks MNPS' Hume Fogg Academic Magnet very highly for their ACT scores. So, I again must ask you and the State Board this question: If data convince us that physical clustering of student populations to create schools with high-average ACT scores is in the best interest of the children of Nashville, why don't we simply halt bus service to Hillboro and Hillwood, and simultaneously end vocational training at those high schools? Surely this would create two more “Hume Fogg”s, i.e. the ACT score averages at those schools would quickly increase to match (or exceed) Hume Fogg and Great Hearts? If you disagree, say more! If you agree, let us better understand why should we send our dollars to Arizona to accomplish essentially the same thing we already have the power to do on our own?

In my analysis of ACT scores, I did not mean to imply that "demography is destiny." I sincerely hoped to convey the polar opposite. All the data I've unearthed so far suggests that if MNPS continues to increase our focus on advanced academics opportunities throughout our zoned schools, we will observe no fewer high ACT scores than we have now with our Academic Magnets. Moreover, with more advanced course offerings distributed across the city, we should enable many more impoverished students to have a path to higher achievement, because we would not be forcing them to cross the hurdles of lotteries and transporation. Parents of affluent kids could send their children to their local zoned school, knowing that IB/AP etc. options were awaiting their bright children, and that no academic barriers exist to their children obtaining ACT scores in the 30s.

Based on the recent stream of good news about public education, this vision may not be so far from reality. Look at the TCAP improvements in the last few years. You suggest that public education has been moribund for 50 years. I challenge you to look at the Chemistry books in use in Nashville’s High Schools. These introduce atomic orbital theory to teenagers at a level that would have been unheard of 50 years ago. I believe today’s average student is miles ahead of the average student of 1962.

Of course, for all of Nashville to join hands in supporting all our local schools, we parents must understand that it’s OK for the average ACT scores of their child's school to be about, well, "average". Finland is often cited as a model direction for us. There, parents seem to grasp that having an “average average” score does not say _anything_ about the standard deviation of the scores at a school. My dream for Nashville is not only that the average score of our zoned schools will improve, but also, and more importantly, that the standard deviation of those scores will increase even more rapidly.

Allow me the pleasure of quoting you a final time, "Maybe that's an overly idealistic view-- if so, so be it."

Best wishes, and thanks again for your leadership in this important conversation.


Chris Moth, 2020 Overhill Dr

By: Leazee on 7/27/12 at 1:08

Everyone should know by now that Great Hearts charter will be approved based on those who initially proposed it, their relationship with the mayor and now the governor. There has not been another offensive quite like it. Nashville, you may be big, but you continue to function as a small town where who you are and who you know are the only necessary criteria, This private school group, including the mayor have given up on our public schools.They are obsessed with the charter school notion and think this is progressive. But is it sustainable? Thank you, Mr. Moth, for your insight and clarity.