On the same day the man tasked with overseeing Tennessee’s most academically woeful schools came on board, his newly created state office uncorked a massive request for qualifications in search of organizations interested in opening charter schools.
Timing — both developments occurred on the first day of August — surely wasn’t coincidental. Charters, those privately run, publicly financed schools, have become darlings of politicians in the Volunteer State, quickly emerging as the go-to education strategy for the new Republican governor’s administration, legislature and, to an extent, locally in Metro.
The newcomer on the scene is Chris Barbic, a 41-year-old founder of a charter network in Houston. In May, Gov. Bill Haslam — an unabashed charter champion — tapped Barbic to head Tennessee’s so-called Achievement School District, a special state-governed cluster established a year and a half ago as part of the Race to the Top legislation. Thirteen low-performing schools statewide, determined by federal No Child Left Behind benchmarks, currently qualify for this special form of state intervention. Those responding to the state’s request for proposals are submitting applications to launch charters within these 13 schools’ zones. More schools could become a part of the ASD with changing criteria, which seems virtually certain to happen.
“Pioneers,” is the label Kevin Huffman, the state’s education commissioner, gave this first generation of ASD charter applicants. He added they will “provide ‘proof points’ for what is possible for all students in Tennessee.”
For now, the ASD office is co-managing five schools across the state this year, which includes an on-campus presence. Metro’s two eligible members are Glencliff High School and Cameron Middle School, the latter of which Metro revamped this year as a charter — giving it autonomy from the district to hire teachers, set salaries and extend school days and the calendar — in hopes of bringing new innovation to the JC Napier Homes-area school.
“We’re still kind of ramping up our team here,” said Barbic, whose arrival to the state capital marks his second stint in Nashville after attending Vanderbilt University an an undergraduate. He called Cameron’s charter experiment, undertaken by Nashville’s LEAD Academy founder Jeremy Kane (who happens to be one of Barbic’s friends) “a model” for other ASD schools.
“There’s an eye on 2012-13, making sure that we’re getting our capacity in place so that we can eventually start to charter some schools and also directly run some schools ourselves,” Barbic said.
In short, the state’s ASD approach seems two-pronged: Take over some schools. Tap charter groups to lead others. All the while, Barbic said he’s engaged in a constant “listening and learning tour” to find out what has and hasn’t worked in Tennessee.
Stakes are high for the Houston transplant, who is earning $215,000 annually. Plenty of stakeholders will be watching, especially on the charter front. For years, critics have argued that any evidence to suggest charters outperform traditional schools is murky at best. The debate — between proponents who say charter autonomy yields success versus opponents who point to examples of charters shutting down after failure — is bound to rage on in Tennessee.
“Charter schools sell themselves as the experts for solving difficult problems,” said skeptic Jerry Winters, lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association. “The fact is, they don’t have any magic bullets. They’re going to run into the same problems that local educators face.
“They talk a good game, but their record is a very checkered one,” Winters added. “I think to put all your eggs in a charter school basket will eventually prove to be a mistake.”
Given Barbic’s work in Houston, it should be no shock he has turned to the charter approach as one remedy — seemingly the leading one — to turn around the Tennessee schools marred historically by academic underachievement.
After founding Houston’s YES Prep in 1998, Barbic’s charter network grew to include 10 schools before he left. During that time, he developed quite a sterling reputation with charter advocates. The Houston Chronicle called Yes Prep Public Schools “one of Houston’s most successful charter networks.” U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said he’s “inspired” by Barbic’s work.
“Yes, that’s sort of my background, and I have some experience with that,” Barbic said when asked about his office’s heavy charter presence. “But what we’re really trying to do here is make this about great schools.”
Barbic’s appointment adds another piece to the puzzle. A new law the Republican-dominated state legislature approved in the spring authorized the ASD to approve charter applicants that would pool kids zoned for the 13 ASD schools, effectively bypassing local school board governance.
Barbic said he would “love to see five to seven” charters authorized each year — some ASD-authorized charter operators would take over schools, while others would open new facilities and cater to ASD-zoned students.
Winters, the state’s teachers’ union lobbyist, called it “hypocritical” that Republicans, “who constantly clamor for local control,” would transfer authorization from elected school boards to state officials.
“There will be situations where we will be authorizing charters inside [school] facilities,” Barbic said. “If there’s an organization that already has a facility identified that’s not a district facility, and they want to create a charter in a separate facility, that’s going to be an option as well.”
In addition to the request for charter qualifications, Barbic’s office is overseeing the distribution of a hefty $6.8 million federal Investment in Innovation (i3) grant, designed as start-up charter funding.
Barbic said there are three different financial awards: One is available to operators who currently don’t have schools in Tennessee but are authorized through the new ASD charter application process. Another is open to operators who have existing charters and replicate their design to a new school campus. The third will be distributed via Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), which is analyzing student growth at existing Tennessee charters to determine the grant’s allocation.
“The whole rationale behind that is we just want to make sure that we are administering these funds to the highest quality operators as possible,” Barbic said.
Already, the available cash has piqued the interest of charter enthusiasts, setting up something of a localized “race to the top” to land the coveted aid.
With it has come a bit of skepticism — not from charter detractors, in this case, but from those competing for the dollars, people who worry about inherent winners and losers in the high-stakes bidding game that could arise from political connectedness.
It’s a similar cry reverberating at the local level, with some questioning why charters that are a part of Nashville’s charter incubator have received a boost from Mayor Karl Dean’s office, while others haven’t; and why KIPP Academy is poised to benefit from a $10 million renovation of East Nashville’s Highland Heights building, while others aren’t getting the same tax-dollar jolt.
“I hope everyone is careful to avoid even the appearance of there being preferred schools,” said Martin Kennedy, founder of Boys Prep Nashville, approved by the Metro Nashville Board of Education to open next school year. He likened Boys Prep to the “redheaded stepchild” when comparing his school to the network of support enjoyed by other charters in Nashville.
“We’ve applied for one grant and are in the process of applying for another,” Kennedy said of the ASD cash.
Barbic said there are tools in place to minimize preference in allocating the grant dollars, which are to be distributed over the next few years. On the disbursement of the funds, he pointed to the role CREDO will be play in distributing grants based on empirical student achievement results.
And in terms of sanctioning charter operators, he said the ASD has tapped a third-party group, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, to vent all charter applications.
“The thought is that it will take a lot of the politics out of it,” Barbic said, adding that it’s not about who sits on a particular charter’s board. “We’re going to be as objective and open about doing this as possible.”
In the end, Barbic’s job performance in Tennessee will be judged not so much in terms of these concerns, but by one basic question: Did the schools under his guidance turn around? It’s a major challenge, one with inherent obstacles, but he’s got some believers.
“I think you really need a warrior to be in that position,” said Kane of Nashville’s LEAD Academy, adding that he believes the ASD will have to take over some schools.
Kane said nobody knows more about what it takes to run an effective school than Barbic.
“He has a ton of credibility nationally in the charter school movement and in the general public education world,” Kane said. “When he speaks, people are going to listen.”