Will Karl Dean's push for charter schools finally make him the ‘The Education Mayor'?

Sunday, February 5, 2012 at 10:05pm

There was a time, during years one and two of his mayoral tenure, when it seemed Karl Dean would take over Nashville’s public schools. He was on the fast track to be “The Education Mayor” in the truest sense.

Staring at a beleaguered and academically struggling school district, Dean appeared to be angling to become the Southern version of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who took the reins of the schools there nearly a decade ago. The school board and superintendent would no longer be Nashville’s public education power agents. Dean himself would take the district, and all its woes, into his own hands.

All the chatter never led to a takeover, of course. Thorny alternative governance guidelines, dependent on student test scores, didn’t line up correctly. Dean didn’t become the first Southerner to lead a mayoral-controlled school system. And a fact remained: Dean, who as a candidate trumpeted education as his No. 1 priority, had to steer around a structure in which his role on education policy is limited, one largely relegated to funding.

Yet as Dean begins his second term, the mayor has managed to use his pedestal to exert increasing influence on one education front: charter schools — those publicly financed, privately operated schools that enjoy autonomy, with their own boards of directors, to raise capital, hire teachers, set school hours and curriculum. Charters are in the midst of a renaissance in Nashville — 11 Metro charters exist; four more are opening next year — thanks to a more receptive state law.

“They’re all part of the city moving forward with its momentum in education reform,” Dean told The City Paper, quick to reference his other education work, such as luring Teach For America to Nashville. “I’ve seen many different charter schools, and I’ve seen a lot of kids succeeding at them. I think, at the same time, charter schools are not a panacea. You’ve got to have quality schools.”

Dean emerged as a charter advocate from the outset, but his charter involvement has become more focused in recent months.

In the fall, Dean, then-education adviser Danielle Mezera, and investor and Joe C. Davis Foundation trustee Bill DeLoache (cousin of Dean’s wife, Anne Davis) flew across the country to tour and observe firsthand some of the nation’s most respected charters in California. (Dean pointed out he’s taken several charter school excursions over the past four years.)

The trip led to Dean’s recruitment of charter leader Todd Dickson, executive director of Redwood, Calif.-based Summit Preparatory Charter High School, who plans to arrive in Nashville this summer and become a senior fellow at the Nashville-based Tennessee Charter School Incubator, an organization the mayor helped form. Eyeing the opening of the first Summit Nashville charter in 2014, Dickson hopes to launch a network of eight to 10 Nashville charters over time, schools that would be forever linked to Dean.

“This is a quality program, and a real good thing for the city,” Dean said of Summit and Dickson’s presence.



Meanwhile, Dean has welcomed the efforts of Nashvillians pushing for a new charter school to serve Nashville’s affluent west side, neighborhoods such as Forest Hills, Green Hills, Belle Meade and Hillsboro-West End. Filling the demand would be an Arizona-based charter organization called Great Hearts Academies, which has proposed opening a charter in 2013 at an unspecified location. A network of five to 10 Great Hearts charters in Nashville is group’s the long-term goal.

In a recent interview, Dean called the Great Hearts push a parent-driven “grassroots movement,” downplaying his role with the charter organization. He said the mayor’s office hosted its supporters for a December meeting, adding that one of his aides toured a Great Hearts school during an already-scheduled trip to Phoenix. “My knowledge of Great Hearts is about limited to that,” he said.

Still, at one of the organization’s two Nashville community meetings last month, Dean was there, delivering opening remarks to 150 onlookers.

Both Summit and Great Hearts’ plans for Nashville, centered on “mixed-income” student populations, would represent untapped terrain for Nashville. Existing Metro charters, the majority located in North or East Nashville, consist almost entirely of economically disadvantaged students who qualify for free and reduced lunches. But the law changed last spring, opening charters to all students, regardless of family income.

“Inviting applicants is probably an appropriate role for the mayor, for the school board and maybe others,” Metro Nashville Board of Education member Mark North said. “But the study of those applications, and determining which schools are added to the school system as charter schools, is a function of the school board.”

Perhaps recognizing the preliminary status of these charter schools, the school district’s central office declined to make Director of Schools Jesse Register available for a story on Dean’s charter school push. The Dean-Register dynamic when it comes to charters is worth tracking.

“We will pass on this one,” Metro Nashville Public Schools spokeswoman Meredith Libbey wrote in an email, responding to an interview request.

Noticeably absent from Dean’s growing charter portfolio has been involvement of the school board. With charters, Dean is playing his own game.

“I’ve not had a conversation with him about this,” school board chair Gracie Porter said of Dean’s charter-school streak. “It is my hope that he continues to be on track with Metro schools as our ‘Education Mayor.’ ”



As a voice for charters, Dean in 2009 went before the Tennessee state legislature — waters he doesn’t wade into often — advocating for approval of a bill to expand the number of students eligible for charters, key legislation that eventually passed.

Dean has also found a place for charters within past capital-spending plans, authorizing $10 million for the renovation of East Nashville’s historic Highland Heights building to accommodate the expansion of KIPP Academy, a Nashville charter. In addition, the mayor helped with the 2009 launch of the charter incubator, an apparatus backed by Boston-based Building Excellent Schools aimed at helping charter founders get their schools off the ground through teacher recruitment, board development and facility assistance. Nashville’s first two incubator schools, Nashville Prep and Liberty Collegiate Academy, opened this school year.

Privately, some local charter leaders bemoan the way Dean has seemingly chosen to help some charters, but not others.

In picking Dickson, 41, to accelerate the incubator’s growth, Dean recruited a California charter leader whose four existing schools have received ink in Newsweek and a spot in the education reform documentary Waiting for ‘Superman,’ a favorite among charter enthusiasts. In a phone interview with The City Paper, Dickson described a potential Nashville school model based on science and technology.

Half of Summit Prep students in California tend to be from low-income families, Dickson said, while the other half come from middle-class neighborhoods. “I hope to re-create that type of school environment,” Dickson said, adding that it’s too early to begin discussing possible locations for the first Nashville school.

“He’s definitely a very strong supporter of charters,” Dickson said of Dean. “That’s not always the case in California and other places.”

Great Hearts’ entry to Nashville follows the work of a citizen-led steering committee, which explored the idea of a West Nashville charter over the summer. A June PowerPoint presentation titled “West Nashville Charter School Task Force” listed some motives for such a school.

One slide was titled, “What could a West Nashville Charter School Address?” The presentation listed three points: “Movement of businesses to Williamson County because of the perception public schools are better there; movement of upper income students in Davidson County away from public schools and into private schools; growing concern about affordability of private schools.”

Following the state’s new open enrollment law, the movement’s target audience seems clear: parents who are disenchanted with the state of Metro’s public school system, or whose daughter or son is unable to draw the right lottery number to attend an academic magnet school; parents who are also probably wary of spending big bucks for private schooling.

In January, Great Hearts, which manages 12 schools in the fertile charter grounds of Arizona, announced plans to apply to open a Metro K-9 school in 2013, the first of up to 10 Nashville charters over the long haul.

A Great Hearts representative began one presentation to the community by noting there’s a lot of “negativity” about public schools across the country, adding that he didn’t know whether that sentiment exists in Nashville or not. From there, Great Hearts leaders delivered a 45-minute talk detailing the classical liberal-arts curriculum of their schools, which apparently have long wait lists in Arizona, and produce an impressive 27.9 average score on the ACT. “We’re producing lawyers, philosophers, scholars,” Dan Scoggin, the founding CEO of Great Hearts, told the audience.

“The Great Hearts thing, the way I look at that, is there are clearly people in all parts of the city who are interested in their kids getting more choices and more opportunities, and we’re interested in looking at all things that can be done to create better schools,” Dean said.

“All families and all children should have access to quality education,” he said, adding that means high-performing schools in all parts of the county. “I believe very firmly that it is important — period — that schools reflect diversity.”

Ensuring diversity will be key for Great Hearts to reach school board approval this spring. Great Hearts administrators — who insist they don’t know in which part of town they would launch a first school — say their schools in Arizona do not offer transportation. But without buses, low-income minorities from Antioch or North Nashville, for example, could have trouble gaining access to a school on the west side. School board members are already taking notice.

“What I’m hearing, and I may be misled on this, is their history has been dealing mostly with middle- and upper-class kids. ...” board member Ed Kindall said. “I’m very concerned about that, because what I see that possibly leading to is that we end up with a lot of schools in Nashville that are socio-economically and racially isolated.”

Diversity questions are compounded by the right-leaning political involvement of many who make up Great Hearts’ board of directors, including its president, Jay Heiler. Heiler, former chief of staff of ex-Arizona Republican Gov. Fife Symington and former communications director to Republican U.S. Rep. Ben Quayle, has a track record of controversial statements on homosexuality and immigration, as reported by the Nashville Scene last month.

“I’m for ethnic, racial and economic diversity,” Dean said when asked about Heiler’s politics. “Our job is to make sure all kids — no matter where they live in the city — have an opportunity for quality education. I think my position on immigration and Nashville being a diverse and welcoming city is pretty well-known.”


Disclosure: Townes Duncan, managing partner of Solidus Co., helped lead the search to attract Great Hearts to Nashville. Duncan chairs the board of directors for SouthComm, The City Paper’s parent company. 

19 Comments on this post:

By: Rasputin72 on 2/6/12 at 7:27

Segregation is a natural part of humanity. No matter how many laws are enacted segregation will continue. We have magnet schools for the gifted without money. We have private schools for the productive class. We have charter schools for the mentally challenged and the poor(with morality) Then we have the old fashioned public schools for the underclass and the future residents of jails and peniteniaries and welfare rolls.

By: BigPapa on 2/6/12 at 8:03

Defacto segregation should be allowed. The courts overplayed their hand by forcing people to go to school across the county. If you step back and think about it, it's a very racist position to take to assume that a school is bad because most of the people attending it are black.

People should be allowed to live where they want to live and send their kids to a school close by. The courts invented white flight and now 30 years later we're seeing the results.

By: Moonglow1 on 2/6/12 at 8:57

Moonglow1: I generally support Dean but not on this issue. I so not agree that tax dollars should be allocated to support private enterprise to take over a public function. Clean up public education some other way but do not bring in a group of money grubbing For Profit enterprises to run our schools. The issue is a company whether it be a Charter School or widget factory has only one mandate and that is to make a profit for the shareholders. I did not elect Dean's wife. He should not push Charter Schools. Fix the public system. Get Haslam to put "the poor" to work so that all people can benefit including children of the poor. How can they do well in school when their home life is miserable. How will Charter's do any better for these kids.

By: kenstegall on 2/6/12 at 9:11

To Rasputin:
Segregation is a natural part of humanity, --as sin, too, is our nature. The Pharisees didn't like it when Jesus dined with tax collectors and others they would prefer to segregate. However, in general, I favor neighborhood schools, despite the de facto class segregation that might result.

That aside, you may be painting our public schools with far too broad a brush. It is true we (society) have created (or defaulted to) a system that has critically shifted the culture of our inner city public schools. We have done this by flight of the affluent to suburbs and private schools and culling the academically gifted into magnets. To a significant degree this has removed many of the potential top quartile of students from our public schools. This results in a critical tipping point for public school culture --left to be normed by the remaining 3rd and 4th quartile who dominantly outnumber those who didn't win a magnet lottery or life's lottery (successful affluent parents). We have ham-strung the remaining students and teachers in our public schools by offering far too limited a repetoire of consequences for nascent criminal behavior of a small percentage of badly behaved students and class sizes bloated to the legal limits. In spite of these impediments however, there remain many very talented (and moral) students who are getting a decent education despite having to swim upstream against the dominant school cuture. Do I wish there were more better talented and motivated students in every public school?--Sure. But there are many great kids in MNPS and many of them will succeed in life despite these impediments.

By: CarterRidge on 2/6/12 at 9:39

Nashville is fortunate to have a leader who is willing to step up and fight for opportunities for all Nashville families and students. He is clearly supporting education reform in various forms on all sides of the city- not trying to serve only one socioeconomic group or one neighborhood- but truly working to give every student a quality public education. Thank you for all you do, Mayor Dean.

By: yucchhii on 2/6/12 at 9:55

The DISHONERABLE MAYOR "DINK" is nothing but a piece of TRASH! He's BSing everybody and MOST of you are BLIND to it!!! He's laughing (At you) while going to the bank!!!

By: Rasputin72 on 2/6/12 at 10:11

Kenstegall........An excellent rebuttal. However the system takes ""your" residual talented,motivated and moral students and ties an anchor around their necks. The anchor being the majority of their peers are dregs of the earth intellectually,morally and genetically bankrupt.

Hardly an anchor that I would ever want to subject my children or grandchildren

This is the residue left by magnet schools,private schools and charter schools. It appears that the public schools are now the holding tank for your "minority" class and my majority class.

By: BigPapa on 2/6/12 at 10:34

If affluent educated people in Nashville thought they could send their kids to a public school and their kids would be surrounded by other kids from similar households I know many of them would NOT shell out the cash for private schools. Sure some would due to religious issues, but the fact that you can buy into a nice neighborhood and your kid ends up going to school with ghetto thugs from across the city defeats the purpose of living in Nashville.

Look at the doughnut counties and tell me how much better off Nashville-Davidson county would be if only half of them were still here. People voted with their feet and created places like hendersonville, brentwood, nolensville, and mt juliet. Dean and Co. need to do something- anything- to try and keep even a small percentage of those people within the county. If that's magnet schools, or charter schools so be it.

By: GrantHammond on 2/6/12 at 1:21

I just wanted to point out that there is an old school building in historic Salemtown located at 1624 5th Avenue North that would be an incredible charter school location. This city owned building was most recently used as the Metro Action Commission, but now sits pretty much unused. I would absolutely love to see this building appropriated for its original use.

By: pswindle on 2/6/12 at 2:28

How many Charter Schools have been started in Nashville? The private administrators take the money and run and Metro is left holding the bag.

By: jonw on 2/6/12 at 3:52

.Is Karl looking to the Charter School business after being Mayor?

Gov. Bredesen presented the pattern by promoting the solar concept as Gov. Shortly thereafter along came Silicon Ranch.

Silicon Ranch Corp, company was founded by former Gov. Phil Bredesen, staff members Matthew Kisber and Reagan Farr, and chaired by Bredesen.

By: HamBoneHamBone on 2/6/12 at 4:56

Todd Dickson is the real deal. Some of the Mickey Mouse-caliber commentary here would be laughable if it weren't so sad, but then again, Ras72 and his toxic misery have to be taken with a grain of salt. The competitiveness of the college admissions environment in California makes what we have here in Tennessee look like a stroll in the park, and Metro schools in the coming years will realize significant positive ROI due to its relationship with Summit and its 96% college admissions track record as a PUBLIC school. Only the deep-seated, provincial traditions of some parts of Nashville aren't paying attention, but IBM once laughed at Apple as well.

Hey, Ras72, tell me what the following schools have in common:

UC Berkeley
Columbia University

Never mind. I'll tell you since you probably cannot figure it out -- they have all conferred either undergraduate or graduate degrees upon the current administrators of Summit Prep in California. That sort of academic pedigree is right up there in your elitist wheelhouse, for sure. This is the kind of quality that is coming to Nashville to lead public charter schools. Faux-condescend all you wish, but you clearly have no clue.

By: Loner on 2/7/12 at 5:40

We heard the phony good reasons, what are Den's real reasons?

Is the real goal segregation? Christian indoctrination? Union busting? Or is the mayor simply getting a kickback? Or is there something even more nefarious going on here?

The public schools need a lifeline, not these profit-seeking private alternatives. With the advent of every new charter school, the public schools become more decrepit and shameful. The mayor is on the wrong path and the NCP has a huge conflict of interest in covering this story.

By: Ask01 on 2/7/12 at 6:48

I distrust Mayor Dean. Of course, to be fair and honest, I distrust all politicians and most authority figures.

I have a suggestion which, at the very least, might garner better oversight for public schools. All federal, state and local elected officials and government employees should be required to enroll their children, or, as some are fairly aged, grandchildren or great grandchildren, in local public schools.

Oh, I know, they have rights allowing them to put their children where they want, but not if the law says different. Consider however, how much differently education might be approached if those running the show were required to send their offspring to the same schools attended by the children of the teeming masses?

I view this in the same spirit as requiring congress to be subject to the same laws as everyone else.

If the Obama children had to attend local Washington D.C. schools, what do you suppose those schools would look like?

Just a suggestion.

By: Rasputin72 on 2/7/12 at 8:46

HamBone,HamBone, where have you been? over the hill and back again? I have nothing against charter schools. I just point out where they fall in the segregation chain.

Remember this? It was the elite who founded this country. Davy Crockett and Andrew Jackson and Maxine Waters came later.

By: BigPapa on 2/8/12 at 9:03

So loner, you think everything is just fine with the schools and we should continue doing what we are doing??

Hardly, EVERYTHING needs to be on the table... everything, no sacred cows- if it p!sses off the union so be it, if it makes for uncomfortable demographics in the successful programs- whatever..
We need to look at how we grade, attendance, tracking, who gets promoted, even the idea of "grade levels"...

By: MusicCity615 on 2/8/12 at 9:24


Profit is not a bad thing / word. Understand that.

By: RedLocs on 2/8/12 at 10:54

Charter schools provide a level of education that public schools are not providing any longer. It offers families another choice for their child. This is about the children first and foremost. If you are a parent you want whats best for your child. My daughter has improved drastically at her charter school compared to the previos 4years at the public schools. I appreciate the fact that i had a choice. There's magnet schools that you either have to get in via a lottery, or you had to have a certain GPA. Charter schools takes any and all students no matter, race, religion, financial status, etc. The teachers are excited about working with your child.

By: Nitzche on 6/7/12 at 8:07

MBA, HArpeth Hall.....enough said>>>> oh, this is where the education mayor's kids go