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.