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.