Charter schools took center stage in the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce's annual education report card that found district reforms heading in the right direction but that progress improving student performance is at a crawl.
District, city and business officials at the report’s unveiling Monday treaded carefully around talk about the emphasis privately run but publicly funded charter schools should have in the district at a time when the issue of charter schools has become a political lightning rod.
"Charter schools are not a panacea, they’re not the sole solution to a very complicated problem. But quality charter schools can, and should, play a big role in reforming our education system," Mayor Karl Dean said during the unveiling at the Adventure Science Center, adding the district should recruit more charter schools that could fulfill particular needs within Metro Nashville Public Schools.
"Our children do not have the luxury of time," he said.
The report states that the district needs to focus on bringing better charter schools into the district fold by developing an integration strategy and sharing services to increase efficiency and save money.
The chamber is “anxious for dramatic gains” in student achievement, business officials stressed at the report’s unveiling.
On average, students in Davidson County lag behind the state average and neighboring districts in reading and math. However, the district has managed to show larger gains in year-after-year growth that exceed the state average.
Last school year, 40.6 percent of students in grades three through eight were proficient in reading and language arts. Of students in those same grade levels, 39.8 percent were proficient in math.
Less than 30 percent of students who took the ACT exam scored a 21, the benchmark necessary to qualify for a lottery-funded Hope Scholarship.
“We cannot bury our heads in the sand and say, ‘charter schools are not good for us,’ ” said Director of Schools Jesse Register who said the district should be looking to steal good ideas from the schools and use them more in the district.
Nashville is home to 14 charter schools, with one slated for closure at the end of the school year and five set to open next fall.
MNPS is still in the midst of a political fight over charter schools  after repeatedly refusing a state order to approve the Great Hearts Academies charter application. The state withheld $3.4 million in education funding from the district as punishment, although school board officials say they’re trying to convince the state to release those funds.
Meanwhile, charter school advocates are pushing state lawmakers to consider appointing an outside body to OK charter school applications to circumvent local school district approval.
The report also recommended the school board develop a dashboard to review progress on key performance measurements at their regularly scheduled meetings. It also suggested the district expand the cluster of struggling schools receiving specialized attention from the bottom 10 percent to the bottom 25 percent of schools.
The annual report, which is the 20th from the chamber, also recommended the state legislature require charter schools be shuttered by default if they are placed on the state’s priority list for not meeting performance standards.