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State board finalizes role as alternate charter school authorizer

The school board observed a presentation on charter school authorization at a meeting in July.
The school board observed a presentation on charter school authorization at a meeting in July.
G. Tatter

Although it happened three years ago, the local school board’s rejection of Great Hearts Academies is still commonly evoked in Nashville to describe the sometimes complicated relationship between local districts and charter management organizations.

In 2012, the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools board rejected an application from the the Arizona-based charter management organization to open a school in an upper-income Nashville neighborhood. The board turned down the application even after the Tennessee Department of Education signaled that the application was strong and a rejection would lead to a hefty fine.

But local school board members said they worried that the school would be inaccessible to low-income families and rejected the application anyway. The education department said the turn-down violated state law, and withheld more than $3 million in state funding from the district.

In March, the General Assembly passed a law that allows the State Board of Education to authorize charter schools in the counties with the highest number of failing schools. Charter school operators’ applications still go to their local boards of educations first, but now, if denied, they can appeal to and be authorized by the state board.

Consequently, had that rejection happened today, Great Hearts would have had the option of appealing Metro Nashville’s decision to the State Board of Education, which is now able to authorize charter schools. The appeal would have been upheld and the school likely would have opened.

Granting the state board this power was a direct response to the Great Hearts situation, said Justin Testerman, the chief operating officer of the Tennessee Charter School Center.

On Friday, the board will finalize its role as authorizer when it votes on the the policies it will use to hold the schools it authorizes accountable. The proposed framework contains the academic, financial, and organizational benchmarks by which board members will evaluate the schools they authorize annually. It was adopted from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, a Chicago-based organization that consults with authorizing agencies and advocates for charter schools.

Supporters of the new law say it will allow more high-quality charter schools to operate in the state, because local districts are often resistant to charter schools, no matter their strengths. Opponents say that local officials have more knowledge about the potential financial and academic impacts charter schools might have on their school system.

Wendy Thompson, a newly-appointed state board of education member from Nashville and former education adviser to the mayor, said she is hopeful about the impacts of the board’s new role.

“If we (the state board of education) do it well — and we will — we’ll be able to add to the sector in a quality way,” she said.

Most other states have multiple options for authorizers. Until the new law passed, Tennessee charters could only choose between local school districts and the state-run Achievement School District.

Authorizing a charter school requires a lot of work after the initial application approval, and this will be the board’s focus on Friday. The state board of education will also have to monitor schools, renew their charters, and close failings ones. In July, when the board underwent a four-hour National Association of Charter School Authorizers training to be authorizers, Chairman B. Fielding Roylston predicted that those steps would be the most complex for the board.

“Measurement in the education area is difficult, and I think it’s going to be the part that’s most challenging,” he said.

Tennessee’s biggest charter authorizers, Metro Nashville Schools, Shelby County Schools, and the Achievement School District have a national reputation for being rigorous authorizers. So far, the state board of education appears to be as well: the board has upheld the local school boards’ decisions for all of four appeals its heard so far. Three of the appeals they heard were from charters in Memphis: the Scholastic Academy of Logistics and Transportation, Military Academy of Culture and Technology Charter School, and the Emerge STEM Collegiate Charter School.

Board members will decide on two more appeals on Friday; one for a school in Robertson County, and the other for a school in Fayette County. In both cases, executive director Gary Nixon has requested the local boards’ rejection be upheld.

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