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State Board of Education rejects Omni’s appeal for Memphis expansion, considers Nashville appeals from Rocketship, KIPP

Shaka Mitchell, director of Rocketship's Tennessee Schools, appeals to the State Board of Education on Wednesday to allow the national network to expand further in Nashville.
Shaka Mitchell, director of Rocketship's Tennessee Schools, appeals to the State Board of Education on Wednesday to allow the national network to expand further in Nashville.
Grace Tatter

The State Board of Education has rejected an appeal from Omni Schools to open a new high school in Memphis, continuing its record of upholding local school board decisions on charter school applications to expand.

But its decisions on appeals by national networks KIPP and Rocketship are being watched more closely. The board heard appeals Tuesday and Wednesday in Nashville from the two established networks, in addition to two others seeking state reversal of local board decisions.

Sara Heyburn, executive director of the board, says the longer track records of KIPP and Rocketship aren’t enough on their own to change the board’s course.

“If the charter school, regardless of (whether) it’s established or new to the scene, is able to meet or exceed these standards, then we can recommend it,” she told Chalkbeat on Wednesday. “We feel it is a nuanced decision, but it is also pretty clear what our standards are.”

The board’s standards are outlined for academics, finances and operation.

Omni Schools was established in 2010 and operates two schools in Memphis authorized by Shelby County Schools.

At a hearing in September, Omni leaders argued that the local district unfairly rejected their application to expand based on ambiguous and inconsistent guidelines, while district leaders held that Omni Prep’s existing schools had performed too low to justify expansion.

The board voted Sept. 24 to uphold the decision by Shelby County Schools.

“We are disappointed with the state’s decision,” Omni founder Cary Booker said Wednesday. “We understand the concerns that they have raised, will review our application, and review our plan going forward.”

The State Board of Education’s tough stances on appeals to date suggest that the board is taking its new role as a charter authorizer seriously and maintaining high standards for charter schools in Tennessee.

Before 2014, the board could reverse an appeal and require the local board to authorize the school — and fine them if they didn’t. However, in 2014, the state legislature passed a law allowing the State Board of Education to authorize charter schools itself in school districts with at least one school performing in the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state.

Since the board became an authorizer, it’s heard mostly appeals from relatively new operators. But KIPP and Rocketship represent a departure. KIPP was established in 1994 with schools in New York City and Houston. California-based Rocketship launched in 2006.

Metro Nashville Public Schools rejected Rocketship’s application because, despite high growth scores at its first Nashville school, its overall academic performance this year was poor, according to board members. Rocketship, known for incorporating computers into daily instruction, has two schools in Nashville, the second of which opened this fall.

The Nashville board rejected KIPP’s application to open two more schools because KIPP leaders asked to open the schools anytime within the next five years, which officials said was too far in the future to reasonably decide. District attorney Corey Harkey said at Wednesday’s hearing that Metro officials and board members also are wary of KIPP’s strict disciplinary practices and the potential financial burden of charter schools to the district.

The State Board of Education will hear another appeal on Oct. 6 — from Connections Preparatory Academy in Jackson.

The board will announce its decisions about the rest of the schools on Oct. 23.

Kayleigh Skinner contributed to this report.

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