| Aug 29, 2014
What a difference two years can make. In 2012, the Metro school board was consumed for nearly a year with the Great Hearts charter school application, a standoff between the school board and the State of Tennessee that made everyone involved look bad. Most galling, to many business leaders, was the $3.4 million in state funds that Metro Schools lost as the result of the fiasco.
So, what’s changed between 2012 and 2014? For one, after more than a decade of reacting to whatever charter school applicants happen to propose, Metro Schools is now asking potential charter operators to consider the district’s strategic needs. Perhaps more importantly, it appears that the school district administration and a majority of the board now recognize that the district’s lowest-performing schools are not improving fast enough, and that the charter sector will need to play a greater role in turning these schools around.
The most recent step forward for Metro Schools on this issue took place on Aug. 21, when the school board voted to approve the amended application of STRIVE Academy, a charter middle school proposed for the McGavock cluster that was initially rejected in June. The Metro School board’s recent vote means that STRIVE Academy will be overseen by local officials and the academic results of its students will count in Metro’s totals, as opposed to being authorized by the state board of education under new legislation adopted earlier in the year. It also means that MNPS avoids a charter school appeals confrontation with the state this school year, leaving some other Tennessee districts to be the first to experience the new process. It was a difficult vote with legitimate arguments on both sides, and board members Anna Shepherd, Jo Ann Brannon and Cheryl Mayes are to be commended for not letting a tough re-election battle against pro-charter challengers drive their decision making.
Some observers have suggested that the school board’s eventual approval of STRIVE Academy has diminished the ability of Metro Schools to guide future charter growth in Nashville. These folks reason that future applicants will ignore future charter RFPs because the STRIVE Academy application was approved by the board, even though it fell outside the parameters of a board resolution passed in November 2013 calling only for charter applications addressing elementary students in South Nashville and conversions of low-performing schools. We would disagree with that assessment, and would consider Metro Schools’ first-ever request for charter proposals to be a success. After all, four charter applications that largely fit the parameters of the board’s resolution were approved in their initial review with the school board in June.
The real lesson from the school district’s first attempt to take a more strategic approach to charter applications is to avoid relying on the threat of denying an application. Since Tennessee’s charter school law was first passed in 2002, the state board of education has always been the final decider of application appeals, and the criteria for what constitutes an acceptable charter application are governed by statute, not the preferences of local boards of education. If Metro Schools wishes to continue being proactive, it should instead develop a charter school RFP process so laden with incentives that it becomes an offer high-quality operators simply can’t refuse.
A year ago, board member Will Pinkston floated the idea of MNPS offering capital grants to charter applicants that met the district’s strategic needs. That would have been an extraordinary incentive, since securing a school facility and the related financing consistently rank as the top challenge for any would-be charter operator. In the end, neither capital grants nor any other incentive idea materialized this past year—a clear opportunity to improve the district’s RFP approach during the next authorization cycle.
Recognizing that it’s always easy to improve a new process in hindsight, the next charter RFP process should also include input from community stakeholders and charter operators on the front end, before coming to the board for a vote. The feedback that is offered may or may not be incorporated into the final product, but just taking the time to consider a broader range of perspectives beyond the district office at Bransford Avenue increases the likelihood of greater buy-in. It’s an approach that’s well-suited to the board’s recent commitment to community engagement.
The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce supports our Metro school board taking a strategic approach to future charter school growth. The concept was endorsed in our 2012 Education Report Card,
and we commended the district for taking an important step in that direction at our 2013 Education Report Card presentation last December. We encourage the newly elected school board beginning its work together on Sept. 9 to build on the experience of the past year by creating an improved charter RFP process that models the best in district-charter collaboration.