In the end, the Metro school board's efforts to direct charter school growth died not with a bang, but a whimper.
In November, the board approved almost unanimously a policy that would greenlight new charter applications for the 2015-16 school year largely in the highest-growth areas. The idea made a lot of sense. Metro Nashville Public Schools needs to add capacity in South Nashville, where schools are expected to burst at the seams in coming years; why not take advantage of charter operators who want to open new schools?
But the board punted on the policy last week when it approved STRIVE Collegiate Academy's application on appeal by a vote of 5-3. STRIVE will open a middle school in the Donelson-Hermitage neighborhood, which fell outside the policy's targeted area.
There were a lot of factors behind the decision: personal politics, charter politics, the threat of the new statewide authorizer overruling Nashville and approving it anyway. But it's now nearly impossible to see any limitations for charters in the city going forward, particularly with pro-charter forces picking up a seat in the August elections.
Director of Schools Jesse Register and school board member Will Pinkston, longtime allies turned opponents in recent months, had a tense but illuminating exchange at a committee meeting two days before the vote. Pinkston and others wondered why Register, who had defended the policy before the state Board of Education in the spring, was now bringing to the Metro board an application clearly outside the policy's parameters:
Pinkston: I guess the first question I have is that you helped articulate all of this language in November, which we then brought to the board floor. Do you now believe in the ground rules that we articulated before, or have you decided those just aren't worth anything?
Register: So, how you define overcrowded, how you define underperforming, it's debatable.
Pinkston: [laughs] You helped define it. It's right here in cluster tiers where capacity exceeds 120 percent as of fall 2017 based on MNPS estimates.
Register: So, the capacities there exceed 100 percent. In the policy it's 120 percent. The schools in that area [McGavock cluster] are at 100 percent. And I'm telling what I feel. If you don't like it, that's fine. I'm bringing to the board an appeal that will go to the state Board of Education and I think the board needs to consider the implications of that, the legal implications and otherwise.
In spite of the personal animus, it is remarkable that Register would ditch a policy he helped develop after only 10 months.
"Anybody who has been with Jesse Register for more than 5 minutes knows that he doesn't like charter schools and has worked consistently during his time to undermine them, to the point that we do not have any sort of strategy." Pinkston said after the vote. "Finally, we had one, and he and Alan [Coverstone, the director of the Innovation Office] threw it overboard, apparently for political expediency."
Some will argue that the policy sent a signal to the market, and that as a result MNPS got several schools this year that fit its needs in South Nashville. But as a practical matter, if the board and MNPS are unwilling to deny applications that fall outside their needs — and STRIVE refused to delay its application for a year, even when personally requested by Register — the door is open for charters anywhere in Nashville.
Why was the policy important? Because it aligned MNPS and charters in a way that attempted to minimize the friction of growth. At some point, the growth of new charter schools is going to end up closing some or many traditional schools. Even if you believe that's a good thing — and given the success of a few charters in the latest round of TCAP results, many will — the transition could be messy and expensive, particularly if charter operators only want to open new schools instead of taking over failing ones.
Pinkston gets labeled as a charter critic, which has an element of truth. But not only has he voted for charter schools consistently, he told the Scene a few months ago that district schools that consistently show up on the bottom are ones where MNPS has lost "the moral authority" to run operations and where charters should take them over. The problem is finding operators who will step up. Exactly one charter, KIPP, applied to assume control of an existing school during this cycle.
Marc Hill, the Nashville Chamber of Commerce's chief education officer, says MNPS is going to have to use carrots rather than sticks to accomplish its charter goals going forward. "The threat of denial" isn't going to be enough, particularly with the installation of a clear statewide authorizer.
"The question is, could an improved RFP process have improved outcomes given the board's original goal," he tells the Scene.
Hill argues that a Pinkston idea, capital grants, could still be used to motivate charters in high-growth areas like Glencliff and Antioch. By offering money to schools for one of their biggest startup problems — real estate — MNPS could attract quality charter operators in the areas they're needed most.
Yet the cost of adding new charter schools will have an undeniable impact on MNPS budgets going forward, and as many as four different studies attempting to measure their economic effects will be made public in coming months. The next school board, which will be seated in September, will have the opportunity to formulate a new strategy for charters based on those numbers.
Whether they can stick to it is an open question.