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If charter schools are the future of Nashville education, they deserve a closer look

The Charters are Coming

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Late last year, the Wednesday night before Christmas, architect Jim Hastings and his wife Stephanie hosted a cocktail party at their Belle Meade home. An open bar sat near the grand piano in their two-story living room, while guests snacked on finger food.

Those assembled, however, had more on their minds than Christmas cheer as the lights dimmed. The focus was a slide show that outlined the vision for something unprecedented in Nashville public education — a charter school located not beside low-income communities in East or North Nashville, but near a well-to-do neighborhood on the city's west side.

Guests marveled at the proposed curriculum, at the possibility of rigorous yet free schooling for their children. There was, however, one small but telling moment. The presentation displayed a slide containing the words, "Not everyone could afford a private school." Only the slide got stuck — leaving the guests to stand around awkwardly, holding their drinks.

It was perhaps the only glitch in an evening full of optimism. But it crystallized the unlimited hopes as well as the greatest concerns surrounding charter schools, the model likely to galvanize Nashville public education in the coming decade.

Over the next five years — and many years to come — charter schools will proliferate all across Nashville. Under the charter model, independent operators open their own schools and get funding from the local school district, pending approval of its school board.

This allows them a flexibility traditional public schools don't have, in everything from teacher qualifications t o fundraising. In another break with public education, parents choose to enroll their children, although their education is still free. Funded by public money but run by private boards with a high level of autonomy — and in some glaring cases, not a lot of accountability — charter schools presently have steadfast allies in every branch of government.

In the GOP-led General Assembly, lawmakers have been avidly rewriting state charter laws, creating ideal conditions for charters to thrive. Not long ago, charter schools could only accept students who failed certain standardized tests. After steamrolling opposition from the statewide teacher's union, however, lawmakers have opened up charter school enrollment to nearly all children — a prospect that intrigues middle-class parents as well as those considering a tuition check to Harpeth Hall or Ensworth.

Republicans are hardly the only ones to contract charter fever. No less a liberal than President Barack Obama has encouraged the charter school push with his administration's Race to the Top initiative. A funding competition designed to jump-start education reform, Race to the Top rewarded Tennessee with more than $500 million — at least partly thanks to the state's charter-friendly policies and laws.

These policies are also arriving on the local level. After nearly taking over the school district early in his first term, Mayor Karl Dean decided instead to help round up private donations for an initiative called the Tennessee Charter School Incubator. With a mission to support and fund up to 20 college-preparatory charter schools in Nashville and Memphis, the incubator has been busy incubating.

Last year, the incubator helped launch two new local charters, Nashville Prep and Liberty Collegiate. Then, in January, the relatively new organization hired Todd Dickson, a charter school superstar from California, to develop what it hopes is the first of many such public academies in Nashville.

Currently Nashville has 11 charters, with four new ones approved — two of which, Boys Prep and Knowledge Academy, are slated to open next year. In addition, several charter management organizations, including Great Hearts Academies, have announced plans to open as many as 10 charter schools each.     

Nashville legislators and now parents are starting to believe in charter schools as more than just an alternative. They see charters as a new model of education. Given as favorable a political climate as they will ever enjoy, charter schools now stand to propagate throughout the city, altering the DNA of the district like a heavy dose of gene therapy.

But as with any course of treatment, the options and outcomes need to be examined. Charter school advocates see a broken public-education system in need of flexible methods but increased academic rigor. They hope not only to serve low-income families, but also to re-engage upper-class parents who've opted for exclusive private academies — or bolted to the sprawling subdivisions of Williamson County.

Critics, however, worry that the sudden push for charters is coming at the cost of thorough scrutiny. They point to shaky early experiments in Nashville's school system, and voice the concern that future charters may find ways to distance themselves — literally and figuratively — from poor neighborhoods. The result, they argue, would be essentially to offer well-off kids a private-school education on the public's dime and resegregate the city into pockets of privilege — while leaving the rest of Middle Tennessee's students to languish in already struggling public schools.

But advocates and critics of charter schools agree on one thing: Whether you believe that teachers' unions are deliberately thwarting progress, as the 2010 advocacy doc Waiting for "Superman" argued — or that public school teachers face staggering obstacles of poverty and lack of parent involvement in their overcrowded classrooms, as the unions shot back — the status quo cannot continue.

And so all eyes face the front of the room, where charters have moved to the head of the class.

The enthusiasm for charter schools is a relatively recent development. The old way of thinking about charters was that they had only a small role to play in public education. Maybe they could enroll a few kids who weren't served by local public schools. Maybe charters could even serve as role models — "exemplars" in education parlance — by showing district administrators which reforms work and which ones don't.

Those limited expectations now seem a thing of the past.

"Nashville is poised to develop and attract several charter management organizations that could each operate five to 10 high-performing public charter schools within the next several years," says Nashville private investor Bill DeLoache, who serves on the board of the Tennessee Charter School Incubator and is part of a group pursuing the possibility of a charter school on Nashville's affluent west side. (Full disclosure: Aiding that effort is Townes Duncan, the managing partner for Solidus Co. and president of the board of SouthComm, the parent company of the Nashville Scene. Both Duncan and DeLoache attended the Hastings' charter school get-together, as did SouthComm CEO and former Metro Councilman Chris Ferrell.) 

"Taken together, they could deliver a high-quality education to a very significant percentage of Nashville's students. Charter schools can serve as far more than just exemplars."

Under open enrollment, some hope a free market for education will evolve, prompting public schools to keep up or go the way of Lehman Brothers. The district's own traditional schools consistently settle among the worst in Tennessee, which itself ranks 46th in math proficiency and 41st in reading, according to the state's own reports.

But even though the state's low education rankings just happen to correlate neatly with how much money it sends to the classroom — 46th in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — charter school supporters say that their movement, not more money, is what can spur traditional schools to improve.

"What you want with choice is for the good schools to thrive and the bad schools to go away," says former Nashville Scene editor and publisher Bruce Dobie, who is now active in the charter school movement. "Let the parents decide which schools stay in business — and if that sounds like a Republican thing to say, then so be it."

Metro Nashville Public Schools board member Mark North adopts a more limited view of charters, saying that a free market approach could devolve into a free-for-all system segregated along race and class lines.

"If they're done right, charter schools will fill a niche — and it may be a niche that is perpetually needed — but there is a finite number for the need," North says. "The plan can't be for charter schools to replace public schools. That's not going to work."

Meanwhile, embattled teachers' unions point to studies such as Mathematica Policy Research's 2010 findings, which show that charter schools as a whole have not demonstrated better results educating kids than the much-derided public school system. They also point to Nashville's decidedly mixed charter school track record to date, which varies school to school from dramatic improvements to sub-par test scores and outright closings.

"The whole charter school movement seems to be a political one — that charter schools are good, public schools are bad — and that is not the case," says Stephen Henry, president of the Metropolitan Nashville Education Association. "Despite success that some charter schools have reported, we have found that when those students come back to the public schools — for whatever reason — they are not any more advanced, and in some cases there is some remediation that needs to happen."

With both sides citing evidence of charter school success and failure within the same city limits, it's worth examining how the charter school model is being put into practice across the system, its possible impact on public schools, and what may lie in store for the future. In some cases, the results are even more inspiring than supporters claim. In others, they show why critics have reason to worry.

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