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Speaker Beth Harwell drops the hammer on Nashville Democrats as a state charter-school authorizer looms

Rapped by a Ruler



To hear Democrats tell it, House Speaker Beth Harwell has transformed suddenly from moderate Republican voice of reason to hard-boiled politico, with a ruthless streak wide enough to make Boss Crump proud.

With heavily Democratic Nashville feeling increasingly like a subjugated people, Harwell and her conquering Republicans are threatening to ram through legislation that would strip the Metro school board of its power to authorize charter schools and give it instead to the state Board of Education.

Harwell makes no secret that she's taking it out on the school board for denying Great Hearts Academies' application last year. Critics said the charter school would have catered mostly to well-off white families in West Nashville, including the speaker's constituents.

Harwell counters that enrollment at Nashville's charter schools is almost all black. This, she says, makes the case for more opportunity for white children in outlying neighborhoods.

Nevertheless, her power play brought a backlash of criticism from Nashville's Democrats. So outraged were they that they turned on one of their own, Mayor Karl Dean, when he said he too supports taking away the school board's authority.

A who's who of the city's elected officials — minus Dean — held a press conference Monday to try to shame Harwell into backing down.

"This legislation is, for lack of a better term, horrid," MNPS board chair Cheryl Mayes said. "It will not serve our children well."

On Tuesday, Harwell postponed a vote in the House Education Committee, suggesting she might entertain a compromise. Under one possible scenario under consideration, the state Board of Education or a new state panel of some kind would be given the authority to OK a charter school after a school board denied the application a couple of times, and this process would apply statewide.

"What we want to do is have the highest quality public charter schools available in this city," the speaker said, "and that's my goal, and that's what we'll keep working on."

Rep. Mike Turner, the East Nashville Democrat, clearly took Harwell's actions as a betrayal. He said he considered Harwell his friend after their many years together in the legislature, and that he was stunned she sprang her bill on the public last week when at the 11th hour and sent it flying out of a subcommittee. The speaker apparently didn't want to give her opposition time to gain strength, so she had the subcommittee's chairman amend his own innocuous bill on charter schools, substituting her language for his as Democrats gnashed their teeth.

Turner lashed out at Harwell, accusing her of promoting resegregation and predicting publicly funded de facto private schools will pop up all over Nashville's more affluent neighborhoods once her bill becomes law.

"They're not going to put charter schools in Old Hickory or Madison or Antioch. They want one in Green Hills," Turner told reporters. "This is going to lead to resegregation of schools. This is not fair. It's wrong."

But Harwell's bill targets Memphis too, helping her gain support from suburban Memphis lawmakers whose constituents might like state-approved charter schools of their own. The speaker upsets only Democrats in both cities. To the Republican supermajority, they don't matter — no more than Republicans did in the days of Democratic rule, anyway.

"This was slammed in here at the last minute like it was some kind of cloak-and-dagger thing," said Turner, the House's second-ranking Democrat. "They didn't have enough Republican support for it to do it across the state. They couldn't get it passed. Those rural Republican legislators are more than willing to stick it to the big cities as long as it doesn't come their way."

"I think she's going to line up and just run over everybody who gets in the way on the thing," Turner said of the speaker, adding that "all these people who support this don't have their kids in public schools, anyway" — another shot at Harwell, whose two sons attend Montgomery Bell Academy.

To the Scene, Harwell defended her bill as removing a stubborn school board as a roadblock to change and giving frustrated parents alternatives to poorly performing public schools.

"That is not my goal at all," she said when asked whether her bill could lead to resegregation. "We actively recruited Great Hearts to come to this city, and I just would like to avoid what we went through" in the future, she said.

As for the Democrats' charge that she's running roughshod over Nashville in violation of Republican small-government principles, Harwell said, "We have a responsibility in this state to allow the most local person to have an option here, and the local person here is the parent. You can't get much more local than that.

"I have a lot of parents, not only in my district but others, who wanted this option in our public school system. I am all about promoting and having the best public school system this city can have, and right now we're just simply not there."


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