by Jeff Woods
School board members are taken aback by Harwell's charter school bill, which was unveiled yesterday in a surprise. The bill was disguised as an innocuous measure, apparently to prevent any premature opposition—then rewritten at the 11th hour and sprung on the public during a House Education subcommittee meeting.
Under the bill, Harwell would run rough-shod over the school board to give her Green Hills constituents what they want—a charter school run by Great Hearts Academies. It gives charter schools in Memphis and Nashville the right to go straight to the state Board of Education for authorization. In this controversy, Memphis is collateral damage.
School board member Will Pinkston is coming close to threatening a lawsuit even before Harwell's bill has made it to the full House Education Committee. Pinkston was elected with campaign contributions from charter school advocates, and he voted for Great Hearts. But at last night's meeting, he said:
“Based on this very unprecedented step that the legislature, in its wisdom—and I use that term loosely—is taking, then I think we need to step back and examine our options. I am not a fan of litigation as you know, but this is one where, if our hand is being forced I think this has the potential to have lasting negative repercussions.”
It's no surprise that Mayor Karl Dean is backing Harwell's play. With the speaker, Dean lives in the West End neighborhoods that would most likely benefit from Great Hearts Academy, and he's a big proponent of charter schools—even if it means surrendering the city's right to self government to the whims of the Republican supermajority.
“Mayor Dean believes this legislation is a way to attract high-quality charters and advance student achievement, which should be everyone’s goal,” press secretary Bonna Johnson says.
Dean was against it the last time the Republicans in the legislature bigfooted Nashville—that time to nullify the city's gay nondiscrimination ordinance. He saw it as an outrageous interference in local affairs. Dean should see it the same way this time. Here's more from the mayor via his flack:
Mayor Dean's focus will always be on student achievement and providing opportunities for children to go to great schools. While achievement in our schools is improving, the reality is that the rate of progress is too slow and our students do not have the luxury of time. The status quo is not our friend. Quality charter schools have proven to accelerate achievement. Mayor Dean supports measures that help to provide more high-performing options for our students. Mayor Dean believes the city's top priority is to increase student achievement, and he supports whatever will help accomplish that goal as soon as possible.