Charter Pulse

Selected readings on US charter schools

TENNESSEE: Charter schools fight grows uglier

schoolLast week the street fight between the education reform crowd in Nashville and the Metro Nashville Public Schools bureaucracy went nuclear, when Schools Director Jesse Register announced that, to wit:

a) He had hired an attorney to look into the legitimacy of charter schools.

b) His attorney had found grounds that charter schools in Tennessee are unconstitutional.

It was the culmination of months and even years of gradually increased hostilities, in which finally one side just couldn’t wait to rip the other side a new one.

The timing was awful. Days earlier, state test results had shown glowing results for Nashville charters. Then the schools director announced probable cause for their annihilation.

Mayor Karl Dean was not pleased.

“I certainly think the board would be better using their time and resources to explore how other cities have adapted to charter schools,” Dean told me earlier this week. “That would be where I would be directing my attention.”

If what is past is prologue, the seeds of this hostile and ugly mess were planted thusly:

• Last year, Metro Nashville Public Schools declined to authorize the Great Hearts Academy charter.

• The state ordered MNPS to authorize it; MNPS declined again. The state fined MNPS.

• The state then decided to create its own charter authorizer (that measure fell apart at the last minute).

With misery loving company, the bad headlines started writing themselves in a particularly desultory, pathetic sort of a way. In budget hearings, Register told the mayor he had fired a consulting firm called the Tribal Group, an outfit Dean was fond of. Tribal has a history of advocating for education reform, that being greater principal autonomy, more choice for parents and kids, and decentralized budgeting for schools.

The hits kept on coming when the tempestuous school board budget chairman, Will Pinkston, got in an intemperate Twitter fight with the head of a local charter school, who himself intemperately decided to accuse Pinkston of being drunk.

Such is where we are. It’s a reporter’s paradise, I tell you.

This is a sharp ideological clash. It is about school choice versus the district monopoly, centralized decision-making versus a decentralized hierarchy, reform versus change.

This is also an argument about money.

Metro is adding more charter schools every year. Which is OK, because most are performing well. But you can’t make the budget work by adding more and more schools.

This year we as taxpayers did as we do every year: We gave MNPS a lot more money. The alternative, which we will have to explore soon, is that we start cutting.

We are on an unsustainable spending path at MNPS. Soon, the schools budget will comprise more than half of Metro’s budget. It’s like our own little TennCare gone amok.

MNPS says the problem is the number of charter schools we are adding, and we must stop their expansion to quell the red ink. But why would we put charters on the firing squad when they are doing so well?

Why not, instead, close the bad district-run schools? And why not cut Bransford Avenue overhead?

One way to reduce MNPS overhead would be to adopt a “portfolio approach” that would make MNPS more a “back-end” support system overseeing its individual operating units, or schools. It would become a “performance manager,” in which schools — charters, district schools, whatever — would succeed or fail, based on performance. Schools would compete with one another for students and teachers and administer their own budgets. Overhead costs at MNPS would be pushed down to the schools, making MNPS less of a spender.

What we are witnessing now is MNPS clinging to an old model. If it were being strategic about this, it would write a three-year plan assuming more higher-performing charters, fewer low-performing district schools and reduced overhead.

But they’re calling in the lawyers instead. That never bodes well.

Source: The Tennessean – by Bruce Dobie

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This entry was posted on August 29, 2013 by in Charter Schools, Tennessee and tagged .

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