A lawsuit filed late last month alleges that the state-run Achievement School District’s process for evaluating charter school applications in 2013 was not objective, and that YES Prep, the charter organization founded by ASD superintendent Chris Barbic, received a leg up in its application.
Rodney O. Ursery and Clara Denise West are suing state education commissioner Kevin Huffman and the Tennessee Education Department, Barbic, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) and YES Prep Public Schools in Shelby County’s chancery court for a slate of charges including civil conspiracy and unfair business practices.
The ASD and YES Prep both dispute the claims. “What I can tell you is the ASD’s authorization process has the same high bar for all applicants,” Elliot Smalley, a spokesman for the ASD, wrote in an email. “The process is objective, independent, and rigorous, with the same steps and criteria clearly articulated to all applicants. We make no exceptions.”
West and Ursery had applied to open a charter school, which would have been called Global Generation Charter School, as part of the ASD in 2014-15. Their application was denied. They have not reapplied to open their school through either the ASD or Shelby County Schools.
In an interview, West said that her organization’s application was as qualified as others that had been approved. “When we went through the application process, it was like it was rigged. If you didn’t have part of the Tennessee Charter Incubator or Teach For America, if you weren’t affiliated with YES Prep or KIPP or a friend of a friend you weren’t getting in,” she said.
In a press release announcing the suit, Ursery said, “For far too long, it has been recognized and stated in the court of public opinion that Huffman and Barbic have utterly abused the power of their positions when it comes to regulating the Tennessee’s school system. Now, I’m confident that their reign of terror, which has been plagued with conspiracies among crooks and cronies, will finally be revealed in a court of law, that is, if justice prevails.”
The suit contends that the ASD approved YES Prep to open schools in 2015-16 during a process that had been publicly advertised for schools opening in 2014-15.
The release says that “Barbic, founder and former Chief Executive Officer of YES Prep, illegally authorized YES Prep to seize nearly 6,000 elementary school students in Memphis, TN.”
Houston-based YES Prep has not yet opened any schools in Tennessee. It plans to open two middle schools—not elementary schools—next year.
The superintendent of YES Prep’s Memphis schools, Bill Durbin, disputed the allegations in an e-mail:
“YES Prep Public Schools believes there is no merit to the lawsuit filed against our organization regarding our charter with the ASD. We are one of the oldest not for profit charter management organizations in the nation with a 16 year track record of improving educational outcomes in underserved communities. We won the inaugural Broad Prize in 2012 and were named the “most outstanding” charter school system in the nation. We were vetted through a rigorous selection process in 2013 by the ASD that included an independent evaluator and have no reason to believe we were given priority in the process. We take expansion to a new region very seriously and are humbled to have the opportunity to begin serving Memphis families starting in 2015.”
The suit also contests NACSA’s role in the charter approval process and alleges that the state’s education department gave the ASD a “carte blanche” to deny or approve some applicants. West and Ursery contend that they had no process by which to appeal the charter denial.
The state’s legislature voted last spring to create a state appeal board for charter operators whose applications are rejected.
A spokeswoman for Tennessee’s education department said the department had not had a chance to review the pending legislation. The ASD’s Smalley said in an email that the lawsuit did not appear to have been served as of Tuesday afternoon.
The text of the lawsuit is below.