Lawsuit alleges Achievement School District favored Barbic’s schools over competitors’

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.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”