Charter appeals

State Board of Education overrules Nashville district board on KIPP charter expansion

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Members and leaders of the Tennessee Board of Education meet Friday on the campus of Rhodes College in Memphis.

The State Board of Education on Friday approved an appeal from national charter operator KIPP to open two new schools in Nashville, overruling the local district board after determining that KIPP “meets or exceeds the standard” in all criteria.

However, the state board voted to uphold the Nashville district’s denial for Rocketship, another established charter network that already has two schools in Nashville, one of which opened this fall.

The unanimous vote on KIPP represents the first time that the State Board of Education has overturned a district board’s decision on charter school expansion in Tennessee since a 2014 state law granted the state board with authority to authorize charters in districts with at least one low-performing school.

Sara Heyburn, executive director of the state board, recommended this week that the body approve both KIPP schools.

“It’s clear in the law that it’s a high bar by which we have to judge appeals at the state board level, and so again we’ve done our due diligence and gone through all the objective evidence … looking at network data across the United States and other KIPP schools. And in all instances, we found they meet or exceed standard in academics, operations, financial plans and in the portfolio network,” Heyburn told the board Thursday during a work session in Memphis.

In a split vote, the Nashville board rejected KIPP’s application in August. KIPP leaders had asked to open the schools anytime within the next five years, which local officials said was too far in the future to reasonably decide.

The state board’s decision to overrule the local district drew immediate criticism from several members of the district board for Metro Nashville Public Schools.

“The [Department of Education] and State Board of Education, over the last few years, have shown an increasing desire to get into the business of local school systems,” said Will Pinkston, a vocal critic of Nashville’s growing charter sector. “They’re frankly just not qualified to make decisions about what’s going on in cities and counties.”

Amy Frogge, another Nashville board member, said she believes Friday’s decision in favor of KIPP comes at the expense of traditional Nashville public schools by directing more money and resources to charter operators.

“I am gravely disappointed that an appointed state board is considering removing local control of schools and overturning a well-reasoned, thoughtful decision by democratically elected representatives,” Frogge said. “This is not about the best interests of our students or about parent ‘choice.’ It is a radical agenda aimed at privatizing public schools, catering to the needs of corporate charter school chains, and dismantling public education.”

Heyburn, presenting staff recommendations to the board on Thursday, said the expansion of KIPP would not impact the local district financially.

“The state board staff reviewed all documentation submitted with regard to the fiscal impact of the school and ultimately concluded that there was insufficient evidence to prove that KIPP Nashville Middle and KIPP Nashville Primary School would have substantially negative fiscal impact on the school district,” she said.

The Nashville board and KIPP now have 30 days to decide whether the new KIPP schools will be authorized by the district board. If there is no mutual agreement, the state board will become the authorizer.

Pinkston said Metro Nashville’s board also might consider taking the matter to court. “When you’ve got a recalcitrant board, legislature, that passes that law, sometimes the only place to go is the third branch of government — the courts,” he said.

Since the State Board of Education became an authorizer last year, it has heard 11 appeals, mostly from younger, less established operators. The appeals from KIPP and Rocketship represented a departure. KIPP was established in 1994 with schools in New York City and Houston. California-based Rocketship launched in 2006.

Concurring with its staff recommendation, the state board voted 8-1 Friday to deny Rocketship’s appeal.

“This one was hard,” Heyburn told the board on Thursday. “This one met the standard in all areas except the portfolio review section, and in that case again there are a number of reasons to be very optimistic about this school they’re currently operating in Nashville.”

The Nashville board had rejected Rocketship’s application because, despite high growth scores at its first Nashville school, its overall academic performance this year was poor, according to board members.

“They did have a level 5 TVAAS composite, which is the highest score overall you can get in growth,” Heyburn said. “But their achievement scores are really low, some of the lowest in their cluster and in the district.”

Board member Wendy Tucker cast the lone dissenting vote. “My struggle is with the fact that Rocketship’s current school — the school we have data from — while their achievement levels are not where we need want them to be, their growth is some of the highest in the city,” said Tucker, who is a co-CEO of Project Renaissance, a Nashville nonprofit organization aimed at improving educational outcomes for Nashville schoolchildren.

Rocketship regional director Shaka Mitchell said he was disappointed with the board’s decision but respected the process.

“One of the things that the district made it’s biggest case around is that we didn’t have a track record of success,” Mitchell said. “I’m confident that if we’re sitting here this time next year, it’s going to be a different outcome. Our schools are going to keep growing; our students are going to keep showing results.”

The board also voted to uphold district denials of charter applications for International Academy of Excellence in Nashville and for Connections Preparatory Academy in Jackson.

legal opinion

Tennessee’s attorney general sides with charter schools in battle over student information

PHOTO: TN.gov
Herbert H. Slatery III was appointed Tennessee attorney general in 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam, for whom he previously served as general counsel.

Tennessee’s attorney general says requests for student contact information from state-run charter school operators don’t violate a federal student privacy law, but rather are “entirely consistent with it.”

The opinion from Herbert Slatery III, issued late on Wednesday in response to a request by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, was a win for charter schools in their battle with the state’s two largest districts.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

McQueen quickly responded by ordering school leaders in Memphis and Nashville to comply. In letters dispatched to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Director Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, McQueen gave the districts a deadline, adding that they will face consequences if they refuse.

“If you do not provide this information by Sept. 25, 2017, to the (Achievement School District) and any other charter school or charter authorizer who has an outstanding request, we will be forced to consider actions to enforce the law,” she wrote.

Neither superintendent responded immediately to requests for comment, but school board leaders in both districts said Thursday that their attorneys were reviewing the matter.

Chris Caldwell, chairman for Shelby County’s board, said he’s also concerned “whether the timeframe stated gives us enough time to make sure families are aware of what is happening.”

Wednesday’s flurry of events heats up the battle that started in July when charter operators Green Dot and LEAD requested student contact information under the state’s new charter law, which gives districts 30 days to comply with such requests. School boards in both Memphis and Nashville refused, arguing they had the right under the federal student privacy law to restrict who gets the information and for what reasons.

The attorney general said sharing such information would not violate federal law.

The requested information falls under “student directory information,” and can be published by school districts without a parent’s permission. For Shelby County Schools, this type of information includes names, addresses, emails and phone numbers.


To learn what information is at stake and how it’s used, read our in-depth explainer.


The opinion also backs up the new state law, which directs districts to share information that charter operators say they need to recruit students and market their programs in Tennessee’s expanding school-choice environment.

However, the opinion allowed for districts to have a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents of their right to opt out of sharing such information. It was not clear from the opinion if the two school districts have exhausted that time.

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said Tuesday the district had not yet distributed forms that would allow parents to opt out of having their students’ information shared, although the district’s parent-student handbook already includes instructions for doing so.

Below, you can read the attorney general’s opinion and McQueen’s letters to both superintendents:

Clarification, Sept. 14, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the school boards’ arguments for not sharing the information.

First Person

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

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.