Play nice

Gov. Bill Haslam convened a ‘power meeting’ between Tennessee’s charter school and district leaders. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. John Forgety is chairman of a House education committee and has become the mediator of a dispute over Tennessee's 2017 charter school law. The Athens Republican is also a retired teacher, principal, and superintendent with McMinn County Schools.

There isn’t a charter school within 100 miles of Rep. John Forgety’s district, but the East Tennessee lawmaker has become the mediator in a lingering dispute between the state’s charter sector and its two largest school districts, in Memphis and Nashville.

As chairman of a House education committee that green-lighted last year’s sweeping update of Tennessee’s charter school law, Forgety said he felt partly responsible for one provision that’s created confusion, anger, and even litigation over whether local districts must share student contact information with charter operators.

And while his own legislative proposal to clean up the ambiguity has been sidelined, Forgety managed to get all parties at the table last week with Gov. Bill Haslam — no small feat given that two of them already are in court over the issue.

The Feb. 13 power meeting included Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson, Metropolitan Nashville Schools Director Shawn Joseph, and Maya Bugg, CEO of the Tennessee Charter School Center.

At issue is the intent of the new charter school law, which included a provision directing districts to share student directory information requested by charter operators. Charter leaders say they need the information to make parents aware of their public school options, while Nashville leaders argue that a federal privacy law gives them discretion over who gets those lists.

“It was a very productive conversation,” said Forgety, a retired McMinn County school superintendent who asked Haslam to convene the gathering. “Before we start legislating and litigating this, we just needed to sit down and listen to each other.”

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson flank Gov. Bill Haslam at a 2016 event in Memphis.

The hour-long conversation ended with McQueen agreeing for her department to pound out a compromise to bring back to the table.

One question now is whether a consensus can be achieved before a judge’s March 16 deadline. Another is whether any proposal can hit the right notes so parents can reasonably learn about their options without being targeted with heavy-handed recruitment tactics.

Nashville is in a legal battle with the state’s charter-driven school turnaround district for refusing to share information on students zoned to failing schools. The state sued the Nashville district for its obstinance, and a Davidson County judge sided with the state and its charter operators in January. But the judge also gave Nashville more than two months to comply or appeal.

“That’s ample time to fix this problem,” Forgety said of the March 16 deadline. “We may not be able to, but what have we got to lose?”

Memphis schools are not part of the legal battle, but leaders of Shelby County Schools have the same concerns as their Nashville counterparts. And school boards in both cities voted last year to defy McQueen’s order to turn over information requested by charter operators LEAD in Nashville and Green Dot in Memphis.

Hopson vented to state lawmakers on the matter just last week, on the same day he went to the governor’s meeting.

“It’s not (that) we’re trying to be sinister and don’t want to give information. We used to give the information to (Tennessee’s Achievement School District) routinely,” he told a joint House education committee.

But Hopson halted the flow of information in 2015, he said, when the ASD shared it with the parents group Memphis Lift, which was going door-to-door to talk with other parents about their schools. “I’ve got a 10-year-old and 8-year-old,” he said. “If someone shows up at my door asking about my baby boy and baby girl with a folder with their information, we’re going to have a problem.”

Student directory information includes names, addresses, phone numbers, and students’ date of birth. School districts may choose to share such data with approved third-party vendors like government agencies and some companies.


Here’s what parents should know about how schools share student information


Bugg says such lists should be used appropriately, whether by charter operators talking with parents or companies that publish and sell school yearbooks. “We definitely are in agreement that if information is shared, it must be done so appropriately and according to agreed-upon parameters,” she told Chalkbeat. “And if it’s not, there should be consequences.”

A spokeswoman for McQueen declined this week to offer details about ongoing conversations or a potential agreement, but said the state is “encouraged about the possibility of reaching a path forward.”

But any proposal still has to go before school boards in Memphis and Nashville. And Nashville’s board may opt to pursue a legal avenue at the same time it awaits a possible legislative fix.

“The board has their principles and they want to protect student privacy and protect families from hardline, heavy-handed recruiting,” said Mark North, who lobbies for Metro Nashville Public Schools.

"We didn’t get here overnight and I don’t know if we’re going to fix it overnight, but we need to try."Rep. John Forgety, R-Athens

As for Forgety, who isn’t running for reelection and says he doesn’t “have a dog in this fight,” he’s just grateful that all the parties are at least sitting down to listen to each other.

“We didn’t get here overnight and I don’t know if we’re going to fix it overnight, but we need to try,” Forgety said. “I can assure you that both school systems and the charter center and the state of Tennessee have better things to spend their money on than attorneys on the second floor of the Davidson County Courthouse.”

on the air

De Blasio: No decision yet on ‘Chief Integration Officer’ or other diversity recommendations

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
At a September 2018 press conference at M.S. 51 in Park Slope, Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza approved an integration plan for District 15 middle schools.

Among the concrete suggestions that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s diversity task force made when it delivered its report earlier this month was one for a new executive at the city education department.

But de Blasio hasn’t yet decided whether to hire a “Chief Integration Officer,” the mayor said Friday during his weekly appearance on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show. The radio show marked at least the third time since the School Diversity Advisory Group released its report Feb. 12 that de Blasio publicly said he planned to review the recommendations, without committing to any of them.

“Chancellor [Richard] Carranza and I are going to meet with the task force. I’m looking forward to carefully reviewing what they’ve come up with,” de Blasio said. He added, “I’m not ready to say yet what specific actions we’ll take.”

The comments echo similar ones he made last week during a weather briefing and at a press conference kicking off parent council elections.

But de Blasio signaled that he could take up at least some of the recommendations, which include setting local integration targets and adding ethnic studies courses. “Obviously, you know, I named them,” he said about the task force. “I wanted to see them do this work.”

The mayor also said again that changes could be coming to the city’s screened schools, which choose students on the basis of grades and test scores in a practice that has contributed to extreme academic and racial segregation. In September, also to Brian Lehrer, de Blasio said the city was “in the process of coming up with a series of changes around the screened schools.”

On Friday, more than five months later, he suggested that that process remained in the future. “We’re going to be reevaluating the whole approach to screened schools,” he said.

Here’s a list of five things the city could do to tackle screening. And here’s Lehrer’s entire exchange with de Blasio from Friday morning:

Lehrer: Also, on education, your school desegregation task force issued its report last week. I was going to ask you about that last Friday but then the Amazon deal broke down and that kind of took over from everything else for a few days. And your task force recommended among other things every school see if its population represents the district-wide and borough-wide population, and it recommended you name a Chief Integration Officer for the school system. Will you or Chancellor Carranza order that all schools take that inventory and will you appoint a Chief Integration Officer?

Mayor: We’re going to – Chancellor Carranza and I are going to meet with the task force. I’m looking forward to carefully reviewing what they’ve come up with. Obviously, you know, I named them. I wanted to see them do this work. I’m not ready to say yet what specific actions we’ll take until we have that meeting to have a chance to really to think about. I do think what’s important here is to recognize we are in a much stronger place today than fine years ago because we have found a variety of ways to encourage diversity, to integrate our schools better, that many of which are grassroots based and therefore I think the ones that will work the best.

Look at what happened in School District 1 in Manhattan, District 3 in the West Side of Manhattan – 1 is Lower Manhattan – District 15 Brownsville, Brooklyn, where the solutions came from the grassroots. And this is what we want to replicate. We’re working with a number of other districts to do that.

While we’re working on the big citywide issues, obviously I put forward the idea to Albany of changing admissions for the specialized high schools which I think are one of our worst examples of segregation that can be fixed straight away by better policies. And I think the proposal we put forward would do that and would end the overreliance on a single standardized test.

We’re going to be re-evaluating the whole approach to screened schools. There’s a lot going on but in terms of what the next steps will be I want to really sit down with the task force and talk it through with them.

Sorting the Students

New Memphis charter school guidelines would help decide if there are too many schools in a single neighborhood

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Children at Riverview walk home from school. (2015)

Shelby County Schools is developing guidelines that would determine if a neighborhood has too many charter schools, addressing a longtime concern of school board members.

The charter school guidelines, called the Educational Priorities Document/Rubric in a proposed district policy on charter schools, would also prioritize what the district wants charter schools to focus on, such as early literacy.

Board members would be able to systematically slow the growth of charter schools in Memphis, which has swelled to 54 since the state legislature approved their creation in 2002.

“We need to defend ourselves through policy if we’re not expanding in Frayser,” for example, said board member Kevin Woods about the neighborhood during a meeting on the proposed policy Thursday afternoon. “We shouldn’t let another day go by that it’s not addressed in policy.”

The district’s charter school office has used a prototype of the guidelines to inform board members about the number of schools in neighborhoods and how they were doing. But the information was never used to make final decisions. (See appendix here.)

The state does not require districts to determine if there are too many schools in a neighborhood when considering charter school applications. (See map of schools by type in Memphis.)

But as more students choose charter schools, district buildings are left with fewer students and more overhead costs, school board members have said. Plus, a portion of state funding follows every child that enrolls in charter schools, which are run by nonprofits. About 14 percent of Shelby County Schools students attend a charter school.

The policy comes more than a year after charter and district leaders came up with compromises on thorny issues such as charters leasing district buildings and paying for district oversight, and the process for revoking charters. Former superintendent Dorsey Hopson urged the school board to come up with a policy to address neighborhood saturation over the summer when the board approved its latest round of charters.

“No surprise, we have too many schools in Memphis,” Hopson said in August. “If you got 12 schools in a three-mile radius… and all of them are underenrolled, we’re not serving kids well.”

The proposed policy is due for the second of three readings with some changes during the school board’s March meeting, said board member Miska Clay Bibbs.