Tennessee’s two largest districts defy state order to share student info with charters

Elected school leaders in Memphis and Nashville are digging in their heels against a state order to release public information about their students to state-run charter schools.

Shelby County’s school board agreed Tuesday night to defy the order, a day after the chairwoman of Nashville’s school board sent a letter to Education Commissioner Candice McQueen indicating that her district would do the same.

Meanwhile, McQueen said she would request the state attorney general’s opinion on the matter.

At issue is student directory information, including names, phone numbers, addresses and emails. Charter operators say they have a right to the lists under the state’s new charter school law, but local districts don’t want to share the information so they can retain their students.

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

In her letter to McQueen, Anna Shepherd said Nashville’s board has no problem with sharing information for students already enrolled in state-run charter schools. She took issue, however, with operators who use the information to recruit students now zoned to the district’s low-performing schools.

Shelby County leaders concurred, saying that using student information for recruitment goes against the intent of the state law. The Memphis board also authorized its legal team to submit its argument in writing if Nashville’s board opts to file a lawsuit over the issue.

Both boards cite a committee discussion in February when state lawmakers were asking questions about the charter school bill as it made its way through the legislature. Rep. John Forgety of Athens said the information could not be used as a “recruiting tool,” and Chuck Cagle, an attorney for the state’s superintendents group, agreed. No one disputed their statements.

However, the final bill that passed excluded language that prohibits using the information to market to students, even as the law prohibits charter schools from sharing the information with anyone else.

Several lawmakers are now siding with the school boards. Earlier Tuesday, McQueen spoke with six Nashville-area legislators in a conference call organized by Rep. John Clemmons. He said later that McQueen held steady on her stance. He also expressed hope that she will not withhold funding from districts for their positions.

Nashville’s board voted last week to withhold student directory information after McQueen ordered Superintendent Dorsey Hopson to share the lists with state-run schools in Memphis. Nashville Superintendent Shawn Joseph also received a copy of McQueen’s order.

Hopson’s administration has cited federal student privacy laws for its decision to withhold the information.

Shepherd’s letter on Monday cited an untested federal rule that allows school districts to limit who can obtain student directory information and why. That rule, amended in 2011, contradicts public record laws but has yet to be challenged in court, said Frank LoMonte, a First Amendment lawyer and director of The Brechner Center at the University of Florida.

“The way state open-records laws work is, either a record is confidential under federal law or it isn’t,” said LoMonte.

Below is the resolution from Shelby County Schools and Shepherd’s letter to McQueen.