After being told "no" by the Metro school board four times — twice in defiance of a state order — Great Hearts Academies announced last night that it was giving up.
In a statement, the Phoenix-based charter operator cited a "hostile board as the charter authorizer" as the reason a "successful" opening of its proposed Nashville charter school would be "impossible." But they signaled a possible return should "conditions improve" and "Tennessee's laws and charter approval process more effectively provide for open enrollment, broad service to the community and impartial authorizers.”
As per always, The City Paper's Joey Garrison was all over the story last night. An excerpt from his report, after the jump:
Wednesday’s announcement — which few observers expected — ends the months-long saga of Great Hearts, which arrived in Nashville as the first charter proposal here that would explicitly take advantage of the state’s new open enrollment law. Previously, charter students had to qualify for free and reduced lunches. No longer beholden to the old law, the proposed West Nashville charter attracted an affluent audience.
Many Nashville parents welcomed Great Hearts as a remedy for expensive private schools and academic magnet schools with long waiting lists, but Metro school board members have continually questioned the group’s commitment to diversity.
“Make no mistake: We are setting a precedent here tonight about what we will expect in our system and what we expect from our schools that will be far-reaching and that will affect many children, including my own,” new board member Amy Frogge said Tuesday before voting against Great Hearts.
In its statement, Great Hearts’ leadership team characterized the Metro school board as being untruthful about its diversity plan — and a board that “will do anything to block it and Great Hearts, even to the point of disregarding facts and willfully violating state laws.”
Following the news of Great Hearts’ exit, its supporters expressed regrets.
“It’s unfortunate that one of the most successful charter management organizations in the country has shown a deep interest in Nashville and found a hostile a climate for opening,” said school board member Michael Hayes, a Great Hearts’ backer. “I hope that the board’s actions last night do not permanently dissuade other successful CMOs from coming to Nashville.
“The other piece that won’t go away is our board openly violated state law, and there might be repercussions for that.”
Great Hearts’ retreat perhaps explains why the Tennessee Department of Education — which has previously said Metro is violating state law for not approving the school — refrained from commenting on the issue Wednesday.
“The department will not be offering a comment at this time,” spokeswoman Kate Shellnutt said Wednesday morning, a statement that had held true by the end of the workday.
Garrison goes on to quote further from Great Hearts' statement, in which they say they are "hopeful that the state will take action so that, in the future, Great Hearts can reapply to a different, impartial charter authorizer.”
In other words: "If and when the state builds a new door into Metro that is a bit wider, we'll be back."
Gov. Bill Haslam has said he's not ready to push for a statewide charter authorizer yet. Garrison notes that, as shown in emails made public by The City Paper, state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman has expressed some support for discussing the idea, but said it would be a "long climb" in the state legislature.
Longtime local education observer and recent Metro school board candidate John Haubenreich illustrated what many believe will be the result of the standoff between Metro and Great Hearts (and the state), tweeting a handy little graph after Metro's most recent display of local autonomy.
UPDATE, 11 a.m. 9/13: In the wake of the school board’s decision Tuesday night, Townes Duncan — who heads the board of SouthComm, parent company of the Scene and The City Paper — took to Twitter to weigh in on the board’s defiance. Duncan, along with Bill DeLoache and John Eason, organized the Great Public Schools PAC that maxed out donations to charter-supporting candidates in the recent school board elections. Not surprisingly, he was a bit miffed at the new board’s decision.
“Law breaking MNPS Board = Faubus in 57, PATCO in 81,” he tweeted. “Haslam needs to show same toughness as Eisenhower & Reagan. Just saying.”
The reference is to former Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, who stood against the desegregation of Little Rock’s public schools in 1957, and to the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization strike in 1981. The “toughness” Duncan refers to is President Dwight Eisenhower’s decision to send Army troops into Arkansas in ‘57, and President Ronald Reagan’s decision to fire more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in ‘81. Back in August, in another tweet, Duncan compared longtime board member Ed Kindall, who voted against approving Great Hearts at his last meeting on the board, to "George Wallace lawlessly resisting change that would give more school choices to children."
Even aside from the curious decision to compare a black school board member to a famous white school segregationist, Duncan’s comparisons seem inflammatory. Of course, in both cases, an order from a larger body of government is being defied. But really, how is denying one application from a private company, for a charter school in affluent West Nashville, based on concerns about the lack of racial diversity, the same as saying, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” while refusing to racially integrate public schools? Just saying.