While City Services Suffer, MNPS Plans $45.6 Million for Charter Expansion

Former Nashville School Board member Will Pinkston offers thoughts on plans to expand charter schools in Nashville. Pinkston is the founder of Public School Partners, a project that helps local school systems control the unabated growth of charter schools.

This holiday season has been hard on many Nashvillians in the wake of Metro government’s budget woes.

Affordable housing advocates are seeing funding cut for their initiatives. Criminal-justice reformers are being told they’ll have to wait longer than promised for the rollout of police body cameras to protect innocent citizens. Taxpayers are bracing for steep rate hikes to bail out the city’s bankrupt water and sewer system. And the list goes on.

Yet despite citywide fiscal austerity, Metro Nashville Public Schools officials are clinking champagne glasses in celebration of their latest plans to expand taxpayer-funded privately run charter schools.

During the past three months, MNPS Interim Director Adrienne Battle has quietly recommended that taxpayers fund an estimated $45.6 million in additional cash outlays for charter growth over the next five years. Battle not only pushed for a new charter school that will quickly grow to nearly 600 students, but unveiled plans to expand three existing charter schools.

Additional recommended charter growth is anticipated in the New Year — even though MNPS principals and teachers report that more charters are unneeded and unwanted, and siphon away resources from competitive teacher pay and adequate support in the classroom.

So what’s driving the MNPS agenda? Clearly, Battle does not understand the destabilizing effect that charters have on traditional public education — and she has no regard for the fiscal problems facing the rest of Metro government. Insisting on the costly privatization of public schools is a slap in the face to Mayor John Cooper, the Metro Council, and Metro employees who are tightening their belts while the school system writes blank checks for charters.

No doubt, the charter zealots will respond by flooding social media with myths. They’ll claim:

Myth #1: Charters are better than traditional schools. Fact: Charters cherry-pick in admissions to enroll students who are more likely to succeed, and then “counsel out” kids who don’t make the grade. Each spring, school board members are inundated with complaints about charters sending kids back to zoned schools prior to testing season. Not long ago, investigators found that California-based charter operator Rocketship — which Battle is recommending for a new school — failed to provide services to students with disabilities and forced homeless students to pay for uniforms.

Myth #2: Charters don’t cost more money. Fact: An independent analysis commissioned by the school board found that charter schools will, “with nearly 100% certainty,” have a negative fiscal impact on MNPS. Former Mayor Karl Dean pushed for a competing audit to refute the findings, but his auditors instead confirmed that when charter schools open, they suck funding out of traditional schools where costs such as staffing, maintenance and technology cannot be easily adjusted.

Myth #3: Charters are in high demand and families are entitled to school choice. Fact: Wait lists at most Nashville charters are minimal or non-existent. Meanwhile, in this environment of finite taxpayer resources, charter families are not more entitled to choice than working families are entitled to affordable housing. Charter families are not more important than citizens subjected to police brutality. Charter families’ wish lists should not be prioritized ahead of basic municipal needs, including clean water and reliable sewer services to homes and businesses.

Defeatists in the fight to protect public education will just shrug and say: “We have to do charters because state law says so.” The competing argument, of course, is simple: Stand up against hostile state laws. Nashville can learn from Memphis, where leaders are taking control of their school system after more than a decade of hostile, state-mandated charter intrusion.

Heading into 2019, MNPS went five consecutive years without approving a new charter school. Now, unfortunately, the school system is sliding backward and reigniting charter growth at a time when local taxpayers can ill-afford it.


The Charter Truth

So Much for Local Control

Don’t Believe the Hype

On the Need to Slow Charter Growth

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Frogge on Martha O’Bryan, Charters

Nashville school board member Amy Frogge talks about the Martha O’Bryan Center:

The Martha O’Bryan Center, led by Marsha Edwards of Brentwood, TN, “has rapidly transformed its focus from providing safety net services for the poor to growing its network of charter schools for more affluent families.”

“Martha O’Bryan was founded in 1951 to combat poverty issues.” Historically, the nonprofit has helped families with rent payments and utility bills, operated employment and tutoring programs, and provided a daycare. However, the non-profit seems to have lost focus on its mission in recent years.

Why? The non-profit has been operating in the red for the last couple of years, and “[t]he move to charter schools created a steady revenue stream. Unlike its other programs, which are dependent on fundraising and grants, charter schools come with a built-in revenue stream in the form of tax dollars from the state and local government that are attached to every student who enrolls.”

In 2016, Marsha Edwards illegally coordinated with Stand for Children during our school board elections, in violation of federal law. (“Federal tax law strictly forbids nonprofits like the Martha O’Bryan Center from getting involved, ‘directly or indirectly,’ in elections.”) Edwards sought to remove some school board members (including me) from the board.

In another questionable deal, MDHA selected “Martha O’Bryan as its partner for the charter school [as part of the Envision Cayce overhaul] without a formal bidding process, even though East Nashville has several charter school operators.” Martha O’Bryan will receive $28 million for this project, while our other district schools struggle. This was a back-room deal. The school board had no say in this agreement. Although we have no need for more charters in East Nashville, which is oversaturated with schools, Martha O’Bryan will open yet another charter there. Ironically, it’s located right next door to a charter school operated by KIPP, causing friction among charter proponents who have long argued for more “competition” between schools.

“Former employees [of Martha O’Bryan] say the increased emphasis on charter schools has come at the expense of other programs and damaged the Martha O’Bryan Center’s standing in the neighborhood it has served for so long. . . . [F]ormer staffers say . . . the center cut core programs and workers were laid off or resigned, some after decades of employment.”

“’The mission and vision that was promoted, it was not the mission and vision anymore,’ said Nina Lockert, who ran the child care center at the time of its closing. Lockert said parents felt disconnected from the nonprofit and viewed it as ‘not actually benefiting the community it was in.'”

Follow the money.



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New Kid on the Block

Charles Corra, an employee of RePublic Charter here in Nashville, has started a new blog on education policy and what he calls a “forum for ideas,” including ideas on charter schools.

In a post on charters, he says:

I look forward to a broad-based discussion of how charter schools impact Tennessee – whether it be negative, positive, or a little bit of both.

We’ll see how the discussion goes.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport