New State Commission Pushes Charters on Nashville

Gov. Bill Lee won approval of a “super charter commission” back in 2019. Now, that commission is imposing an unwanted charter school on Nashville.

The Commission voted today to overturn the decision by the MNPS School Board to reject the charter application from Nashville Classical, which already operates an elementary and middle school in East Nashville. The new school is proposed for West Nashville.

Nate Rau has a great explainer on the fight over Nashville Classical in the Tennessee Lookout.

Nashville Classical, which has already been rejected once by the school board with a 7-1 vote, submitted its appeal last week.

But, the starting point for the local debate over Nashville Classical’s application is a new state law that says the Nashville school board’s decision is functionally irrelevant. If the appeal is rejected, as expected, the school can simply appeal to the new Republican-backed state charter school commission, which would likely grant its approval. Unless a political meteor strikes and creates some unforeseen circumstance, Nashville Classical will be open to enrolling kindergarten beginning next year.

This was written back in June. Now, here we are in mid-October, and Nashville Classical has gained the predicted approval from the Charter Commission.

This should come as no surprise given Gov. Lee’s strong penchant for privatization.

School Board member Abigail Tylor is speaking out on the decision, but the reality is this type of top-down privatization is exactly what Bill Lee wants and exactly why the super charter commission was started.

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A Warning on Privatization

This article originally appeared in The Progressive.

In 2012, Tennessee’s began a scheme known as the Achievement School District, or ASD. The goal was simple and bold: Take a handful of schools in the bottom 5 percent of student achievement, according to state test scores, and move those schools into the top 25 percent in student achievement in just five years.

This miraculous shift, officials claimed, would be accomplished by placing schools under a new state agency, which would then determine an intervention strategy that might include turning a standard public school over to a charter operator. Any school anywhere in the state would be eligible, so long as it was on the “priority schools” list. As a whole, the schools would be governed by their own “district,” complete with a superintendent who reported directly to the commissioner of education.

Tennessee’s commissioner of education at the time, Kevin Huffman, hired charter operator Chris Barbic to run the new district. Barbic’s arrival coincided with the takeover of a first cohort of schools by the ASD, along with the unveiling of his plan to generate the expected turnaround.

So what was that plan, exactly? 

Well, of course, it was to turn all the priority schools over to charter operators. After all, Barbic reasoned, other charter school leaders would know just what to do with entire schools from urban districts with high levels of entrenched poverty.

But the charter school plan had another, more sinister impact. Tennessee’s charter school law gave charter operators ten year charters from the granting district. Since the ASD had taken over the local schools (most of them in Memphis), the ASD was now the charter-granting district. Now, schools in the ASD would not be eligible to return to their home districts for ten years, rather than the five years envisioned in the initial ASD legislation.

By executing the charter switch, Huffman and Barbic had immediately doubled the amount of time they would have to produce results with their education experiment, even though both of them would be gone by the time the ten-year period was up.

Still, the plan was bold and its promises were big. Almost immediately, there were problems. 

Some charter operators dropped out, and new operators swooped in. A series of directors attempted to run the rapidly sinking ship.

There were even Thunderdome-like contests early on to decide which schools would be handed over to charter operators, despite parent and community objections.

In 2020, New York City math teacher and popular blogger Gary Rubinstein, who tracked the ASD from its inception, reported the ASD’s “initial promise” to take over the bottom 5 percent of schools and “catapult them into the top 25 percent in five years” had “completely failed . . . . Chris Barbic resigned, Kevin Huffman resigned, Barbic’s replacement resigned.  Of the thirty schools, they nearly all stayed in the bottom 5 percent except a few that catapulted into the bottom 10 percent.”

When Barbic resigned after just a few years on the job, Chalkbeat reported, he “offered a dim prognosis” on the fate of the ASD. “As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results,” he wrote. “I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.”

Still, the ASD muddled forward. Now, the failed experiment is at the end of its run. Multiple groups of students have traveled in and out of charter doors with the end result being disruption, displacement, and discouraging results.

As the tenth year runs out, questions remain about exactly how to transition the schools back to their districts. Funny, it always seemed so easy to just move students and their families to charter schools and then to other charter schools as reformers scrambled to manipulate student populations in search of ever-elusive results. 

Even so, it seemed as if the ASD had reached its end.

In March, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, a Repubican, announced yet another plan to continue the district. More specifically, Lee wants to allow a handful of his personal favorite charter operators to continue to manage some select ASD schools. 

Not content to let a really bad idea die, Lee is backing legislation that would allow some schools to move from the ASD to the jurisdiction of the state’s relatively new Charter School Commission. That Commission was created by Lee in his first year as governor in order to circumvent the rejection of charter schools by local school boards.

Another piece of legislation, which has stalled for now, would allow Lee’s commissioner of education to take over an entire district by firing the director of schools and replacing the elected school board. This circumvention of democracy was widely seen as a way for Lee to send a message to the outspoken school boards in Memphis and Nashville that they’d better fall in line or else.

Of course, it hasn’t been lost on observers that Memphis and Nashville are suing the state, challenging the adequacy of the school funding formula. While the legislation is on hold for now, the point is clear: Districts are to do what the governor says and stay quiet when they disagree.

In fact, at a recent press event discussing the use of federal stimulus funds by local districts, Lee suggested that the state’s department of education would be watching districts to ensure they spent the money the right way. House Education Committee Chair Mark White went one step further, saying that he would be expecting tremendous jumps in student performance in exchange for this money. 

Education advocates around the country should beware these sorts of moves—power grabs cloaked in the guise of “assistance or guidance,” legislation to extend failed reform models, and/or the repackaging of proven reform failures as something shiny and new.

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Welcome to the Charter Party

On Friday afternoon before Mother’s Day weekend and just after the Tennessee General Assembly had adjourned, the Tennessee Department of Education announced 15 grants for charter school applicants – including grants for charter applications in several districts that do not currently authorize any charter schools – Rutherford County, Montgomery County, Millington Municipal, Fayette County, and Williamson County. The grants would allow applicants to plan and design their applications, and the applicants could ultimately bypass local school districts and receive charter authorization from Gov. Lee’s “Super Charter Commission.” The grants could also result in usurping the authority of elected school boards in Shelby, Hamilton, and Davidson counties.

Here’s more from a TNDOE press release:

Today, the Tennessee Department of Education announced that 15 applicants have been awarded subgrants under the Charter School Expansion Grant. These funds are intended to support sponsors throughout the planning, design, application, and potential launch of new charter schools in the state.

These subgrants will fund up to 8,800 new high-quality charter school seats that, subject to authorizer approval, will be available to students in five districts that currently do not have any charter schools and in three districts that already authorize charter schools.

Subgrants totaling $6.3 million were awarded primarily from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER), which is the second GEER grant designed specifically to support charter schools, with additional funds from the Charter School Program grant.

And, the key line about subverting the will of voters in these districts:

The review process for charter school applications for the 2022-23 school year is ongoing and the subgrant awards are contingent upon approval of the proposed charter school by the applicants’ respective school districts or, if an appeal occurs, the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission. (emphasis added).

That’s right, school privatization is coming to Tennessee in suburban and rural districts whether voters want it or not. While Lee’s voucher scheme is bogged down in court, Lee is acting unilaterally to charterize Tennessee’s public schools.

This is exactly what Memphis state Rep. Antonio Parkinson said would happen back in 2019:

Of course, this should come as no surprise to anyone paying attention to Lee and his affinity for privatization.

No word yet from Republican lawmakers in Fayette, Montgomery, Rutherford, or Williamson counties on how they feel about Lee pushing charters in their areas without seeking legislative approval.

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Lee Continues Predictable Privatization Push

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is no fan of public schools as he makes clear time and again. Whether it is advancing voucher schemes, creating charter school slush funds, or refusing to invest in our underfunded public schools, Lee is working tirelessly to undermine public education in our state.

Now, Lee is seeking to reward charter schools in Memphis and trap more schools in the failed Achievement School District.

Chalkbeat has more:

When Tennessee started taking over low-performing schools and matching most with charter operators in 2012, the plan was to return the schools to their home districts when they improved in an estimated five years.

Now Gov. Bill Lee is proposing other options for schools that have remained in the state’s turnaround program for nearly 10 years — most notably to let some of the higher-performing ones move from one state-run district to another.

Under legislation introduced this week, Lee proposed letting some charter schools bypass their original district when leaving Tennessee’s Achievement School District, also known as the ASD. Instead, they could apply to move directly to the state’s new charter school commission, which the governor helped to create.

It’s not like we couldn’t see this coming. In fact, warnings about Lee’s aggressive stance about privatization came early. In 2018, I noted:

Even though as early as 2016, Bill Lee was extolling the virtues of school voucher schemes and even though he’s a long-time supporter of Betsy DeVos’s pro-voucher Tennessee Federation for Children and even though he has appointed not one, but two voucher vultures to high level posts in his Administration, it is somehow treated as “news” that Bill Lee plans to move forward with a voucher scheme agenda in 2019.

In addition to the failure of the ASD to do, well, anything there’s also ample evidence of the failure of charter schools. Never mind the facts, though, Lee is committed to privatizing at all costs.

In 2019, I noted that charter schools in Tennessee and elsewhere are the “God That Failed” – taking money while yielding little in the way of results. Then, I suggested that in spite of all the evidence, Tennessee would continue down this path:

In other words, poverty matters. And, making the investments to combat it matters, too.


In other words, money matters. Districts with concentrated poverty face two challenges: Students with significant economic needs AND the inability of the district to generate the revenue necessary to adequately invest in schools.

But, by all means, let’s continue to worship at the feet of the Charter God hoping that our faith in “free markets” will be enough to move the needle for the kids who most need the opportunities provided by public education.

Plus, there was this great video demonstrating what must be the typical conversation around the Lee Administration’s privatization war room:

Remember when education advocates warned that Lee’s charter commission would grow, expand, and take over more schools and we were told that we were just being silly? Well, here’s how that seems to be turning out:

If the ASD bill passes, the commission’s role will expand, and its portfolio of charter schools is likely to grow. (The entity currently oversees three schools in Nashville and one in Memphis.) For now, the commission’s authority is limited as an appellate authorizer of charter organizations deemed to be high quality but rejected by local school boards.

What’s also interesting is the propensity of Tennessee policymakers to do a lot of talking that results in little action that helps students:

Tennessee leaders have been talking for years about how to exit ASD schools that haven’t met early improvement goals acknowledged now as too lofty. But because the transition involves everything from people and property to finances and governance, the state has found it almost as hard to transition schools out of the ASD as it was to take them over.

It’s as if there is no one leading anything other than the charge privatize public schools at all costs. ASD running into problems? Here’s an idea: Let’s let it continue to plague poor communities with little regard to actual results.

Will Gov. Lee creates confusion by attacking Confucius, our schools have real needs. Needs he seems content to ignore. This is not an accident, it’s an intentional act designed to decimate public schools. At this point, with a state experiencing a huge surplus (likely over $2 billion this year alone), refusing to fund public schools is a policy choice. It’s a choice that keeps being made over and over again. Sadly, it’s a choice that is made while some so-called public school supporters stand by and also indicate support for Lee.

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Mystery Solved

Amy Frogge solved the mystery:

Here’s the story:

A few days ago, I shared a Tennessee Education Report piece about mailers sent out in the District 3 school board race on behalf of candidate Brian Hubert. It garnered a really interesting response. 

The mailers came from a group called the “Nashville Parents Committee,” and the address listed on the mailers was the same as that of the Tennessee Charter School Center. After TN Ed Report put out its blog post suggesting that the TN Charter Center was responsible for the mailers (a logical assumption), both Brian Hubert and his wife responded that they were unaware of these mailers and did not coordinate with the “Nashville Parents Committee.” Then, a couple of days later, the Tennessee Charter School Center issued a response disavowing the mailers. 

As it turns out, the registered agent for the “Nashville Parents Committee” is Todd Ervin, a tax attorney at the well-heeled Bass, Berry & Sims law firm. (I’m going to hazard a guess here that Mr. Ervin has not formed this committee to advocate for his children’s local public schools.) Mr. Ervin also just happens to be the registered agent for Tennesseans for Student Success.

Tennesseans for Student Success is a pro-school privatization organization that was set up to support Governor Haslam’s education agenda. This group shares the same agenda as the Tennessee Charter School Center and has recently inserted itself into Representative Mike Stewart’s Democratic primary by supporting his opponent James Turner (see comments). Although it appears that Haslam is no longer involved with Tennesseans for Student Success, it is still very active. It promotes charter schools, excessive standardized testing, and teacher “accountability” (our deeply flawed teacher evaluation model that evaluates 70% of TN teachers on classes they’ve never taught). These are all tentacles of the “school choice” movement. Unreliable standardized test scores are used to prove that TN schools are “failing” and thus to market new and “innovative” solutions, such as vouchers, more charter schools, and more tests and test prep to “assess” how our students and teachers are performing. The common theme here is profit for private interests. 

Over and over again, we find ourselves fighting the same battles in different guises against various forms of corruption. It becomes exhausting. During my 8 years on the board, we first had to fight against charter school proliferation (which drains money from public schools and directs it to private interests) and absurd amounts of standardized tests for our children. Then came vouchers (for the moment, defeated!). Now the battle has morphed once again. Former Nashville superintendent Shawn Joseph and current TN Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn, both affiliated with the Eli Broad network, are part of the latest scam to direct public funds to private interests and education vendors in the form of no-bid contracts. (Broad also pushes charter schools.) Millions and millions of dollars are at stake in these efforts. But make no mistake, all of this is ultimately about personal greed at the expense of children.

On a related note, I mentioned in my original post that District 9 candidate Russelle Bradbury is a former Teach for America teacher who has made pro-charter school statements. This matters because TFA and charter schools have a symbiotic relationship, and TFA candidates, like former school board member and TFA executive Elissa Kim, typically view charter schools and standardized testing as the only “solutions” to public school challenges. (I know there are good TFA teachers in our school system, some of whom have even taught my own children, but all of this is beside the point.) Ms. Bradbury denied that she was ever a TFA teacher, to which I responded that she has said (both verbally and in writing) that her “Mom likes to tell people, ‘Russelle did Teach for America, on her own!'” I’ve invited her to respond, but have not heard back. 

Keep your eye on these dark money groups that don’t serve the best interests of Nashville’s students. Even when candidates don’t coordinate with groups like Tennesseans for Student Success, organizations like these typically fight against the candidate whom they view as the most effective advocate for true public education. And, as always, just follow the money!

TC Talks Masters

Nashville education blogger TC Weber extols the virtues of District 3 School Board candidate Emily Masters in his post today. Here’s what he has to say:

District 3 has a fantastic candidate in Emily Masters, one who is knowledgeable, experienced, personable, and capable of seeing the big picture. She understands the need to address teacher recruitment and retention in a meaningful way. She is ready to serve as a champion to reduce inequities, and address the capital needs of our buildings. As a parent of two MNPS children, she is well versed in the history of MNPS but not at the expense of being blind to the future challenges that the district will face.

It’s been said that school board elections are the perfect time to hold conversations about what a community’s schools should look like. Nobody is better poised to host that conversation than Masters. She’s knowledgable and articulate on the subjects that should be the focus.

But those weren’t the subjects that dominated this weekend’s conversation. A mailer for her opponent paid for by a previously undeclared PAC – Nashville Parents Committee – that shared an address with the Nashville Charter School Center hit mailboxes and started tongues a-wagging. Here we go again, talking about dark money, charter school proliferation, and their evil plans to destroy public education. Lost in the conversation were the high-quality traits of Mrs. Masters, and the reason her name should be on every voter’s ballot.

READ MORE>

A Denial

In response to the story on mailers from Nashville Parents Committee in the District 3 Nashville School Board race, I received this statement from the Tennessee Charter School Center:

The following statement is issued by Dr. Maya Bugg, CEO, Tennessee Charter School Center, in reference to Tennessee Education Report’s accusation of the Tennessee Charter School Center being involved in a mailer campaign supporting Brian Hubert: 

On July 24, 2020, the Tennessee Education Report wrote a post accusing the Tennessee Charter School Center of involvement with a mailer that was sent out by a group called the Nashville Parents Committee in support of Metro Nashville Public School Board candidate Brian Hubbert in the 3rd District race.

The accusation was false and based on the Parents Committee’s address being the same office building as the Tennessee Charter School Center operates from. That address is for a large office building in downtown Nashville that, in addition to a number of independent businesses, also houses a coworking space occupied by more than 100 businesses, organizations and individuals including the Tennessee Charter School Center and many others. 

The Tennessee Charter School Center is in no way affiliated with the Nashville Parents Committee or the mailer in question. As a 501(c)3 non-profit advocacy organization, TCSC abides by the legal requirement that it is prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.

It is the responsibility of a site which aims to provide “relevant education news and in-depth analysis of education policy impacting our schools” to also provide accurate information. As always, we at the TN Charter School Center are available to address any questions about our organization’s work or public charter schools in Tennessee. We fully condemn the sharing of false information to the public and hope that the parties involved will post a public correction to statements promptly.

Mystery Mail

The races for Nashville School Board are heating up and there appears to be a new player on the scene. A group called the Nashville Parents Committee is sending out mailers in support of Brian Hubert in the 3rd District race.

What’s interesting about the Nashville Parents Committee is that a google search for them yields no results. The group also hasn’t filed campaign finance disclosures with either the Davidson County Election Commission or the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance. There’s no Facebook page or Twitter feed for this committee of parents.

So, let’s take a look at these pro-Hubert mailers and see if we can find some clues.

Let’s take a look at the return address for “Nashville Parents Committee.”

Well… this is interesting. Look who has the same address:

Yes, that’s right. The Tennessee Charter School Center. That’s the group started by former Nashville Mayor and charter school backer Karl Dean. I wonder how many Nashville “parents” make up this committee. Also, the Tennessee Charter School Center is not registered as a PAC or disclosed (so far) as a donor to Hubert.

Will we ever know who is pumping tens of thousands of dollars into this race in order to move the ball for charter schools? Possibly not, as the mailer doesn’t explicitly say to “vote for” Hubert. It’s pretty damn clear that those behind the mailer want you to vote for Hubert, though.

Should dark money like this be a driving force in our elections? Did Hubert know about the mailer and coordinate with the pro-charter group? Why is a charter school group backing Hubert?

As voters head to the polls, these are important questions that Hubert and his financial backers should answer.

Charters and School Closures in Nashville

Nashville school board member Amy Frogge explains the impact of charter schools on MNPS in a recent Facebook post:

Last night, the board voted to close and consolidate schools in North Nashville. No one wants to close neighborhood schools, and this was a difficult decision. However, MNPS is out of money, and Dr. Battle recommended the closures because she believes MNPS can better serve the impacted students if we consolidate our resources.

These closures are a direct result of charter school expansion in Nashville. What happened last night is part of the charter school playbook. It’s happened in cities throughout the US. When a city opens a number of charter schools, enrollment decreases in traditional schools. The city is then trying to fund two separate, competing schools systems with the same pot of funding. Here in Nashville, our pot of funding was already insufficient. Because of state law, charter schools will always have the advantage because they must be paid, and they are always funded first. So cuts always come from our traditional, neighborhood schools. When money runs out, a city must close neighborhood schools. That’s the charter school playbook.

Nashville is also dealing with the additional threat of state takeover. Through the state-run Achievement School District, the state can reach down and remove any school performing in the bottom 5% of schools statewide and convert it to a charter school. This strategy has not yielded good results for students, since the performance of the ASD has been dismal. All of the schools we closed last night were priority schools (in the bottom 5% of schools in the state). By closing them, we are protecting these schools from state takeover.

Last night, the board voted to request $929 million in operational funding for next year. It’s more likely we will receive $914 million, which is our maintenance of effort budget from last year. Of that amount, approximately $145 million must go towards our charter schools, which serve only a small percentage of our students. In fact, charter costs will actually increase by $6.6 million next year, while we must cut other costs throughout the district. The charters are continuing to expand grade levels while other schools operate without enough funding. Our vote to close schools last night will save us about $3.5 million per year. If we were not trying to fund a charter sector right now, we could afford to keep these schools open. This is exactly what some of us have tried to warn the board about for years. Yet the board has continued to vote for more charter seats.

What happened last night is the very vision of the charter sector. It’s called “disruption,” a term the charter sector has borrowed from the business world. Charter schools have “disrupted the markets” in Nashville. In this case, the “markets” are children and neighborhoods.** [See below.]

Also, back in 2013, I spent nearly a year fighting the passage of the state charter authorizer law. I testified at the legislature and met with lawmakers, all to no avail. The state charter authorizer law was then-mayor Karl Dean’s vision. He pushed to pass a law that removed local control of schools so that Nashville would open more charter schools. So here we now sit- lacking adequate school funding, without local control of our schools, and with increased money going towards the charter sector while we close neighborhood schools. The chickens have finally come home to roost.

None of this is Dr. Battle’s fault. She is dealing with the outcomes of decisions made years ago, as well as a current emergency. Dr. Battle actually found a way to reduce funding for charter schools this year, which surprised me, since we have never been able to cut charter funding before. It’s only fair that if our district schools must suffer cuts, charter schools should, too. The good news here is that the district has no plans to sell any of the vacated buildings or to rent them to charter schools. (Handing over vacated buildings to charter schools is also part of the charter playbook.) Dr. Battle has provided us assurance that this will not happen. Instead the schools will be preserved for district use and can be reopened as neighborhood schools in the future if enrollment increases.

Equity has always been at the heart of the charter debate. Not only do charters receive district funding, but charters also have access to additional funding as well. Our district provides charter schools with the per pupil funding required by state, as well as some free district services. On top of that, charter schools often receive extra funding from investors or philanthropists, and they are sometimes provided with special funding. For example, back in 2010, at a time when we had no funds to renovate other school buildings that had been on a waiting list for years, Mayor Dean gave KIPP $10 million to renovate a historic building for ONE charter school ALONE. And now, in the midst of a pandemic, even though most charter schools are not losing funding, charters are applying for federal aid in the form of small business loans that can be forgiven. None of this is fair or right. By opening charter schools, we have created greater inequities in our school system. Our traditional schools, which serve the most costly and challenging to educate students are on the losing end, and those are the students who will suffer the loss.

I hope this has been an eye-opening experience for Nashville. Charter schools, which make money for wealthy investors, are not the answer. Nashville must focus on supporting our community schools.

[** As one commenter says below: “School closings are the heart of free market based ed ‘reform.’ The entire concept is that schools compete for limited funds, that ‘bad’ schools will lose and close and ‘good’ schools will win and have the funds directed toward them. Besides the fact that this model has not been successful at producing large scale improvements for kids, there is this – If you oppose school closures and the disruption and pain they cause communities and families, you should not support a competition based model as the means to school improvement, because school closings are the inevitable end result and the means by which the market ‘reform’ system is intended to work. If Tennessee continues to pursue this approach, we will see this happen more and more.

Another note – this is why you very rarely see ‘reform’ funders and organizations advocate for large scale increases in investment in public schools, and instead refer to ‘throwing money at the problem.’ Keeping resources limited and requiring educators to compete over them, with winners and losers, is another essential aspect of the competition/market model.”]

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Pilfering Privatizers Seek Profit Amid Pandemic

This article on school privatization efforts in Tennessee originally appeared in The Progressive.

What’s the cure for COVID-19 in schools? Charter schools, of course!

Budget cuts on the horizon because of the economic damage caused by weeks of stay-at-home orders? Sounds like your districts need more charter schools.

Concerned about what the 2020-21 school year might look like?

Charter. Schools.

When it comes to public schools, Tennessee’s answer to the COVID-19 pandemic has been clear and simple: Privatization. 

First, in mid-March, Governor Bill Lee chose to include millions of dollars for a new voucher scheme in his emergency budget before the legislature left Nashville due to the coronavirus. How’d he pay for it? By cutting a planned investment in teacher compensation.

Now, as Tennessee’s two largest school districts, Memphis and Nashville, face significant budget shortfalls for the upcoming school year, the possibility of the state forcing unwanted charter schools on them looms large. These new charters would eat up valuable district resources at a time when funding is scarce. They also will come in the two districts where the state’s “Education Savings Account” voucher scheme will pilfer public dollars for privatizers.

In 2019, the newly-minted governor pushed for and won approval of a State Charter School Commission. This new body will have broad authority to grant charters to schools—even those schools denied a charter by local school districts. If the state body approved a charter school, the commission would manage the school, but the funding for that school would come from the local district.

In other words, whether or not Nashville or Memphis want more charter schools, the Charter Commission can approve and locate a charter in any district in the state without the approval or consent of the local board—then mandate that the local board spend funds to support it. 


Fast forward to May 2020. 

Right now, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is pushing a scheme whereby states can acquire additional federal stimulus funds for education if they agree to advance a school privatization agenda. 

Enter the Tennessee Charter School Commission. While Nashville and Memphis have taken a cautious approach to charter school approval in recent years, the Charter Commission, stacked with Governor Lee’s handpicked privatization proponents, seems primed to put charters where they aren’t wanted. 

Obligating districts to fund charters would also divert money that they need to provide resources for students if a second wave of COVID-19 wreaks havoc this fall. Nashville is already staring down a $100 million budget shortfall for education, and Memphis is considering a tax increase just to maintain its school system. 

How much of a financial bite will new charter schools take from these struggling districts?

That’s hard to calculate exactly. But in 2014, a study conducted by independent research firm MGT of America predicted that “new charter schools will, with nearly 100 percent certainty, have a negative fiscal impact” on Nashville’s school district. MGT calculated a price tag that could exceed $300 million in direct costs to the city’s public schools over a five-year period.

A more recent study in North Carolina found that the financial burden of adding charter schools to one urban county school district, Durham, was between $500 and $700 per student. In rural districts in the state with fewer charters, the impact was less negative but still significant—up to $300 per student.


Added to the estimated cost of charter schools in Tennessee is a whole new disaster: a voucher scheme. Though this program was ruled unconstitutional by a judge on May 5 (and will no longer start next year, as initially planned), it revealed the true aims of education reformers in the state. 

By forcing charters on cash-strapped districts, DeVos and Lee are using the chaos caused by COVID-19 to advance a privatization agenda. Something similar happened when public schools were hollowed out in New Orleans, post-Katrina.  

DeVos, in a statement on May 4, put it diplomatically: 

“The current disruption to the normal model is reaffirming something I have said for years. We must rethink education to better the realities of the twenty-first century. This is the time for local education leaders to unleash their creativity and ingenuity.”

Lee, a longtime financial supporter of DeVos, recently made the same point, in language that’s just as mystifying. “The Department of Education has a clear directive to challenge the status quo by developing solutions that best advocate for students and teachers,” Lee said. 

The COVID-19 crisis has created new opportunities for profit-seeking privatizers to prey on public education. We must continue shining a light on those working to undermine public schools, so that we can continue fighting for the public good. 

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