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State-Local Standoff Over Charters in Tennessee

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Tennessee state officials and Nashville school leaders are locked in a prolonged, and seemingly quite tense battle over a proposal to launch an open-enrollment charter school. Local officials have resisted allowing the charter to open, and the state has responded by telling them: you must.

The Metro Nashville school board initially rejected the application from Great Hearts Academies, citing a number of concerns, one of which was that the charter school would not serve a diverse student body. The school, which seeks to open in relatively affluent west Nashville, appealed to the state's board of education.

The state panel directed the 81,000-student school district to reconsider—and to approve the school. The state board also said the school needed to address a number of issues, including questions about diversity and ensuring that teachers were licensed, said Dannelle Walker, the general counsel for the state board of education, in an interview.

But a majority of the Metro Nashville Board, concerned that those lingering issues were not adequately addressed, instead voted this week to postpone action on the charter school. That delay drew a brief-but-stern response from state education commission Kevin Huffman.

"The Metro Nashville Public Schools Board of Education is now operating in violation of state law," Huffman said in a statement. "We will take appropriate action to ensure that the law is followed."

That statement led to speculation that Huffman might seek to withdraw the Metro Nashville school district's state funding. But a spokesman, Kelli Gauthier, told Education Week today that option wasn't on the table. The dispute worked its way up to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who said he was not inclined to remove funding from the local district, according to the Tennessean. The governor said he hoped the Metro Nashville board would "proceed with the law, as it is stated."

"We'll have to think about what we do if the Metro school board doesn't go along with what the law is," Haslam said. "That being said, threatening to withhold money—that's not the business we're in. We're in the business of educating children."

The battle is notable partly because Great Hearts Academies' proposal was made possible by a recent change in Tennessee law, which previously put restrictions on the students who were allowed to attend charters, limiting eligibility mostly to those who were economically disadvantaged, struggling academically, or stuck in failing schools. The law removed those restrictions and said any students in a charter's jurisdiction could attend. Great Heart Academies would be an open enrollment charter school, as permitted by the law, Walker said.

It looks like Great Hearts Academies is going to get another shot: The Metro Nashville board is expected to review the school's case in September.

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