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Open-Enrollment Charter Says It's Giving Up on Nashville, for Now

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After seeing its application repeatedly rejected by Nashville's school board, a charter school operator has said enough is enough.

Great Hearts Academies, an Arizona-based charter organization, has said it will drop its effort to open a school in the city after its plan met unyielding resistance from the Metro Nashville School Board.

Board members questioned whether the school, which was to open on the city's relatively affluent west side, would serve a diverse student body. In turning down the charter, the 81,000-student district defied the will of state officials, who had said the charter had the right to open and that the local decision ran afoul of the law.

The Nashville school would have been an "open-enrollment" charter, a school model only recently allowed by changes in state law. Previously, Tennessee charters were required to meet standards for serving students who were economically disadvantaged, struggling academically, or stuck in failing schools.

The standoff over Great Hearts Academies was one of the most highly publicized examples to date of state and local authorities battling over who has the final say on charter approval, rifts that have played out in several states around the country, including Georgia and Florida.

"It is evident at this point that, with this hostile board as the charter authorizer, a successful school opening would be impossible for Great Hearts even if we were able to obtain a charter," Great Hearts said in a statement. The school "may decide to apply for a charter in the future when Tennessee's laws and charter approval process more effectively provide for open enrollment, broad service to the community, and impartial authorizers."

After local officials stymied Great Hearts' application last month, Tennessee Commissioner of Edcuation Kevin Huffman vowed that the state would "take appropriate action to ensure that the law is followed," a statement that fed speculation that the state might cut off funding to the Nashville schools. Gov. Bill Haslam later indicated that was not a realistic option.

Among other concerns, Nashville officials said they were worried that Great Hearts did not have an adequate transportation plan to ensure a diverse student body. But Great Hearts officials said the city board was wrong on the facts. Peter Bezanson, the chief academic officer at Great Hearts Academies, said the school had committed to providing busing for students during the first few years of operation, and that it eventually hoped to open other schools in locations within short driving distance for families from all backgrounds, across the city.

"We are committed to diversity in three key ways," Bezanson said in a recent e-mail to Education Week. "First, we are open to all students regardless of race, socio-economic status, academic ability, household location, and so forth. Second, we broadly market our school, in addition to intentional marketing of the school to traditionally underserved populations. Third, we [are] committed to locating our schools in areas [and] regions that are central and easily accessible."

In a statement, Metro Nashville officials said they would "learn from this experience...It is important that we work collaboratively and set a clear vision and mutually understood expectations for the district and charter school operators to constructively work together for the benefit of Nashville's children."

But Nashville Mayor Karl Dean is questioning whether the controversy will stain the reputation of the city and its schools, telling Nashville Public Radio that he worried that charter operators will "look at Nashville and think its hostile" to them.


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