The Tennessee Department of Education announced today it will impose a $3.4 million penalty on the Nashville school system for denying a charter school's application, a local decision that the state says violated the law.
The state's decision comes as the result of the 81,000-student Metro Nashville school system repeatedly turning away a bid by Great Hearts Academies, an Arizona charter school operator, to open a school on the city's west side. District officials argued that the school did not take steps to ensure that it would serve a diverse student body.
The stalemate in Tennessee is one of the most visible examples to date of state and local officials feuding over who has the right to approve a charter school in districts. Some charter school supporters argue that local districts are resistant to the independent public schools and disinclined to allow them to open, no matter what their merits. District officials have countered that state-mandated decisions on charters usurp local authority and fail to take into account the financial and academic consequences that new charters have on the regular public school system.
State officials said Tuesday they will withhold "nonclassroom, administrative funding" from the district, a step that they argue will prevent the cuts from affecting the district's students. The department said it will re-allocate the money to other Tennessee school systems.
"We were all hopeful that Metro Nashville's school board would obey the law and avoid this situation," State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said in a statement. "It is our job to enforce state law, and we have no choice but to take this action."
The department's press release included statements of support from a pair of top Republican officials, Tennessee Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who criticized the Nashville school board's "brazen defiance of state law," adding: "The rule of law is not optional in Tennessee. Those who break it must be held accountable."
Last month, before Nashville officials issued their most recent rejection of the Great Hearts application, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam appeared to discount the idea of stripping funding from the district. [UPDATE: A spokesman for Haslam said Tuesday that the governor agrees with the state department's decision to withhold funding, saying the Nashville board's actions had run afoul of the law.]
Nashville officials expressed disappointment over the penalty. They also quarreled with the state's depiction of how the loss of funds would affect the district's schools and students.
While the state said the money would come from the nonclassroom pieces of the state's Basic Education Program funding formula, district officials countered that no such funds are devoted to administrative costs. The money supports "utilities, student transportation, maintenance, and other things that directly affect" students, the district said in a statement. "None of these items are in any way linked to charter school approval processes."
"We do not yet have a plan on how we will respond to this disruptive mid-year cut," the district said. "Our priority will always be to give the best education to our students with the resources we have."
Nashville school leaders also say there is no evidence they have antipathy toward charters. The district said it has approved four charter applications recently, bringing the total number of charters in the system to 14, with six more scheduled to open after that.
Whether the decision has any impact on the charter school in question remains unclear. Great Hearts Academies said recently that it was ending its bid to open a school in Nashville, saying that the "hostile" actions of the Nashville school board had convinced the charter organization that its fight was a losing one.
The Great Hearts Academies school would have been an "open-enrollment" charter, a model that was 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 poor-performing schools.