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Tenn. Withholds $3.4 Million From Nashville Schools Over Charter Refusal

The metropolitan Nashville school system has 81,000 students, about 70 percent of whom receive free or reduced-price meals, according to the district. In addition, nearly one-quarter of the district's students come from homes where English is not the native language. That level of diversity and economic hardship, the district says, is one of the reasons the district repeatedly rejected an application by Great Hearts Academies to open a charter school, saying that affluent students would be over-represented in the proposed school's population because of the school's proposed location.

That reasoning was not good enough for the Tennessee education department, which announced earlier this week that it would not change its decision to withhold $3.4 million in state aid from Nashville schools because, state officials said, the district violated state law by rejecting the charter. As Stephanie Banchero explains in the Wall Street Journal, the school had met all other state requirements, and a state law passed last year allows any child in the public school system, regardless of economic status, to enroll in charters.

State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said the department had "no choice but to take this action," while Speaker of the House Beth Harwell argued that the district had two chances to "follow the law" but chose not to on both occasions. (The district has rejected the school's application twice.) States don't simply withhold money from districts every day of the week, so Tennessee's decision to keep the cash out of Nashville's coffers is a notable conflict between states and districts.

The $3.4 million is officially labeled as non-instructional money that would have been used for administrative purposes, although on its "On (Public) Education" blog, the district argued that the lost state aid would still "directly affect students and classrooms."

In a July 27 blog post, the district, in a letter to the state school board explaining its rejection of Great Hearts' proposal, delved into the demographic issue more deeply. It highlighted the makeup of 12 Great Hearts schools in Arizona (where Great Hearts Academies is based) listed black students as less than 9 percent of their total enrollment; none of the schools listed Hispanic enrollment as greater than 23 percent of their total enrollment; and all but one of the schools had less than 13 percent of its students receiving free and reduced-price meals.

In addition, among the schools identified by the no more than 8 percent of Great Hearts students are in special education programs, and no school had more than 1.2 percent of its students in English-language-learner programs.

Saying that Great Hearts "claims" to use a "blind, lottery process" to enroll students at the Arizona schools, the Nashville school district's director, Jesse Register, wrote: "(The) resulting segregation is unacceptable."

It should be noted, however, that the Great Hearts website lists 15 schools currently open, all in Arizona. North Phoenix Prep, Maryvale Prep, and Archway North Phoenix are not listed on the Nashville district's blog post.

As my colleague Sean Cavanagh wrote in a blog post at "Charters and Choice" last month, Great Hearts said it has given up on efforts to open a charter school in Nashville anyway, given the hostile district board. The group's chief academic officer also told Sean that it broadly markets its schools and tries to locate them in central, easily-accessible areas. Obviously, Nashville school officials disagreed on that last point.

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