Tension Over Charter-School Growth In Nashville Could Still Prompt Legal Fight With State, Eventually

Nashville Schools Director Jesse Register met for lunch Friday with seven of the school board's nine members.  Lawyer John Borkowski told them via conference call he continues to see room for a potential court fight with the state over charters and school funding. Credit WPLN / Daniel Potter

Nashville Schools Director Jesse Register met for lunch Friday with seven of the school board’s nine members. Lawyer John Borkowski told them via conference call he continues to see room for a potential court fight with the state over charters and school funding. Credit WPLN / Daniel Potter

Some members of Nashville’s school board and the Metro Council want to show state officials the district can’t afford to keep adding more charter schools.  They argue it’s unsustainable, and is hollowing out traditional public schools.

Metro has added more than a dozen charters in recent years.  They run their own way, getting public money like a traditional school, so long as their students show good results.  The trouble, says Councilman Steve Glover, is the proliferation of charters is eating a growing slice of the budget, which may close some other schools:

“Just because a student leaves a building, you don’t close the whole building, and so the hard costs remain, and it’s putting a financial strain on the taxpayers of Nashville.”

It’s touchy, partly because Nashville’s mayor likes charters a lot.  So does the city’s top Republican in the state House, Beth Harwell, who met with Glover last week after asking him to pull a non-binding resolution on the matter earlier this month.  Harwell argues the school district’s main budget problem is not charter growth, but families fleeing to the suburbs in search of better schools:

“I think the real question for Metro Nashville to look at is, why are so many families leaving to attend private schools, or moving to Rutherford County, Wilson County, Sumner County, when their children reach a certain school age.  That really is costing the system money, because people are leaving the public school system, and I think that’s the real question they need to address.”

Harwell sees a role for charters as part of a kind of re-branding in Nashville.  Still, the School Board’s Will Pinkston argues the district can’t add good charters fast enough to serve everyone, meaning it can’t let too many traditional public schools close, or flatline their budgets:

“If the intent is to reform the system through charter schools, that’s a very inefficient path to system-wide improvement.”

Pinkston and Glover will work with the Council’s budget chair and others this fall, to lay out specifics to take back to Harwell.  The effort is far from certain to sway state policy.  But a lawyer told school board members Friday they may still have a legal case against the state.  Pinkston says before going that route, they have to exhaust their other options.


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