After Great Hearts, Nashville Drafting Own Diversity Plan

After repeatedly denying the charter application of Great Hearts Academies because it didn't meet diversity goals, the Nashville Metro School Board is drafting its own diversity plan.

The board used the fact that the Great Hearts charter proposal wouldn't ensure an ethnically mixed student body at a school in the city's mostly white west side neighborhood to deny the application even after the State Board of Education ordered board members to approve it. However, education advocates who are familiar with Tennessee state law governing charter schools now say that the board has limited power in forcing a school to adopt its diversity plan, since, according to the legislation, charter school enrollment must be determined by lottery.

The Tennessean is reporting that any plan that depends on setting aside a specific number of slots to this or that minority group is bound to run afoul of the state's charter law. Furthermore, these kinds of quotas could also violate the federal prohibition on discrimination based on race or national origin. Rich Haglund, the Tennessee Department of Education charter schools director, says that charter schools can't follow admissions requirements that depend on the students' race.

"It's very difficult to create diversity," Haglund said. "It's very difficult for a district or operator to ensure."

Metro's own experiences illustrate that difficulty. In a district with no single majority race, nearly two-thirds of its schools last year had single-race majorities, and about 42 percent failed to meet a consultant's suggested diversity standards.

In overruling the Nashville board's decision to deny the Great Hearts charter application, the State Board of Education appeared to acknowledge the importance of a diversity program, saying that its approval should be contingent on the company developing a plan that was similar to the one used by Nashville Metro's own schools. However, according to Gary Nixon, the state board executive director, the state board was actually mandating that Metro not set stricter standards on Great Hearts than it did on its own schools of choice. Since no formal diversity program exists that covers all of Metro schools, the board couldn't require Great Hearts to adopt one.

Great Hearts was the first charter school to apply for a location in a predominantly white area under a revised state law that allows charters — public schools operated by nonprofit organizations — to serve all students and not just low-income children or those who come from a failing school.

Dannelle Walker, the attorney for the State Board of Education, said that the legislation is clear on what may and may not be considered when evaluating a charter school application. While local boards have the power to ensure that the academic program offered at a school is of good quality, the school's ability to create a diverse environment isn't on the table.

If Metro plans to enact a diversity plan, Haglund said, it is important that charter school applicants know about it before they apply.

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