Nashville Schools Chief Says Charters Unconstitutional, Mayor Unhappy

Metro Nashville Public Schools Director Jesse Register struck an unexpected blow against the school choice movement in the city when he announced that an attorney he had hired to examine the state's charter school law found basis to argue that charter schools violated the Tennessee constitution. The announcement came days after Nashville charters reported a new set of stellar academic results.

According to Bruce Dobie of The Tennessean, Register's announcement greatly displeased Nashville mayor Karl Dean who has been a strong charter supporter. Dean told Dobie that exploring legal challenges to charters was a bad use of money, time and resources on the part of the district officials.

The latest tussle is the culmination of bad blood between the opposing sides in the school choice fight that begun when the MNPS turned down the charter application of the Great Hearts Academy Charter School last year. They stuck to their decision even after ordered by the state to approve the charter, leading to a fine.

With misery loving company, the bad headlines started writing themselves in a particularly desultory, pathetic sort of a way. In budget hearings, Register told the mayor he had fired a consulting firm called the Tribal Group, an outfit Dean was fond of. Tribal has a history of advocating for education reform, that being greater principal autonomy, more choice for parents and kids, and decentralized budgeting for schools.

The hits kept on coming when the tempestuous school board budget chairman, Will Pinkston, got in an intemperate Twitter fight with the head of a local charter school, who himself intemperately decided to accuse Pinkston of being drunk.

Although tempers are running hot, the arguments underlying the tug of war between the Nashville school district and its charters aren't new. District officials are complaining that with so many charters opening up every year, public schools are getting shortchanged when it comes to budget allocations. Register believes that the answer lies in slowing down charter expansions; Dobie disagrees. As Dobie points out, charters are performing well in Nashville, so the answer to the budget problem is to start closing underperforming public schools and reducing the district's administrative overhead. It's no wonder that the district is not taking these kinds of suggestions gracefully.

One way to reduce MNPS overhead would be to adopt a "portfolio approach" that would make MNPS more a "back-end" support system overseeing its individual operating units, or schools. It would become a "performance manager," in which schools — charters, district schools, whatever — would succeed or fail, based on performance. Schools would compete with one another for students and teachers and administer their own budgets. Overhead costs at MNPS would be pushed down to the schools, making MNPS less of a spender.

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