While Gov. Bill Lee bashed Nashville and Memphis schools last week for not offering in-person instruction, and some Republican lawmakers have proposed taking away state funding as a punishment, several schools overseen by the state have remained virtual.

Charter schools under the state Achievement School District and the state Board of Education have chosen virtual schooling without an in-person option. Lee singled out Memphis and Nashville schools for remaining virtual.

In some cases, the state-led charter schools plan to return to in-person in the coming weeks. Other charter schools have stayed virtual to align with the decisions by the Shelby County and Metro Nashville Public Schools.

Critics, like Nashville councilman Dave Rosenberg, say the Lee administration is being hypocritical to single out Nashville and Memphis schools for only offering virtual instruction when some of the charter schools under the umbrella of the state agencies have also been virtual.

Metro Councilmember Dave Rosenberg. (Photo from Dave for Bellevue website)
Metro Councilmember Dave Rosenberg (Photo from Dave for Bellevue website)

“The governor and his accomplices in the legislature have been absent in the fight against COVID-19 and have failed to make any effort to help schools open safely,” Rosenberg said. “Their hypocrisy is on full display as they neglectfully try to force districts to open without adequate resources to protect teachers and students – contradicting (Center for Disease Control) guidance – even as state-run schools remain closed (to in-person instruction).”

The Achievement School District was launched to convert the state’s lowest performing public schools into the highest performing. The ASD is under the purview of the state Department of Education and oversees the schools, which are operated by nonprofit organizations and funded primarily with taxpayer money. Department of Education spokeswoman Victoria Robinson said 11 ASD schools are offering the option of in-person instruction.

Four schools Journey Community Schools, Journey Hanley Elementary, Journey Hanley Middle and Journey Coleman have been virtual but will return to offering in-person learning on Feb. 8, Robinson said.

However, two Nashville charter schools overseen by the ASD and operated by the charter group LEAD remain virtual.

“LEAD schools are not offering an in-person option as they are mirroring Metro Nashville Public Schools with all virtual instruction,” Robinson said. “Similarly, several other charter schools in Memphis do not have in-person options as they are mirroring Shelby County Schools.

“Oftentimes, our schools have families served by them, in the ASD, and in the local district. It would create a hardship for parents to have some students in-person and others online so schools mirror the larger district.”

Spokespersons for the Tennessee Department of Education and the State Board of Education say charter schools that are operating virtually are mirroring Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Schools. 

Two other charter schools approved by the state Board of Education have remained virtual as well. Those schools, run by the KIPP charter group, have also decided to follow MNPS’s decision on virtual learning, according to state board spokeswoman Elizabeth Tullos.

“The state board authorized schools in Nashville, KIPP Antioch College Prep Elementary and KIPP Antioch College Prep Middle, are operating entirely remotely in alignment with Metro Nashville Public Schools,” Tullos said. “Our Memphis school, Bluff City High School, is operating in a hybrid model. Bluff City High School opted to shift to a hybrid model based on family interest in in-person learning.”

  The governor and his accomplices in the legislature have been absent in the fight against COVID-19 and have failed to make any effort to help schools open safely.   – Dave Rosenberg, Metro Nashville Councilmember

Lee criticized Shelby County and MNPS for operating remotely, claiming those districts were not following the science that shows in-person instruction is safe. Republican lawmakers filed legislation last week to take away state basic education program funds from districts that don’t offer at least 70 days of in-person instruction this school year.

“Months ago, when critics were loud and the scare tactics were louder with all the reasons why we couldn’t safely return students and teachers to the classroom, we traded that speculation for science,” Lee said in prepared remarks last week to mark the start of a special legislative session focusing on education. “We followed that science down a path that would make us one of the first states in the country to get students and teachers back in the classroom this fall across 145 of our 147 districts. Tennessee has thus become a national leader in embracing the courage to get back in the classroom and show that it can be done.”

Following Lee’s rebuke, Republican lawmakers filed legislation requiring districts to offer at least 70 days of in-person instruction this school year and 180 days next school year or facing losing BEP funds. The legislation was not taken up during the special session, but could be considered with the legislature returns in February.

It’s unclear, should the bill become law, if the state-authorized schools would lose education funds as well.