Inside a bruising battle over a new charter school on Nashville’s west side

A class of students at Nashville Classical Charter School in East Nashville. (Photo: Submitted)
A class of students at Nashville Classical Charter School in East Nashville. (Photo: Submitted)

A proposed new charter school in affluent West Nashville has stirred up the echoes of the city’s most brutal public education battle in recent history and provided yet another test of a new state law that watered down local control.

Nashville is just under nine years removed from Arizona-based Great Hearts Academy’s failed bid to build a charter school that would have appealed to the families who enroll their children in private schools. The Great Hearts fight created a dividing line between left-leaning politicians protective of traditional public schools and education reformers, who are politically backed mostly by Republicans.

After Great Hearts’ application was rejected by the Nashville school board, it cost Metro Nashville Public Schools $3.4 million in state education funding, a penalty imposed by Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration as retribution. But, it also made the question of charter schools a central issue in school board elections and a driving question of education policy in Nashville. With a few exceptions, openly backing charter schools became a toxic stance in school board races, and the breakdown on the current nine-member board is decidedly anti-charter.

Charter school operators have generally steered clear from West Nashville in the ensuing nine years.Nashville Classical logo

Enter Nashville Classical, which has achieved success operating an elementary and middle school in East Nashville, and now wants to open a new school on Charlotte Pike. Nashville Classical, which has already been rejected once by the school board with a 7-1 vote, submitted its appeal last week.

Opposition is entrenched against the school, primarily from Bellevue area politicians, several of whom entered politics after collaborating on a grassroots movement to improve schools in the Hillwood cluster. School board member Abigail Tylor opposes the Nashville Classical application. So does Metro Councilman Dave Rosenberg, state Rep. Bo Mitchell and former school board member Amy Frogge.

But, the starting point for the local debate over Nashville Classical’s application is a new state law that says the Nashville school board’s decision is functionally irrelevant. If the appeal is rejected, as expected, the school can simply appeal to the new Republican-backed state charter school commission, which would likely grant its approval. Unless a political meteor strikes and creates some unforeseen circumstance, Nashville Classical will be open to enrolling kindergarten beginning next year.

“The past year has exposed many of the inequities in our country and these injustices play out every day in our city and schools,” said Charlie Friedman, the head of Nashville Classical. “Plainly, we think high-quality, integrated schools are more important than ever. As we looked at census data, studied school performance, reviewed enrollment projections, and talked to the community, we saw how powerful it could be to put Nashville Classical II along Charlotte Pike, at the nexus of multiple neighborhoods and footsteps from the highway.”

Nashville Classical makes its case

Friedman shirks the comparisons between his proposed new school in West Nashville and the Great Hearts Academy plan. The original Nashville Classical, in East Nashville, is 72 percent black or Hispanic, according to data provided by the district.

Unlike Great Hearts, Friedman is proposing to provide free transportation and after-school care, which are critical selling points to economically disadvantaged families.

The Nashville Classical application spells out Friedman’s plan to draw from neighborhoods in Bellevue, the Nations, Whites Creek and the diverse communities located north of Charlotte Pike closer toward downtown.

The community has certainly shown appreciation for Nashville Classical, which outpaces the district in its standardized test scores for poor and minority students. Nashville Classical trailed only the academic magnet middle schools and high schools, or the schools that feed into academic magnets in terms of applications to attend its East Nashville school.

Nashville Classical was approved in 2012, the same year Great Hearts got rejected, and currently educates children in grades kindergarten through 7th.

Friedman’s sales pitch is that western Davidson County has some schools that are overcrowded, such as HG Hill Middle School, while more broadly losing many students to private schools. According to data provided by Nashville Classical, one in four students who leave MNPS do so between 4th and 8th grades.

  The past year has exposed many of the inequities in our country and these injustices play out every day in our city and schools. Plainly, we think high-quality, integrated schools are more important than ever.   – Charlie Friedman, head of Nashville Classical Charter School

Friedman says his proposal will help address both the overcrowded schools as well provide a desirable pathway to the new $150 million Hillwood High School, which will be built in Bellevue after receiving the final financing approval from Mayor John Cooper.

Charter schools are run by nonprofit organizations, but receive government funding based on the number of students they enroll. They hire their own staff, set their own curriculum and are responsible for figuring out their own facilities.

In the case of the proposed school location Nashville Classical is seeking, the building is owned by a foundation that includes education reform leader Bill DeLoache. The group purchased the building from MNPS after it sat vacant for several years.

“Over the past two years, we’ve received over 1,150 applications,making us one of the city’s most popular schools. In fact, it’s harder to get into our fifth-grade class than it is to get into Vanderbilt University, which is an injustice because — unlike many of MNPS’s other top schools — we don’t use geographic preferences or academic criteria to admit students,” Friedman said. “Adding a second campus means more students attend a high-quality public school.”

Friedman doesn’t fit the description of a political boogeyman. His resume boasts two Ivy League degrees, an undergraduate from Yale and a master’s in education from Penn.

He chose to move to Nashville about a decade ago when the climate for high-minded education reformers was more friendly with pro-charter school Mayor Karl Dean running the city. Unlike other charter school leaders who have been more actively involved in local politics and in many cases even worked hard to vote out school board members who voted against charter schools, Friedman has stayed out of the political fray until last year. That’s when the school board rejected his plan to expand his East Nashville schools by 75 seats, only to be overturned by the state.

“We are concerned about all of the families that want to attend high-quality, diverse schools and don’t have the opportunity right now,” Friedman said.

Though the political leadership is largely opposed to the new school, Friedman does have the notable support of Metro Councilwoman Mary Carolyn Roberts, who represents the affluent and ever-growing Nations neighborhood.

This is an opportunity for our West Nashville community to expand needed academic advantages—particularly to our most vulnerable families,” Roberts said. “Everyone should stand behind a strong education for all our students.

“Especially as our neighborhoods continue to grow, having more great schools nearby would be beneficial for kids, families, and the community.”

Local leaders line up in opposition

Frogge, who served on the school board from 2012 until last year, didn’t run for the position because of the charter school issue. Frogge was part of a group of parents, including Mitchell, whose children were zoned for Gower and other Bellevue area schools. Those parents came together more than a decade ago to increase parental involvement, revive the flailing Parent Teacher Associations and overturn the negative perception about the schools in their neighborhood.

MNPS Board Member Amy Frogge, District 9 (Photo: Twitter)
Former MNPS Board Member Amy Frogge. (Photo: Twitter)

Cast out of the frying pan and into the fire, Frogge was forced to vote at one of her first meetings on the board about whether to approve Great Hearts’ controversial proposal. The school had already been rejected twice by the school board, but then, under a different set of state laws, appealed to the state board of education, which mandated the Nashville board grant approval.

With a 5-4 vote, the board stood firm and rejected Great Hearts again. Great Hearts withdrew its application, but Haslam and his education Commissioner Kevin Huffman responded by penalizing MNPS $3.4 million.

Since then, Frogge has been among the city’s most outspoken critics of charter schools. She staved off a re-election challenge from pro-reform candidate Thom Druffel in 2016, and endorsed her successor, Tylor, the current board member for the area.

From Tylor’s perspective, parents have worked for many years to improve schools in the Bellevue area. With the new Hillwood High on the horizon, a charter school competing with MNPS’s zoned schools for the same students would undermine that progress.

“I know several parents who’ve said, ‘We are pouring everything we have into our locally zoned schools. We are going to support these kids, put our time, talent, treasure into the PTAs, supporting the schools and trying to figure out what we can do to make them the best place to go. The absolute last thing we need is a charter school trying to ruin all of that,’” Tylor said.

Among the issues identified by opponents is the proposed location of Nashville Classical. LEAD Academy ran a middle school at the same facility, and was forced to close after under enrollment. LEAD catered almost exclusively to poor and minority students and did not compete with Bellevue area public schools.

But, Tylor said that failure is a red flag for the Nashville Classical proposed location.

Tylor said she is also troubled that Nashville Classical didn’t spell out its plan to try to recruit West Nashville students currently enrolled in private schools. This same issue was raised by the MNPS charter review committee. The western part of Davidson County is chock full of private schools.

Abigail Tylor (Photo: abigailtylor.com)
Abigail Tylor (Photo: abigailtylor.com)

  I know several parents who've said, 'We are pouring everything we have into our locally zoned schools. We are going to support this kids, put our time, talent treasure into the PTAS . . . The absolute last thing we need is a charter school trying to ruin all of that.   – Abigail Tylor, MNPS board member

“To me, that is the biggest red flag there could be,” Tylor said,

Mitchell, the current state representative for the area and former councilman, said the problem with charter expansion is funding. Losing students to charter schools would sap funding from existing schools, and especially from non-core subjects that are prone to budget cuts if per-pupil funding is re-routed from MNPS to Nashville Classical.

“It’s going to cut into limited dollars for our schools and our kids, pouring millions of dollars into an unproven organization,” Mitchell said. “We know public education works. It’s worked for quite some time in our country. I don’t want to take money out of schools. And on top of that, all of these charters each and every year, our state law we’re required to give them more and more and more. Sometimes you hear about education cuts, but never for the charters. They’re, by state law, we’re required to give them x-percentage more each and every year.”

State approval is possible

Friedman believes his school would help fill the new Hillwood High and provide families with an option that currently doesn’t exist. He points out that the new school is approved for 1,600 students, well more than Hillwood currently enrolls. His goal is to provide a high quality feeder to the new high school, which he argues will help the district in the long run.

An architectural rendering of the new Hillwood High School. (Metro Nashville Public Schools)
An architectural rendering of the new Hillwood High School. (Metro Nashville Public Schools)

Friedman added that his priority is to earn approval from the Nashville board, not count on approval from the charter school commission.

Tylor argues that Tennessee’s charter school policy has drifted far astray from its original mission of providing different options to poor students and those zoned to failing schools. The legislature, almost exclusively Republicans in the super majority, expanded the law to allow all students to enroll in charters.

After battles over new charters like Great Hearts, the legislature then created a pathway for the charter commission to approve schools, effectively cutting local leaders out of the process.

Similar battles could soon be coming to communities besides Nashville and Memphis where the vast majority of charter schools are located. Gov. Bill Lee’s administration recently announced startup grants to charter schools, including Nashville Classical, several of which are for new schools in suburban and rural areas.

“It’s extremely frustrating because it’s saying that local input is not something we hold as important,” Tylor said of the new law. “How is the state going to know better than us? How is the state going to know what our neighborhoods need if they don’t live here, if they don’t send their kids here? We are living this. We know exactly what’s happening in our schools, because we live here and are living it every day.”