There isn’t a charter school within 100 miles of Rep. John Forgety’s district, but the East Tennessee lawmaker has become the mediator in a lingering dispute between the state’s charter sector and its two largest school districts, in Memphis and Nashville.
As chairman of a House education committee that green-lighted last year’s sweeping update of Tennessee’s charter school law, Forgety said he felt partly responsible for one provision that’s created confusion, anger, and even litigation over whether local districts must share student contact information with charter operators.
And while his own legislative proposal to clean up the ambiguity has been sidelined, Forgety managed to get all parties at the table last week with Gov. Bill Haslam — no small feat given that two of them already are in court over the issue.
The Feb. 13 power meeting included Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson, Metropolitan Nashville Schools Director Shawn Joseph, and Maya Bugg, CEO of the Tennessee Charter School Center.
At issue is the intent of the new charter school law, which included a provision directing districts to share student directory information requested by charter operators. Charter leaders say they need the information to make parents aware of their public school options, while Nashville leaders argue that a federal privacy law gives them discretion over who gets those lists.
“It was a very productive conversation,” said Forgety, a retired McMinn County school superintendent who asked Haslam to convene the gathering. “Before we start legislating and litigating this, we just needed to sit down and listen to each other.”
The hour-long conversation ended with McQueen agreeing for her department to pound out a compromise to bring back to the table.
One question now is whether a consensus can be achieved before a judge’s March 16 deadline. Another is whether any proposal can hit the right notes so parents can reasonably learn about their options without being targeted with heavy-handed recruitment tactics.
Nashville is in a legal battle with the state’s charter-driven school turnaround district for refusing to share information on students zoned to failing schools. The state sued the Nashville district for its obstinance, and a Davidson County judge sided with the state and its charter operators in January. But the judge also gave Nashville more than two months to comply or appeal.
“That’s ample time to fix this problem,” Forgety said of the March 16 deadline. “We may not be able to, but what have we got to lose?”
Memphis schools are not part of the legal battle, but leaders of Shelby County Schools have the same concerns as their Nashville counterparts. And school boards in both cities voted last year to defy McQueen’s order to turn over information requested by charter operators LEAD in Nashville and Green Dot in Memphis.
Hopson vented to state lawmakers on the matter just last week, on the same day he went to the governor’s meeting.
“It’s not (that) we’re trying to be sinister and don’t want to give information. We used to give the information to (Tennessee’s Achievement School District) routinely,” he told a joint House education committee.
But Hopson halted the flow of information in 2015, he said, when the ASD shared it with the parents group Memphis Lift, which was going door-to-door to talk with other parents about their schools. “I’ve got a 10-year-old and 8-year-old,” he said. “If someone shows up at my door asking about my baby boy and baby girl with a folder with their information, we’re going to have a problem.”
Student directory information includes names, addresses, phone numbers, and students’ date of birth. School districts may choose to share such data with approved third-party vendors like government agencies and some companies.
Bugg says such lists should be used appropriately, whether by charter operators talking with parents or companies that publish and sell school yearbooks. “We definitely are in agreement that if information is shared, it must be done so appropriately and according to agreed-upon parameters,” she told Chalkbeat. “And if it’s not, there should be consequences.”
A spokeswoman for McQueen declined this week to offer details about ongoing conversations or a potential agreement, but said the state is “encouraged about the possibility of reaching a path forward.”
But any proposal still has to go before school boards in Memphis and Nashville. And Nashville’s board may opt to pursue a legal avenue at the same time it awaits a possible legislative fix.
“The board has their principles and they want to protect student privacy and protect families from hardline, heavy-handed recruiting,” said Mark North, who lobbies for Metro Nashville Public Schools.
As for Forgety, who isn’t running for reelection and says he doesn’t “have a dog in this fight,” he’s just grateful that all the parties are at least sitting down to listen to each other.
“We didn’t get here overnight and I don’t know if we’re going to fix it overnight, but we need to try,” Forgety said. “I can assure you that both school systems and the charter center and the state of Tennessee have better things to spend their money on than attorneys on the second floor of the Davidson County Courthouse.”