Pitches by four charter groups to open new schools in Memphis and Nashville fell short on Friday as Tennessee’s State Board of Education affirmed the decisions of local school boards to reject their applications.
Voting with recommendations from its staff, the State Board unanimously denied the appeals based on shortcomings in the groups’ plans for academics, operations, or finances.
Among those denied were appeals involving two out-of-state networks. California-based Aspire was seeking to open a middle school in Memphis, and ReThink Forward had hoped to launch a K-8 school in Nashville through a partnership between Florida-based Noble Education Initiative and Trevecca Nazarene University, which is in Nashville.
The other appeals were filed by Memphis-based Capstone Education Group, which already runs three local schools under the state-run Achievement School District, and Avodah International, a new Memphis group seeking to open a high school in the city’s south side.
Tennessee has sought to raise the bar for its charter sector under a recently revised state law and a new school improvement plan in compliance with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. In Memphis next spring, seven charter schools are set to close for landing in the bottom 5 percent on the state’s newest list of priority schools.
“We do care deeply about having the best schools in front of our children. … We believe charter schools can be a great option,” said Chairwoman Lillian Hartgrove after the board’s vote. “But by the same token, we have our process, and it’s a very thorough process to ensure that we’re approving charters that should be approved, and not approving charters that should not.”
The appeals were filed after school boards in Shelby and Davidson counties voted down the groups’ applications in August.
Under Tennessee law, the state board can overrule a local body if it deems the decision contrary to the best interests of students, the school district, or the community — and can even oversee the school itself if the local district still declines to work with the charter operator.
But the state board’s staff found all four appeals lacking based on their reviews and public hearings.
Memphis-based Capstone came closest to meeting all the criteria, but its glaring weakness was not identifying a neighborhood or location for its proposed school, said Tess Stovall, director of charter schools for the state board.
Capstone will heed that advice when it submits another application next year, said Executive Director Drew Sippel, whose organization was trying to place the school where it would be needed most based on the latest school closings within Shelby County Schools.
“I think our servant-hearted approach actually became an impediment to our approval as an operator. The next time, we’ll pick a neighborhood well in advance,” Sippel told Chalkbeat after the vote.
The application by ReThink Forward, a group chaired by Trevecca President Dan Boone, was the only one submitted this year to Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. While partnering network NEI already operates seven schools in Indiana, Georgia, and Florida, the state’s staff graded their proposal short in all criteria.
This was the fourth year that the Nashville district has shied away from charters. Since 2015, that school board has approved only one application.
By contrast, the charter sector has grown steadily in Memphis and Shelby County since Tennessee opened the door to nonprofit charter schools beginning in 2003. In August, Shelby County’s school board approved nine more charters for next fall, including the six Compass Community Schools that will replace the soon-to-close Jubilee Catholic Schools Network. Once those open, Shelby County Schools will have 63 charters — by far the most in the state.