Commissioner Kevin Huffman ordered the Nasville school board to approve the Great Hearts charter school.
Four times the board turned it down, so Huffman is cutting $3.4 million from the district’s budget.
Even more ominous, he and Republican governor Haslam threaten to push legislation to create a state panel to authorize charters over the opposition of local boards.
This is the ALEC model legislation, in which the demand for privatization trumps local control.
Interesting that Tennessee Democrats spotted Huffman’s membership in the far-right “Chiefs for Change,” run by Jeb Bush.
This is a power grab, and Democrats must wake up or lose public education.
By the way, Great Hearts expects an upfront “voluntary” contribution of $1200 from parents.
Partisan battle intensifies feud over charter school
Lawmakers are furious about Metro’s $3.4M loss
Written by Lisa Fingeroot The Tennessean
2:45 AM, Sep 19, 2012 |
Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman / Erin O’Leary / File / Gannett Tennessee
Gov. Haslam, others discuss state’s decision to wi…: Gov. Bill Haslam, Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman and Speaker of the House Beth Harwell discuss the state’s decision to withhold about $3.4m from the Metro Nashville school system because the board refused to approve a charter school.
Rep. Mike Stewart
A decision by the state to withhold almost $3.4 million from Metro Nashville Public Schools for defying an order to approve a charter school escalated an already simmering partisan battle over whose political philosophy will shape public schools.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam stopped just short Tuesday of saying a statewide charter school authorizer would be on his legislative agenda when the session begins in January. But Democratic representatives are lining up behind the Metro school board and every district’s right to make decisions for its constituency.
“At a time when we hear so much about ‘education reform’ and ‘local control’ from this administration, this unprecedented action would seem counterproductive,” said Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, House minority whip.
“Taking $3 million from Nashville children is a foolish move and I intend to fight this kind of petulant behavior when we get back in January,” said Jones, who plans to fight any proposal for a statewide charter school authorizer.
State officials said they chose to withhold administrative money — not classroom funds — in hopes of having the least possible effect on students.
Kevin Huffman, commissioner of education, announced Tuesday that the state would withhold a month of administrative funding because the Metro school board refused to approve a charter school application by Arizona-based Great Hearts Academies after being ordered to do so. Board members voted 5-4 to deny the charter Sept. 11, after the board’s attorney said they would be breaking the law.
“We’re responsible for enforcing the law,” said Haslam, who is accused of backflipping on his opinion about whether Metro schools should be fined. In August he said, “With education, the discussion should always be about what’s best for the students.… That being said, threatening money, that’s not the business we’re in.”
Haslam said Tuesday that “when their own attorney tells them that they are violating state law, we can’t just stand back.”
The school system released a statement early Tuesday saying officials had not had time to develop a plan for the loss of funds during October. The state money earmarked for non-classroom expenses is not designated for administrative purposes only, but for all kinds of expenses that also affect Metro’s 81,000 students, such as utilities, student transportation, and maintenance of the system’s 5,000 classrooms, the statement said.
The Metro school system has an annual budget of nearly $700 million with less than 30 percent supplied by the state, said school spokeswoman Meredith Libbey.
Newly elected school board member Amy Frogge, who voted against Great Hearts, called the state Board of Education’s decision “shameful.”
“Apparently a few people at the top are angry with five of us for voting against Great Hearts and they’ve decided to take it out on 80,000 children,” said Frogge. “This will not hurt me or the board. It will hurt the less fortunate.”
Frogge, an attorney, said she believed the board’s vote last week against Great Hearts was legal. The state gave Metro an “unclear mandate” about the charter school, she said. On the one hand, it asked Metro to approve the school. On the other hand, it also issued three contingencies for Great Hearts approval, one being diversity, she said.
“I felt the contingencies should be met before approval,” she said. “The state raised the diversity issue. My question was, ‘How are they going to comply?’”
Diversity was the main sticking point between Metro officials and Great Hearts, which wanted to open a school on Nashville’s affluent and mostly white west side. The school board didn’t have a formal diversity policy and has since decided to develop one.
Metro school board member Michael Hayes voted in favor of Great Hearts. He said the state could have taken much more punitive measures — replacing board members, taking over the district, filing suit in court, or withholding more money.
“Our counsel openly stated if we voted against it … we’d be violating state law, and sanctions could include withholding of funds.”
State law gives the education commissioner authority to withhold funding as an enforcement measure.
Board gets support
Rep. Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory, entered the fray Tuesday when he released a statement supporting the Metro board.
“Each school board knows the best way to handle their students,” he said.
The Democratic Caucus has long discussed and been in favor of more control for local school boards, spokesman Zak Kelley said.
“There is a lot of talk about introducing legislation to ensure that the decisions of the local school boards are respected,” said state Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville. “I don’t think it’s appropriate or wise of a nonelected official to wander into Nashville and tell the people’s representatives how to spend tax dollars,” Stewart said of Huffman.
At this time, however, state law establishes a charter school appeal process that allows the state Board of Education to override a local board and direct it to approve the charter. When Metro school officials chose to defy that direction, Huffman accused them of breaking the law and discussed the financial penalty with Haslam, who approved it.
Haslam and Hayes said there is greater support for a statewide authorizer since Metro school officials denied Great Hearts.
While Huffman was appointed by Haslam, the bulk of criticism for the decision to withhold funds from Metro schools was aimed at Huffman.
Stewart accused Huffman of promoting “a radical and often untested agenda” and said, “It’s not a mainstream Republican agenda. It’s a radical agenda that places great emphasis on taking money away from public schools and turning them over to private entities.”
Huffman is listed among a group of 11 national education officials who have been named “Chiefs for Change” by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a foundation started by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to promote educational reforms across the nation. School choice through charter schools and vouchers and accountability determined through high-stakes testing are the cornerstones of the Bush reform movement.
“Huffman has staked out a position in the far-right radical school reform movement that people like Jeb Bush have championed,” Stewart said.
Former Metro school board member Mark North, who was on the board during three of its four votes relating to Great Hearts Academies charter school, released scathing comments about Huffman on Tuesday, too.
“Huffman’s position is indefensible,” North said.
Huffman’s “heavy-handed, iron-fisted power play is the embodiment of the exercise of arbitrary and oppressive authority in a sort of political extortion,” North added.