The possibility of locating a charter school on Nashville’s affluent west side has emotional hooks that reopen old wounds while creating new ones.
Black leaders who still see the lingering effects of white flight fear a taxpayer-funded school that functions more like a private academy for white students. A predominantly white group of charter school supporters argues that it wants the best opportunity for its children and shouldn’t be denied it.
And, finally, the school board, fresh from being sued over racial balance in schools — the district won that suit last month — doesn’t believe the charter school, Great Hearts Academies, is doing enough to ensure racial balance. On Tuesday, it defied a state order to approve Great Hearts.
The result: A dramatic, ongoing war of words waged live and in social media.
Councilman Jerry Maynard took to Twitter after the board vote and called it a “stand against tyranny.” Also tweeting that night was Townes Duncan, one of the founders of a political action committee aimed at stacking the school board with pro-charter members. He took aim at Ed Kindall, a school board member who led opposition against Great Hearts, and lost in the Aug. 2 election.
“Good riddance Ed Kindall,” Duncan wrote. “A pathetic legacy of mediocrity, cronyism and kids who can’t read. Contemptible.”
Kwame Lillard, an activist and member of the local NAACP chapter, spoke to the board directly: “No tax dollars for disguised lily-white academies.”
Racial balance in schools has been an issue since Nashville’s 1970 court-ordered desegregation. By 1985, the district had lost 32,000 students and dropped to an all-time enrollment low of 63,000. It just regained that enrollment last year, but while the city is predominantly white, school enrollment is mostly minorities.
“This is what it boils down to,” Kindall said Thursday. “Every year, every board tries to bring middle-class white families back into the school system.”
He said Great Hearts was invited to Nashville to do that.
“I just want to tell the truth,” Kindall added. “If we open the door in this city, if we approve this without adequate transportation that will ensure opportunity and access is there for all children, we have set a precedent. ... It negates everything we’ve done.”
Dedicated to diversity?
School board members and Great Hearts representatives disagree on whether the charter school has created a transportation plan that would encourage diversity at the school.
State Board of Education Executive Director Gary Nixon examined Great Hearts’ application and found the charter school has lived up to its responsibility, according to his report, issued July 25. Nixon said Nashville’s own charter school review committee recommended approval of the school and touted the diversity plans as “detailed.”
The review committee also said the plan “promotes diversity and equitable access to school choice options,” according to the documentation.
But the board disagreed with that review and voted down the application 7-2, even after the state Board of Education ordered it to accept it.
“Seven of us decided we aren’t satisfied with what we have been shown,” said board member Anna Shepherd. “According to seven of us, they haven’t proved they’re dedicated (to diversity).”
West Nashville parent Mary Pierce, who is white and whose children attend regular public schools, said she finds the racial allegations offensive. She wants to see Great Hearts open in Nashville because she wants a different type of education for her children — one where excellence is expected, she said.
Pierce has investigated other charter schools in Nashville. The only reason she hasn’t attempted to enroll her children in any of them is because they require extended school days.
“I just want great schools,” Pierce said. “I want somebody calling these children up to their very highest. I wish Metro schools would just try a high-expectation experiment.”
So far, charter schools have not made Nashville’s education system more diverse.
Two charter schools in Nashville are mostly Hispanic; theother nine are mostly black, with percentages of black students ranging from 72 percent to 99 percent, according to figures supplied by Metro Nashville Public Schools. The school system as a whole is 46 percent black, 33 percent white and 17 percent Hispanic. Almost 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
Racial imbalance in charter schools became an issue in a lawsuit filed by two black families against the school district over a controversial rezoning plan they claim was aimed at segregating black students into North Nashville schools.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that the district would have two segregated systems — one consisting of regular public schools, one of charter schools. Judge Kevin Sharp indicated from the bench he’d limit the weight given to the charter school argument.
It’s expected that Great Hearts will gain school board approval Sept. 11, the date of the next meeting. The board announced it would reconsider the application a day after state officials began talking about possibly withholding funds from Metro schools and other sanctions if the board does not comply with the state directive.
Great Hearts representatives also say they have a transportation plan in hand that addresses the board’s concerns.
The board’s new makeup could be a factor. Four new members will be taking office — Jill Speering, Elissa Kim, Amy Frogge and Will Pinkston. Pinkston said they are attending a legal briefing on the issue this week.