A group that runs charter schools told The Tennessee Star that plans for one of the schools it represents, Founders Classical Academy of Brentwood, were misrepresented by officials of Williamson County Schools during an appeal hearing held before the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission in Brentwood on Monday.
“Much of the Williamson County Schools presentation, especially the closing, dwelled on our purported ‘inability to effectively serve students,’ based on our lack of general bus transportation (Founders provides busing for special needs and in situations where necessary, and serves more diverse populations than most districts the schools reside in, with parents being willing to drive their children, as they are in Williamson), and lack of food services,” said Brian Haas of Del Rey Education., a company that helps launch Founders Classical Academy public charter schools around the country.
That is a misrepresentation of the Founders Classical Academy of Brentwood plan, he said.
He noted that the school’s application specifically said, “It is our intention to contract with a suitable meal provider through the RFP process as the vendor to provide hot and cold meals to our students. A local food vendor may also be considered if the option is more cost-effective.”
“Thus, there was a substantial amount of misrepresentation or misinformation throughout WCS’s presentation, not the least of which being their assessment that there is little verifiable dissatisfaction with the district’s curriculum and school options, which resulted in an outburst of laughter from the audience,” said Haas. “Not only do we have over 300 parents seeking to enroll (via only word of mouth marketing), but there is a pending lawsuit by an organization representing over 1,400 Williamson residents.”
Public charter school applications can be approved in two ways in the state of Tennessee. The first step in the process is to present the application to the local school board, which can vote to approve or deny the application. If the school board denies the application, a law passed in 2019 permits the denied applicant the ability to appeal the denial to a nine member board, the Tennessee Public Charter Schools Commission (TPCSC).
The Founders Classical Academy of Brentwood public charter school application was denied by the Williamson County Schools Board of Education in a unanimous vote in July. A public hearing was scheduled in September at which the Founders Classical Academy of Brentwood organizers presented their case. Williamson County Schools asked for, and received, an extension to present their case in opposition to the application until Monday’s hearing.
There was no outcome at the appeals hearing itself, just a discussion about the plan among TCPCS staff members, WCS representatives. and the representatives of Founders Classical Academy of Brentwood. The commission is expected to announce its decision on the appeal on October 17.
Haas says the process of applying to open a charter school by first applying to the school board of the local K-12 public school is, in itself, a conflict of interest. He compared the process to the idea of asking a big-box store permission to open a smaller, specialty shop that would eat into the big-box stores’ sales.
Furthermore, he noted, “The rubric used to evaluate the applications leaves significant room for subjectivity.”
He told The Star:
In addition, much of the application revolves around “projections,” which simply cannot be known, in some cases (like the number of special needs students who will enroll), in advance of opening. For example, no landlord is willing to commit valuable space for even 6 months, pending approval and negotiation of a charter.
The application process also allows only 14 months (if approved in the first round) until opening a school. Faced with the appeals process, which includes evaluation based on factors intended for a 14-month lead time, we will now be left with 10 months to get the school open.
Furthermore, the tools (the budgeting worksheet) provided by the TDOE do not address many potential scenarios, such as leasing a facility for the initial 2-3 years, then purchasing, and are fraught with issues like some (non-editable) calculations being incorrect.
Then, the local districts are left to their own (mis)understanding or subjective interpretation of the questions and answers in the application. Their assessment of an application is not a matter of “how will it be done,” but “how would they do it,” and if the applicant’s approach (regardless of existing success) differs from the reviewer’s, the applicant “does not meet (their) standard.”
At the local level, approvals also subject school board members to political pressure, particularly from the teachers’ union, since charter schools are typically non-union and they have government-funded budget and unrestricted reach into existing schools. This was actually stated by one of the WCS board members when asked why he changed his vote from an abstention to a denial between round 1 and round 2 of voting on our application. This is part of why Texas has always had a state-level approval process, and why Florida is adopting one.
He said politics also plays a role in whether a charter school can open.
“There is pushback from both political sides; however, this appears to be the result of political positioning and establishment manipulation by the unions, which have shown their disregard for students throughout COVID,” he said. “For example, the existence of charter schools was approved by the legislature and is endorsed, in general, by many legislators. However, in more than one case legislators who supported charter schools have changed their position now that applications have been submitted in their districts, due to obvious political pressure.”
On Wednesday, the TPCSC approved the appeal of two KIPP Academy schools previously denied charter approval by Metro Nashville Public Schools, but denied the appeal of Oxton Academy of Clarksville previously denied charter approval by Montgomery County Schools.
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