NASHVILLE – The Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools system is at a crossroads.

NashvilleLike many districts, Nashville schools are running into budget problems, and school officials are placing the blame squarely on charter schools that have absorbed much of the district’s growing student population.

That view was on display during a recent MNPS school board meeting.

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“While I believe that good charter schools can certainly complement our district’s efforts, we need to be able to focus on broader needs of all the 81,000 students in our district,” said board member Amy Frogge, according to

At that same meeting, MNPS board members approved four new charter applications, though some observers note those decisions were only made after the Tennessee legislature considered stripping districts of their charter-granting authority and giving it to an outside panel.

At the heart of the budget controversy are two competing schools of thought – one represented by reformers who believe performance and accountability should guide education decisions in the Music City, the other by education bureaucrats who want to prop up failing government-run schools and preserve their top-heavy administration.

“The district estimates it will need a $39 million boost because of charter school growth,” Rebecca Lieberman, director of external relations for the Tennessee Charter School Center told EAGnews.

“(Nashville school officials) are arguing they just don’t have the money to spend on new charter schools.”

The hostility from MNPS officials against charter schools in the city has brewed for years, Lieberman said, and it’s now coming to a boil.

Nashville Metro Councilman Steve Glover recently called for a moratorium on new charters, and district officials even hired an attorney to investigate their constitutionality. Late last month, schools director Jesse Register announced the hired-gun attorney found a compelling legal argument against charters.

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They chose an unfortunate time to make that announcement, according to Tennessean columnist Bruce Dobie.

“Days earlier state test results had shown glowing results for Nashville charters,” Dobie wrote. “Then the schools director announced probable cause for their annihilation.”

After strong lobbying by the Tennessee Charter School Center – and public condemnation by Mayor Karl Dean – the Council set aside the moratorium issue.

But, as Dobie put it, now it’s a war.

Charter hostilities

According to the Tennessean, the MNPS system “will have nearly 25 open charter schools in 2014, and about 5 percent of the system’s 83,000 students already attend one of the publicly financed but privately operated schools.”

The MNPS student body is growing by about 11 percent per year, and many of those new students are choosing to attend the city’s charter schools.

District officials argue that when Nashville students enroll in charter schools, $9,000 in state per-pupil funding follows the child, and that hurts MNPS’ ability to pay the fixed expenses – such as gas and electricity – at its traditional schools.

“It’s proven,” Metro Councilman Steve Glover told the Tennessean. “There are out-of-pocket costs over and above just the money following the students.”

“You still have all the fixed costs with your regular public schools.”

Lieberman isn’t very sympathetic with those concerns. She said some of those fixed costs, namely a very large central administration, have exploded in recent years, vastly outpacing the increase in student enrollment.

Nashville charter schools currently receive about 5 percent of the district’s budget, Lieberman said.

By virtually all indications, the investment has been a good one.

“The funding for charter schools is on par with the value they provide,” Lieberman said. “But actually, when you look at the performance of charter schools in Nashville, 33 percent of the schools listed in the top 5 percent (of all the district’s schools) … are charter schools.”

When magnet schools with restrictive academic enrollment criteria are omitted from the list, half of the district’s top schools are charter schools.

“Our argument is let’s fund what works,” Lieberman said. “Let’s start with what kids need, and fund what works.”

A different approach

The Tennessee Charter School Center and others like Tennessean columnist Dobie, a local business leader, are pressuring the district to consider the “fund what works” approach which rewards schools for strong student performances.

Dobie put it this way:

“MNPS says the problem is the number of charter schools we are adding, and we must stop their expansion to quell the red ink. But why would we put charters on the firing squad when they are doing so well?

“Why not, instead, close the bad district-run schools? And why not cut (administrative) overhead?

“One way to reduce MNPS overhead would be to adopt a ‘portfolio approach’ that would make MNPS more a ‘back-end’ support system overseeing its individual operating units, or schools. It would become a ‘performance manager,’ in which schools – charters, district schools, whatever – would succeed or fail based on performance. Schools would compete with one another for students and teachers and administer their own budgets. Overhead costs at MNPS would be pushed down to the schools, making MNPS less of a spender.

“What we are witnessing now is MNPS clinging to an old model. If it were being strategic about this, it would write a three-year plan assuming more higher-performing charters, fewer low-performing district schools and reduced overhead.

“But they’re calling the lawyers instead. That never bodes well.”

Nashville Mayor Karl Dean told Dobie he’s not impressed by the malicious focus on charter schools.

“I certainly think the board would be better using their time and resources to explore how other cities have adapted to charter schools,” he said. “That would be where I would be directing my attention.”

Lieberman contends that the district’s focus on charter schools as the driving force behind MNPS’ budget woes is blinding officials to other obvious and more troublesome financial issues, such as the fast-growing administration and an annual exodus of district students after fourth grade. More than 10,000 students leave MNPS after fourth grade in pursuit of better education options, she said.

“They’re not paying attention to the lost revenue their poor quality of education they are providing is costing them,” Lieberman said. “We have argued people are not … looking at all of the things they could be cutting or lost revenue. They are choosing to leave a bunch of things off the table.”

“There’s a fixation almost on charter schools,” she added.

“What we’re dealing with is a situation in which the decisions aren’t being driven by an unrelenting need to provide a high quality education for every student.”