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Nashville Forecast: Cloudy with a Chance of Charter Schools

In the last few years, those at the helm of the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) have become increasingly hostile to the city’s fast-growing charter school sector. Last year, the school board refused (despite a directive from the state to approve) a charter application from Great Hearts Academy, a respected Arizona charter management organization. This is despite the fact that only about 40% of the district’s students in grades 3-8 are meeting proficiency standards. In the past few weeks, the relationship between the MNPS directors and charter schools has deteriorated to the point that some describe as nuclear war. Schools Director Jesse Register has engaged lawyers to argue that the decade-old charter school law is unconstitutional.

Last week, a Nashville paper called for MNPS to adopt a portfolio strategy, meaning that the district should stop trying to be a monopoly operator of schools. Becoming a portfolio district would not mean that Nashville would put all its schools out to bid to charter schools. It would mean that the district would stop treating the students in Nashville charter schools as somebody else’s responsibility and start seeing its job as ensuring that all children in the city are well served by the public schools, no matter who runs them. If a particular neighborhood was not being well served and a renowned district principal wanted to open a new school there, great. If a high-performing charter school was in a position to open a new school there, great. Portfolio districts don’t have a preference for charters or district-run schools; they prefer whatever arrangement gets good results for kids.

No single approach to education will work in every case, so a district needs to be flexible and always seek the best answer to a particular need. Portfolios are a hedge against uncertainty, a means to success in the face of all those many factors one cannot control. Hedging is a good strategy in the investment markets, and in everyday life. Here in the changeable Northwest I often take more than one jacket with me when I leave the house. What starts out as a blue sky could at any point turn to gray. The gray might quickly give way to an insidious spitting rain. Good thing I brought along that jacket.

By refusing to view charter schools as a civic asset, the MNPS leadership is saying that the district’s current set of schools and staff have to suffice for every child, in every circumstance. They hold to this notion despite evidence that the district is not doing right by most Nashville children. This is something akin to my stubbornly setting out for a week-long camping trip on the Olympic Peninsula with only one flimsy cotton jacket (I did this once; I don’t recommend it).

Traditional urban school districts have always had to deal with student diversity, offering limited (and often unchanging) numbers of schools within schools, accelerated learning programs, and STEM schools. But now, more than ever, forward-looking districts are reexamining their roles as managers of educational assets and partnering to develop those types of options for their neediest students. Why? Because regular district schools aren’t working well for too many kids, and people outside the district bureaucracy have ideas and capacities that need to be tried.

The portfolio approach is more than just dabbling around the edges with diverse approaches. Managing a portfolio changes the way districts view their primary responsibilities—making sure that public education is open to new ideas and that all schools have equitable funding and the freedom needed to be effective. The district’s job is to find ways to serve students, not to maintain a particular set of schools, or a central bureaucracy or labor force.

Whether or not the Nashville school board wants to go the portfolio route, or is even the right entity to manage a strong portfolio of schools, is unclear (more on that in a future post). Eventually, though, someone will need to take responsibility for the welfare, uncertainties, and great potential of all of Nashville’s students. The forecast in Seattle today is for sun and 80 degrees. But I have an umbrella in the car, just in case.

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