Thoughts on Diversity in Nashville Charter Schools

There is a growing sentiment in Nashville — and across the nation – that charter schools are leading to more segregated public schools. Yesterday, Heidi Hall from the Tennessean penned an article titled “Charter Segregation Adds Layer in Brown vs. Board Debate,” which gives center stage to the oft-heard criticism that charters are overrepresented by African Americans and students below the poverty level.

But the piece provides an incomplete picture because it neglects to address the context and history of the Tennessee charter school movement, and more importantly, misses an opportunity to create a collaborative conversation about an issue all of us in the community care about – creating more diversity in all of our public schools (charter and district).

When the Tennessee legislature passed a charter school statute in 2002, they did so on the premise that charters would provide better opportunities for students in low performing schools.   From the outset, only students assigned to schools on the “No Child Left Behind” list could attend a public charter school in Tennessee. While later years saw a relaxation of enrollment restrictions (in 2005, students failing to test proficient on state tests could attend charters; and in 2009, charters could also enroll students qualifying for free and reduced priced lunch – regardless if the student was assigned to a failing school or had not reached proficiency), the charter law had long been structured to target low-income students, which has historically included a high percentage of African American and Hispanic children.

Charter school leaders not only embraced the mission of serving students who were most struggling in traditional public schools, but have also realized great success. For example, the CREDO Study conducted by Stanford University (which is often referenced – and misinterpreted– by charter school critics as proof charters do no better than their district school counterparts), found that Tennessee charter schools provide the equivalent of 86 more days of learning in reading and 72 more days of learning in math each academic year. In Nashville last year, 33 percent of the city’s Reward Schools were charters (even though charters represent only 10 percent of the schools in the district). And just recently, LEAD Public Schools, one of the longest standing charter operators in the city, announced that 100 percent of its graduating class had been accepted into college. Clearly, Nashville’s public charters schools are doing great things for students and their families.

Not until the summer of 2011 did the legislature amend the charter law to allow all public school students to attend a charter school. Based on the timing of charter applications, this past year (2013-2014) represented the first time new charter schools could take advantage of this expansion in enrollment eligibility. Therefore, it is disingenuous and illogical to task charters with serving our most underserved students, while at the same time denouncing them for segregating our public schools.

All of us in the community (whether or not one is a public charter school advocate) believe diversity is a great thing. Classrooms that represent the cultural richness of the city lead to an optimal environment for creating well-educated, well-rounded students.

Now that the charter law in Tennessee has created an avenue for enrolling a diverse student body, charter leaders are answering the call. In the 2013-2014 MNPS Annual Diversity Report, the charter school sector showed an 11% increase in schools that met the diversity criteria. Additionally, the number of students in diverse charters almost tripled from 535 to 1,417. Valor Collegiate Academy, opening in fall 2014, is a prime example of how charter schools are now prioritizing diversity. Valor will serve an ethnically and economically diverse group of students, with 48% of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch. Their student population is represented by 20% African American, 38% Caucasian, 19% Hispanic, 14% Kurdish and 7% Asian.

It will not be easy to reach our diversity goals (due to historical barriers like living patterns, which significantly influence the demographics in our public schools), but it is a worthy endeavor. Sixty years after Brown vs. Board, the conversation around diversity is both timely and important. Let’s have that conversation in collaboration, good faith, and with respect to what all of our public schools (charter and district) bring to the table.

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