Heated Tennessee Charter Battles Point Up Issues

Last Updated: September 26, 2012

This article appeared in the September 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

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Tennessee’s Education Commissioner, Kevin Huffman, is withholding $3.4 in funding from the Nashville public schools because the local school board refused to open a controversial charter school they said would serve primarily affluent, white students rather than a diverse student body from across the city. Huffman, an avid supporter of charters and a former executive with Teach for America, is distributing that money to other charter school districts in the state.

Critics question whether Huffman has the authority to simply take money out of the state’s funding formula and send it to charter districts in other parts of the state, especially because Tennessee law empowers districts to authorize charters — or not.

Across the state, the rural Union County school district has contracted with K12 Inc, the for-profit virtual school, to enroll students from any Tennessee district. The district gets 4% of state funding from each student enrolled in the virtual school, according to reports.

K12 Inc has come under fire for low students test scores and has been investigated in Georgia, Florida, and Virginia.

The situation in Tennessee highlights the growing tensions between charters and regular school districts over the allocation of public education funds. In many states, charter supporters claim they need more funding, while supporters of regular schools claim that charter funding laws often hurt students in regular schools and that charters are being expanded without an understanding of their impact on regular schools and without sufficient research evidence of their effectiveness.

The rapid growth in charters is accompanied by powerful outside pressures on states from political action committees, charter law requirements of some federal grant programs, and lobbying from for-profit schools and school management companies.

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