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VOL. 36 | NO. 41 | Friday, October 12, 2012

Everyone, including Metro, seems to want school choice. The problem: Busing

By Linda Bryant

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If nothing else, the push to bring Great Hearts Academy to Nashville was a conversation starter for competition and choice in the Metro school marketplace.

Adding vouchers and the “trigger law” to the discussion only increased the heat.

Now Metro Schools has turned to marketing, scheduling the inaugural “First Choice Festival’’ to show Davidson County’s parents and students what it has to offer as an alternative to private and charter schools or moving to a neighboring county.

Mayor Karl Dean says the event is a chance to break through to potential public school parents.

“The time for ‘one size fits all’ education has passed,” Dean says. “Quality choices are integral to real improvement in education. As we work to increase quality choices in public education, it is critical that Nashville families have the information they need to make the best choices for their children.”

Marketing school choice and conducting an event such as First Choice Festival is a new endeavor for Metro, says Michael Hayes, school board member.

Creating the college-fair like festival within the Metro system, “introduces a new kind of competition for schools,’’ says Hayes, who strongly supported Great Hearts Academy and the effort of West Nashville parents to bring the charter on board for their affluent neighborhoods.

Hayes says there’s been a sharp increase in parents who want choice. Many are willing to go to great lengths to find the best possible schools for their children, and they want to see the school system offer continual improvements.

“The whole issue of school choice and the ability to choose what school you want to attend has taken off in the district over the last two years. I think there are a lot of reasons for it,’’ Hayes says.

“The term ‘school choice’ is a battle cry that means different things to different people. It might mean one thing for a charter school proponent and a different thing for the people interested in pushing school vouchers. At MNPS, it’s also become about educating people about choices already available in our schools.”

Over the past few years, Metro has worked to broaden choices within the system. Every family in Davidson County can choose between a zoned school and schools of choice, from entertainment-themed schools to schools with extended or non-traditional hours to Montessori and Paideia schools.

Academies of Nashville, which are part of all zoned high schools, offer programs specializing in science, technology, engineering and math, hospitality/tourism, entertainment/communications, business, information technology and public service.

Big problem: Transportation

Just how a student gets to an out-of-zone school can be a complicated and frustrating process for families. Some say the issue stands in the way of the school system’s growing and varied choices gaining wider popularity.

Cristina and Rick Allen spend two to three hours daily arranging transportation for Carina (left) and Gabriela, who attend Meigs Magnet School, and Olivia (not pictured), who attends J.T. Moore.

-- Photo: Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

Christina Allen, a South Nashville parent with three children enrolled in out-of-zone schools, says she spends two to three hours a day on school transportation.

“I’ve been grateful for the transportation options available,’’ Allen says. “You figure out the best option for your kids. If you really want them, you’ll find that they are there in the public schools. It’s hard to coordinate, but I make it happen. At the same time, I know it’s harder for some parents to make it work.’’

Many parents, however, don’t have the time or resources to manage those transportation issues.

“Transportation is the tail that wags the dog,” Hayes says. “When a student is older and comfortable getting on (an MTA bus), it’s a lot easier for families, but it’s a complicated process for many.”

Fred Carr, chief operating officer at Metro schools, says the system is handicapped when trying to come up with viable solutions.

“Transportation is the biggest challenge for an urban school population,” Carr says. “It is particularly difficult in Nashville where the city covers 525 square miles and has basically one public transportation option. Larger cities with a smaller footprint have trams, subways and other options.’’

Dean, a proponent of school choice, is hoping for eventual transportation changes, too.

“Obviously, transportation is an important part of being able to exercise choice,” Dean says. “As more quality choices become available in Nashville, I certainly hope that transportation options, both at the school level and through the Nashville MTA, continue to evolve.”

It’s unclear if MNPS has plans to further expand transportation options for students, although Hayes says it’s been talked about for years.

“It’s a huge and very expensive issue,” he says. “There’s been some talk of developing a hub system. There’s probably a way to do it, but it would cost a whole lot of money. It’s never been brought to the level of the school board.”

Hayes points out that cities with highly successful open enrollment and school transportation policies usually have state-of-the-art public transportation systems that team up with their urban school districts.

“Transportation is tough in a city without a grid,” he says.

Hayes says the transportation options at MNPS could be approached incrementally.

“It would be great to start with reasonable transportation to the magnet schools like Hume Fogg, MLK and Nashville School of the Arts,” he adds.

Return of voucher issue

Another simmering issue is likely to get widespread attention in Tennessee very soon – school vouchers.

A bill approving vouchers was narrowly approved by the state Senate in 2011, but Gov. Bill Haslam intervened and asked for a special commission to study the issue before it was considered in the state house. It is expected to be introduced again when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

Proponents of vouchers say they promote school choice by giving students from low- and moderate-income families the opportunity to attend private schools that accept vouchers. In last year’s bill, the vouchers would have been for $5,400 a year and be available in Shelby, Davidson, Knox and Hamilton counties for families who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches only.

Hayes is skeptical.

“If fully implemented and widely taken advantage, I think they’d hurt public schools financially,” Hayes says. “If there’s a voucher program that doesn’t have a negative impact, I’d love to learn more about it.”

Bill Chaney, headmaster Davidson Academy, a private Christian school, says he’s taking a wait-and-see approach and is anxious to hear the recommendations of the Governor’s commission.

“Our main concerns with the proposed voucher plan are around accountability and control of curriculum,” Chaney says. “We don’t administer the TCAP test, preferring the Stanford 10 as a measure of student achievement and growth. We also incorporate Christian character development into every aspect of our curriculum and co-curriculum, and will continue to do so.

“If these or other aspects of our school present a hindrance to our participation in a voucher program, we would decline to accept voucher students.”

Brad Gioia, headmaster of Montgomery Bell Academy, voiced similar concerns about the testing issue and wonders if vouchers would work in the long run.

“Ultimately, I don’t think they are a positive enough incentive for most of the independent schools,” Gioia says. “It’s not that I don’t want to do what’s right. I like it that our country has growing school choices. But practically, I don’t see how they will be well-utilized.”

Trigger happy

Meanwhile, another school choice issue – the state’s little-known trigger law – also is being scrutinized.

Metro Councilwoman Emily Evans has been working with parents and elected officials to find out more about the law and how it can be applied in the state. The law, which has been on the books in Tennessee for 10 years but never used, states that a public school can be converted to a charter school if 60 percent of parents or teachers approve of the switch. The school would also need the approval of the school board.

Evans says a group of public school parents approached her exploring the law’s options.

“I think parents these days are interested in school choice matters because they are “interested in change from the bottom up and want to see flexibility from the schools,” Evans says. “Some are concerned that their children are growing up and not getting educated, and they want to make sure they do.”

A meeting for those interested in finding out more about the Trigger Law will be held on Oct. 15 at 6:30 pm at Metro Courthouse.

Bob Teague moved his office to downtown Nashville a few years ago so that he could be in a convenient location for his two sons, both of whom were enrolled in out-of-zone schools with specialized curriculum. Teague, a passionate and active participant in public schools for over 20 years, eventually pulled his sons from the out-of-zone schools and re-enrolled them in their zoned schools.

“My sons enjoyed the schools, but in the end (transportation) it was a little too hard,” he says. “We were relieved when it was over.”

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