NewsNewsChannel 5 InvestigatesRevealed 2023


REVEALED: Confidential charter school plan draws fears of impact on rural, suburban communities

Gates-funded group's plan envisions expansion into suburban and rural areas, a move that opponents argue will bring school closures
Posted: 4:41 PM, Mar 06, 2023
Updated: 2024-01-10 11:40:28-05
Image from TN Charter School Center ad campaign.jpg

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — It's a confidential plan that, critics say, could eventually upend local schools in every county in the state.

That plan, prepared by one of the most powerful lobbying forces on Tennessee's Capitol Hill, lays out a vision for a dramatic expansion of taxpayer-funded, privately operated charter schools into every part of the state — including suburban and rural areas that have not been targeted by school privatization forces.

Public education advocates worry that the plan, if successful, would pull students from schools in some of the less-populated areas of the state.

"It would trigger school consolidation," said Jim Wrye, lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association.

NewsChannel 5 asked, "You are going to have to close some schools?"

"You'll have to close schools," Wrye agreed.

The plan obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates was developed by the Tennessee State Collaborative for Reforming Education — better known as SCORE — a group that has a history of getting its way around the state legislature.

"They are the most influential organization in this state," said J.C. Bowman, executive director of another teachers group, Professional Educators of Tennessee.

SCORE is made up of the state's wealthiest people, billionaires and millionaires who think they know what's best for Tennessee's school children, along with funding assistance from billionaire Bill Gates.

Review list of SCORE donors below:

"All I've seen them become is the lobbying wing for the Bill Gates Foundation," Bowman said, adding: "People call them the de facto Department of Education in Tennessee."

We asked, "They have that much power?"

"They have that much power," Bowman nodded.

The only hints of what SCORE and its allies may really be up to can be seen in a recent advertising campaign presenting the taxpayer-funded, privately operated charter schools as public schools.

That messaging appears to come straight from a SCORE poll obtained last year by NewsChannel 5 Investigates that describes how to overcome the negatives associated with charter schools.

Related: Pro-charter group's poll shows Tennesseans like their public schools

Until now, those privately operated charter schools have largely been confined to Memphis and Nashville, along with a handful in Chattanooga and Knoxville.

But the SCORE document lays out what it calls a "vision for charter sector growth."

It foresees moving as many as 25,000 children from traditional public schools — that's as many as 50 new charter schools.

In the next five years, it calls for 25-30% penetration in Nashville and Memphis.

Right now, less than 20% of Nashville students go to charter schools.

SCORE envisions 10% penetration in Chattanooga, and 40% of Knoxville's under-served students to be in charter schools.

And perhaps most noteworthy: "rural/suburban growth is 'unlocked.'"

In other words, SCORE anticipates charter schools beginning to move into those less populated areas in the next five years.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked TEA's Jim Wrye, "Is this something that the charter community openly advertises?"

"No," he answered, "we have not heard rural charter schools on the hill very much."

We followed up, "Because it's not popular?"

"Well, it's not only not popular, but I think it's a political loser for the charter industry."

TEA lobbyist Jim Wrye.jpeg
Jim Wrye, Tennessee Education Association

J.C. Bowman agreed: "Who's the largest employer in most rural communities? It's the school system."

"Most of the parents will tell you they support their community schools. They still go to some games on Friday night and watch football. They are still involved in their child's education."

Wrye added, "There is a real cultural pride and academic pride in these places, that somebody saying we'll do it for you is kind of insulting in that way."

If students are pulled away from traditional public schools in suburban and rural areas, "it would trigger school consolidation," Wrye argued.

"There's no doubt about it. And school consolidation, when you close the school, you kill the town."

Last year, Gov. Bill Lee opened the door, inviting the ultraconservative Hillsdale College to set up charter schools across the state — a plan that was derailed after NewsChannel 5 showed Lee's friend, Hillsdale President Larry Arnn, trashing public school teachers.

But Hillsdale is back with applications to open charter schools in five Tennessee counties.

The executive director of SCORE, David Mansouri, declined to go on camera and answer our questions, although he insisted in an email that SCORE's focus on charter schools is really a strategy to "support and accelerate student learning."

He said the SCORE "vision" reflects trends that his organizations already see happening in Tennessee.

"We understand critics of public charter schools may disagree on this approach, but SCORE will continue to work for the success of Tennessee’s public charter schools, to ensure they are held to the same or higher accountability standards as other public schools, and to demand they are serving Tennessee families and students well," Mansouri said in the email.

"A quick scan of SCORE’s website, our annual State of Education in Tennessee event and report, or even our social media channels demonstrate our breadth and depth of support for traditional public schools and districts, the critical need for strong principals and talented teachers in every Tennessee school and classroom, and our desire to create even greater postsecondary and career opportunities for Tennessee students."

But NewsChannel 5 Investigates checked the data, and we discovered that 80 percent of all charter schools in Tennessee have a "success rate" in math and English that's actually lower than the districts where they're located.

Related: Most Tennessee charter schools show lower 'success rate' than districts

Charter school advocates counter that the most accurate measure is student growth, and that is where the privately operated charter schools excel.

On the other hand, school data shows that Tennessee's all-charter Achievement School District has one of the worst records in the state.

JC Bowman Professional Educators of Tennessee.jpeg
J.C. Bowman, Professional Educators of Tennessee

"Make no mistake, this is business for them, and the business is not educating kids," J.C. Bowman said. "This is about business and shifting dollars to the hands of other people."

The final decision will likely rest with the state Public Charter School Commission.

As NewsChannel 5 previously reported, that commission includes people affiliated with SCORE who are in a position to implement their group's agenda, drawing accusations of a conflict of interest.

One of those commissioners, SCORE board member Alan Levine, later expressed outrage over that suggestion.

"It is not a conflict of interest for those of us who are advocates for better learning to come here and give an objective review of the options we are being given," Levine said during a charter commission meeting.

J.C. Bowman countered that Levine isn't admitting the obvious.

"There is a conflict of interest, and I know Alan," Bowman continued. "He thinks he's doing a greater good. It's almost you talk yourself into I am above what other standards I would hold to somebody else."

While that commission has mainly used its power against Nashville and Memphis, the men who fight for Tennessee teachers say, the plan shows that if SCORE and its allies get their way, Tennessee's suburban and rural counties will likely be next.

"The idea that it can be imposed upon them is really starting to sink it," Jim Wrye said, "and you are starting to see more and more people say, well, that's not right."


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