Nashville is a thriving city with an amazing culture and a booming economy.
It’s also a progressive city in a very red state.
Given the progressive value of supporting public education, my hope was that this progressive city would be delivering a great public education to its children.
But, after digging into the data, it’s clear that Nashville’s public education system is not giving kids a great education, especially African-American and Latino children.
This is troubling for the future of the city, as it means that a whole generation of Nashville children may be locked out from benefiting from the city’s growing economy.
A Divided City
The last few school board elections in Nashville have been contentious. Public charter schools were at the heart of the electoral fights, with some officials calling for a moratorium on charter school growth.
The supporters of the charter school moratorium made two arguments: the charter schools are not as good as people say they are, and if the charters schools expanded they would hurt the education of students in the traditional public schools.
Both of these claims deserve some attention.
Are the Public Charter Schools in Nashville Good Public Schools?
One of the best way to understand the quality of a school is to measure how much a student increases her learning by attending that school. Tennessee measures this impact on student learning by calculating a value-added score for each school. A score of 5 is really good, a score of 1 is pretty bad.*
Here’s the score for every public school in Nashville that received a composite value-added score and does not have an academic entrance requirement.** Charter schools are represented by the green bars, traditional schools by the blue bars.
The results are stunning:
56% of public schools in Nashville that received a rating received the state’s lowest rating.
Of the 73 public schools that received a state rating, 41 of them received a “1.” Elementary schools don’t receive composite state ratings, so this is mostly a reflection of middle and high school performance. Nashville may be a booming city, but the city’s public schools are providing a poor public education to the majority of the city’s public school students.
90% of the 41 schools that received the lowest performance rating are traditional schools.
41 schools received the lowest rating. 37 of them are traditional public schools. Nearly all of the lowest performing schools are traditional schools. The traditional school sector is in vast need of improvement.
89% of the 19 schools that received the state’s highest rating are public charter schools.
19 schools received a top tier rating. 17 of those are public charter schools.
And these charter schools aren’t outliers. 74% of charter schools in the city received a top tier rating. Only 4% of traditional schools received a top tier rating.
Nashville’s public charter school sector may be amongst the best in the country. The educators in these schools are accomplishing amazing things.
The traditional schools, on the other hand, are really struggling. Too many kids in Nashville are getting a subpar education.
Would it be Progressive to Allow Public Charter Schools to Grow?
Chidren who attend charter schools in Nashville learn a lot more than children who attend traditional schools. It follows that the progressive thing to do is to allow more children to attend these schools.
However, if expanding these schools hurts the existing traditional schools, there might be a trade-off between growing these schools and improving existing schools.
Fortunately, research can help us answer this dilemma. Journalist Matt Barnum accurately summarizes the research:
“Charter schools are unlikely to have significant negative effects on student achievement in traditional public schools — and may, in fact, have small positive effects on nearby schools. At the same time, there is research indicating that charters may in fact harm school district finances.”
If anything, public charter schools tend to increase the academic performance of students in traditional public, likely due to increased competition.
That being said, it’s undeniable that when the traditional system loses students, it also loses money. Given that this does not lead to a drop student achievement, it’s unclear to me that this issue needs to be solved. However, in cases of rapid charter school growth, the state might consider giving the local district some transition aid.
But the bottom line is that expanding high-performing public charter schools can increase the academic performance of students in both charter and traditional public schools.
It’s hard to get more progressive that.
Here’s hoping that Nashville’s progressive leaders do the right thing over the coming decade: they should allow great public schools to serve more children.
*See below for TN description of each level of performance:
** I excluded the following schools for having selective requirements: Martin Luther King, Jr. Magnet High School, Hume-Fogg Magnet High School, Meigs Magnet Middle School, and Middle College High School. If I got this wrong, let me know!