Tennessee Officials Recommend Putting Knowledge Academies On Probation, Not Shutting Them Down
State officials say a group of embattled charter schools in Antioch should remain open — at least for now.
Knowledge Academies, which runs two middle schools and a high school, is appealing an order from Metro Nashville Public Schools to shut down by the end of the year. Local officials cite claims of fraud and poor academic performance.
But staffers at the state level say there's not enough evidence to shut it down, so they're instead recommending probation.
The State Board of Eduation released the results of their review of the 14 reasons MNPS gave for revoking the charter of Knowledge Academies as soon as possible. The most serious allegations include trying to circumvent Tennessee's ban on hiring a for-profit charter operator and setting up side businesses to rent out Knowledge Academies' facilities.
Teachers told The Tennessean earlier this year that those activities caused students to miss class on a regularly scheduled school day so a building could host a conference for construction professionals.
KA's board fired its founder and told the newspaper it was investigating what happened to revenue from those operations.
But state officials say there's no proof of wrongdoing. Instead, they say, leaders seem to have been trying to find new revenue streams that would help the school.
"Renting out a school's facilities in and of itself is not an issue, and it is a common practice across many school systems," Sara Heyburn Morrison, the executive director of the State Board of Education, wrote after reviewing Metro Schools' case against Knowledge Academies.
"Additionally, there is not clear evidence presented that any of the businesses or partnerships made a profit, used public funds inappropriately, or that any of the former administration illegally profited.
Tennessee officials did concede KA students are doing worse academically than those at other charter schools. But they add there's also evidence that its students are making substantial progress in the classroom and should be given time to turn test scores around.
"While it is clear that Knowledge Academy has work to do to increase academic performance for its students," Morrison writes, "the academic evidence MNPS presented does not merit revocation of the charter agreement."
Members of the State Board of Education won't formally vote until next week on whether to reverse the closure order. But the staff recommendation carries substantial weight.
They say that, instead of a shutdown, Knowledge Academies should be placed on probationary status — an action MNPS's own staff originally recommended last spring when word of the charter schools' troubles surfaced.
KA's chairman says the organization is "very pleased" with that recommendation.
"We compliment the team for the thoroughness of its report," James Bristol said in a prepared statement. "We are mindful that this is only a recommendation and we eagerly await the final decision."
A spokeswoman for Metro Schools didn't challenge the recommendation directly, but she noted the district had "followed a thoughtful process" in deciding to shut Knowledge Academies down. She said the district will wait until next week to see whether that move holds up.