Comments a top state education official made about charter school diversity drew a sharp rebuke from a Nashville school board member Tuesday and prompted House Democrats to ask Gov. Bill Haslam to "disavow" the remarks.
Chris Barbic, who heads Tennessee's Achievement School District, an entity that has converted some of the state's lowest-performing schools to privately operated charters, suggested during a recent public appearance that charter schools shouldn't be blamed for lacking student diversity, WPLN reported Tuesday.
"Yes, we want diversity," Barbic was quoted saying at a panel talk at Lipscomb University last week on charter schools. "But we've got to be honest about the situation and speak honestly about race and class, which goes way beyond the power of a school."
The WPLN report said many in the Lipscomb crowd groaned at his comments.
Barbic told WPLN: "Most schools, they are the representation of a neighborhood, and most neighborhoods are folks who live together that look alike. That's just the honest reality. I think that's the case here in Nashville and most communities. And so I think to put that on charters that it's something they've caused or are responsible for is unfair."
An original version of the WPLN story that paraphrased Barbic saying segregation in charters is "acceptable" was later corrected to say he "acknowledged" it exists.
Metro school board Will Pinkston took to Twitter Tuesday morning, calling the comments "unbelievable" and accusing Barbic of arguing that "school segregation is OK." Barbic disputed that accusation, clarifying that he only said charters shouldn't be blamed.
"If we're a community that values diversity, we cannot have racially isolated schools of any type," Pinkston later told The Tennessean, noting that Nashville, like many cities in the South, spent decades under a federal desegregation lawsuit.
House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh followed with a statement Tuesday asking Haslam to disavow the statements: "Too many people have fought too hard to bring about an integrated, well-balanced school system for comments like this to move us towards resegregation."
ASD and governor's office officials both noted WPLN's story revision when contacted for comments.
Most charter schools in Tennessee and in Nashville have low-income, largely African-American student populations. That racial makeup was cited in the Spurlock v. Fox case, a long-running resegregation suit against Metro over its 2009 student assignment plan, which the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld in May.
Until two years ago, only low-income students were eligible forcharter schools in Tennessee. Today, under the state's open enrollment law, all students can attend them.
That has triggered a debate in Nashville. The Metro school board rejected a charter school proposal called Great Hearts Academies in 2012 over concerns that it would cater to only affluent, white students in West Nashville and create a system of segregated charter schools.
It prompted the district to adopt a new plan that defines what a "diverse school" should look like. According to a December report, the number of diverse schools in Nashville increased from last year to this year, including diverse charter schools, which doubled from three to six out of 20.