Education

Gov. Lee’s charter school expansion mission aims beyond Tennessee’s big city limits

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Since Tennessee’s first public charter schools opened in Memphis and Nashville in 2003, the state’s charter sector has been contained to its four largest cities. But that could change in a few years under expansion work by Gov. Bill Lee’s administration.

The state is awarding grants totaling $6.3 million to 15 groups wanting to open charter schools in five districts that currently do not have them, plus three districts that do. The money is intended to help operators design, plan, and launch new schools through their local school districts.

Combined with a 2019 state law that Lee championed to create a powerful commission overseeing charter schools, the grant program bolsters the governor’s overall strategy to expand education choices for families across Tennessee, including suburban and rural areas.

Nashville could get six more schools, with two more each in Memphis and Chattanooga. New markets include the Memphis suburb of Millington and districts in Fayette, Montgomery, Rutherford, and Williamson counties.

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In all, Tennessee’s charter school sector — which currently has 115 schools serving 44,000 students — could add 15 schools and 8,800 students.

The road to a broader charter landscape has been steady and gradual, backed by well-financed special interest groups lobbying for more education choices in Tennessee. Meanwhile, critics of “charter creep” argue that the publicly financed, independently operated schools drain students and funding from traditional public schools that also must follow stricter rules than charters do.

Tennessee’s original 2002 charter school law capped the number of charter schools to 50 and limited their locations to Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga. It also restricted enrollment to students who were low-performing, attending failing schools, and eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.

Legislation passed in 2009 and 2011 lifted the cap and loosened restrictions so that charter applicants could seek authorization anywhere in the state and serve any student.

Local school boards have acted as the primary gatekeepers, approving about a third of the applications during nearly two decades. The Tennessee State Board of Education, which until this year oversaw the appeals process, has mostly upheld those decisions.

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In 2014, lawmakers gave the state board new authority to authorize charter schools as part of the appeals process. The power essentially applied to applicants from the state’s urban areas.

But beginning this year, that authority has expanded even further under the new Tennessee Public Charter School Commission, which could authorize schools from anywhere in the state on appeal. The commission’s nine members, appointed by Lee, could overrule any local board and place the new charter school in a statewide district that the commission oversees.

Changes under Gov. Lee build a charter continuum

The expansion grants the education department announced last week are raising concerns that state support in the proposal phase could influence the authorization process at the local and state levels.

Will Pinkston, a former Nashville school board member and outspoken critic of the charter movement, said the grants appear to sanction those applicants receiving them.

“For the state to incentivize charter applications and then serve later in the process as the judge and jury is ridiculous,” Pinkston said. “This is a completely biased process, and it’s important for everyone to understand that from the get-go.”

But Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, who co-sponsored the governor’s proposal to create the commission, thinks the system is a good one.

“If applicants are denied, they can appeal to the state commission and the process will play itself out. We’ll leave it up to the experts,” said Johnson, a Republican from Franklin.

Tess Stovall, who previously led charter appellate work for the state board, helms the commission as its executive director. Its appointed commissioners have expertise in business, law, education, and government.

Rep. Antonio Parkinson believes the combination of the grants and the commission’s expanded authority create a powerful continuum that will lead to a proliferation of charter schools across Tennessee.

“I warned folks this was coming,” the Memphis Democrat said this week, referring to a memorable 2019 legislative hearing when he spoke out against the proposed charter commission and its expanded authority.

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“The one thing that I do like about this bill is the fact that now everybody gets a taste of the charter medicine across the state,” Parkinson said at the time. He then pointed at other lawmakers one by one and parroted entertainer Oprah Winfrey’s giveaway slogan: “So you get a charter, and you get a charter, and you get a charter. Everybody gets an opportunity to feel what we’ve been feeling in Shelby County.”

Parkinson said he’s interested now to hear if GOP legislators who voted for that law — especially those from Fayette, Montgomery, Rutherford, and Williamson counties — will support the introduction of high-quality charter schools to their home districts.

Only one person out of a dozen responded this week when Chalkbeat put that question to lawmakers from those four counties.

“I support charter schools, but I don’t take a position on where charter schools should go,” said Johnson, the Senate Republican leader who represents Williamson County. “There’s no one better to decide about whether a charter school is needed than a local school board.”

Last month, Williamson County’s school board denied an application from two former officers for a chain of autism clinics to open a charter school for autistic students through Williamson County Schools. That group can appeal the decision to the new commission.

Grant program draw praise and pans

The development grants — funded in part by federal coronavirus relief money that Lee oversees for education needs — are raising eyebrows on both sides of the charter debate.

“This kind of support for planning is unheard of in my charter school experience,” said Tim Ware, executive director of the all-boys Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School in Memphis.

Ware said the $490,000 grant coming to his organization will be invaluable toward launching a second Memphis school for girls in sixth through eighth grades beginning in the fall of 2023. The instructional focus would be on science, technology, engineering, and math.

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“This will allow us to really dig deep and grow our understanding of a single-gender girls school to prepare our students for college and career,” Ware said. “We’ll have the opportunity to study some of the nation’s STEM models for girls to help us see firsthand what we’re trying to create.”

Another state grant will support a proposal to launch Millington STEM Charter Middle School through Millington Municipal Schools in suburban Shelby County.

Bo Griffin, the district’s director of schools, said he was surprised by the proposed niche.

“We already have a STEM program in our existing middle school that has received STEM grants from the state and has been doing very well,” Griffin said.

“I don’t see how a new charter school could help us, but it could hurt,” he added. “You take a hundred kids from a small district like ours with just 2,500 students, it will have a significant impact on our enrollment, staffing, and finances.”

This year, only seven charter school applications — much fewer than usual — were submitted to five districts statewide. So far, only Hamilton County Schools has approved one. Atypically, no 2021 applications were submitted in Memphis to Shelby County Schools, which with 56 charter schools is the state’s biggest authorizer.

Maya Bugg, executive director of the Tennessee Public Charter School Center, which advocates for high-quality charter schools, said the coronavirus was the big factor in this year’s application decline. But she expects an uptick next year.

“I know of schools working on applications, but they paused during the pandemic,” she said. “We’ve been in unprecedented times when people were juggling a lot and just weren’t sure about the future. It takes a lot of time, energy, and resources to put together an application and plan for a school launch.”

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