Education Reform Mood a Likely Boon to Tennessee Charter Schools

It’s boom times for charter schools in Tennessee.

With a sympathetic GOP controlling state government and several proposals in the Legislature aiming to lift restrictions on the alternative public schools, charter school advocates appear to have the political wind at their backs.

Not only do charter schools have solid scores of Republicans in their corner, but they have Gov. Bill Haslam spearheading the very ideas that top their legislative wish list, plus a new education commissioner who comes from a background that parallels the kind of outside-the-box thinking they thrive on.

“Over the next four or five years, I think statewide we’re probably going to average eight to 10, maybe 12 charter schools a year,” says Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association.

Advocates for charter schools and the school-choice model are scheduled to spend Wednesday at Capitol Hill lobbying lawmakers who have over the last month considered other policy changes for Tennessee’s education system.

On the association’s agenda: lift the cap on number of charter schools, allow the state to OK new schools and open up student eligibility. They also want to make it easier for the schools to borrow money to purchase larger school spaces and create more flexibility around application deadlines.

Next school year, Tennessee will be home to some 40 public charter schools – 25 in Memphis, 11 more in Nashville, three in Chattanooga and one in Knoxville. The big four cities will drive most of the growth in charters, according to Throckmorton, but their suburbs may also host a few.

Charter schools are relatively new to Tennessee. The Legislature only began allowing them at all in 2002 and has cautiously limited their growth, at least up to now.

They’re funded the same way traditional public schools are, on a per-pupil basis – that is, for each student enrolled, the school receives a fixed amount. Those funds are a mix of state and local dollars, totaling $8,100 per pupil in Nashville, $7,500 in Memphis, and $7,100 in Chattanooga, according to the association.

Charter schools are still public schools, staffed by certified teachers and required to make adequate yearly progress – in other words, they have to meet federal testing benchmarks or be shut down by the state.

But charter schools don’t have to adhere to the same curriculum or classroom approach as a traditional public school, meaning they can be more flexible and autonomous. That commonly translates to longer school days, Saturday classes or a longer school year. Custom lesson plans and more parental involvement factor in as well.

Getting permission to start a charter in Tennessee is a rigorous process – among the nation’s toughest, Throckmorton said. Applications to local school districts typically span hundreds of pages, while the majority of applicants are denied.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, Throckmorton says.

“When it was put into place, it was actually put in by those who were very skeptical of charter schools. It’s become one of the best things – it keeps all of our schools really focused on academic performance,” he said.

While the political winds are currently blowing in charter schools’ direction, he said he doesn’t see them dominating the state’s education system.

“I don’t see a charter school on every street corner,” he said. “There is a niche. And in some districts that are really stubborn, you’re going to need more charter schools before they begin to really change and allow flexibility within their own schools and professionals.”

Haslam has made one of his top priorities giving the charter school community a shot in the arm.

The governor, who offered up an agenda to the Legislature last month, included a handful of charter school reforms, which would lift the 90-school cap on the number of charters granted in the state, allow open enrollment and involve a planned state school district in approving new schools.

Those proposals are encapsulated in HB1989, a bill carried by House Republican Leader Gerald McCormick that is awaiting a committee hearing.

“(It’s) all about giving more flexibility,” Haslam told a conference room full of Nashville Chamber of Commerce members Tuesday morning. “We think every child should have the ability to go to a great school regardless of economic background, so we have focused hard on doing that.”

Haslam’s new right-hand man in the Department of Education, Commissioner Kevin Huffman, will help push that agenda.

Huffman grew through the ranks of the education profession nontraditionally, first by earning his teaching degree through the Teach for America alternative teaching program, then by touting the group’s message as its vice-president for public affairs. He at one point was married to Michelle Rhee, the former schools chancellor in Washington, D.C., and a celebrity of sorts in the education reform community who appeared in the movie Waiting for ‘Superman’.

The administration’s bill would open up charter eligibility to all students, instead of exclusively those deemed “at-risk” — those students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. However, needy students would still receive top priority for enrollment.

The measure would also allow charter applications to sidestep applying with local school districts by allowing them to hook up with the state’s achievement school district, which is chiefly responsible for turning around failing state schools.

The achievement school district is still in its infancy — because it was born out of legislation approved last year that led to the state’s Race to the Top win, the virtual school district that has the authority to take over operations of under-performing schools won’t launch until the 2011 school year.

“We have to seize on this moment if we’re going to be who we want to be as a state,” Haslam said.

Some House and Senate Republicans are trying to do just that. They’re initiating a slew of education reforms. The most controversial would halt a teachers unions’ ability to collectively bargain labor contracts with local districts. Other would eliminate the union’s power to recommend appointees to key state retirement boards, ban educators from setting up automatic payroll deductions to pay union dues, and restrict the union from contributing to political candidates.

The Tennessee Education Association, a teachers union representing more than 50,000 educators, is no fan of charter schools, chiefly because they threaten to steer state and local dollars away from traditional public schools. This is a big worry in Nashville and Memphis, which house the most charter schools, according to the group’s chief lobbyist.

Jerry Winters, who has been fighting the heavier-hitting education reforms, said the TEA probably won’t spent much energy trying to fight charter school expansions.

“I don’t see us spending as much time on charter schools this year as we have in the past,” he said. “I think it’s to everybody’s advantage to make sure that these charter schools, once they get into expansion mode, are high-quality schools. I think even the people in the charter school movement, they get a black eye if you have schools that go out of business.”

Even if they don’t put up much of a fight against charter schools, Nashville Democratic Rep. Mike Stewart might.

“People who are interested in education should very carefully scrutinize the charter school bill because it goes to the very core of how our state education system is funded and who controls it,” said Stewart, who dislikes the idea of charter schools opening up under the umbrella of the state’s achievement school district instead of through local boards of education.

“Right now, we have local authorities that control most of what happens in our local schools,” Stewart said, “and the charter bill dramatically changes the structure of control in Tennessee, and we all have to look at that very carefully.”

Andrea Zelinski contributed to this story.