Maybe it was because she was standing in front of more than about 100 people.
Maybe it was because, in her youth, she hasn’t done much public speaking.
More likely, it was because the heartfelt words she was saying about why she likes being a student at Freedom Preparatory Academy in Memphis drew out her deepest emotions, with tears rolling down her face.
Eighth-grader Money (pronounced Mo-NAY) Johnson stole the hearts of the crowd Wednesday when Gov. Bill Haslam appeared for a ceremonial signing of his charter school bill, part of Haslam’s education reform package that passed the Legislature this year.
Haslam was supposed to be the main attraction, but it was the students, especially Johnson, who made the biggest impression. She began to say why she wanted to attend Freedom Prep.
“I wanted to come to Freedom Prep for the education,” she said. “I wasn’t getting the same education and love … ” And she stopped. Tears welled up. “… from my other school.” And she stopped again to wipe her eyes.
After several uneasy silent moments, the crowd broke into applause.
Young Johnson eventually gathered her thoughts and said she liked the working environment at the school and that her teachers take the time to make sure she knows what she needs to know to pass a test and go to college. It brought another round of applause.
The charter school debate did not end Wednesday at Freedom Prep in Memphis, but the stakes were clear. The state is searching for answers in education, and the new law is designed to give charter schools an opportunity to prove they can successfully play an ever larger role in turning Tennessee education around.
Haslam actually signed the bill days earlier, but his choice of Memphis for the ceremonial bill signing was no accident.
Memphis has the most charter schools in the state with 25. Nashville has 11, Chattanooga 3 and the Shelby County system 1. A charter school in Knoxville has been approved but is not expected to open until 2012.
The bill Haslam proposed, which passed 22-9 in the Senate and 72-18 in the House, lifts the cap of 90 charter schools in the state and allows any student in a charter school’s jurisdiction to attend. Further, an Achievement School District, which tries to turn around failing schools, can now authorize charter schools.
Chris Barbic, who has a charter school background and was recently chosen to head an Achievement School District in Tennessee, with four schools in Memphis and one in Chattanooga, attended Wednesday’s signing ceremony.
Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are run by not-for-profit organizations. The schools are noted for their autonomy but also face accountability and can be closed if they do not perform.
“This really is an important day. As you can tell by the parents here and the students, this is one more alternative. It’s not the answer for everyone, but having the ability to expand our charter schools is important as we seek to continue to move Tennessee forward,” Haslam said.
“I don’t think you’ll see massive growth, because quite frankly it’s hard to do. You’ve got to come up with a physical plant to meet in. That’s the hardest part about charter schools. I don’t think you’ll see an incredible multiplication, but I think you will see growth. And if you’re a parent and this is the best alternative for a child, this makes a huge difference.”
Charter schools made for only one piece of Haslam’s education reform agenda this year. He also pressed successfully for teacher tenure reform and the extension of Hope scholarships for summer college classes. While Haslam ultimately signed onto the collective bargaining legislation that ended with a “collaborative conferencing” plan with teachers, the union bill was not part of Haslam’s original education agenda.
Critics of charter schools say the schools get away from the original intent of helping struggling students and take away from the strength of the traditional public school system.
Freedom Prep opened in 2009. It has been for grades 6-7 thus far, but its planned reach is for grades 6-12.
“It’s a school that gets us ready for college each and every day. They never step down. They keep us going,” said Jareth Austin, who, like Johnson, will be in the 8th grade this fall. He wants to go to Morehouse College and the Air Force and be an architect. “They keep us smiling.”
Haslam said Wednesday that students from low-income families will still get the priority on charter schools. He emphasized that charter schools will have the same level of accountability as other schools.
But the concept creates its own challenges, such as how to create charter schools in rural areas.
“That is a fair question, because you’re drawing off of a smaller population,” Haslam said. “It’s either going to be the school system or an Achievement School District that approves them, and it’s the state’s responsibility to make certain we are not harming any existing schools. They are more difficult in rural schools, just to be factual.”
He was asked why there aren’t more charter schools in Knoxville, where he served as mayor for two terms before becoming governor.
“You know, I’m not really sure,” he said. “There have been a couple of applications. There are two or three in the works now that I think will get approved, but for whatever reason historically there haven’t been the charter school operators who came out and could work it out.”
State legislators who attended Wednesday’s event included Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville; Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown; Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville; Rep. Mike White, R-Memphis; Rep. Barbara Cooper, D-Memphis; and Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis.
“The key provision of this legislation is that now every child in Tennessee is eligible to attend a charter school,” Kelsey said. “And that is a huge expansion and is very much needed and will allow thousands of new children new opportunities.”