Charter Schools Under Pressure to Perform

Hopes are high within the Haslam administration that charter schools will play an increasingly key and productive role in helping improve state education outcomes.

“We need people who are actually going to be fueling the fire. If it’s not you, I don’t know who it’s going to be,” state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said Friday before a gathering of educators for the Tennessee Charter School Association conference on Capitol Hill.

Both Huffman and Gov. Bill Haslam, who made charter-school expansion a key facet of his education reform agenda last legislative session, laid out what they’re expecting of the publicly funded alternative learning centers going forward as they take on more responsibility for improving student performances — and are awarded greater shares of taxpayer-support education funding.

“Charter schools are not the answer to our education challenges in Tennessee, but they’re part of the solution,” Haslam later told reporters. “Just like every other school, we’re going to expect high quality out of them, but we welcome what they bring to the game and what they bring for a lot of families who may not have any alternative.”

The growing group of independently run charter schools — currently there are 41 in Tennessee — won big this past session of the General Assembly, when the GOP majority swept aside statutory roadblocks to their expansion. The state eliminated caps on the total number of charter schools and opened up enrollment to any student who wants to attend. Previously, enrollment was restricted based on students’ achievement and poverty level.

The state is also giving charter schools the go-ahead to try and turn around some of the state’s lowest performing schools. The state’s “Achievement School District” will decide in November which of 13 chronically substandard Tennessee public schools it’ll allow to be run by charter school educators.

ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic founded a charter school network in Texas called YES Prep Public Schools. But Barbic said he won’t rely on charter schools to do all the heavy lifting in reforming struggling schools.

“This is less about traditional schools and charter schools. It’s more about how do we create more high-performance schools and how we do make sure that the below-performing schools, whether charter or traditional, that we’re doing something to turn them around,” he told TNReport earlier this month.

Huffman, who kicked off the conference, challenged the charter schools to pave the way for educational success.

“I really believe that charters, particularly in low-income communities, need to be the ones that bust through and set up the exemplars we can point to so when people say it can’t be done, we can say, ‘Get in the car with me, and I’m going to take you someplace and show you that it can be done.”

The expectations are fair, said Matt Throckmorton, the executive director of the TCSA.

“You see this in other states: You get a good charter school movement, and everybody begins to rest on their laurels and just coast,” he said. “We need to continue to push innovation, aggressive reform. And for those schools, there’s no let down. We need to continue to demonstrate student gains.”

Huffman is no stranger to alternative styles of education. He is a graduate and former vice president of public affairs of Teach For America, an alternative teacher licensing program. He was also married to nationally-known charter school advocate Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of D.C. public schools.

“Thanks,” Huffman said to the charter school crowd. “Thanks for taking risks, for being entrepreneurs, for supporting change, for pushing the envelope, for busting the bureaucracy, for holding our feet to the fire, for showing people what local control actually looks like, for demonstrating that the money can follow the child and the world doesn’t come to an end, for providing choice for parents and providing opportunities for kids.”