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Memphis Charter Schools Face Uncharted Waters

Amid the uncertainties surrounding the proposed merger of the Memphis and Shelby County school systems is the question of what would happen to the city’s 25 charter schools.

The answer changes depending on who you talk to.

It would be up to the county school board to decide the future of those charter schools contracted with Memphis City Schools, Shelby County Schools Superintendent John Aitken said.

“Our understanding of the laws as they exist today is if the city school board goes out of business due to the referendum … then that would become a decision of our board, the existing Shelby County School Board, and they would have to make that determination in terms of the charter schools,” he told TNReport.

But Sen. Reginald Tate, a Memphis Democrat and the Senate Education Committee’s vice-chairman, struck a more hopeful note — saying that in the event of a merger, there’s a chance nothing would dramatically change with existing charter schools.

Those schools would likely have to meet with Shelby County officials and may have to tweak some terms of their contracts with the school district, but the issue of their continued operations shouldn’t automatically or necessarily be jeopardized, he said.

According to Tennessee state law, a charter school can be discontinued for only three reasons: violating the conditions, standards or procedures of the charter agreement; failing to meet adequate yearly progress towards achievement; or failing to meet financial standards of operation.

While the language suggests the charter schools would continue to function, the Tennessee Department of Education wouldn’t comment on whether those guidelines mean that Shelby County Schools would have to accept the schools in the event Memphis ultimately hands over the school system.

“The state wants to ensure the least amount of disruption for students and staff,” Department of Education spokeswoman Amanda Maynord Anderson said in an e-mailed statement. “Obviously, we are anticipating the plan forthcoming from Shelby and Memphis. It is our hope the plan will lay out the best course of action for all involved.”

Voters in Memphis will go to the polls March 8 to decide whether the 103,000-student Memphis City Schools will merge with Shelby County Schools, home to 47,000 students.

The already touchy issue heated up this week when Gov. Bill Haslam and Acting Education Commissioner Patrick Smith directed local schools officials to submit a plan for the merger’s transition and for how teachers would be affected.

Charter school backers say the schools would remain intact regardless of any changes to the district structure, but have noticed that nervous parents and teachers are already considering applying to new schools.

“It’s difficult enough to run these schools in these environments without having these politics chasing them around,” said Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter School Association. “These schools need to not focus on politics but on academics.”

Sen. Mark Norris, who is spearheading an effort to delay the potential takeover by two and a half years with a piece of legislation that zipped through the Senate Education Committee Wednesday, said he isn’t sure exactly that the future holds for the charter schools.

“I don’t know the answer to that,” said Norris. “I mean, in the final analysis, there may be some need to renegotiate the contracts given some of the financial realities, but I don’t know enough about the contracts or how they interact to really say.”

The drama surrounding the merger began late last year when the Memphis City School Board decided to dissolve the school district in hopes to merge with Shelby County. Since then, the situation has been in constant flux and is now heading to Memphis voters in a referendum.

Norris’ bill calls for the two school districts to develop a comprehensive transition plan with the help of a state-appointed commission before the actual merger could take place. Under the plan, the districts could merge no earlier than 2013.

Some Democrats are criticizing the plan, saying it represents an unwanted state government attempt to butt in on a local issue. The transition plan and its timeline should be left to the Memphis and Shelby County school systems, they say.

“It seems to me that I’ve listened for the last several years to people complaining about Washington controlling us. And here we are, Nashville, trying to control Memphis. That’s a serious issue,” said Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, just moments before a party-line 6-3 vote of Republicans approving the legislation.

The measure will go before the House Education Committee Thursday and is expected to be voted on in the House and Senate chambers Monday.

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Education News Tax and Budget

TN Looks to NC, FL for Education Reform Ideas

There aren’t any silver-bullet reform measures to solve all education problems in Tennessee, but with the right combination of policy and school leadership, student achievement can be improved without increased spending, a new state report suggests.

Assigned to study states that’ve shown education progress without breaking taxpayers’ pocketbooks, Office of Research and Education Accountability Director Phillip Doss told the House Education Committee during a presentation last week that school systems in Florida and North Carolina tended to perform well “regardless of what we were analyzing.”

Both those states also show shared similarities with Tennessee’s per-pupil spending and family characteristics, and both have shown consistent gains in student test scores, OREA’s study indicated.

However, Florida and North Carolina were both given A’s for the percentage of students scoring at or above the proficient level when accounting for state expenditures. Tennessee received a C on the same report, which was sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

In Florida, which passed its “A+ Plan” in 1999, schools with higher scores get more funding and autonomy. Schools with poorer performances are required to implement state sanctioned reforms.

In addition, the state offers a variety of nontraditional school options, including charter schools and its “virtual school” program, which allows students to take distance and online courses.

Florida is among states in the vanguard of the school-choice movement, and is ranked third for number of charter schools and second for charter-school enrollment.

Like Florida, North Carolina offers non-traditional options, too. Students there can earn a high school diploma and two years of college credit simultaneously.

“They focused on teacher policy as well,” said OREA Assistant Director Russell Moore. “Beginning teachers are required to participate in a three year induction program.”

North Carolina conducts teacher working conditions surveys, Moore said. Results showed “effective leadership” is essential for recruiting and retaining quality teachers.

Another North Carolina program provides outstanding high school seniors with college scholarships in exchange for a four-year teaching commitment.

“Policies may look similar from state to state, but we believe the implementation is where the difference is made,” Moore said.

He also cited a study on the Chicago education system, which included a look at schools with disadvantaged student populations. The study notes five key elements required for student success: school leadership; parent-community ties; faculty and staff capacity; safety and order; strong curriculum; and instructional support.

“Those supports have to work in combination, in tandem. They have to be interwoven, and schools have to be strong on all of these to show improvement,” Moore said. “(The researchers) likened it to baking a cake –without the right ingredients the whole enterprise falls flat.”

Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, chairman of the House Education Committee, said his goal for Tennessee education is to lead the Southeast, and incorporating policies that work in North Carolina and Florida into the Volunteer State’s system would seem an appropriate strategy for success.

“I think the targeting of North Carolina and Florida is critical,” said Brooks “If we can exceed their competency and output, we will accomplish substantial gains in this state.”

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Education News Tax and Budget

Charter Schools Could Offer Ideas in Teacher Evaluation Talks

Charter school proponents are hopeful the governor and state lawmakers might take a page or two from their playbook as they discuss education reform in the upcoming special legislative session.

Gov. Phil Bredesen wants lawmakers to tie at least 50 percent of teacher evaluations to student performance, in order to qualify for additional federal stimulus dollars.

“This year we’ve had a couple of unique, unexpected opportunities drop in our lap that I believe will allow us to focus on the entire education pipeline in one fell swoop and hopefully make some changes that will be felt for years to come,” Bredesen said in a press release.

During the Jan. 12 special session, Bredesen wants lawmakers to find a way to tie K-12 teacher tenure to student performance in order to line the state up for a chunk of $4.35 billion in federal “Race to the Top” grant dollars. He also wants to see changes in higher education funding.

The legislation needs to be approved by the time the state files its federal application on Jan. 19.

Charter school principals and teachers already use student performance data, said Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Association of Charter Schools.

But charter schools, which act as experimental teaching labs, use those statistics to drive instruction and improve teacher development, Throckmorton said, which is not always tied to teacher evaluations.

Giving teachers those data tools help them stay on top of student performance. Teachers regularly give frequent but short tests to measure student comprehension and help identify which strategies better reach the class, Throckmorton said.

He said this creative use of student performance data will take education “to the next level.”

Twenty-two of the publicly-funded, privately-run schools are currently operating across the state. Another school will open in Nashville next summer and as many as six more new schools are being founded in Memphis.

Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools are evaluated based on how well they meet student achievement goals outlined in their charter contract with the local school district. Schools that fall short risk losing their charter.

The schools are filled with students who were attending failing schools, came from poor families or were failing in school them self, said Janel Lacy, spokeswoman for Nashville Mayor Karl Dean. The city announced in early December it would open a charter school incubator, a program that takes a hands-on approach to training future principals how to run a school.

The Tennessee Education Association says strongly tying student performance to teacher evaluations is a bad idea because teachers can’t control all of the factors that go into a successful test score.

Parents have to be held accountable, too, said union president Earl Wiman.

“We understand that student performance may need to be a part of a teacher’s evaluation. But what we’re saying is it doesn’t need to play a major role in the evaluations,” said Wiman.

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Press Releases

Statewide Charter School Incubator Announced for Nashville

Davidson County Metro Government Press Release, Dec. 8, 2009:

“Center for Charter School Excellence in Tennessee” to be developed by charter school expert from New Orleans

NASHVILLE – Mayor Karl Dean announced plans today to develop one of the nation’s first charter school incubators to operate statewide.

The incubator, named the Center for Charter School Excellence in Tennessee, will support and help fund the development of high-performing public charter schools in Metro Nashville, and expand to provide charter school incubation support in school districts across the state within three years.

“During the last State General Assembly, I, along with many others, strongly advocated for a state law that is more receptive to public charter schools,” Dean said. “The new law greatly expanded student eligibility for enrollment in charter schools and the number of charter schools allowed in Tennessee. We need to ensure that these schools are of the highest quality.”

Matt Candler, the former CEO of the successful charter school incubator New Schools for New Orleans, will lead the center’s startup as project manager. His work will include finding long-term leadership for the center.

“Matt is recognized as a leader in the field of public charter schools due to his longstanding work in New York City and New Orleans. His initial involvement will ensure the long-term success of the center,” Dean said.

Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education Dr. Tim Webb and Director of Metro Nashville Public Schools Dr. Jesse Register joined the mayor for today’s announcement and discussed the positive impact the center will have on education reform efforts in Nashville and Tennessee.

“Charter schools are an important partner in developing innovative practices and providing opportunities to serve low-performing students,” Webb said. “This incubator will help Nashville and the state deliver best practices to reform partners as we prepare all students to be college and career ready upon graduation.”

“We recognize the value of having high-quality and highly-effective charter schools that can help meet the diverse needs of students,” said Register. “By their very inception, charter schools require innovative and non-traditional instructional strategies and this incubator will help attract and build the very best not only for Nashville, but for districts across Tennessee.”

The center will partner with the national charter school development organization Building Excellent Schools to offer training through a year-long fellowship program for individuals seeking to become founders of high-performing public charter schools.

“Building Excellent Schools has developed a national reputation for creating excellent schools that prepare their kids for success in college,” Candler said. “The leaders they have trained are closing the achievement gap in dozens of schools across the country. We are honored to have them join us in the effort to close the achievement gap in Nashville and across Tennessee.”

The center will continue to provide support services for the new schools during their first year of operation, including interim assessments of student performance in all grades, governance training for board members, and operation and finance reviews.

In addition to supporting the development of public charter schools, the center will support the expansion of existing initiatives to improve teacher recruitment in Nashville.

“Great teachers are the backbone of any great school, so we will support Teach for America and The New Teacher Project as we build new schools, expanding their efforts in both our public charter and traditional schools,” Candler said.

To ensure its long-term viability, the center will be set up as an independent nonprofit organization. It will be initially funded through the Education First Fund of the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, which Dean established last year to provide private financial support for new education reform efforts in Nashville.