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Pressure Builds Over State-Local Control of Charter Schools

Republicans who laud government that stays close to the people are finding themselves in a pickle now that a local school board has bucked state law.

Metro Nashville Public Schools’ Board of Education ignored orders by the Tennessee Board of Education to usher the charter school Great Hearts Academies into the district last week — the second such rebuff in a month. The Metro schools board contends that the first of five schools, run by a Phoenix-based charter school operator, would lack diversity and pander to an affluent Nashville neighborhood.

The Great Hearts dispute has exposed Republican leaders to criticism that they espouse local control only when it suits their aims.

“This whole thing just flies in the face of Republican philosophy when you have the big bad state coming down telling the local school board they have to comply with the law,” said Jerry Winters, a lobbyist with the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, which has been resistant to the emergence of school choice.

Charter schools have enjoyed favorable treatment at the hands of GOP Gov. Bill Haslam and his education department. The administration’s agenda for reform has included tougher standards for teacher tenure, tying teacher evaluations to test scores and an expansion of charter schools.

Metro schools’ refusal to grant Great Hearts permission to open a school has sparked statewide debate over whether local approval is best. Great Hearts announced that it would not challenge the Metro schools’ decision.

“It’s really been kind of shocking to watch a government openly acknowledge and violate the law,” said Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association.

Disgusted by the ongoing feud, Throckmorton and other charter school advocates are pushing for the state to assemble an outside agency to review and approve charter school applications, allowing charter operators to leap-frog over the local school district.

Details on how that system would operate are still in the works.

Throckmorton says local school districts should still be involved with discussions about pending charter schools. But politics are getting in the way of opening quality schools that could find more effective ways to teach children, he said.

Opponents of the idea say locally elected school board members — rather than a handful of appointed officials in Nashville — should decide whether a charter school is the right fit for the district and the community.

“I think people are wanting to make this an example to justify their intent to make a statewide authorizer,” said Lee Harrell, a lobbyist for the Tennessee School Boards Association which is opposed to charter schools skipping over local officials. “Often you hear the best decisions are made on the ground. (State approval) would totally fly in the face of that mentality.”

Several top state officials are staying quiet on the matter, including Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, who in August said the state would take “appropriate action” to see to it that Metro schools approved the charter school.

He declined to comment on the latest denial for Great Hearts, although emails obtained by the City Paper indicate he was keenly interested in getting the application approved and has engaged in discussions about the need for a statewide authorizer.

The governor’s office has also been silent on the issue, although officials say they were waiting for Haslam to return from his economic development trip in Japan last week. Prior to Metro schools’ first rejection of the Great Hearts application, Haslam said he saw no need to develop a state panel to approve charter schools.

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham has also declined to comment.

But Republican legislative leaders who have repeatedly offered messages about the importance of local control hint that they’d be open to a plan giving the state more power.

“I am extremely dismayed that the Nashville School Board is focused on limiting parental choice and educational opportunity for children,” Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey told TNReport in an email. “It is unfortunate that the board seems mired in the old education politics while the rest of the state is moving forward.”

House Speaker Beth Harwell agreed, calling the decision by MNPS “simply a mistake for our children” and saying the Legislature “will revisit this issue” when they come back in January.

“We believe in local government and local school boards. But when they don’t give opportunities for our children, then that’s a problem,” she said.

Charter schools are privately-owned but publicly-funded. Supporters say they offer more flexibility to innovate and create choice and competition, while detractors say they drain public money and students, leaving traditional public schools with the students hardest to educate.

Charter school performance is generally mixed. Last school year, two charter schools ranked among the best performing institutions in the state, while five other charter schools reflected some of the worst student academic records statewide.

Charter Schools at Extremes of Performance Rankings

In the state’s ranking of best and worst performing schools, charter schools were a mixed bag last year.

Two charter schools made the state’s top 5 percent list for showing big academic gains, but five showed up as schools with the worst academic records.

“It really reflects that a lot of students come to us two or three school years behind,” said Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association.

“Those five schools that are on the bottom list, decisions are being made on each case whether they’ll be kept open. Right now, really hard decisions are being made about those schools, and that’s how it should be,” he said.

Education officials across the state are weighing how willing they are to allow further school choice amid push-back from Metro Nashville Public Schools, which blocked a Phoenix-based charter school operator from opening up shop. Meanwhile, there is an effort by Republicans to craft an outline for a school voucher system, which would allow students to leave their zoned public schools.

The rankings examined academic performance of the state’s 1,736 schools, including 40 charter schools, during the last school year. The state is calling the 169 schools at the front 5 percent of the pack “Reward Schools.”

“We spend a lot of time sometimes talking about things that aren’t going right,” Gov. Bill Haslam said in the gymnasium at Kenrose Elementary School in Brentwood before announcing the top schools Monday.

“But we want to make certain when things are going well and schools are doing a great job and teachers are doing a great job and students are working hard, that we do a great job to celebrate that,” he said.

Tennessee is home to 48 operating charter schools this year, following moves by Haslam and lawmakers to loosen laws allowing more of the publicly held but privately run schools to to open, although after a review process. Unlike traditional schools, charters can run by different rules, like hold longer school days or school years. But they can be closed down easily after repeated poor performance or mismanagement.

This summer, MNPS stonewalled charter school operator Great Hearts Academies amid concerns the institution would lack diversity by opening up in Nashville’s affluent west side. The district then snubbed the Tennessee Board of Education by refusing to take its recommendation to approve the school, anyway, in violation of state law.

State education officials don’t appear particularly worried about the situation.

“I’m confident that Metro Nashville’s going to wind up in compliance with the law soon,” said Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, who this month said the state would take “appropriate action” to force the district to approve the school.

Huffman and other education officials and lawmakers are also in the midst of crafting options for how the state could adopt a school voucher program, which would allow parents to shift tax dollars from their zoned public school to send their students to the public, charter, private or parochial school of their choice.

“I think we’re still a ways away from knowing where we’re going to go,” said Huffman. “I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion.”

The task force expects to put forth several recommendations on how to approach a school voucher program, otherwise known as giving “opportunity scholarships.” The panel plans to meet Sept. 26 and offer a report in November, although the governor has said for him to consider moving forward the proposed voucher program must make more than an “incremental difference.”

Haslam: Not Yet Time to Give State Sole Charter-School Approval Authority

A battle is brewing in Nashville over who should have the final say in opening a local charter school. But Tennessee’s governor says it’s premature to consider taking local politics entirely out of the charter-school approval process.

Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters he believes the process of allowing the state to override local boards’ charter school rejections is working, and that more time is needed to know whether changes to the system are warranted.

“I think for now, I’m comfortable with the way we have it,” the governor said at Tennessee Technology Center Tuesday. “If there’s still a whole lot of school districts that have never approved a charter school, even though there have been great applications, then I think maybe you reevaluate” in the next two to three years, he added.

Just a few hours after Haslam’s comments to reporters, Metro Nashville’s school board refused to give the green light to Phoenix-based Great Hearts Academies to open a school on the city’s affluent west side. Instead, MNPS put the issue on hold indefinitely over board-member’s worries that the school wouldn’t have a diverse enough racial makeup.

The charter refusal flies in the face of the Tennessee Board of Education which last month directed the school board to approve the charter school at its next meeting.

Metro Nashville school board members acknowledged their move defies state law. Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman issued a statement saying, “we will take appropriate action to ensure that the law is followed.” Attempts to reach department officials to determine whether the state would withhold funds from the school system were unsuccessful as of this posting.

The State Board of Education was none too pleased with the local school board’s decision, issuing a statement that the board is “disappointed” with MNPS.

“Needless delays, the unnecessary expenditure of MNPS resources, and posturing relative to this charter school approval do not benefit the students of Nashville,” the board said in a statement.

Charter schools are paid for with tax dollars but are run by private groups. The schools have more flexibility than traditional public schools, such as in setting hiring policies, defining curriculum and establishing transportation. In addition, the schools can be shut down more easily than a traditional public school if they fail to meet academic standards or mismanage their finances.

The political wrangling within the MNPS battle with Great Hearts points to a need to give charter schools more options on which agency would “authorize” their application, said Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association.

“We don’t want every application becoming a political football,” he said. “Maybe it’s not a full blow statewide authorizer, but we do need to have authorizer reform.”

While the governor was cool to the idea of letting charter schools skip over local school boards to apply with a state panel, he defended the notion that the current system that allows the state to trump local board decisions still allows for local control.

“You have a unique situation here because you have both state and local money funding schools,” he said. “I think, because of that, you might have a school board who just looks at it from their point of view. Obviously the state, we have a bigger role.”

Legislature Passes Limits on Foreign Staffers at TN Charter Schools

The Tennessee Legislature has approved a bill limiting the number of non-U.S. citizens any Volunteer State charter school can hire while still maintaining eligibility for public funding.

Senate Bill 3345, which passed in the Tennessee Senate last week and in the House of Representatives on Monday night, would also require charter schools to disclose all their funding sources in addition to capping the number of foreign citizens on staff at 3.5 percent of the total number of the school’s employees.

House proponents of the measure portrayed it as a common-sense effort to increase charter-school transparency and encourage the hiring of American citizens as teachers — preferably Tennesseans.

“It simply puts more accountability in the charter school process,” said House Speaker Pro Tem Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, the bill’s sponsor. The measure contains an exemption for foreign-language teachers who, if by hiring them, would cause a charter school to break the cap, Matheny added.

The measure passed April 12 in the Senate on an 18-13-1 vote. It cleared the House on a 63-29-1 vote. In both chambers votes were cast mostly along party lines, with Republicans for it and Democrats against.

Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Old Hickory suggested during floor debate Monday that the group chiefly responsible for pushing the bill, the Tennessee Eagle Forum, seems concerned more with limiting the influence of Islam than hiring homegrown teachers.

Turner noted that just last week Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the national Eagle Forum, penned an opinion column that sought to raise awareness about the growing influence in America of a “secretive and powerful” Turkish-based Islamic religious sect.

“Charter schools are able to hire and fire teachers, administrators and staff and avoid control by education department bureaucrats and the teachers unions,” wrote Schlafly. “No doubt there are some good charter schools, but loose controls have allowed a very different kind of school to emerge.”

Schlafly, a nationally syndicated conservative political commentator, cited a number of articles in major U.S. newspapers over the past year that have examined the activities of a movement led by a religious leader from Turkey named Fethullah Gülen.

According to a June 2011 New York Times article that Schlafly referenced in her column, Fethullah Gülen is “a charismatic Turkish preacher of a moderate brand of Islam whose devotees have built a worldwide religious, social and nationalistic movement in his name. Gulen followers have been involved in starting similar schools around the country — there are about 120 in all, mostly in urban centers in 25 states, one of the largest collections of charter schools in America.”

The Times story continued:

The growth of these “Turkish schools,” as they are often called, has come with a measure of backlash, not all of it untainted by xenophobia. Nationwide, the primary focus of complaints has been on hundreds of teachers and administrators imported from Turkey: in Ohio and Illinois, the federal Department of Labor is investigating union accusations that the schools have abused a special visa program in bringing in their expatriate employees.

But an examination by The New York Times of the Harmony Schools in Texas casts light on a different area: the way they spend public money. And it raises questions about whether, ultimately, the schools are using taxpayer dollars to benefit the Gulen movement — by giving business to Gulen followers, or through financial arrangements with local foundations that promote Gulen teachings and Turkish culture.

Schlafly wrote that the movement “has nurtured a close-knit network of businesses and organizations run by Turkish immigrants.”

“Most American taxpayers would be mighty surprised at what their money is financing,” Schlafly concluded.

Matheny acknowledged that indeed the foreigners-in-charter-schools measure came to him through the Tennessee Eagle Forum. He denied, though, that it is targeted at any one group or individual.

“This bill treats everybody equally who would be part of the charter school process, regardless of where they are from, what their religion is — it treats everybody equally,” Matheny said Monday.

Turner, who voted against the bill, suggested Matheny research the Eagle Forum’s views on the matter. “I think they have led you astray on what they asked you to carry on this bill,” Turner said.

A March 27 article in The Tennessean noted that top Democrats in both chambers of the Tennessee Legislature filed bills earlier this session similar to the GOP-backed proposal. Senate Bill 2654 and House Bill 2831, sponsored by Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney and House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, sought to prohibit foreign nationals who are not lawful permanent residents of the United States from running or teaching in state-funded charter schools. Those bills stalled in the committee system.

Sen. Finney ultimately voted against SB3345, which was sponsored in the Senate by Murfreesboro Republican Bill Ketron. Rep. Fitzhugh didn’t cast a vote on the measure during the House vote Monday night, according to the Tennessee Legislature’s website, although he is listed as having voted against the measure when it passed out of the House Education Committee April 3.

Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association, said he doesn’t see a particular need for the bill, that it creates unnecessary hoops for charter schools to jump through.

Often schools with higher percentages of foreign-born teachers are among the highest performing institutions academically, he said.

“The evidence suggests they’re really making positive contributions,” Throckmorton said.

CSA: Some School Dists. Denying Good Charter School Applications

Newsletter from the Tennessee Charter Schools Association; Oct. 5, 2011:

Letter from the Executive Director

You have likely noticed a great deal more activity with charter schools this year. I constantly hear from advocates throughout education reform regarding the growth of charter schools. We have 40 charters in operation, 5 more approved for opening in August of 2012,and two new application cycles upon us. This past Saturday October 1 was the deadline for filing with a very large group having submitted. Details will be coming soon, with applicants in different parts of the state such as Jackson, Tennessee.

While we have seen changes to the charter law around student enrollment and the number of charters allowed, the application process itself has not changed. With as many as 35 applications being submitted (we will have final numbers within a week) we expect that as many as 25 will be denied. While I am always sad when an application is not approved, I am not too sad. Running a charter school is very difficult, and frankly, if you are unable to submit a sound application there is little chance you will be able to run a charter school. Roughly 75% of all applicants are denied. It is a very tough hurdle to overcome, and the hurdle was not lowered.

This past legislative session we did have one addition to the application process thrown in. Let me be very clear, we are not fans of this provision. It allows an LEA to deny an application due to “significant fiscal impact.” Essentially, an LEA can say that allowing the money to follow the student to a charter school harms the district. In fact, we have our first use of this law. HOPE Academy of Blount County in East Tennessee submitted an elementary school application for 180 students. By all accounts ‘in the hallways’ those that denied the application stated it was a very good application. One said it was the best application he’d ever read, but they simply do not want one. Let’s keep in mind the Charter School Act of 2002 was not about what the LEAs wanted, but what parents, teachers, professionals and community leaders wanted. Even as we speak HOPE Academy has been denied due to “significant fiscal impact” and is appealing to the State Treasurer’s office, even though they represent roughly 1.2% of the LEAs budget, serving almost 12,000 students.

Great things are happening in Tennessee, including Nashville being named a finalist host city for the 2015 or 2016 National Charter School Conference. With all the great things happening, now is not the time to rest on our laurels. The 2012 legislative session promises to be a very difficult one with lots of heavy lifting. Stay tuned and get ready to roll up your sleeves to help out!

Warmest,

Matt Throckmorton

Haslam Cool to State ‘Authorizer’ for Charter Schools

Gov. Bill Haslam led the movement this year to take the shackles off Tennessee charter schools so they can play a bigger role in education, but he says he’s as yet unwilling to grant them their next wish — a statewide board to OK their applications.

Charter school advocates argue they’d rather have the state or some independent body OK their applications instead of local school boards, which they see as too hesitant to embrace nontraditional education initiatives.

But Haslam said he won’t give away powers now reserved for local school districts to anyone else — at least until he can gauge how successful his developing charter school reforms turn out.

“I’m comfortable with what we’ve put in place. Let’s see how this works for a year or two before we do anything else,” the governor said.

Lawmakers this year removed the caps limiting the number of charter schools operating in the state and opened up enrollment to any student who wants to attend. Critics of charter-school expansion, like Jerry Winters, executive director of Tennessee’s largest teachers union, charge that the state is essentially writing charters a “blank check” to do what they want.

Officials also gave the state’s Achievement School District the power to approve charters in areas serving students who attend the state’s 13 lowest-performing schools.

But leaders in the charter school community, who met on Capitol Hill Friday, want more. They say a state-level process for “authorizing” or approving charters will create the operational stability the current system lacks. Applicants now who are denied locally can appeal the decision to the state Board of Education.

“We have a number of districts that don’t like charter schools but they have applications,” said Matt Throckmorton, who heads up the Tennessee Charter School Association. “It’s a situation where if we had a statewide authorizer, we could have a very consistent high-standard, high-quality application process, and therefore the applicants that are approved in those communities will be good charter schools and will be accepted much quicker.”

About a dozen charter school leaders rallied around that idea, although final details of what the association will pitch next legislative session will be worked out by the end of the year.

Sister Sandra Smithson of the Smithson-Craighead Academy in Nashville made it clear the authority shouldn’t rest with those in charge of failing schools.

“We need multiple authorizers, or at least one or two other choices as possibilities, and people with proven track records in education for bringing about substantive change,” she said. “I do have a problem trusting myself to a system that doesn’t work.”

The decision to authorize charter schools should stay within the district, Lee Harrell, a lobbyist with the Tennessee School Boards Association, told TNReport. He said he’s afraid the discussion is beginning to pin one type of school against the other.

“I fear we would abandon the mentality of traditional schools and charter schools working together,” said Harrell.

The Volunteer State is home to 41 operating charter schools with four others preparing to launch next school year.

Mike Morrow contributed to this report.

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.”

Haslam’s Charter School Bill Hits Speed Bump

Charter schools reform just got complicated.

After relatively easy passage in a key Senate committee, Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to lift the cap on charter schools and open up enrollment to all students continued to get snarled up in the House Education subcommittee Wednesday.

House Democrats fought for nearly two hours to block, amend and delay the charter school bill, saying it represented everything from an “unfunded mandate” on local school districts to an avenue for charters schools to “cherry-pick” students.

“We’re concerned about the charter schools and the way this bill is written in that they can go and cherry-pick the students that they want to bring into these charter schools and or the teachers that they would like to get in the charter schools,” said Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, former speaker and a leading Democrat challenging the bill. “We don’t want that to happen to the detriment of our public schools as they are right now.”

The Education Subcommittee ultimately delayed a vote on the bill for the second time this month, giving Democrats additional time to review the measure. But House Education Committee Chairman Richard Montgomery said he’s confident the bill will pass as is next week.

“We’re going to work with them, and try to get them satisfied on some questions they’ve got, and then next week we’ll vote it out of there,” the Sevierville Republican told TNReport.

The governor’s bill, HB1989, is key on his list of legislative priorities. It would lift the 90-school cap on charter schools and open up enrollment to all students. It would allow the state’s yet-to-be-formed “Achievement School District” to OK certain charter school applications.

Numerically outmatched Democrats on the committee took issue with several facets of the governor’s bill, including eliminating the cap, determining how charter schools choose their students and the cost of expanding charter schools.

According to the bill’s price tag, local school districts would lose out on as much as $4 million in the 2012-13 school year as the charter school expansion takes hold and education dollars follow students to their new schools. That amount could climb to $24 million in the decade after that.

“We already have school choice for those who have the money to buy a house in another school district,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, who favors the bill. “So there’s already a cost that’s occurring similar to these numbers because we have a type of school choice.”

The debate ensued after Haslam’s administration explained details of an amended version of the charter school bill that tinkers with language detailing how some schools are formed.

The initial version of Haslam’s charter school legislation led some lawmakers and interest groups to believe it would allow the Achievement School District to authorize any applying charter school in the state, said Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Charter School Association. That system would have created an avenue for proposed schools facing opposition from their local school district to go over the school board’s head and apply directly to the state to open a charter school.

But that was not their intent, according to administration officials.

The new language tinkers with the role the state’s Achievement School District which came out of last year’s education reforms that qualified the state to win a $500 million Race to the Top education grant. Under Haslam’s bill, the Achievement district could only OK charter school applications for under-performing schools that are slated for a state takeover, a task now resting solely on the shoulders of local school districts.

The changes also include requiring the state Board of Education to explain why it denies any appeals of rejected charter school applications.

The alterations were made to ease concerns from Democrats and other education interest groups, according to the governor’s administration. Republicans seemed uninterested in amending the bill further.

“For us to make this so political that we can’t make the changes that we need to make to make this bill better, it bothers me,” said Rep. Lois DeBerry, a high-ranking House Democrat.

The charter school proposal won the Senate Education Committee’s approval along partisan lines earlier Wednesday with Democratic Sen. Reginald Tate of Memphis voting in favor with Republicans.

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, lawmakers advanced another education bill. Legislation curbing teachers unions’ ability to collectively bargain labor negotiations squeaked by the House Budget Subcommittee Wednesday — in fact needing GOP Speaker Beth Harwell to cast a tie-breaking vote — and now moves to the full committee.

A competing version of the bill would completely eliminate labor unions’ leverage to negotiate labor contracts but awaits a vote on the Senate floor.

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.

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.