Last week, Jane Roberts told us that "Memphis is the ninth-fastest growing charter school market in the nation." And that's based on last year's enrollment, prior to the ASD's recruitment of 3 charter schools in Memphis this year + the 3 that the School Board approved last year + the 2 that won their appeals that had enough time to open for this school year, and definitely prior to next year's huge charter expansion - which will include the 12 charter schools that won their appeals to the state, but did not have enough time to open for this 2012-13 school year, as well as any charter schools that are approved this year (school board's consideration to happen by the end of the year on applications that were due on Oct. 1, 2012), plus the several that the ASD is ushering in for 2013-14.
So, yes, charter school enrollment is increasing, or as the charter school operators would say, their "market share" is increasing. You know, because public education is a market in which entrepreneurs compete for engaged families.
What these charter schools are not competing for: "reward school" status, bestowed by Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman on the 169 schools (in 70 Tennessee school districts) who are in the the top 5 percent of schools in the state for annual growth OR the top 5 percent for academic achievement. Not a single charter school made that list. Want to know who did make the list? 20 MCS schools and 4 SCS schools. While Memphis City Schools is often roundly and soundly criticized for the 63 MCS schools in the bottom 5% - the most (by far) of any district in the state. But with 20 schools in the top 5% - again, the most (by far) of any district in the state - MCS is clearly doing important work that the charter schools have just not been able to replicate.
Chief among my objections to the continued expansion of charter schools is their collective inability to perform any better than traditional public schools. There are charter schools that have great success and do honorable work by getting higher student achievement than traditional public schools. However, they are in the minority and provide cover to the great majority of charter schools that underperform compared to their public school counterparts, or are only able to equal the student achievement in traditional public schools.
Charter school proponents will tell you that they do not get their full per-student funding allotment. They'll suggest that they actually have to "do more" than traditional public schools "on less" than full funding. What they decline to fully disclose is what they actually spend per pupil, taking into account the full amount of private funding and in-kind gifts (in the form of goods and services, including volunteer tutors) donated to the schools by private donors - that, of course, are tax deductions for the donors by virtue of the charter schools' non-profit status.
Anyway, a couple of months ago, Jane Roberts wrote an article detailing a Stanford University CREDO study on local charter school performance. Ms. Roberts summarized that of the charter schools in Memphis, less than half of them (ten of twenty-three studied) outperform traditional neighborhood public schools. Five charter schools perform as well as traditional public schools. And traditional neighborhood public schools outperform 8 charter schools.
Charter school proponents will want to tell you that the important takeaway from the CREDO Memphis research is that just over 65% of Memphis charter schools perform as well as or better than traditional public schools (that's the 10 + 5 of 23). But just as important is the 57% of charter schools that, at best, only perform as well as traditional public schools, and the 35% that cannot manage to perform as well as Memphis public schools - Memphis public schools which are famously under-performing (that's the 5+8 out of 23, and the 8 of 23, respectively).
So isn't the question how to "brand" those 5 charter schools that perform as well as traditional public schools? Both sides claim them - the charter proponents say, "yes, we can do just as well as traditional public schools" and charter opponents say, "but they can only perform as well as traditional public schools." I think the line has to do with how public money is shifted to private vendors. Sometimes government should "outsource" particular tasks to the private sector, where the work can be done more efficiently. But the function of public education, I believe, is uniquely a government function. And particularly where charter schools cannot do the task they promised, and certainly cannot do it more cheaply, they have less utility - and, certainly, a weakened argument for their continued governmental support.
Now that Memphis is on the list, Commissioner Huffman is working to make sure that it stays there. There were the dozen or so charter school applications that the Shelby County School Board rejected that were later approved by Commissioner Huffman. Then there are the 10 new ASD schools coming for next year. But Commissioner Huffman does not allow local school boards to vet charter schools they same way that he does. Commissioner Huffman and his ASD head Chris Barbic crow that they bring the most talented charter schools from around the country to Tennessee. They recruit them to come here. There are charter schools that would be thrilled to come to Tennessee that Commissioner Huffman and Supt. Barbic choose not to bring here, for whatever reason. But local school boards do not have the same ability to pick and choose the best. Shelby County found out last year that despite significant finanical implications, the state will grant any and all appeals. Nashville found out this year that the state will reduce funding (to the tune of $3.4 million in one month) when they didn't approve a charter that the state wanted.
The state will only pick the best, but will punish local authorizers that don't take just anyone. And let's be honest, the charters that are failing are usually failing because they were started by "just anyone" - people with no education background, no pedagogical insight, and no desire to educate children that don't come from families willing to navigate and then jump through application hoops.
More on the state's solution to this little quandary at a later date - but it involves a "state authorizer" that would remove all local control from charter school application processes and decisions.