Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Legislature's Charter Authorizer Steamroller Revving Its Engine

As promised, state legislators that are beholden to the highly organized and very generous self-proclaimed "education reformers" are moving forward with efforts to remove decision-making power from local school boards who currently vote on which charter management organizations may operate in their communities.  The Shelby County School Board voted unanimously (with one recusal) to oppose a state charter authorizer because it wants to retain the ability to carefully vet the charter schools that are allowed to open in Memphis and Shelby County.

Here's a great, explanatory article on the proposed legislation - proposed legislation that was submitted yesterday that will be discussed today at 3 p.m.  It's clear that the legislators are trying to collect as much public input on this as possible before making any decisions, right?  Here's the Commercial Appeal's coverage last month on the expected legislation.

Of particular interest here in Shelby County is what appears to be a provision allowing a Local Education Authorizer (LEA) to apply directly to the state to operate charter schools.  This would probably allow the suburbs of Memphis to form charter management organizations to operate their own schools.  But really, that's a separate issue from the overall state charter authorizer issue.

Here's why proponents of this policy say it is needed:  (1) there's a conflict of interest for the local school boards when they make their charter decisions because charter schools are in enrollment competition for public school students, and (2) school boards are too slow in their process.

The truth is that nationally, less than 20% of charter schools perform better than their traditional public school counterparts.  Here's the exective summary from the famous 2009 CREDO report, based out of Stanford University.  It is generally accepted that Tennessee's charters schools do better than the national average.  I've written before on the 10 out of 23 Memphis charter schools studied that outperformed their MCS counterparts.  From that post:  "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)."

Let's talk about why Tennessee's charter schools do better than the national average.  First we have to dispense with the notion that we're talking about Tennessee's charter schools.  We're really talking about Memphis' (+1 in Bartlett), Nashville's, and Chattanooga's charter schools.  Here's the map of Tennessee charter schools produced by the Tennessee Charter School Association.  So really what we're seeing is that Memphis, Nashville, and Chattanooga have actually done pretty well - better than the national average (a feat Tennessee is not exactly accustomed to) - in selecting which charter schools to approve.  If we were seeing a true conflict of interest, then we would see these school districts approve under-performing charters on purpose.  Instead, from Matthew Throckmorton, head of the Tennessee Charter School Association, we hear not that these three school districts have done well and represented Tennessee well by approving better-than-average charters chools - we hear that these districts are not approving enough charter schools.

So why would he think such a thing?  Mr. Throckmorton is in a tizzy because last year Memphis rejected 17 applications due to the financial impact on the district (the state granted the applications on appeal), and because this year, Nashville refused to follow orders and refused to allow Great Hearts, an Arizona charter management organization, to open a school in an affluent section of Nashville where schools are already performing well. 

These reformers toss around words like "accountabilty," but this is actually an attempt to narrow accountability.  Instead of being able to hold our elected school board members accountable for their decisions, you know, by voting, the proposal is to put the "accountability" on the unelected, appointed state Board of Education.  Who's on the state Board of Ed?  Here they are.  Who represents Memphis?  Hyde Foundation Executive Director Teresa Sloyan.  Anything odd about this?  Well, her employee Terence Patterson commented on the possibility of a state authorizer here, when he stated "Hyde does not take a position on legislation, 'proposed or otherwise,' Patterson said in a recent email. However, the foundation believes a statewide charter authorizer 'is a national best practice' and that its merits 'should certainly be evaluated in the context of Tennessee.'"  Interesting.

The Nashville Great Hearts debacle really deserves its own post, but I try not to go with straight invective.  The state's heavy-handed approach in that situation make it difficult to write a rational summary.  Clearly, the state has decided that as part of the plan to comply with the Race to the Top goals, it should actively recruit charter schools in other places to plant themselves in Tennessee.  Nashville rejected Great Hearts, a group that had been recruited by our state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.  The punishment for Nashville was a loss of $3.4 million in state funding.

So it's not like the state has no recourse for when local districts won't behave as the state has strongly suggested.  The Shelby County School Board, when it had the chance to stand up to the state's dictate that it allow 14 schools to open, chose not to.  It turns out that it had good reason to avoid that hornet's nest.  The state is not playing.

But it turns out that the state is not satisfied with just having the ability to grant appeals and withhold funding (a particularly devastating punishment).  Tennessee already, in effect, has a state charter authorizer due to the strong remedies the state has against local districts.  But it's just not enough.  If you want to speak against a particular charter group considered under the proposed state charter authorizer, you have to travel to Nashville to speak (if they'll let you) to the state Board of Ed.  Limiting public input, and shifting accountability out of the hands of voters.

What if we, as Tennessee citizens, disagree with a decision of the Tennessee Board of Ed.?  Well, you could write a note to the governor, when that Board member's term is sheduled to end, and ask the Governor not to renew the Board member.  And I guess that's it.  You can't email them because the state does not publish their email addresses.  If we, as Memphis citizens or Nashville citizens or Chattanooga citizens disagree with a decision by our local school boards, what can we do?  Vote.  Directly contact our board members by email, by phone, or when we see them in the grocery store.  All the usual ways we hold our elected officials accountable for the decisions they make and how they spend our money.  Accountability for state Board of Ed. members?  I don't think so.  This is about providing political cover for continuing expansion of charter schools, whether they are needed or not, and limiting public input into these decisions.

Why would I think the state legislature is interested in limiting public input on the expansion of charter schools via a state charter authorizer?  Because Representative Brooks (R - Knoxville) and Representative White (R- Memphis) are actually limiting public input TODAY on whether a state charter authorizer should be adopted in Tennessee.  Representative Brooks is the head of the Education Committee and Representative White heads up the sub-committee considering the bill today at 3 p.m.  Standing Together 4 Strong Community Schools, a grassroots group out of Nashville opposed to vouchers and a state charter authorizer, has been trying to get time in front of the subcommittee all day - today, because they had no advance notice that the bill filed yesterday would be discussed today.  Rep. White says that it's Rep. Brooks' decision.  Rep. Brooks says to contact Rep. White.  You know, the usual runaround.  Big government grinding along.

Here are the email addresses for today's education sub-committee members.  You know, the elected officials, who might remove accountability from other elected officials and grant tha power to unelected appointees.  Feel free to cut and paste.  Rep.Harry.Brooks@capitol.tn.gov, Rep.John.DeBerry@capitol.tn.gov, Rep.Joe.Pitts@capitol.tn.gov, Rep.Harold.Love@capitol.tn.gov, Rep.John.Forgety@capitol.tn.gov, Rep.Roger.Kane@capitol.tn.gov, Rep.Debra.Moody@capitol.tn.gov, Rep.Dawn.White@capitol.tn.gov, Rep.Mark.White@capitol.tn.gov

Let them know that you don't approve of any additional shenanigans.  Or ask them how much money they got from Michelle Rhee and Students First.  Let me know what they say!


  1. Is the media in Memphis reporting on this? The Commercial Appeal?

    1. Watching in MemphisFebruary 12, 2013 at 2:25 PM

      I've seen the Tennessean article. Quick glance at CA, Flyer and Daily News, does not show any articles here yet. Hope to see some stories soon!