Monday, June 15, 2009
Tennessee charter schools are off limits to most
Fear, politics reinforce restrictive law By Jaime Sarrio • THE TENNESSEAN • June 15, 2009 Only one thing is keeping Lionel Booker from enrolling his daughter at the new charter middle school opening near his home — the law. The Bookers are assigned to attend Goodlettsville Middle, a school that's passing annual state benchmarks. That makes the Booker children ineligible for Smithson Craighead Academy, a nearby charter school that's adding a middle school in the fall. They represent thousands of Tennessee families shut out of charter schools because the state has one of the most restrictive attendance laws in the country. Charters have flourished in other states and are a cornerstone of President Barack Obama's education reform policy, but in Tennessee, politics, fear and demographics have significantly slowed their expansion. It's a stance the Bookers, whose daughter is in private school, have trouble understanding. "If they receive public funding, why wouldn't a local parent have an option to enroll their child in that school?" Booker said. "Why lock us out totally?" Charter schools are publicly funded but operate independently of local school boards, giving them more flexibility with staffing rules and school curriculum. But under state law, only failing students, or students who attend failing schools, can attend. A bill introduced in the legislature this year would have opened charter schools to any students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch in the state's 11 largest districts. Democrats, with the support of the state teachers union, blocked it because traditional public schools lose money when students enroll in charters. A last-ditch effort to revive the measure last week on the state House floor was unsuccessful. The bill's failure drew the ire of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a Democrat who warned lawmakers that the state could lose $100 million in stimulus money if they don't allow more students to attend charter schools. He singled Tennessee out Monday in a media phone conference. "Simply put, they put themselves at a competitive disadvantage for the largest pull of discretionary dollars states have ever had access to," Duncan said. An ideological shift Of the 40 states that allow charter schools, Tennessee is one of three that have restrictions on enrollment, said Nelson Smith, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Most states allow any student in the district or state to attend. About 20,000 Nashville students, or 27 percent of public school enrollment, are eligible to attend charters, though less than 1 percent are enrolled, according to the Tennessee Charter Schools Association. The new law would have allowed 73 percent to attend — although only five charter schools with room for a total of 1,250 students, and none of them high schools, will be open in the fall. The disconnect between Duncan and members of his party reflects an ideological shift at the national level on charter schools. Democrats, together with teachers unions, have historically opposed charter schools. "A lot of it is a big political problem," said Marisa Cannata, associate director of the National Center on School Choice at Vanderbilt University. "One thing you see in Tennessee is Democrats supporting the traditional Democratic line and the Republicans supporting the traditional Republican line rather than people trying to get beyond the interest group politics." House Minority Leader Rep. Gary Odom, D-Nashville, said he supports charter schools but needs more guidance from school leaders before he can decide on the law. "I don't want to do something that would be damaging or that would siphon resources," he said. In April, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and Metro school board member Alan Coverstone spoke out in favor of the bill, but Odom said he is still getting mixed message from school leaders. Opponents worry charter schools will drain resources from local districts and leave traditional schools anemic, making fear another major barrier to expansion in Tennessee and nationally. Schools are funded on a per student basis, so when students leave a traditional public school for a charter, the money follows them. Loosening enrollment restrictions in Tennessee would cost public schools an estimated $14 million in local dollars, according to General Assembly estimates. In Nashville alone, $9.7 million that would normally go to regular schools will flow to charter schools next year. "We believe charter schools as they are presently configured will take millions away from public schools," said Earl Wiman, president of the Tennessee Education Association. "We've had enough of the federal government telling us what to do, and I would be surprised if the House of Representatives would allow themselves to be blackmailed by Arne Duncan." Demographics play role Competition is the essence of charter school reform, and advocates believe these schools can do a better job of educating kids with taxpayer dollars. Many charters supplement their budgets with private donations for longer school days or higher teacher salaries. Demographics have also played a part in why charter schools are still met with resistance in Tennessee. Charters tend to sprout up in urban areas, and many state lawmakers are elected from rural communities. "A lot of folks don't know what they are," said Rep. Beth Harwell, a Nashville Republican who sponsored the bill. "I think a lot of folks in the General Assembly do understand public charter schools and the need for them, but this tends to be largely an urban issue." As it stands, Tennessee's charter law makes it difficult to recruit new students and deters national providers from opening new schools because there is no assurance the enrollment pool will always exist. Schools move in and out of good standing with the state every year, making the eligibility pool a moving target. Failing students can also attend charters, but many do not know their scores on standardized tests. Last year when Edwina Harris Hamby applied for a charter to open Nashville Global Academy, several elementary schools were failing. Now, as she works to fill the school's 320 seats before classes begin, there are only three elementaries from which to pull students. Hundreds of students want to attend Nashville Global, but Hamby has had to turn most of them away. So far, she has managed to enroll 100 students. "I would like to see the law enable all children that want to be able to go to charter schools to have that choice," she said. "We would have been at capacity if I could have taken everyone who contacted us." 3 Previous Page Contact Jaime Sarrio at 615-726-5964 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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