Tennessee Fights to Keep Open Charter Schools

Published June 1, 2008

Tennessee is fighting an uphill battle to save public charter schools from being rolled back, even though a recent survey shows the education option to be popular with parents statewide.

House Bill 3935, sponsored by state Rep. Richard Montgomery (R-Sevierville), would remove a sunset on new charter school authorization currently set to take effect July 1. The legislation, still pending at press time, would also expand student eligibility for charter enrollment.

Limited Pool of Students

By law, only students from failing public schools in Tennessee’s four largest cities–Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis, and Nashville–may enroll in charter schools. The state currently has 12 charter schools, all located in Memphis or Nashville.

HB 3935 would allow any student in the state’s four largest cities who meets the federal poverty definition to attend a charter, regardless of their current school’s status.

The defeat of HB 3935 not only would prevent new charter schools from forming but also could further reduce the pool of eligible students, if failing schools improve or shut down.

“If this bill doesn’t pass, and charter schools are not reauthorized, then charter schools in Tennessee will die,” said Drew Johnson, president of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research.

Success in Nashville

The director of one of Tennessee’s most successful charter schools agrees.

“As schools get off the failing list, that means fewer and fewer kids and parents get to make choices about where they go to school,” said Randy Dowell, school leader for KIPP Academy Nashville.

Opened in 2005, KIPP Academy Nashville serves an overwhelmingly poor and African-American student population in grades five through seven. Despite this disadvantaged student body, KIPP Academy had math and reading proficiency testing rates at or above state averages in its first year.

“We have really high and very clear expectations for what we want students to accomplish, both for learning and for their character development,” Dowell said.

Charters Popular

Allowing charter school authorizations to sunset would come at a time when evidence of Tennesseans’ support for the public education option is remarkably high.

According to a survey of 1,200 likely voters released in March by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, 46 percent of Tennesseans favored allowing charter schools. Support was even higher, 55 percent, among respondents aged 36 to 55.

“That’s the age group that tends to be the most emotionally and financially invested in schooling,” said Paul DiPerna, the Friedman Foundation’s director of partner services.

With no exposure to charter schools in many parts of Tennessee, only 34 percent expressed familiarity with the public education option. But of that group, 63 percent had a favorable view of charters.

“It suggests that the more people know about school choice options, the more favorable they are,” DiPerna said.

Widespread Dissatisfaction

Johnson said the primary obstacle to offering parents more choice is the Tennessee Education Association (TEA), which he said is responsible for placing the sunset provision in the 2002 charter school legislation.

“The teachers union in Tennessee wants to prevent any sort of option for students because they essentially don’t want the competition that would show how badly they are doing,” Johnson said. The TEA did not respond to a request for comment.

More than half of Tennesseans in the Friedman survey described their state’s public school system as either fair or poor.

“Parents are displeased with the current education being offered to their kids in Tennessee’s public schools,” Johnson said.

Informing Lawmakers

Given the choice between four different types of education–traditional public, charter, private, and homeschool–nearly twice as many people chose charters (28 percent) as other public schools (15 percent). The response rate for charters was higher in Tennessee than in Idaho, Illinois, and Nevada, the other three states in which Friedman has sponsored surveys.

DiPerna hopes the survey results will awaken state policymakers to the growing demand for real educational options.

“I think legislators, through no fault of their own, can have a misperception of what the public thinks about school choice,” DiPerna said. “But this kind of polling can show them their constituents are open to charter schools, vouchers, and tax-credit scholarships.”

The Friedman Foundation plans to release survey results from Oklahoma in June, and from Maryland later this year.

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.

For more information …

Tennessee HB 3935: http://www.legislature.state.tn.us

“Tennessee’s Opinion on K-12 Education and School Choice,” by Paul DiPerna, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, March 2008: http://www.friedmanfoundation.org