Charters Aren’t the Problem

In this morning’s paper, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is quoted as saying, “Look at our enrollment — we’re projected to lose about $100 million over the next five years. So you take that and you look at the charter sector and you think about the number of charters that don’t do very well, and there’s a strong case to just deny all of them.”

As a parent of two kids who attend an SCS neighborhood school, I couldn’t disagree more.

Soulsville grads

What if the board had denied The Soulsville Charter School in South Memphis the right to open? Would 100% of the students who make up that school’s graduating class still have been accepted to college? What if they’d denied Grizzlies Prep in Downtown Memphis? Would those middle school boys still be making two years worth of growth in reading every year? What about the success achieved by students at Power Center Academy in Hickory Hill or STAR Academy in Raleigh? Would all of those students have been as successful in their zoned SCS schools?

Every parent knows that when it comes to schools, one size does not fit all. While some families have the ability to choose their schools based on the amount they can pay in tuition or how much they can spend on a home in a certain neighborhood, other families are exercising school choice by choosing a charter school that they feel fits their child’s needs best.

I greatly respect Superintendent Hopson and admire the way he has lead this district through some very turbulent times, but on this point, I fear that his words are motivated mainly by stress related to the current budget issues. Which is understandable — he has a job that few of us would envy and is faced with the prospect of making cuts that nobody wants or believes are warranted.

But charter schools, which are public schools too, are not the enemy. In many ways, charter schools in Memphis have played a crucial role in the improvements we’re starting to see in education locally. They have brought in innovative ideas and fresh talent that have created healthy competition for our neighborhood schools.

Do some charters need to close? Undoubtedly. If, as a community, we are going to hold our district schools accountable by turning them over to the Achievement School District when they are not performing, or close neighborhood schools when they are under-enrolled, then we also must be willing to weed out the underachievers among the charter sector. We must start taking that job more seriously.

But that does not mean that we shouldn’t take a look at any new charter applications because some existing charters aren’t working. That would be a classic example of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. We simply cannot afford to stifle potential of any kind.

Education in our community will only continue to make positive strides forward if great schools of every type are allowed to blossom. If anything, we need to look at how we can encourage charter operators to address unmet needs in other areas that the district has not had the capacity or expertise to grow in. In cities like New Orleans, Denver and even Nashville, charters are providing niche educational opportunities that appeal to families across the economic spectrum who may not have considered public schools before. There is opportunity to grow the entire pie, rather than fight over the size of individual pieces. But only if we’re willing work collaboratively and think innovatively.

Earlier this year, the Shelby County School board approved a district-charter compact that, when fully developed, should create a framework for the district and charter school sector to share best practices, hold each other accountable and plan for the future. But this compact will only mean something if both SCS and the charter sector are willing to come to the table expecting the best of each other and thinking of our community’s children before they think of protecting their own turf. Hard decisions will have to be made on both sides. But, ultimately, this work will result in better school options for every child in Shelby County.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t return to the issue of our current budget situation, which is not the fault of charters, but rather underfunding at several levels. Tennessee ranks in the very bottom of states in terms of funding fairness, or the proportion of gross state product allocated to public schools. It’s estimated that if public schools were fully funded according to the plan the legislature itself approved but has failed to fully fund, SCS would receive more than $100 million more every year, erasing the current budget deficit. In addition, the Shelby County Commission has given the district less than a 2% increase in funding in recent years, despite increasing expectations for schools to perform.

So, let’s not allow fighting amongst ourselves distract us from the real problem. On every front, whether it’s demanding fair funding, holding all types of schools accountable for their performance, or nurturing innovation in our classrooms, let’s present a united front for the good of all our kids.

How can you help? Check out the “Students Deserve More!” website for simple ways that you can let lawmakers know that you’re watching and expect them to support our children. We can’t complain when CLUE or other crucial parts of our kids’ education are cut if we’re not willing to take ten minutes to send an email to support them. When your kids sit down to do their homework in the next few days, pull out your laptop or smartphone and tap out a quick email. While you’re at it, tell your kids what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. It may be the most important lesson of the day.

Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 11.49.04 AM