Chartering a New Course 

New schools, old anxieties

New schools, old anxieties

One of Gov. Don Sundquist’s priorities for the 1998 legislative year is education reform—specifically, the introduction of charter schools in Tennessee. But the innovative concept is being attacked by numerous critics, who lambaste it for being part of a Republican agenda and a threat to public education.

Sundquist is a forthright proponent of the charter-school proposal, which would allow groups of parents or teachers, universities, or other organizations to create their own schools, using public funds. He maintains that charter schools offer new opportunities for the inner city and would prod public schools to improve.

Nevertheless, the plan, intended to offer opportunities for innovative teaching and learning, has drawn fire from a number of politicians and from predictably contrarian groups such as the Tennessee Education Association (TEA).

Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, a Democrat, recently told his hometown paper, The Commercial Appeal, that he may use city resources to oppose Sundquist’s proposal. ”This may be an issue that this administration and the city council may take issue with at the state level with its lobbying resources,“ Herenton said, adding that charter schools are a Republican idea used to ”divert“ public money to private education ventures.

But the predictable hue and cry over the governor’s education initiative ignores the facts that charter schools are not necessarily a Republican idea, and that, by and large, they work. In fact, President Bill Clinton has been one of the most outspoken supporters of the reform-oriented education initiative, saying recently that he wants to ”help America to create 3,000...charter schools by the next century.“

In fact, because of federal support for charter schools, Tennessee has an ”economic incentive“ to pass the governor’s legislation, says Beth Halteman Harwell, a Nashville Republican who is sponsoring the legislation in the House. Harwell says the state stands to gain as much as $4 million in federal funding if the Legislature passes the bill this session.

The charter school movement is still fledgling, but it has grown because of bipartisan support at both the state and national levels. Since 1991, 29 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation permitting the creation of charter schools. As of last fall, more than 750 charter schools were operating in 23 states.

Appealing options

Charter schools, in general and as proposed by the governor, would be public schools where parents could send their children if they chose to do so. The goal is to offer freedom from bureaucratic controls, allowing teachers, administration, and parents to decide how to spend the money allocated by the local school board.

Charter schools would have no religious agenda, they would not be allowed to charge tuition, and they would have to abide by federal civil rights laws. But for the most part, they would be free from the cumbersome state and local regulations that now apply to public schools, and they would have the freedom to set their own curricula. In exchange for these freedoms, charter schools would be required to demonstrate accountability, both in terms of academic achievement and financial management. Otherwise, their charters could be revoked.

Sundquist’s charter-school legislation would allow virtually anyone or any group to apply to a local school board to start a charter school. If the school board refuses the proposal, the applicant could appeal to the Tennessee Board of Education for further consideration. While the Sundquist administration may have to compromise on other aspects of the proposed legislation—such as the controversial idea of allowing non-certified teachers to work in the schools—the appellate process seems to be a non-negotiable item.

”That’s the No. 1 issue,“ Harwell says. Although ”the governor is willing to look and compromise on almost everything else,“ she says, the appeal process needs to remain in place.

Justin Wilson, the governor’s chief policy adviser, agrees, saying that some group, if not the state Board of Education, should be identified to deal with appeals. ”We believe an appeal process is an integral part of charter schools,“ Wilson says.

Although he says he doesn’t want to be critical of any local board of education, Wilson says it would be only natural for a school board to view charter school proposals with some degree of skepticism. For that reason, he says, an appeal process is a necessity.

”Every institution has its own way of doing things, and every institution thinks its way is best,“ Wilson says. Skepticism about charter schools is predictable, he suggests, because they offer ”alternatives, and some groups are reluctant to have alternatives.“

The governor’s office probably has a good reason for insisting on the appeals process. TEA might be somewhat more supportive of the legislation if it were amended to allow only certified teachers in charter schools, but the state teachers’ union continues to be highly critical of the legislation. And TEA’s position is likely to trickle down to the local unions, which can, in many cases, exercise significant political leverage on local school boards.

”Schools that are public in every sense of the word are important to our democratic ideals,“ says Al Mance, TEA assistant executive director. For example, Mance says, allowing a business to apply for a school charter might suggest that the school was not there simply to serve the public good. Mance offers the theoretical example of Saturn Corp. applying for a charter. ”A public school shouldn’t be dedicated to making automobiles,“ he says.

Going public

According to Wilson, one inner-city social service agency in Nashville has already expressed an interest in starting a charter school. Such an agency, he says, is precisely the kind of group that could make a charter school work.

Nashville school board members and other city leaders may not be openly hostile to the charter school idea, but they’re not jumping up and down to support the concept either.

During his first term in office, Mayor Phil Bredesen strongly criticized the local school board for refusing to consider a pilot project to privatize a single school. Now even Bredesen says he’s not sold on the charter-school idea.

Bredesen concedes that charter schools are ”worth discussing and debating.“ But he says he is not ”personally in favor of them in the sense that I don’t think they really get at the core of what needs to be done with public schools.“

Bredesen notes that Nashville already has a school system ”in which large numbers of people who care about their kids’ education have opted for private schools.“ The mayor says he wants to avoid ”further fractionating the population by picking off a whole other group of children and parents who care about schools and education.“ Such a process, according to Bredesen, ”just lets more people opt out of the schools.“

Bredesen says he considered including charter schools last year when he was trying to formulate a school funding proposal to send to the Metro Council. Ultimately, he decided to leave them out of his plan. ”I just really felt that solving the problem in a more fundamental way, with things like core curriculum—really getting at what it is that makes public schools work and not work—was a better approach than something like charter schools, which, I think, just inevitably sort of further fractions the school system.“

In attempting to sell their plan, Sundquist and state Department of Education Commissioner Jane Walters are arguing that charter schools improve education for disadvantaged students in the inner city. It’s an argument Bredesen says he doesn’t buy.

The mayor says one of the ”positives“ of charter schools could be the competition they create within a public school system, but he cautions that positive aspect may be overemphasized. ”I guess I’m a little skeptical about how effective that competition will be,“ he says. ”There’s a lot of competition from private schools, and...I can’t see that competition has much affected the public school system.“

Bredesen predicts the reaction to charter schools in Nashville could take a negative turn. ”It won’t be seen as competition,“ he says. ”It will be seen as people who’ve opted out of the system and to heck with them.“

School board member Nikki Meyer says that magnet schools in Nashville already offer a certain amount of choice. At the same time, she says, ”We probably are not necessarily meeting all the needs of everyone in this community in offering those choices.“

Meyer and a number of her fellow school board members say the charter-school concept is worth investigating and that it’s difficult to be solidly for or against charters without seeing specific proposals. ”I’m just not ready to say, åNo, I hate charter schools’ or åYes, I’m all for them,’ “ Meyer says

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