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Mayor Karl Dean came to the legislature this morning to plead for expanding the number of children who can attend charter schools. Under present law, failing students or students who attend failing schools are eligible. Additionally, at-risk students in grades K-3 can attend, but their numbers are limited to 25 percent of enrollment. A bill by Rep. Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, would expand eligibility to any child receiving federally subsidized lunches, which in Nashville is 70 percent of the kids.
Dean is bucking the state teachers' union, which denounced Harwell's bill during today's House K-12 subcommittee hearing.Tennessee Education Association lobbyist Jerry Winters called charter schools "outside operators" and said they would "cherry pick" good students and leave regular public schools in a financial bind.
"It opens the state up to cherry picking. They can go out and recruit these kids to blow the tops out of tests. There's no way this bill wouldn't have an enormous financial impact on what I consider to be regular public schools. It might be good politics. But it's not good policy. I find it rather offensive that we have to talk about going outside this state to bring in people to tell us how to run our schools. It's absolutely improper, incorrect. We've got some very smart people in Tennessee who can make the right decisions."
Memphis school officials also are against the change. They say it would mean virtual open enrollment in Memphis, where 83 percent of students would become eligible. They want to postpone any reforms until a task force studies the issue. The task force hasn't yet met. Memphis probably will win this fight. Memphis legislators outnumber Nashville's five-to-one on the House Education Committee. The subcommittee is supposed to vote next week.
Dean said the city could use 20-25 charter schools, but present law hinders Nashville's ability to recruit nonprofit companies to run them. National foundations are supposedly ready to help Nashville if student eligibility is expanded. He pointed out that Metro schools have failed to meet achievement standards for the past five years. Excerpts from the mayor's comments:
"We cannot be afraid to innovate. We need it. I'm asking you as a mayor of a city that's in this position, give us this tool. We need this tool."
"I love this city and I want to see our schools succeed. But let's not forget, for five consecutive years we have not met the standards under No Child Left Behind in this city. We cannot keep doing things the same way."
"If the law remains the same ... the national charters will not come here. We have basically sent the message out to the rest of the country that we are not in the market to have these charters come to our state. They're not going to go to places that make it impossible for them to succeed. If a charter school is failing, then close it. You got to have high standards. But there are charter schools all over that are achieving outstanding success, and we need to be part of that."