A gradual but seismic shift in the governance and operation of public schools is taking place in Memphis schools, as the number of charter schools run in the city by Shelby County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District continues to boom. 

Ten charter schools, some overseen by the state and some by the regular school district, will open their doors for the first time in Memphis next year, and many charters that already exist are adding grades. 

Local education leaders say they are looking toward New Orleans, where 90 percent of students attend charter schools, as a model for improving public education in a historically troubled district.

As in New Orleans, both the traditional school district and a state-run district – here, the Achievement School District, or ASD – can authorize charter schools in Tennessee. Currently, most charters in the district are authorized by Shelby County Schools and more students attend those schools, but that balance could shift over time. The ASD, which started running schools in 2012-13, can take over any school ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state, which includes 69 schools in Memphis.

Charter schools are publicly-funded and are held to the same academic standards as other public schools. In Tennessee, charter schools are technically part of the school district that authorizes them. But they have independent boards, and the nonprofits that run them have total control over their schools’ budget, hiring, curriculum, and schedule – responsibilities traditionally taken care of by a district’s central office.

The number of charters in Shelby County has been growing since 2002, as local and national philanthropists have supported local (“homegrown”) and national charter school operators looking to set up shop in Memphis, as the state’s original law has gradually been loosened to permit more schools (a cap was removed) and to allow more students to attend those schools (initially, only students in low-performing schools could attend a charter). Federal education policy has also encouraged the growth of the sector and funded it through grant programs; a bipartisan bill promoting charters was recently floated in the federal House of Representatives.

More charters means an evolving, and likely shrinking, role for the regular school district’s central office: Managing charter schools consists mainly of overseeing schools’ performance, rather than the staffing, curriculum, budgeting, and other services the district provides to traditional public schools. More students attending charter schools means the district must support its other schools with a dwindling pool of funds, as money follows students to their new schools.

While many public school leaders and teachers have viewed charter schools as competition, Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson II said he welcomes the changes, as long as they are improving education for Memphis students. The district has already given some “charter-like” powers, such as school-level hiring, to some of its principals, and its budget says that approach is likely to expand.

The hope is that schools that operate outside of the current bureaucracy will be more efficient, effective, and/or innovative. The school system in Memphis, which has a majority African-American and low-income student population, has, with some exceptions, long had a reputation for unsafe and low-performing schools. Advocates say charter schools provide an option for parents and students who are dissatisfied with their regular public school, and that increasing enrollment illustrates that there is a demand for such options. They also argue that high-performing schools will attract students, while low-performing schools will be shut down.

But the long-term implications of more charter schools for teachers, students, and the existing system are complex. Other school systems with large portions of charter schools have struggled to regulate schools’ admissions and discipline policies and financial practices, and research has shown that the quality of the charter schools varies just as much as the quality of regular public schools.

And some questions remain unanswered: State legislators have been debating who should be able to run charters, who should be able to attend schools run by the ASD, what to do when boards veto charters, and what to do with charter schools who are ranked in the bottom five percent in the state, among other issues. The Tennessee Charter School Center, which advocates for and incubates charter schools, says districts need to work on being strong authorizers for the schools.

All of this change has been overshadowed in recent years as the Memphis metropolitan area has undergone a historic merger between the urban and suburban school district, and subsequent plans to “demerge” the system as suburban leaders have created their own new school districts.

But the decentralization of the school system as the charter sector grows, and competition from the ASD, may ultimately represent a more profound shift in how public schools are run and operated.

Growth in 2014-15:

  • Shelby County Schools will have 41 charter schools in 2014-15, up from 39 this year.
  • There will be four brand-new Shelby County Schools-authorized charter schools – Memphis Rise Academy, Vision Prep, City University School of Independence, and the DuBois High of Leadership and Public Policy.
  • Two schools in the DuBois network , run by former Memphis mayor and schools superintendent Willie Herenton, closed  earlier this year.
  • The state-run Achievement School District is opening seven new schools run by charter operators, five of which are taking over existing schools and one, run by KIPP, that will be a “fresh start.” The ASD is also opening two alternative schools called Pathways.
  • Thirteen Shelby County-authorized charter schools are adding a grade next year. Six schools within the ASD are also adding a grade, and Klondike Prep is adding three.

Long-term growth:

  • Shelby County Schools intends to turn some of its lowest-performing schools over to charters as early as 2015-16.
  • The district’s initial budget for 2014-15 outlines plans to “increase the number of high-quality charter schools where they’re needed.”
  • The ASD, which currently runs 23 schools, will eventually run as many as 50 schools in Memphis, all of them charters, according to its superintendent Chris Barbic.
  • The ASD has authorized several charter operators to run larger numbers of schools in the state, depending on how their first schools do: Green Dot, which is taking over its first school next year, can open as many as 10 schools, for instance.
  • Several charter operators already authorized by the ASD have not yet begun running schools: Houston-based YES Prep and locally-grown Artesian Community Schools are among the groups planning to run schools in Memphis in 2015-16.
  • The ASD has also received letters of intent from 10 additional charter operators hoping to open schools in Tennessee in the future.
  • Several Shelby County Schools- and ASD-authorized charters will continue adding grades.

Here’s a look at some of the numbers:

What are the budget implications?

Federal, state, and local funds follow students to charter schools, so as enrollment grows, the budget will shift accordingly and, over time, the portion of funds allocated to non-charter schools will shrink.

Charter school spending is the fastest-growing portion of the district’s budget: It grew by 15.6 percent, from $67.4 million to $78 million, between 2013-14 and 2014-15. That’s 8.1 percent of the total initial 2014-15 budget.  The only other budget categories that grew this year were contracted services, by 5 percent, and debt service, by 11 percent. The district also employs several employees focused on charter schools.

Charter schools can contract out to the school district for certain services. For instance, the district spent $7 million providing food service to charter schools last year.

Some issues have yet to be resolved: For instance, should charter schools pay rent for publicly-funded school buildings? The state’s senate has commissioned a study of charter school funding to help districts determine just what fees should be paid by charter schools to the school district. Currently, funds are passed through the school district directly to the charter operator, who may then in turn pay the district for some services or rent. (The state department of education has an FAQ on charter schools with more information.)

What are the enrollment implications?

Shelby County Schools is budgeting for approximately 117,000 students next year (some 23,000 students are anticipated to be departing  to attend new municipal district in the suburbs on Memphis), 12,000 of whom will attend charter schools. That means more than ten percent of Shelby County students would be attending district-run charter schools. An additional 6,000 students will attend the ASD – that’s 2,000 more than this year. Overall, in 2014-15, 18,000 of the 123,000 students attending public schools (ASD or Shelby County Schools) in Memphis will attend charter schools. That’s 14.6 percent of all students.

ASD schools are taken over entirely by charter operators and must serve all students who were previously zoned to attend the school, and the same would likely be true if the district contracts out to new charters for its low-performing schools. Those students can opt out and choose to attend a regular district school. (The district also already has an extensive “choice transfer” process and a system of optional schools for high-performing students.)

But schools that start from scratch, which make the majority of charters in the city, recruit students who might otherwise attend a traditional Shelby County School. Those students don’t all leave district schools in a group, which requires the district to shift its staffing and resources around to accommodate enrollment changes.

What are the oversight issues?

Providing oversight and accountability for independently-run public schools presents some challenges for authorizing bodies and creates a new responsibility for school boards.

In other cities, charter schools have been accused of enrolling an “easier-to-educate” group of students, either by having harsher discipline policies or by somehow rigging admissions policies, in order to inflate their scores. The schools have also been accused of not serving special education students or ELLs.

Not everyone thinks this is a bad thing: state representative John DeBerry, a democrat, says charters can give ambitious students a chance to succeed. But some prominent players in the charter school world, including KIPP, have taken steps to highlight attrition rates.

Still others have fought charges of nepotism and financial mismanagement.

In other districts where states have taken over schools, constituents have wondered why the groups losing elected control of their schools have tended to be in poor and majority-minority communities.

Transparency is also a concern: Individual charter schools and the state-run ASD do not have regular public meetings where constituents can voice complaints and concerns and learn about schools’ operations.

Shelby County Schools plans to create a “compact” with its charter schools, similar to agreements between districts in Nashville and elsewhere, to facilitate greater coordination between charters and the district, according to its budget.

How does having more charter schools affect students?

Charter schools’ programs vary by school, so students’ experience in the schools will also vary. Charter schools’ sizes vary, but they tend to be smaller schools: The largest, Soulsville, has 600 students, while others, such as the Arrow Academy of Excellence, are as small as 50.

Charter schools can set their own discipline policies and codes of conduct, so expectations for behavior may change for some students. Some may also have longer school days or years. Coursework may also be different than in regular public schools, though students will still have to take state-mandated tests. Students may be attending school with peers from around the city.

Research has suggested that a positive “peer effect” in charter schools may improve student performance. Results for the schools in Tennessee so far are mixed.

How does having more charter schools affect teachers?

Teachers have more publicly-funded organizations competing to hire them. Schools can offer salaries, benefit packages, school days, and career trajectories that differ from the regular school district. Some have longer school days and years than the regular district. Most charter schools are not unionized, though, since 2011, even unionized teachers do not have collective bargaining in Tennessee.

Demand for teachers with high rankings  on the state’s accountability system is likely to be high.

Local funders and organizations have banded together to brand Memphis as “Teacher Town.” The ASD and charter schools have banded together to recruit teachers both from within and outside Memphis who are interested in starting up new schools aimed at helping low-income students. Many charter schools employ large numbers of teachers from alternative certification programs like Teach For America and Memphis Teacher Residency, which are also expanding in Memphis.

In schools taken over by the ASD or converted to charters by the district, existing teachers will likely have to reapply for their jobs. Others may eventually lose their current jobs if regular district schools continue to lose enrollment.

How does having more charter schools affect parents?

Parents must research charter schools to determine how to apply – there is currently no centralized application system in Shelby County Schools. Parents often choose charter schools due to their smaller size and reputation for better safety and discipline than traditional public schools.

Charters may have different expectations for parent involvement or avenues for engagement than regular public schools. Many charter schools do not provide transportation.

Where does Memphis stack up nationally?

Last year, Memphis was ranked 48th in the country among school districts in terms of number of students in charter schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. The anticipated growth will likely boost it higher on that list. Shelby County Schools will also be the first district in Tennessee with at least 10 percent of charters as a market share.

Having many charter schools is increasingly common: More than half of public school students in Washington, D.C. and Detroit attend charter schools. Other districts have voluntarily converted to an all-charter model, though that model looks slightly different than having independent operators come in.

Some key philanthropists and education leaders in both the ASD and Shelby County are modeling their plans after is New Orleans, which had some 83 percent of students in charters last year and which has seen leaps in its test scores and graduation rates as its charter sector has grown.

Memphis, like New Orleans, is likely to have a mix of homegrown and national operators running schools and teachers teaching in schools. And Memphis, like New Orleans, will have schools authorized by both a state-run district and the local school board.

The shift is spurred by the belief that the market-based model of reform will help improve education for kids stuck in a chronically-underperforming school system; bolstered by the increasing popularity of education reform-oriented organizations like charter schools and Teach For America among business leaders and students in elite universities; eased by a state legislature that has loosened charter school laws and federal programs supporting the schools; and funded partly by local and national philanthropists who have given charter school leaders and organizations funds for start-up or programs.

But while New Orleans’ turnaround happened almost overnight – many schools were taken over by a state-run district in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and then gradually turned over to charter schools – Memphis’ change is happening more gradually. 

And New Orleans has a complicated legacy: Among other charges, some have decried the dwindling power of a locally-elected school board (the state-run Recovery School District runs most schools in the city); others have claimed that the change displaced veteran teachers; others have pointed out that many students never returned to the city after Hurricane Katrina.

ASD executive director Chris Barbic has said the current shift in Memphis is a way for education reformers to prove that their models can work without some of the complexities that dogged New Orleans.

The outcome remains to be seen.

The map below shows charter schools in Memphis. Blue schools are adding a grade; yellow schools are new next year.