Charter Champ

Tennis star Agassi faces down charter school facilities in Nashville

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Tennis great Andre Agassi cuts the ribbon as business partner Bobby Turner watches during the official opening last October of Rocketship's newest Nashville charter school.

In a city where arguments over charter school growth are volleyed back and forth like a tennis ball in a Grand Slam tournament, tennis champion Andre Agassi is bringing his star power to the debate — and hopes to turn a profit in the process.

Agassi and his business investment partner Bobby Turner on Tuesday celebrated the opening of Rocketship United Academy, the second Nashville school opened by California-based charter network Rocketship Education. Like with Rocketship’s first Nashville school, which opened last fall, this $7 million-plus, 37,000-square-foot building was developed through a fund created by Agassi and Turner.

Nationally, affordable facilities are considered one of the greatest challenges to charter expansion because charter operators often must raise their own money for school buildings. The issue has fueled scraps both in Memphis and Nashville, where school board members and district officials complain about the cost of charters to traditional public schools, even without providing facilities or funding for facilities. Charter advocates counter that charter schools are public schools too — authorized by local districts and sometimes the state — and should be provided with buildings and facilities like any other public school.

The Turner-Agassi Charter School Facilities Fund, a for-profit business, provides the capital to purchase property for charter schools, constructs or retrofits the building, and then rents to a charter operator until the operator can own it.

Agassi says investing in high-quality, learning-friendly elementary schools is the first step in lifting student achievement nationwide. Turner says the goal is to generate a profit for investors while serving a higher public purpose. Investors will get an 8 to 10 percent market rate return from the rental and sale of campuses — and they don’t see anything wrong with that.

“We didn’t give away money to build this building,” Turner told fourth-graders during a tour of Nashville’s newest Rocketship school. “We call that philanthropy. When we give money away, oftentimes organizations aren’t held accountable.”

The fourth-graders, dressed in their purple Rocketship uniforms, nodded politely before asking which man in front of them — Agassi or Turner — is the famous tennis player.

Agassi, who retired from tennis in 2006 after being a dominant force in the sport for more than a decade, first teamed with Turner in 2011 to create a fund that has helped develop 50 charter schools serving 22,800 students.

Turner said he decided to focus on hedge funds rather than philanthropy after years of giving away his money to build almost 40 schools in Los Angeles. Philanthropy, he said, wasn’t able to create change quickly enough, with three times as many kids on school waitlists as there were seats.

“If we’re going to rely on philanthropy, we’ll never get to address this huge daunting challenge,” he said. “There is nothing wrong with making money while making significant and scalable change.”

Rocketship Education has worked with the Agassi-Turner venture on its two Tennessee schools and one in Wisconsin. A nonprofit charter organization, Rocketship also operates 10 schools in California and plans to expand soon to Washington, D.C. The network is known for its technology-heavy curriculum in serving low-income students.

Agassi and Turner take questions from a fourth grade class.
PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Agassi and Turner take questions from a fourth-grade class.

Jessica Johnson, director of the Charter School Facilities Initiative, said private-public relationships that partner with a commercial real estate developer, solicit private dollars, or use a hedge fund like Agassi’s are becoming more common in the charter world in states and districts that don’t automatically match charters with buildings.

“Because charter schools don’t have access to those same resources, they’re forced to go on the open market,” said Johnson, who is also director of policy and legal initiatives at the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

She added that charters should do their homework before entering into such agreements. “You’re using public dollars, so it’s important to do due diligence in ensuring you’re doing what’s best for your students and communities,” Johnson said.

Rocketship United Academy serves 375 students in kindergarten through fourth grade in a former Nashville office building that has been retrofitted to serve as a center for learning. The 2.3-acre campus originally was developed by a local tractor supply business and now includes a gymnasium, learning lab and 19 classrooms.

Rocketship Tennessee director Shaka Mitchell said the operator having its own building made more sense than leasing a building, as many Nashville charters do.

“We can do things in this space that we’d never be able to find in a leased space,” he said — for instance, cutting skylights into the ceiling and rewiring the building for an instructional model that relies heavily on computers. Rocketship  spends between 12 to 16 percent of its annual budget for Tennessee on facilities, which is less than Tennessee charter schools’ average of 20 percent, according to the Tennessee Charter School Center.

Mitchell said if critics have a problem that a profit is being made on Rocketship’s customized space, they should instead start a conversation about using public funding for charter facilities. “But right now, that doesn’t even seem to be on the table,” he said.

Turner said he’s interested in building more Rocketship schools in Nashville, but is frustrated by the local school board’s hesitancy to approve a third Rocketship school. The State Board of Education will announce later this month whether it will overturn the local board’s decision and allow Rocketship to expand in the city next year.

Agassi leaves most of the talk about market-rate returns to Turner. When asked by a fourth-grader how they “got money,” Turner told them to find something they love to do. His famous partner agreed.

“You can be wealthy and unhappy,” Agassi said.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.