New hat

Tennessee’s State Board of Education is about to oversee its own charter schools. Here’s how members are prepping.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
A former teacher who is now executive director of Tennessee's State Board of Education, Sara Heyburn Morrison soon will have an expanded role as the superintendent overseeing charter schools authorized by the state body.

As the State Board of Education prepares to open its first charter school this fall in Memphis, it’s ramping up to double as a school district that oversees everything from calendars to budgets to testing.

Several members got a crash course Tuesday on the board’s new role as a charter “authorizer,” making them the gatekeepers responsible for ensuring that their schools of choice benefit their students.

It’s a role that’s both daunting and exciting, said Sara Heyburn Morrison, the board’s executive director.

“I’m excited to be closer to students,” she told the board’s charter school subcommittee. “We can be thinking about how can we take our learning from this to further own policy work.”

Tennessee’s board will join Hawaii’s as the only state boards in the nation to also operate as school districts.

The transition marks a major shift in Tennessee, where the nine-member board heretofore has served as a policymaking body on issues such as nutrition standards, school bus safety and teacher licensure. It also comes as the board grapples with big-picture initiatives to improve the state’s teacher preparation pipeline and develop policies in response to a new federal education law, in addition to completing a flurry of revisions to Tennessee’s academic standards.

“Do we have the infrastructure to do this?” asked Gordon Ferguson, a board member who represents part of Middle Tennessee.

Yes, answered Heyburn Morrison, a former teacher who will act as superintendent for the new state district.

But it’s going to start small, beginning this fall with a Memphis high school that the state authorized last year for Green Dot Public Schools when Shelby County Schools turned the operator down. Green Dot will start with a ninth grade and add more grades in subsequent years.

“We’re building the minimum capacity to do this well,” said Heyburn Morrison of hiring both fulltime and part-time workers to provide oversight of the schools.

Among their duties will be oversight of federal dollars and managing special student populations. The costs will be covered by a 4 percent authorizer fee charged to the state’s charter operators, amounting to $53,000 during the first school year.

The board’s portfolio will grow to three schools by 2019 as KIPP opens primary and middle schools in Nashville. KIPP’s applications previously were rejected by Nashville’s school board, but the State Board overruled the local body.

The expanded role became possible under a 2014 state law granting authorizer status to the State Board if the conditions are right in counties with the highest number of low-performing schools. If a local board denies a charter application, the operator can appeal to the State Board, which can then become the authorizer if it overturns the local board and the local board still declines to authorize the school.

The board has been actively preparing for the shift, said Tess Stovall, director of charter school policy and accountability, who walked board members Ferguson, Elissa Kim and Wendy Tucker through a calendar of responsibilities.

You can view the full presentation of Tuesday’s overview here:

rebuffed

Charter school proposals rejected by Memphis officials — for now

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Shelby County’s school board sent 13 groups back to the drawing board Tuesday after denying their initial bid to open or expand charter schools in Memphis in 2018.

The unanimous vote followed the recommendations of district staff, who raised concerns about the applications ranging from unclear academic plans to missing budget documents to a lack of research-based evidence backing up their work.

Applicants now have 30 days to amend and re-submit their plans for a final board vote during a special meeting August 22. Memphis Academy of Health Sciences rescinded its application to expand grades last week.

Since 2003, Shelby County Schools has grown its charter sector to 45 schools, making the district Tennessee’s largest charter authorizer.

Nationally, the rate of charter school growth is at a four-year low, in part because of a shrinking applicant pool, according to a recent report from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. But Memphis is bucking the trend with a slight increase in applicants this year.

District leaders frequently deny charter applications initially, but it’s unusual to turn down all of them at once.

New to this year’s application process was five consultants from NACSA, which has worked closely with Shelby County Schools to bolster its oversight of the sector.

back to the future

Colorado Supreme Court ordered to reconsider Douglas County school voucher case

Douglas County parents protest the district's voucher program in 2010 (Denver Post photo)

The Colorado Supreme Court must reconsider its ruling against a private school voucher system created by the Douglas County School District, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Tuesday.

The edict comes a day after the nation’s highest court issued a ruling on a case that touched on similar issues.

At issue is whether Douglas County parents can use tax dollars to send their students to private schools, including religious schools. The Colorado Supreme Court said in 2015 the program violated the state’s constitution.

What connects the Douglas County voucher debate to the just-decided Trinity Lutheran v. Comer case from Missouri is that both states have so-called Blaine Amendments. Such provisions prohibit state tax dollars from aiding religious practices. Nearly 40 states have similar language.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that the state of Missouri violated the U.S. Constitution by prohibiting Trinity Lutheran’s church-run preschool from participating in a state program that repaved playgrounds. The court found that the state must allow churches to participate in state programs when the benefit meets a secular need.

That distinction likely will be the question the Colorado Supreme Court wrestles with when it takes up the issue again.

“The Supreme Court in Trinity Lutheran expressly noted that its opinion does not address religious uses of government funding,” Mark Silverstein, the ACLU of Colorado’s legal director, said in a statement. The ACLU was one of the organizations challenging the voucher program.

“Using public money to teach religious doctrine to primary and secondary students is substantially different than using public money to resurface a playground,” Silverstein said.

The school district said it was encouraged by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision.

“We look forward to the Colorado Supreme Court’s second review and decision on this important matter,” William Trachman, the district’s legal counsel, said in a statement. “As always, the Douglas County School District is dedicated to empowering parents to find the best educational options for their children.”

It’s unclear when the Colorado Supreme Court will take up the Douglas County case. The court has three options: It may revise its earlier opinion, request new arguments from both sides or ask a lower court to reconsider the case.

Given the national implications, it’s unlikely the Colorado justices will have the final say — especially if they again conclude the voucher program violates the state’s constitution. The question could end up being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Douglas County School District launched its voucher program in 2011 after a conservative majority took control of the school board. The district was prepared to hand out more than 300 vouchers to families before a Denver District Court judge blocked the program from starting.