First pass

Memphis charter school applicants should go back to the drawing board, says staff

PHOTO: Tennessee Charter School Center
The Tennessee Charter School Center hosted its fifth annual enrollment fair in March in Memphis. Tennessee has 107 charter schools, 71 of which are in Memphis.

All 14 groups seeking to start or expand charter schools in Memphis in 2018 are getting an early icy reception from Shelby County Schools.

District administrators recommended Friday that all their applications be denied, and the school board is expected to agree when it votes on the matter later this month.

But that’s fairly common for a first vote on charter applications — and not the end of the road for this year’s crop of applicants. They would have 30 days to amend their applications before the board’s second vote in August.

Last year, the school board initially denied 11 of 13 applications and ultimately approved seven in all.

The recommendations will be discussed at next week’s school board work session.

District leaders cited unclear academic plans, missing budget documents, and sloppy writing in several applications. Other proposals need more evidence that their plans are backed by research. Fewer concerns were cited on two applications — by Believe Memphis Academy and Freedom Preparatory Academy Charter School.

“The biggest issue is to make sure the proper questions have been raised and the proper guidance has been given for the applications so we can move forward with bringing in high-quality charter schools to the district,” said Luther Mercer, Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center.

The recommendations come as the office overseeing the district’s charter sector is in transition and seeking to bolster its accountability, which a national consultant said is lacking. This spring, the district hired former Indianapolis charter school principal Daphné Robinson as its new director, and she has been building her team from the ground up.

Groups vying for approval this year want to open schools that range from an all-girls program to a sports academy to several focused on science, technology, engineering and math. All but one operator are locally based, and two are trying again after being turned down last year. Half already run charter schools through the Memphis district.

In this year’s call for applications, the district invited operators to help Tennessee’s largest school system meet its Destination 2025 goals to boost early literacy and prepare students for either college or career.

Charters in Memphis have grown steadily since Tennessee lawmakers voted in 2002 to open the door to privately managed public schools.

Shelby County Schools already oversees 45 charter schools that educate about 12 percent of its students, many of whom are black and live in poverty.

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.