new beginning

State Board to authorize its first Memphis school after overruling local district

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Students head to class at Kirby Middle School, which Green Dot Public Schools took over this year under the state-run Achievement School District. The California-based operator will open its fifth Memphis school under the State Board of Education next year.

For the first time next year, the Tennessee Board of Education will oversee a charter school in Memphis.

The board said today that it will authorize a controversial new charter school run by a national operator Green Dot Public Schools.

Green Dot’s initial effort to open a new charter school in Hickory Hill was blocked by the Shelby County School Board in August. The Shelby County board rejected the school’s charter application, noting disappointing test scores at a Green Dot school in the city that’s under the state-run Achievement School District.

Green Dot appealed that rejection to the state board, which overruled the local board and gave Green Dot approval to move ahead with its new school in fall 2017.

At the time, State Board executive director Sara Heyburn told the board that the charter operator “has a clearly identified geographic area and deep knowledge of the population they intend to serve in the Memphis community.”

The Memphis school district began negotiating with Green Dot to authorize the new high school but the deadline to reach a deal arrived today without an agreement, state board officials said.

Shelby County Schools issued a statement Monday afternoon saying the district “offered to authorize its new charter school. Green Dot informed us today that it has chosen to work with the State Board of Education as its authorizer. We wish Green Dot all the best as we want every school in Shelby County to be a high-quality option for students and their families.”

But later, Green Dot said in a statement on Facebook they did not have enough time before the deadline.

“We appreciate Shelby County Schools’ offer to work with us. Due to time constraints, we were not able to come to agreement on the terms of a potential contract,” the statement read. “We hope to partner with SCS in the future to operate high-performing charter schools.”

The move means Shelby County Schools will lose those students as well as thousands of dollars of state funding that’s tied to enrollment. It comes as the district is already struggling to maintain enrollment as the Achievement School District expands.

This is the second time the state board has authorized a charter school that was rejected by a local board, but it’s the the first time it’s happened in Memphis. The move is sure to ruffle feathers with Shelby County Schools board members who have said they would have prefered to see the local district oversee the school to prevent state interference.

The California-based charter operator and the local district have had some turf battles over enrollment as schools transitioned from Shelby County Schools to the Achievement School District, which is tasked with turning around the state’s lowest performing schools.

The State Board’s unanimous vote last fall to approve two KIPP schools in Nashville marked the first time it overturned a local district board’s decision on charter school expansion. In that case, the local school district also decided to have the State Board oversee operations of those schools.

Nashville school board members have threatened to sue the state over the 2014 law that allows the State Board to overturn local decisions on charter schools and operate its own schools, charging that it oversteps local authority.

Chalkbeat reporter Grace Tatter contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a statement from Shelby County Schools and Green Dot Public Schools Tennessee.

seizing the moment

On first day for most Denver schools, gubernatorial candidate Michael Johnston calls for better school funding

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston's children listen to him announce his gubernatorial bid. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado Democratic gubernatorial candidate Michael Johnston sent his son Emmett back to school Monday — and sent a message to voters at the same time about one of his longtime causes.

On the first day of school for most Denver students, Johnston recorded a video of his son carting off two large cardboard boxes full of supplies. In the video posted to Twitter, the former state senator called it another example of how Colorado is shortchanging its public schools.  

“People often ask what does it mean to have cuts to the statewide budget to education,” he said.  “Well it means a lot of those bills get passed on to parents and to kids who have to bring their own paper towels, their own wipes, their own crayons, their own boxes.”

Johnston, a national figure in the education reform movement, led an unsuccessful push to increase taxes for schools in 2013.

“We count ourselves lucky,” Johnston said in the video, adding that knows many families in Denver often feel the pinch of buying new school supplies and fees. “We think the state has an obligation to do better.”

Though the governor’s race is in its early stages, back-to-school season is a logical time for candidates to take out education positions. Earlier Monday, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, who is also running, released an online ad spotlighting his pledge to expand full-day kindergarten and preschool.

sending a message

Memphis school board leader wants to declare that ‘all are welcome here’

PHOTO: Marcus Villa/Latino Memphis
Immigrant students display their career aspirations during a visit to the State Capitol in March to support an unsuccessful bill that would have extended in-state tuition to them.

A school board member wants Shelby County Schools to send a unified message to immigrant students and parents: “You are safe in our schools.”

Teresa Jones will ask the board Tuesday to officially go on the record about protections for undocumented students in the wake of this summer’s federal immigration arrests in Memphis by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

“There are speculations among parents of, ‘Should I send my child to school?’” she said Monday about the impetus for her proposal. “I want the board to take a formal stand.” 

The resolution backs up the district’s current policy of protecting student privacy and restricting the release of confidential information about immigration status to immigration enforcement agencies.

It also asks the superintendent to elevate partnerships with community-based organizations aimed at supporting families impacted by immigration raids.

If the resolution is approved, Shelby County’s school board would join elected school officials across the nation who have spoken out about President Donald Trump’s crackdown on people who have entered the United States illegally. Last fall after Trump’s election, Nashville school board members took a similar stand.

Memphis school officials sought to assure parents of the district’s policy earlier this month when the new school year opened.

Shelby County is now home to approximately 57,000 Hispanics, and 14 percent of the district’s student population is Hispanic.

Teresa Jones

The resolution by Jones, who is an attorney, cites the 1982 Texas court case Plyler v. Doe, which established that a public school district cannot deny children access to education based on their immigration status.

She said a school board vote would send a strong message to Shelby County and across the nation.

“An individual speaking is just opinion,” Jones said. “But when we have a resolution, that speaks for the entire board. It’s a different level of … commitment to our students.”

Kevin Woods, another board member, said he’ll back the position wholeheartedly.

It makes “a statement loud and clear to families of our immigrant population that they are welcome at our schools, we want them there and they are members of our communities,” he said.